clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

It Chapter Two is fun and scary, but lacks what made Chapter One great

It Chapter Two is faithful to Stephen King — in all the messiest ways.

Actor Bill Skarsgård playing Pennywise the Clown in the horror film “It Chapter Two.”
Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise the Clown in It Chapter Two.
Warner Bros.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

It Chapter Two arrives at the inevitable problem with many a Stephen King adaptation: The more faithful the adaptation, the more it exposes the difficulty of translating King’s novels to the big screen.

Hollywood tends to transform King’s overwhelmingly internal, psychological horror and Tolkienesque fantasy worlds into externalized, supernatural horror with straightforward plot beats. And with It Chapter Two, director Andy Muschietti leans into this urge more than away from it. The result works, because even diced into a series of scary beats, It is still a great story. But it only barely works. The lack of attention paid to It’s internality is obvious, especially given the film’s runtime of nearly three hours.

On the one hand, by splitting his version of It into two separate films, Muschietti has done an admirable, satisfyingly creepy job of commanding the massive blimp of King’s 1,400-page 1986 horror classic. King structured his story about a killer shapeshifting clown and the kids who unite to defeat it into two overlapping timelines; the novel switches back and forth between past and present, as the “Losers Club” battles the titular evil known as “It” as both teens and adults. Muschietti’s choice to break the timelines apart was a smart one — at least through It Chapter One, which used a nostalgic coming-of-age lens that made the 2017 film a record-breaking smash hit.

But on the other hand, most grownups are way more boring than kids — and that’s ultimately a disadvantage It Chapter Two can’t quite overcome. Though Chapter Two spends many of its 165 minutes weaving connections between past and present to make us care about who these kids have grown up to be, it lacks cohesive characterizations or strong emotional connections.

For most of Chapter Two’s audience, this narrative sloppiness won’t matter too much, because the film is well-made and entertaining. It features all kinds of delightfully hallucinogenic imagery, ranging from gore and body horror to phantasmagorical fantasy creatures. It all feels very epic, and it slots in smoothly after Chapter One with little change in tone and ambiance.

But the narrative gaps and flaws — including a dissatisfying amount of weirdly handled subtext and one brutal, controversial element taken straight from King’s novel — mean that, for some fans, Chapter Two won’t deliver on all its promises of a psychologically complex showdown between bad clown and the adults he traumatized when they were kids. While Chapter Two works perfectly fine as a complement to Chapter One, it still falls short in that the closer our heroes come to triumphing over “It,” the further they get from a satisfying conclusion.

It Chapter Two places us in contact with a cosmic, primal force that’s fighting against — yawn — Gen Xers

The scary clown in the movie “It Chapter Two” grins from behind a sheet of shattered glass.
Pennywise says hi from underground.
Warner Bros.

Stephen King’s It centers on an ancient evil that lurks in the cavernous sewers beneath the town of Derry, Maine: a shapeshifting being whose resting form is that of Pennywise the clown (played in Muschietti’s films by the ever-menacing Bill Skarsgård). Pennywise, a.k.a. “It,” is a terrifying child-eater who resurfaces every 27 years to prey on kids like a viral outbreak, after “metastasizing” off the evil of the town and its worst citizens until it’s grown strong enough to attack again.

During Pennywise’s previous visit to Derry in 1989, he ran into the Losers Club, a misfit ensemble of six teens who seemed to be the only people in town awake and attuned enough to realize something evil was afoot. Because Pennywise preys not just on humans but on fear itself, the Losers were able to combine their imaginations to defeat him — as chronicled in It: Chapter One. At the end of that film, they made a vow to return to Derry if Pennywise should ever come back.

When Chapter Two begins, 27 years have passed. It’s 2016, and all the Losers have moved out of town and on with their lives — except for Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa). As the only member of the group who stuck around, he’s developed an obsession with finding ways to defeat Pennywise in the event that the clown reappears. So he’s the first to realize that Pennywise has returned — after the clown brutally murders someone who’s already been the victim of a hate crime.

The movie doesn’t waste much time reintroducing us to the kids from Chapter One; now, they’re in their early 40s and played by an impressive ensemble cast. They’re spread all across the US and most of them are implausibly rich: Richie (Bill Hader) is a popular standup comic; Bill (James McAvoy) is a bestselling novelist; Eddie (James Ransone) is a New York financier; Ben (Jay Ryan) is a ludicrously handsome, ludicrously upscale architect; Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is a wealthy fashion designer who breaks away from an abusive marriage to fly to Derry when Mike summons everyone home. The one non-affluent Loser is also the one who doesn’t make it back: Stan (Andy Bean), who confronts his fear of “It” by making a different choice.

Once the group has reconvened in Derry, they realize they’re all a bit confused about why they’re there; Pennywise seems to cast a spell of forgetfulness on anyone who leaves the town, so most of them barely remember their previous selves or their relationships with each other, even though they all felt psychically compelled to return. A good chunk of Chapter Two’s runtime is concerned with the Losers re-establishing themselves as the Losers once more.

In King’s novel, the adult storyline moves at a much quicker pace than the teen storyline and benefits from recovered memories speeding along the process. But Muschietti mines their memory loss for horror, to a degree that Chapter Two starts to lag; some scenes, like Beverly’s terrifying tea with Pennywise during a visit to her childhood home and Richie’s subtext-laden encounter with a giant killer Paul Bunyan, last too long and carry no dramatic weight. There’s also a subplot that goes nowhere involving an old bully who breaks out of a mental asylum just to threaten the Losers a little more, at Pennywise’s behest.

Even though all of this comes directly from the book, Chapter Two fails to tie it all together thematically and consequently winds up feeling bloated — and undeserving of its aforementioned three-hour runtime.

It’d be nice if the adult Losers loved each other more

The other Losers aren’t ready to hear what Mike has to say.
Warner Bros.

A big part of Chapter Two’s weakness comes from the adult cast’s lack of chemistry compared to their absolutely outstanding teen counterparts. There’s supposed to be an awkward friendship reborn among all these people, and while it’s easy to believe in that friendship during all the teen flashbacks we see throughout the film, it never fully comes to fruition when they’re adults. Hader and Mustafa seem to be the only actors truly committed to their place within the ensemble; the others just don’t fully suggest that these adults love each other enough to karmically defeat a centuries-old monster.

Chapter Two’s writing doesn’t serve this goal, either. It frequently sends the adult cast on individual quests or splits them into smaller groups, even though they’re just not that interesting on their own. As the group’s ostensible leader, James McAvoy is hilariously uninspiring and hilariously unfunny. He seems incapable of appearing amused — even when he’s delivering lines that are supposed to show his sense of humor! — and there’s something kind of satisfying about watching him be bested by evil funhouse mirrors. That would be fine in a movie more tongue-in-cheek and less earnestly committed to getting us to root for this guy.

Meanwhile, Jessica Chastain’s Beverly is frequently characterized through shedding one single tear, like she’s an anime character. Far too much time is devoted to her confused love triangle with Bill and Ben, especially since the really interesting stuff is whatever’s going on between Richie and Eddie, something we never really get to see or fully understand.

That’s a shame, because one of the biggest themes of Stephen King’s It is that love can conquer all kinds of evil — not just supernatural, but societal too. As teens, all of the Losers shoulder trauma and abuse. Stanley’s dealing with depression. Beverly and Eddie are victims of domestic abuse. Bill’s grappling with death and grief, Ben with bullying, and Richie and Mike with small-town oppression. What made Chapter One so successful was that it was obvious how, as teens, the Losers’ deep love for each other helped them overcome all these obstacles, as a precursor to overcoming Pennywise.

This traumatic backstory is important, because what makes It so threatening isn’t limited to the supernatural; Pennywise is able to exploit the Losers’ vulnerabilities and fears because they’re the kind that don’t dissipate with age, the kind that are often sociocultural: racism, homophobia, misogyny, and domestic abuse. The story always reminds you that Pennywise is born out of the rotting putrefaction of small-town America, specifically Derry itself. It’s a strong metaphor, but it comes with its own host of problems.

Chapter Two becomes a total mess when it tries to map its story onto a current cultural framework

In many ways, Chapter Two — and really Muschietti’s It duology overall — is a loving, carefully considered adaptation of Stephen King’s novel that reproduces most of the important stuff. It successfully delivers the parts of It that gave King the reputation most people are familiar with today: He’s a maestro of scary horror imagery and a guardian of small-town America, and even of the past itself. But in its less successful moments, the problems often lie in the tension between past and present, between the appeal of King’s fantasy — with its timeless, visceral horror that feels directly piped to us from the Earth’s subconscious — and the hard-to-sidestep elements that feel mired in a 1986 worldview.

Chapter One, which was explicitly set in 1989, aligns completely with the novel’s tone. But Chapter Two deposits us in 2016 and immediately runs into problems. It bizarrely opens with a scene that many viewers might not easily recognize as being modern at all. In an amusement park that could exist in any era, two older gay teens are on a date when they’re menaced by a gang of denim-clad boys, one of whom has teased ’80s hair that gets him a Meg Ryan joke from one of the teens on the date. They respond by brutally beating him, almost to death, and dumping him in the river, all as his horrified boyfriend and the audience are forced to watch.

Eventually, we realize the scene is supposed to be taking place in 2016, but everything about it feels outdated. There’s reason for that: It’s taken directly from one of the most controversial and frequently critiqued parts of King’s novel. But Muschietti directs this scene with a prurient vibe that makes it feel more tonally in line with the famously sleazy 1980 gay-bash thriller Cruising. Neither of these characters are important to the story of It. They appeared in the novel, and now they’re present in Chapter Two as tragic gays, and that’s it.

Muschietti seems to want to balance the pointless homophobia of this scene by making the novel’s homoerotic subtext explicitly queer onscreen — kind of. Chapter Two’s writer, Gary Dauberman, frames it as a story about marginalization and the long-term effects of social ostracization, abuse, systemic violence, and all the other hardships the Losers have dealt with throughout their lives. But it also stints on deploying actual marginalized viewpoints, and treats the ones it does deploy as, eh, whatever.

For instance, one of King’s shrewdest metaphors is that Mike, who is black, is the only one of the Losers who remembers the evil they confronted together in Derry. That’s particularly striking given the recent debate over the 1619 Project, which saw black journalists reframe American society through the historical lens of slavery, and America’s reluctance to confront its own history of entrenched racism. But it’s complicated, because he remembers partly by piggy-backing on the memories of an expendable tribe of Native Americans. His attempts to convince the Losers to conduct the tribal purging ritual he’s been studying proves pointless, and the Native Americans, like the two gay teens, are never heard from again. Even Mike’s own story is expendable: Despite lots of hints in both movies that he lost most of his family in a tragic fire, we never really know what Mike’s backstory even is.

Mike’s arc is so ill-defined that his eventual happy ending is confusing, because the movie has barely developed the character to begin with. He seems to exist only to catalyze the other Losers to fight against evil.

But to what end? Beyond defeating Pennywise, Chapter Two doesn’t really seem to know. For all her plot seems to be about her evolution into a woman of independence and strength, Beverly still clings to a childhood fantasy of a lover who rescues her. Eddie’s subplot, which depicts him as henpecked by his abusive mother and later his shrewish wife, seems particularly negligible and problematic in the context of other elements of the film. Richie’s storyline is also totally vague.

We’re asked to accept initials scratched on a fence post as a stand-in for a lifetime of character and relationship development for Chapter Two’s designated queer characters. Meanwhile, Bill and Ben and Beverly have to sort through their not-that-complicated hetero troubles in scene after laboriously awkward scene. It’s so imbalanced and so myopic that it doesn’t feel like a story written for contemporary viewers; it simply seems to transplant 1986 sensibilities into 2019.

And this brings us to the ultimate problem with this remake. King’s novel argues that evil is cyclical and that we never really outgrow our childhood fears because our childhood fears never really end. But It: Chapter Two muddles this message. It tries to convince us, not very effectively, that the evil in Derry can be fully defeated. But it also wants us to know that the real evil in Derry is Derry itself and that Derry is every small American town. It delivers a few pointed establishing shots of the waning factory town completely covered in American flags.

But despite the clearly political overtones of the adaptation, It doesn’t evince much self-knowledge about what its own politics are. In fact, if anything, it reifies rather than deconstructs the societal factors that cyclically make America evil again. Having delivered its scares and worked in a sufficient number of book references, it seems to balk at making any thematic implications explicit. Its conclusions about its own storyline are as hazy and fuzzy as the Losers’ memory of Derry itself. And in the end, that story, while entertaining, is just as forgettable.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.