Modernizing classic stories is the name of the game in Hollywood 2019, and with that pre-existing framework, more vibrant and sophisticated storytelling can be explored-- ideally. Underrepresented experiences and identities can take the spotlight in ways they previously couldn't, thanks to our progressive reexamining of media.
Being queer, I always hope for identities and experiences like mine and wildly different from mine to be seen, felt, and ultimately validated on the big screen. So when one of the biggest films of the year decides to take a chance on creating queer subtext that wasn't in previous adaptations of the book, there's a clear opportunity to enrich an already dense story. Golly, did It Chapter Two pop that balloon.
I won't mince words here; It Chapter Two was dreadful, half-witted, and upsetting. Stephen King is a god, obviously, but I've never sat at a beach long enough to read all 1,138 pages of his 1986 novel -- so it's not a matter of 'the book being better.' I've never seen the Tim Curry TV miniseries either, but I did see It Chapter One back in 2017. It was at the height of that Stranger Things-fueled 80s nostalgia. They even cast one of the kids from the show, and as I recall, It Chapter One was a more-or-less thrilling adventure horror film with a super-strong cast and perhaps too heavy a reliance on jump-scares. Nothing to really write home about, nor have I seen it since theaters, but since it made a bajillion dollars at the worldwide box office, the adaptation of the second half of the novel was greenlit and hit theaters earlier this September. Taking place 27 years after the previous films, the now-adult Losers Club reunite in Derry, Maine to keep their promise of defeating Pennywise if it were ever to return -- which of course, it did.
But the thing with the book, the miniseries, and the first It film is that there was virtually no queer subtext. There's the child orgy in the book that people don't like to talk about. But, aside from the gay hate crime scene, which I'll get to, the book doesn't delve into any questions on sexuality at Derry or the culture at large, let alone between at least 3 of the main characters.
Warning: Spoilers for It Chapter Two from here on out…
It Chapter Two's opening sequence is horrifying. As it was intended, sort of. The film opens with a carnival sequence in modern day Derry with two gay men on a date. Side note: what is up with all the carnival settings in 2019? Us, Shazam!, Toy Story 4, Stranger Things 3, Euphoria, and It Chapter Two all have the same sort of carnival set; and I don't have a point to this, it's just something I've noticed.
There's a lot of time spent with these characters; they're seen as sweet, romantic, and ambitious. They talk about moving to New York to get away from the small-town mindedness, but the joy fades when a young boy starts shouting slurs and assaults them. They get to flee, but just long enough to get outnumbered by more homophobes on a bridge who then proceed to beat the ever-loving shit out one of them and throw him off a bridge into a river. It's literally my greatest fear as an out queer person manifested on screen, but go off, horror movie. Scare me.
And as the bloodied and beaten queer man gasps for air in a flowing river, we see Pennywise in the distance -- who then saves the man from drowning, but eats his heart out of his chest in front of his partner anyway. Awesome, I'm super entertained by this Hollywood blockbuster movie. I love it. Also, why is Pennywise going after adults now? I thought his whole thing was luring vulnerable children and not two ambitious gay men trying to live their lives. The 80’s setting of the book’s depiction of this scene also carried a lot more weight than a minimally-different same scene in modern day. It doesn’t translate the same. Whatever.
I checked out of the movie briefly, stepped out of it even, and examined if I was safely presenting myself to the world. The film continued on to paint other awkward and questionable pictures about queerness and how it pertains to three of our Derry losers: Richie, Eddie, and Stanley.
As adults, Eddie marries a woman just like his overbearing mother. We're only given one scene with his wife, but the allusion is made clear and is reaffirmed when they're all together again in Derry -- also when he calls her Mama in a Freudian slip. Richie is a successful comedian who doesn't write his own material. Which confused me, since Bill Hader's Richie is cracking jokes at every single opportunity. And anxious, effeminate Stanley doesn't get much adult development other than his apathy at the vacation his wife just booked them, and deciding to kill himself once the call came to return to Derry.
Now, in the scene where Stanley kills himself, he's brought back to his memories as a child (which according to the film he shouldn't even really have), looking in Bill's eyes and feeling some kind of way about it. Nothing is incredibly clear whether he's thinking about the promise he made specifically to Bill to return to Derry if Pennywise ever did, or if he felt he couldn't stand the thought of seeing Bill again. The film should be communicating the former, I think, but that wasn't a promise he made simply to Bill -- it was to everyone. So what was with the focused gaze on Bill, someone who hadn’t even called him and pleaded to come back to Derry?
Much of the story is told through flashbacks and hallucinations. The film repeatedly holds our hands through each character's individual encounter with Pennywise, their childhood trauma, and how those memories manifested into the adults they've become. For Richie, Bill Hader's character, this was a scene at the local movie theater. Where he offers to buy another boy a game at the arcade, which the 12-year-old boy immediately assumes is a gay pass. Which, it might’ve been, but that would’ve been the first time we’d seen Richie even kind of seem like he likes boys. Which is fine, but like, movies usually foreshadow themes and subtext they want to illustrate. Anyway, the boy Richie sorta makes a pass at happened to be cousins with Henry Bowers; the film’s psychopathic character and trope for like, bigotry I guess?
Richie gets bullied out of the theater while being called just about every slur in the book. In tears, he finds himself at this giant Paul Bunyan statue in the middle of Derry. At that point it comes to life as both an unsubtle allegory for the constraints of conventional masculinity, and an actual monster trying to kill Richie while Pennywise taunts him. He asks if he wants to play "Truth or Dare" and says something to the effect of, "you don't want to say truth, do you Richie?" The truth being, I think, Richie's possible queerness? The queerness that didn’t show up at all in the first two and a half hours I spent with this character in the first movie? If the film is forcing me to reach, it seems Richie uses comedy and insults, mostly towards his effeminate friend Stanley, as a defense mechanism for his own closeted sexuality, and that's actually really interesting and compelling! Props to the movie for even kind of setting that up!
Unfortunately, however, you have to actually resolve that storyline for it to mean anything.
So, all of the Losers Club throw these ‘tokens’ as part of an ancient ritual said to rid Earth of whatever It is, each representing a repressed childhood trauma they’re letting go and moving on from. Everyone gives a little backstory, every token is touching and significant, except Richie’s. His is an actual token, from the arcade, but provides zero explanation to the group or audience of its significance -- which he’s mocked for. Nor even in further taunts from Pennywise was he ever able to explicitly come out, even to defeat a monster who is literally destroyed by truth, confidence, and declarative affirmations. Bill Hader’s Richie never once confesses that he’s gay, or that he loved Eddie romantically, even when Eddie was stabbed through the chest and killed by a Pennywise tentacle. If you ask me, that’s poor writing, poor theming, and poor filmmaking.
Not everything needs to be laid out to an audience to understand it, I’m not averse to subtext, but when the foundation of your story is based on the overcoming of trauma, and every other trauma gets to be explored to its fullest, it’s more than a bit bullshit that there isn’t a satisfying moment for Richie to come out in a 3 hour movie that even opens with a pretty good reason to not be an out homosexual.
There are a few reasons as to why this happened this way. If I’m looking to find excuses for a $250 million dollar movie’s shittiness, the chief reason is likely that international markets where homosexuality is outlawed either in its state or media need It Chapter Two to screen in those theaters, so edits are made so that the queerness of a given blockbuster film is suppressed to the point where it doesn’t impact it too heavily financially. It’s just not enough for me. You cannot show explicit queer violence while also doing everything you can to avoid showing explicit queer love. It Chapter Two is definitely the most disappointing, frustrating movie I’ve seen this year, and just the latest film to let down the Queer community.
Tyler Scruggs is a writer, musician, and pop culture cosmonaut based in Atlanta.
@Scruggernaut on Instagram, @TylerScruggs on Twitter.