Hey, it’s BlockBluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart find out during what sorts of movies regular people all over the country are comparing wands. This week they appreciate the British wizardry of David Yates’ Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.
Hey, Ben, remember just two weeks ago I was saying that all American disaster movies exploit 9/11 imagery because it’s our most visceral shared-iconography? Well, it’s telling how very British the Harry Potter series is, that when it comes time for its own war to define a generation—equivalent to Autobots vs. Decepticons, no?—it doesn’t play off of pictures from the coalition wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or 7/7, but those of W.W. II! I guess that over there, the war on terror has a moral ambiguity it doesn’t share on our shores, and so to find an example of unimpeachably righteous violence, the English have to go back to the fight against the Nazis. And so you have here students at wizardry school marching in Riefenstahlian lockstep, wearing the colorless uniforms villains have worn since the American Civil War, and Snape hissing like the emperor in Star Wars. (Which played on a Nazi aesthetic, too, right?) When Hogwarts is attacked by Voldemort’s army, it looked like The Blitz, the skies all lit up with the swirling lights of exploded munitions, like van Gogh’s “Starry Night” gone martial. But I’m getting a bit focused on the action sequences here. There were a lot of moments that eschewed cacophony, too, don’t you think?
Well, Henry, aside from the blissful quiet of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2—so many minutes without a single sound; how refreshing!—both its generic borrowings and available political allegories struck me as being rather American. There’s the bank heist scene for instance, lifted from the most American of film genres, the Western; but the vault into which Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson) and Ron (Rupert Grint) break quickly becomes a deathtrap when golden bars and goblets proliferate rapidly as if through mitosis into crashing waves of shiny metal, which seemed like a clever (anti-capitalist?) twist on the Star Wars trash compactor scene. Speaking of Star Wars, the invisible energy barrier that Hogwarts staff and students erected around the school to keep the advancing hordes out sure was a lot like Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defense system, or its revamped post-9/11 iteration, the Missile Defense Agency. And rallying all the young apprentice wizards for the epic battle versus Voldemort was just like gathering all the potential slayers during the final season of Buffy. That said, the starving students’ eleventh-hour reverence for their secluded boarding school did seem quite quaintly British; do these Limey lads and lasses have no revolutionary spirit, Henry?
I’m glad you mention the bank scene, Ben, because wasn’t it funny that the movie portrayed all the workers as goblins? (Take that, Goldman Sachs!) Also, banks hiding evil witch property—sounds an awful lot like a Nazi gold thing, doesn’t it? Anyway, these kids do have a revolutionary spirit, Ben—isn’t the Harry Potter series all about upheaval? For a movie that adopts such a historical aesthetic, it also seems to hate history: big rooms full of old things almost kill our heroes twice, and what are Horcruxes if not evil artifacts? The movie’s army on the side of good is overwhelmingly young, made up of students; the bad guys, led by an evil old enough to be Harry Potter’s father. If Half-Blood Prince found Potter and friends in their randy adolescences, Deathly Hallows Part II finds them on the cusp of adulthood. What does the final step of their coming of age entail? They must destroy the old order to raise the new, tear down their parents’ institutions to rebuild their own. (Aren’t so many of Harry’s problems rooted in curses and grudges begat by his parents?) And so Hogwarts is razed. But then the movie ends with Harry and friends “19 years later,” sending their own kids off to Hogwarts (presumably rebuilt; I guess with magic it’d be easy). It seems kind of crass, a way for Warner Brothers to set up a “Next Generation” franchise now that this one’s done. But it also makes perfect sense thematically: the old making way for the new. No wonder the series appeals so strongly to young people, eh Ben?
Sorry, Henry, I don’t really buy your “in with the new” reading. For one, this series is set in the present but trades in swords-and-wizards medievalism, so there’s that general sheen of Peter Pan-ish perpetual childhood to it already. In this (half-)episode the epic battle scene requires an alliance between old (see: Maggie Smith), ancient (battalions of terra-cotta soldiers brought to life) and young to preserve the historic Hogwarts building—which isn’t destroyed just badly damaged—and save the problematic but ultimately—after ample revisionist flashbacks explaining why the olds were acting benevolently even when it seemed like they were killing each other—redeemed institution it houses. In the epilogue Harry, Hermione and Ron send their kids off on the same old steam engine train to the same old Hogwarts—as opposed to some more progressive school like, say, the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning.
The only thing that looks new here appears when Harry is in life-death limbo in an all-white, ultra-modern and deserted King’s Cross station. Given the choice to join his family in spectral afterlife or return to the Forbidden Forest, well, Harry’s choice isn’t all that surprising, but that sequence crystalizes the film’s Disneyfied regressiveness, where modernity is a gateway to death and life’s best years are spent at a boarding school in an ancient castle. No wonder Harry Jr. and, uh, Harriet are hesitant to board the Hogwarts Express. I suppose one could counter by going full-Marxist and claiming that saving the wizardry academy and going back to Hogwarts stands in for a collective fantasy of returning to a pre-capitalist (but also pre-democratic) feudal society, but then one would have to reconcile that reading with the whole highest-grossing-film-franchise-ever thing. So no, Henry, the series’ loyalist desire to maintain tradition and an arcane social order remains magically unscathed to the very end.