Trying to cram Stephen King’s massive tome It into one movie was always going to be an impossible task. The decision back in 2014, when the It project was still a Cary Fukunaga project and not an Andi Muschietti joint, to split the movies by timeline certainly was controversial as King’s weaving between the past and present lent the novel most of its narrative power. It: Chapter One turned out to be an unexpected success because the coming-of-age narrative of seven plucky middle-schoolers taking on an unspeakable evil was certainly the more compelling of the two. With most of the surprise and mystery of this timeline revealed, not least the nature of the monster Pennywise itself, It: Chapter Two is certainly much better than it has any right to be, but it is also the chapter in which the problems of splitting the narrative by timeline come home to roost.
The movie begins with what was inevitably clear at the end of It: Chapter One, namely that Pennywise the Clown has been defeated but is not vanquished. Picking up twenty-seven years after the Loser’s Club dealt a severe blow to the clown, Pennywise reemerges with his wounds fully licked and ready to terrorize Derry, Maine again. Of the Loser’s Club, only Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) has remained in Derry, holed up in the city’s library with enough research about Pennywise to make a conspiracy theorist proud. At the first hint of the monster’s reappearance he quickly calls his scattered friends for a blood-oath required reunion. In the intervening years the rest of the Loser’s Club has spread far-and-wide: Bill (James McAvoy), is a successful writer whose weakness appears to be writing bad endings; Ritchie (Bill Hader) has taken his juvenile comedy and turned it into a successful, if facile, stand-up career; Beverly (Jessica Chastain) is a successful fashion designer who still tragically lives in the shadow of her abusive father’s past; Ben (Jay Ryan) has shed his weight and the lack of confidence that came with it to become a successful architect; Eddie (James Ransone) evolved his hypochondria into a career as a risk assessor; and Stanley (Andy Beam) remains on many levels a child afraid. When they are summoned to Derry they come in spite of the fact that for reasons unknown, all of them having forgotten the events of that fateful summer and barely even remembering living in Derry in the first place. They also come because it seems that Pennywise is luring them in to his trap for revenge, and the key to stopping it and escaping their own deaths will be remembering what happened before.
With this much setup and these many characters to juggle, it should come as no surprise that the movie is going to both be long (a whopping 159 minutes), stuffed to the gills, and still leave some character and plot developments feeling under-baked. Andy Muschietti wisely ditches several of the supplementary characters from King’s novel and unfortunately also has to toss most of the larger societal evil that afflicts Derry in order, in essence, to narrow down the story to strictly becoming a tale of a monster seeking personal revenge and the Loser’s Club looking to eke out another unlikely win. It certainly helps keep the movie from becoming a sprawling mess, but this move certainly robs the movie of most of the novel’s complexity.
Still, It: Chapter Two works best in the area that matters most, and that is in scaring the living daylights out of you. This is especially impressive given that Chapter One pretty much revealed most of the mystery surrounding Pennywise, a testament to what a great performance Bill Skarsgard gives as the clown. Skarsgard doesn’t really do much that he didn’t already do in the original and yet every single one of his appearances are traumatically frightening. Besides Pennywise, Muschietti and his production team have brought a terrifying menagerie of monsters and visuals ultimately rendering every corner of Derry feeling unsafe for our heroes. While one can complain about the over-reliance of jump scares used, it is at least no worse than some of the genre’s more recent culprits (here’s looking at you Conjuring universe).
Furthermore, the one area that there is a significant upgrade over Chapter One is in the acting department. Alongside the return of all of the kids from the original movie, who acquit themselves very well here, Chapter Two adds the likes of Chastain, McAvoy, and Hader, and the rest of the adult crew who seamlessly fit into their roles as the Loser’s Club. The chemistry between the actors in both the past and present certainly help through some clunky and overwritten dialogue. Chastain and her younger counterpart Sophia Willis especially are outstanding as Beverly, easily the most complex character in the movie adaptation, giving Beverly the right mix of tragedy and strength. Hader meanwhile is great as the chief comic relief, but that should come as no surprise to anyone who has spent a minute looking at this illustrious comic career. When the movie makes the inevitable decision to split up the Loser’s Club to find their own totem (no doubt to ramp up the scares) it helps that there doesn’t seem to be a weak link among the actors here – each vignette is as captivating as it is nerve-wrackingly scary.
Most of the problems in It: Chapter Two come down to how it differs from the book. Normally I find “but the book was better” to be the most boring form of film criticism available but in this case my assertions have little to do with what scenes got included and what didn’t, or how this character is different in the book, or that they changed the ending, or any other superficial objection like that. Rather my problem with the movies is how they are structurally different than the novel. In the novel the two timelines between the Loser’s Club as kids and adults weave seamlessly between the other. This is crucial to the novel’s storytelling power because revelations from one timeline directly impact our understanding of the other. Because the adults are dealing with trying to recover their memories, their understanding of what is going on and how to defeat Pennywise directly impacts ours. When the kids start encountering Pennywise in their narrative is about the same time Pennywise starts showing up to their adult selves. It is this incomplete understanding of what is going on both in the kids’ timeline and the adults’ that makes it such a compelling and terrifying novel.
This tension is of course ruined by the decision to split both of these timelines into separate movies. At the very beginning of It: Chapter Two there is already little mystery as to what Pennywise is, what its purpose is, and what its weaknesses are. Similarly our understanding of what makes each individual Loser Club tick, their strengths and character flaws, and the specific traumas that made them targets of Pennywise are similarly already known. Thus most of Chapter Two functions as an exasperating waiting game as we laboriously watch the adult versions of the Loser Club get up to speed on information we already know. As I mentioned earlier, the inherent terror of Pennywise and the captivating performances by the cast, especially Hader and Chastain, mean that this journey self rediscovery is not without its charms, but it is also clear that the move to split the timelines robs the story of a lot of its narrative power.
A larger and more problematic issue that the movie has is that for reasons unknown, the movie skirts by the novel’s larger discussion of the corporate nature of evil, instead choosing to make It: Chapter Two strictly about a confrontation between Pennywise and the Loser’s Club. In the novel, King takes great pains to show that Pennywise is not just a boogeyman, but is a corrupting influence on the town of Derry, inspiring hate crimes and violent acts in Derry’s history every twenty-seven years since the town’s inception. King uses Pennywise’s cyclical violence as a way to discuss the way we corporately choose to forget our collective traumas, allowing our sins to repeat again and again. It is only in this context that It: Chapter Two‘s (minor SPOILERS time) opening hate-crime murder of a gay man makes any larger narrative sense at all, rather than just being a throwaway violent scene that it is in the movie. But even more egregiously, it is only in this context that we understand the particular trauma Pennywise inflicts upon Mike, who in the book suffers personally from racism and discovers Derry’s forgotten violently racist past. Because the movie skirts by the novel’s theme of corporate evil, the power of Mike’s personal redemption arc is rendered moot as Mike’s trauma is inexplicably changed from being a victim of a racist town’s racism to watching his crackhead parents die (an especially offensive choice given that in the novel King goes out of his way to show that Mike has the most stable family life of the Loser’s Club).
Still, despite these serious flaws It: Chapter Two is a worthy conclusion to the series and together with Chapter One represents the best adaptation of the novel (sorry Tim Curry). Fans of the novel (myself included) and the first movie may be annoyed in moments, but will still find plenty to cheer as well. As I said with Avengers: Endgame, if you are not at some level a fan of either the first movie, the novel, or Stephen King in general, then what are you doing seeing Chapter Two? But in the end, along with Chapter One, it should sidle up just nicely as a worthy addition to the ever-growing collection of the best Stephen King movies.
Runtime: 169 minutes
Directed by Andy Muschietti
Written by Gary Dauberman
Starring Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Bill Skarsgard, Jaedan Martell, Wyatt Oleff, Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Teach Grant, Nicholas Hamilton.