Not in Vain

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone made its debut in fall of 2001. In the decade since, the series has released seven additional movies at a steady pace. During that time, no entry has received less than a 79% on Rotten Tomatoes, and the last, the best-reviewed, hit 96%. Thirteen actors have appeared in all entries, and each new film has found reliable and record-breaking box office success.

None of the films in the series are true classics, and even in tandem their artistic achievement is modest. Yet the series’ existence, the logistical feat undertaken to make these movies happen and to get them out in such reliable fashion, has to be one of the great feats in modern popular entertainment. And that hard-earned assurance and familiarity—the trust the audiences have had in the material and in its handling, the clear understanding of what they will get when they come to the theater—has lifted the later entries significantly even as the action and storytelling have improved. The films, and the filmmakers, kept their promises, and that has made the difference.

This integrity is becoming a rare thing nowadays, which is troubling because one of the emphatically positive aspects of franchising should be the providing of safe, reliable entertainment. Proven properties and approaches, characters who have already earned good will, and the well-oiled machine of Hollywood movie-making might not be the best recipe for timeless masterpieces, but all of this effort at eliminating risk should at least assure audiences a solid experience. Yet in the transition away from developing original material, that safety hasn’t arrived. The weary cycle of reboots and sequels has failed to deliver on its likely benefits even as it’s made for a precipitous decline in other areas.

This has taken me a while to realize in part because these things move slowly. Worse still, in the early going it’s easy to fool yourself into supporting what you’re watching. The process of rebooting or adapting a property to the big screen for the first time is inherently compelling, after all; audiences will always want to see familiar, well-liked material given a new skew. The actual machinery of the way these stories are told (“origins” is a nice catch-all) has become stale to watch, but audiences accept the tedium of that promise because of their good will toward the material. More importantly, they grant the property this good will as an advance payment on its future, fully realized achievement. I suspect that much of that investment carries with it the anticipation that this is all being done for something, and most especially to allow for new stories. What you’re actually watching spends so much time getting the pieces into place that it wouldn’t otherwise be compelling on its own merits without this expectation.

Yet this becomes, as A.O. Scott so beautifully put it, a “Ponzi scheme,” and Marvel’s proliferation of and enmeshing together of origin stories is only a difference in degree, not kind. From Star Trek to Terminator: Salvation to Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol—which sadly appears to be a movie-long exercise in repositioning Jeremy Renner as the face of the series—the fresh approaches and the failed adjustments alike are all trading on the same credit of audiences providing the benefit of the doubt. And for every origin film that really does stand on its merits as both a reboot and a work with something genuinely thematic to say that isn’t in hoc to what it means for future movies—Batman Begins and Casino Royale, for instance—there’s still the perils of delays, incompetence and bad luck playing havoc with the follow-through.

All of this would be so much less of a problem if the films came out on time, if creative teams were able to follow through on their initial visions, if studio executives were able to follow through on their promises. But they don’t, and probably can’t, because these are enormous media companies and marketplace imperatives don’t allow for that. And while leaving the stewardship of pop entertainment in the hands of movie studios is a necessary if bound-to-be-frustrating process, having a significant part of the enjoyment at the mercy of these studios’ integrity, sincerity and continuing good fortune seems a step too far. For all the crush of CGI blockbusters, we only get these stories done right every so often. And every time audiences invest their trust in something that will never pay back that investment, it saps a little faith and magic out of the movie theater.

As narrative television continues its inventiveness and assertiveness, pop filmmaking could well benefit from re-establishing the value of an older style of entertainment: reliability. And while being under the gun of their leads’ aging may have helped them along, it’s clear that those guiding the Harry Potter movies to theaters with such industrious consistency understood how much this sturdiness gives the product a strength that can buoy up weak moments and lend even more enjoyment to the good parts.

As for the finale, while unavoidably disjointed and often awkward, the film can shrug off weaknessess that would cripple a lesser series simply because it has stayed true to its word. And that fulfillment is not the film’s only rare delight: it’s also the quietest blockbuster in modern memory. Long scenes play out with only wisps of sound or background music, dialogue carrying the fore. For a series that’s all about negotiating your values, your loyalties and your worldview through a treacherous process—growing up, in other words—it’s appropriate that the last film can wear the lessons of its inspiration and its creation without needing to shout. The characters can cast their spells without even naming them because the audience has learned to trust what it’s seeing.

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