[18 July 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Harry Potter beat The Dark Knight. The boy wizard clobbered the contemporized Batman. What, exactly, does that mean, and why should anyone care? Well, over the 15 July weekend, the last installment in the worldwide publishing phenomenon made its bow on big screens everywhere, and managed to rake in more than $169 million dollars. That’s ten million more than Christopher Nolan’s smash Summer of 2008 hit managed over the same marketplace timeframe. When you calculate in all the overseas money (another $307 million) and the continuing love for the effort (fans and critics seem duly satisfied), you’ve got a title destined to break into that elusive club of cinematic billionaires. While other Potters have come close (the first film is sitting right at $974 million), many predict this will be the one that breaks through.
Of course, the key question is why? Why would this be the installment that finally finds box office supremacy, and why should anyone care? Indeed, when you remember a previous article about how world receipts overly influence overall return tallies, it seems silly to even guess. Right now, Transformers: Dark of the Moon has made close to $763 million with, again, a ratio of nearly two to one representing the rest of the planet. So if Deathly Hallows Part 2 manages to make somewhere near $300 to $350 million in North America, it’s more or less given to go nine figures. As with Michael Bay’s latest, however, this doesn’t mean that David Yates has made one of the great films of all time. Nor would fans argue that this was the best of the Harry Potter bunch. Indeed, the real story would have been had Deathly Hallows flopped, not if it made a mint.
Situationally, this result is rote. You have a ten year long movie event that has managed to build interest and audience investment with each passing installment. Though they knew/know who it ends, the devoted and the newly knowledgeable have to show up to see the send off. Now, if each movie had been worse than the last, a disappointment of both execution and source, Harry Potter would have turned into The Chronicles of Narnia. That famed C.S. Lewis franchise is currently flailing around creatively, probably looking for another sucker studio to crash land at. Now, because of some smart choices initially (dumping Chris Columbus, hanging onto Yates), Potter manage to survive…and thrive. At this point, what with all the hype and the first half of the finale already set in people’s minds (and Netflix queues) Part 2 had to triumph.
But there is more to it than just waving goodbye to a well thought of imaginary friend. The Summer of 2011 has been a bastion of mediocrity, a stunted display of the worst that Hollywood can manage. Had the Deathly Hallows Part 2 had any real competition for theater space, had it not bolstered its take a bit by the unnecessary inclusion of 3D and IMAX, it might not be sprinting toward the billion dollar mark. Indeed, one could easily see the last act being as popular as the others, sticking between $700 and $900 million and being happy about it. But since there is nothing else out there of great commercial consequence, and the rest of the world appears eager to swallow almost anything ponied up by Tinseltown, a good movie will sudden step into the realm of giants.
That’s what’s so bothersome about the ‘Harry Beats Batman’ hype. The Dark Knight is a far superior film to Deathly Hallows Part 2. It has more artistic merit, more vision, and a better grasp of basic cinematic classicism. The Potter films just want to make sure not to offend the fans. Indeed, they have never been about turning the material into something epic and timeless. If they had, JK Rowling would have let Terry Gilliam or some other actual auteur take on her titles. By carving them up into singular pieces and then protecting each one via strict creative control, the author bungled her own continuing legacy. Her films are fine, not fantastic. This means that, at some point in the next decade or so, a substantive backlash will have fanatics imaging a “better” set of Potter films, and the argument for remakes/reimaginings starts up in Messageboard Nation.
Some, who know Rowling, believe that this will never happen. After all, she is very protective of her Harry. But money, as the song says, does indeed change everything, and if someone in the world offered her $1 billion for the right to turn the books into, say, a massive HBO miniseries with the ability to deal with all the discarded material the films couldn’t fit in, who’s to say she will say “No.” After all, she has started her own website to try and address some of those ancillary (and a few new) issues. Also remember that the studios have been killing themselves looking for the next young adult book to film franchise, the local Cineplex littered with their discarded disasters. Their failures almost guarantee a continuing return to the Potter troughs. Indeed, there’s a greater chance of seeing some other Harry product on a screen - big or small - than seeing another installment of The Spiderwick Chronicles or a continuation of I Am Number Four. Maybe something along the lines of X-Men: First Class, perhaps?
As is always the case, profitability never equals artistic value, though the final act in Harry’s long journey is indeed a solid spectacle. Looking over the rest of the highest grossing films of all time, few will be listed among the artform’s all time best. Still, it’s quite an accomplishment to tap into that massive a swath of the entertainment zeitgeist. Even non-Potter people are lining up just to see what the hubbub is all about (one imagines them being highly disappointed, considering their lack of investment in the entire franchise). In a few weeks, when Deathly Hallows Part 2 breaks into the box office upper echelon, there will be more meaningless praise. And then The Dark Knight Rises will open next year and the conversation will recalibrate all over again…until Pirates of the Caribbean 5 finds a release date…and so on…and so on…and so on.