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It Chapter Two: Aged-Up Protagonists and the Umbridge Effect

Writing reviews, metas, and the like is a lot about timing. If you don’t craft your writing in the immediate aftermath of your source’s release, someone else will beat you to it and, chances are, your audience will be less enthused about reading the same arguments weeks later. (Admittedly, that’s up for debate. I for one am happy to read about the same shit for years on end.) Thus, when I didn’t have the time or the mental energy to write about It: Chapter Two immediately after seeing it in theaters, I knew within a few days that I’d lost a lot of ground. Fans and critics alike have already spoken about the film’s major draws, namely the update on Richie’s sexuality and the canonizing of a beloved, thirty-year-old ship. We’ve also covered the issues that arose out of those positives. In 2019, is it necessary to show a hate crime in such violent detail? By giving us queer characters, have Muschietti and King unintentionally fallen into the trap of treating them badly? One is dead and the other mourns while the straight couple passionately kiss beneath the lake. Faithful adaptation vs. modern activism is a tricky balance to strike. I could rehash all those arguments here, but why bother? They’ve been articulated better by others already. Besides, falling behind means that I now have the space to discuss something just as important to me.

The Losers’ ages.

Now, I’m not sure if you all have noticed, but fantasy adventures aren’t really geared towards adults. That is to say, stories often contain adult content, but that’s not the same thing as putting adults at the center of the narrative. I’ve experienced a niggling sense of displeasure that’s grown stronger with each passing year and it took until my mid-twenties to figure out what it was: I am no longer the hero of many of my favorite stories. Because I’ve grown up. Harry Potter is concerned primarily with the trials and tribulations of characters between the ages of eleven and eighteen. If we return to that world-----such as through a certain cursed play-----the focus must shift to the new, shiny generation. Anyone who falls through a wardrobe is bound to be a child and if they dare grow up? They’re no longer allowed access to such a fantastic place. Kids are the ones who find the Hundred Acre Woods, or fall down rabbit holes, get daemons, battle Other Mothers when the world gets flipped, or head off onto all sorts of elementary and high school adventures. Sometimes, even those who are adults mistakenly get caught up in this trend. Frodo might be in his fifties, but as a small, kindly hobbit he comes across as younger than the rest of the Fellowship. Since the release of Jackson’s trilogy I’ve corrected more than one new fan who assumed (somewhat logically) that he is in his early twenties, max. It’s an easy mistake to make when we’ve grown accustomed to children and young adults taking center stage in so many fantastic, high-profile adventures.

Of course, there are plenty of counters to this feeling. Just look at Game of Thrones. Though we see much of the story through younger perspectives-----such as the Stark siblings-----the vast majority of the cast is made up of adults, playing just as pivotal a role as the up-and-comers. Fantasy, Science Fiction, and other speculative story-lines are by no means solely in the hands of minors, yet I think it’s also worth acknowledging that a good majority of those stories do shape our media landscape. Or, if they’re not strictly minors, they’re characters who embody a sort of static young adulthood, the Winchesters and the Shadowhunters and all the television superheroes who might gesture towards markers of adulthood-----we have long term relationships, hold down jobs, can impersonate FBI agents without anyone batting an eye-----yet are still able to maintain a nebulous form of youth. They all (try to) look and act as if they’re right out of college. The standards of film and television demand that actors appear twenty-years-old even when they’re pushing forty, and the standards of much literature insists that twenty is simply too old for an adventure, period. I can still clearly recall two moments of shock (later agreed upon by my friends) when I encountered unexpectedly older protagonists in genre fiction: the realization that Sophie actually spends the majority of Howl’s Moving Castle as a very old woman and that The Magicians takes place in graduate school. “Wow,” I remember thinking. “When’s the last time that happened?”

What does all this have to do with It: Chapter Two? I don’t have any big twist for you here. It was just really refreshing to see a fantastical story where our cast is all forty or older. Seriously, can we take a moment to appreciate exactly how much King undermined expectations there? The first half of the novel is structured precisely how we assume it ‘should’ be. There’s a mysterious threat, there are children caught up in the middle of it, and ultimately only they are capable of saving the day. We know this story. We even have the characterization of the town itself to reinforce this structure, a place so warped by evil that only the very young with their open-mindedness and imagination are capable of seeing Derry for what it truly is, illustrated beautifully in the film by Mr. Marsh straight up not noticing a whole room full of blood.

Though they’re It’s prey, children are also the only ones who have any potential power over him. You have to be able to acknowledge a problem in order to fix it and King could have easily ended his story at the first chapter alone, with the group somehow managing to defeat Pennywise for good the first time they set foot in the sewers. A part of me is still shocked he didn’t, if only because the young savior as an archetype was embedded within Western culture far earlier than It’s 1986 publication. From Carrie to The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Pet Sematary to Firestarter, King is no stranger to putting children at the center of fantastic tales. Yet he’s also given us numerous adult protagonists, managing to find an enjoyable balance between the two, both within individual novels and his entire corpus. It represents that balance, not just imagining a story where seven (yes, I’m counting Stan) middle-age adults manage to finally save their town, but actually setting up a twenty-seven year jump to allow for that. It's the best of both worlds, exploring the difficulties inherent in both childhood and adulthood, arguing that we need each-----that imagination and that experience-----if we hope to come out alive.

While watching It: Chapter Two I took note of how many people laughed throughout the film, and not just at the moments set up to be funny (looking at you, Richie). Rather, the film that two years ago had scared the pants off of movie-goers now entertained them in a much more relaxed manner. No one was hiding behind their popcorn; there were no shrieks of fright. I’ve seen more than one reviewer express displeasure at this change. What the hell happened? Isn’t an It film supposed to be scary? Well, yes and no. I think what a lot of people miss is how providing us with an adult cast inherently changes the way fear manifests, both literally in the case of Pennywise’s illusions and thematically in regards to the film itself. This sloppy bitch, as established, preys on children. His tricks have the illogical, fantastical veneer that reflect how children see the world: you’re scared of women with horrifically elongated faces, zombie-like lepers, and hungry mummies. They’re literal monsters emerging out from under the bed. Of course, as adults watching the story we’re easily able to see how these monsters represent much deeper, intangible fears: growing up and disappointing your father, falling ill like your mother always claims you will (to say nothing of contracting AIDS in connection with a budding queer identity), and the danger that comes with being alone and ostracized. Sometimes It: Chapter One gestures more firmly towards those underlying fears----such as the burnt hands reaching for Mike when we know his family died in a fire-----but only once does it make the real horror overt, when Pennywise takes Mr. Marsh’s face and asks Bev if she's still his little girl.

Outside of pedophilia and sexual abuse, Chapter One’s real horror is mostly coded, symbolic, left up to (admittedly rather obvious at times) interpretation. It’s just under the surface and we’re meant to be distracted by the fact that, allegorical or not, there’s still a very creepy thing hunting our protagonists from the shadows. For two hours we take on a child’s perspective, biting our nails at all the things we once imagined hid inside our closets. We’re scared because they’re scared.

That mindset irrevocably changes once your group grows up. Forty-year-olds simply don’t freak out in the same way a bunch of thirteen-year-olds would, especially now that they know precisely what’s happening and have the mental fortitude to combat it. At least to an extent. Chapter Two isn’t as traditionally scary for the simple reason that the film now acknowledges what all adults eventually must: there’s nothing in the closet, there’s nothing hiding under your bed. Or if there is, it’s something tangible that can be handled with a calm(ish) demeanor and a well-placed ax. An adult might scream when something jumps out at them, but they’re not as inclined to cower. Adults might still be scared, but they’re better able to push that fear aside in order to take action. The group first reached that point in the sewers---- “Welcome to the Losers’ club, asshole!”----and now fully embodies that mindset with nearly three decades of growth and experience to draw on. This is why Ben investigating the library as a teen reads as teeth-chatteringly scary, but Ben and Bill as adults investigating the skateboard produces only a comment about how they're getting used to this nonsense. They know, and we as the audience know, what the real threat is and whether or not we need to shield our eyes when something starts clunking its way down the stairs.

All of which isn’t to say that Chapter Two isn’t scary. It’s simply scary in a much more realistic manner, killer clowns and Native American rituals aside. The fears have been aged-up along with the cast, stripping away the child-like fantasies that made us wet our pants in Chapter One. What’s the scariest moment outside of the jump scares? When two men and a kid beat a gay man and then chuck him in the river to drown. You’ll note that, unlike in the first film, Pennywise doesn’t actually have to do much work here. Seasoning people up with fear? The rest of the world is doing that for him. That first scene detailing a truly horrific hate crime (which, by the way, is based off of true events) results in a meal delivered straight to Pennywise’s arms. It’s people who targeted that couple, beat one of them within an inch of his life, and then tossed him over a bridge, bleeding and shrieking for help. All Pennywise had to do was scoop him from the water and take that first bite. He’s incidental to the film’s most cringe-worthy scene. We can argue all we want about how it’s Pennywise’s influence that “makes” the town this way, but any queer viewer knows that's simply not the case. In 2019 we're still living this horror, no Pennywise required.

Likewise, the two children we see murdered are much more overtly grappling with fears that have nothing to do with fantastical monsters. Dean, the little boy Bill tries to save in lieu of Georgie, is rightly petrified because a seemingly crazy adult is now stalking him. We as the audience know that Bill is just trying to help----that he’s not the real danger here----but that’s not the perspective this kid has, nor is it the issue the film is grappling with. We first see him approaching an idol of his, Richie, and instead of an enjoyable experience he winds up getting yelled at. The It films are only tangentially interested in the status of fans and their relationship with celebrities, but we know it’s a common theme for King’s work overall. Look at Misery and look at this cameo: a disenchanted fan of the 21st century, criticizing a writer’s novel and leveraging him for money. “You can afford it,” he tells Bill, swindling him simply because he can. The context of this little boy as a fan and Richie as the older, bigger, larger-than-life comedian adds another layer to the interaction. It’s not just an adult verbally attacking a child, it’s an adult this kid worshiped enough to recognize and quote his material from memory. Who easily walks away from that?

This little boy then finds Bill shrieking at a sewer opening, is manhandled by him, and told in the scariest way possible, born of Bill’s own fear, that he has to get out of dodge, fast. There are scary things out there, Dean freely admits that he’s heard kids’ voices coming from the tub drain, but right now the scariest thing is how badly the adults in his life are failing him: parents (from what little we can gather) are distant, his comedic idol is mean, and now this stranger is traumatizing him in the middle of the street. Once again, it’s easy to see how Pennywise isn’t needed to sow fear or even enact cruelty; he’s not a requirement for horrible things in the world, he’s merely their reflection. We see the same setup with the little girl under the bleachers. That scene demonstrates precisely how not scary Pennywise is. Here’s this child putting aside her discomfort over his looks and agreeing to be his friend. What’s worse than a clown with a creepy expression? The knowledge that all the other kids have already rejected you because of a birthmark on your face. Bullying is the far greater threat and one we’re 100% more likely to deal with in our lives than a killer clown, so the second film re-frames Pennywise to better acknowledge this. He’s scary because things like bullying and neglect exist to give him an easy in. He’s even scary because in this moment, hiding under the bleachers, manipulating this little girl, he’s fully embodying a child predator. Chapter One was a primal, “There’s a monster hiding in the shadows” kind of fear. Chapter Two is a, “We’re all going to die from climate change” kind of fear. Logical and largely inescapable. Characters like Richie don't need Pennywise to take some fantastic form to scare him. Homophobia has already done all the work.

Ultimately, I think of this as the Umbridge Effect. Who’s the most hated character in the Harry Potter franchise? I’ll give you a hint, it’s not the Dark Lord responsible for two wars, attempted genocide, and the death of our title character.

We despise Umbridge because she’s real. She’s relatable. She’s grounded in a way that Voldemort could never hope to be. We have no fear that an all-powerful sorcerer is suddenly going to come out of the woodwork and attempt to enslave and/or eradicate everyone without magic. That’s just not on our list of things to worry about. A corrupt politician, however? An instructor who uses her power to emotionally and physically torture students, getting away with it because of a cutesy, hyper-feminine persona? We’ve seen stuff like that. We’ve lived it. Umbridge represents all the real wrongs in the world when it comes to bigotry and privilege. Therefore we hate her-----we fear her-----in a way we could never hate Voldemort. Now, in It: Chapter Two, Pennywise is the new Voldemort. Is an alien clown with an unhinged jaw and three rows of teeth technically scary? Sure, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the real problems that plague the cast: abuse, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, the fear that someone will hurt or outright kill you over some part of your identity. These are things we continue to fear long after the credits roll and the lights come up, and they’re now barely coded in the story:

It occurred to me halfway through my viewing that the people laughing at the characters’ new plights were the same ones who didn’t flinch when a gay man’s head cracked into the pavement. I had both hands over my mouth during that scene and I wasn’t snickering whenever Eddie panicked, or Ben’s self-confidence took a hit. Because those moments, like our opening, hit pretty close to home for me; I didn’t find them embarrassingly humorous in the way much of my theater did. So many reviews in the last two months have insisted that Chapter Two isn't scary, but I think that depends entirely on whether or not you're struggling with these now explicit threats. We're not dealing with mummies and creepy portraits anymore. Instead, tell me how you feel about holding your partner's hand in public. Do certain memories make you vomit? Or freeze? Consider heading upstairs to the bath? The horror is dependent on how the audience views Bill's stutter coming back, or the bruises on Bev's arms.

The cast grew up. It’s a fantastic twist. It also means that the horror needed to grow up with them, resulting in a film that could no longer function as a simple, scary clown movie. Our ending reminds us of that. When did people laugh the loudest? When the Losers’ club was bullying Pennywise into something vulnerable. And yeah, I get it. It’s a cheesy moment that we feel the need to laugh at because it’s just so unexpected. Awkward, even. Since when are badass horror monsters defeated with a bit of backyard peer pressure straight out of middle school? If this were any other story, Pennywise would have been defeated by Eddie’s poker. The most scared member of the group finally finds his courage! He has faith that this simple object can kill monsters! He throws it in a perfect arc, splitting the deadlights in two! That’s a heroic ending. Something epic and fantastical, relying on the idea that the Good Guys will win simply because they believe in themselves... but that’s not how the real world works. That ending is a child’s fantasy. Sometimes you do the heroic thing and end up dying anyway. Which isn’t to say that the heroic thing is useless. It saves Richie’s life. It’s just that a single act can’t cure all our ills in the way that storybooks often claim they can.

How then does an adult deal with huge, intangible problems like bigotry and mental illness----the things Pennywise now fully represents? By saying “Fuck you” to those things again and again with all the support you can possibly wrangle up at your side. You refuse to let those issues control you; you drag those child-like representations into the light and remind yourself just how small they really are. We don’t get to beat something like depression by spearing it with a fire poker in some overblown finale. If we did, we’d all be having a much better time. All you can do is band together with friends and scream that you’re not going to let your fears define you anymore. Pennywise is a symptom of all the true horrors in the world. Sadly, you can’t beat those with a baseball bat. But you can acknowledge the heart of the issue, literally in the case of five friends squeezing until that one symptom, at least, is gone.

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