Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, out today, is the final movie in the Harry Potter series, and for many it marks the end of an era in pop culture. Can this movie possibly sum up everything great about the books and other films? Can it capture that ineffable thing, that flicker of faith in the human capacity to imagine itself into a better world, that Harry Potter awakened in its billions of fans? Can it deliver the total wizard smackdown with fire and monsters and wand fights?
Of course it can. Spoilers ahead!
I say that not just because this final installment in the film series is a fast-paced adventure movie with great effects, but because Harry Potter can't be contained in just one chunk of its franchise. J.K. Rowling's stories of a magical world full of sorcery and moral struggle have spread so far beyond the pages of the original novels that sometimes it's hard to tell where the "official" Harry Potter universe ends and the unofficial world of Pottermania fandom begins. Harry Potter's story has become part of our everyday cultural references, an allegory we use to describe everything from politics to the financial crises that have swept across the world.
So is Deathly Hallows Part 2 the story of a mildly elitist group of social democratic wizards fighting superhuman authoritarianism? Yes. Is it about soulless bankers colluding to keep money and treasures in the hands of the few? Yes - that too. Is it about fighting to create a world where the next generation doesn't have to grow up in mortal and moral danger? Certainly. And it's also a faithful adaptation of a novel packed with battles, plot twists, and more than one romance.
The whole first act of the film, where Harry, Ron and Hermione have to retrieve one of Voldemort's remaining Horcruxes from Gringotts — the goblin-operated bank — is both visually stunning and a kind of distillation of what makes the Harry Potter story so appealing. Harry and his friends have to sneak past the goblins in disguise, ride an insane cart down into the depths of the Earth where the bank vaults are, and battle various spells to escape again. But instead of murdering their way out of the situation, the way most heroes in such scrapes would, Hermione figures out a way to make their liberation into the liberation of other creatures too. They escape on the back of a captive, abused dragon that the goblins use to guard the vaults.
When you see them on the back of that incredible dragon, your heart soars not just because the dragon looks really freaking cool, but because this is what good guys do. They figure out how to save other creatures while saving their own lives. Altruism is the means and the end.
Contrast that with bad guy Voldemort, who has done the opposite. His entire life depends on killing, of course, but he's also extended his lifespan by hiding bits of his soul in (mostly) inanimate objects. He's not evil because he's a cackling snakeface. By investing dead objects with his soul, he reveals the true moral corruption at the heart of his being: he prefers a society of things rather than people. Voldemort is a version of the terrible spell that guards Bellatrix's vault, causing every object that an intruder touches to beget more objects, until the room is so packed with inanimate things that all forms of life are crushed to dust.
Like the very best fairy tales, Harry Potter offers us a burning vision of our own world, with goodness and evil helpfully labeled. Of course the good guys do the right things, sacrificing themselves and using all the ultra-powerful spells they can to defend a school (not the government, or a military target — a school). The final battle scene is terrific, full of funny quips ("I've always wanted to use that spell," says McGonigal with a grim smile as she unleashes the stone soldiers molded to Hogwarts' walls) and many tearful moments. Unexpected heroes emerge, and there are some heartbreaking character developments that will leave you wishing there were going to be prequels, or at least spinoff tales that fill in the lives of supporting characters whom we are only now getting to know.
Of course there are some false notes in the movie — I'm not going to lie and tell you it's perfect. When the romances between Harry and his friends finally bloom they feel about as romantic as duck sex. Dumbledore gave a speech that was supposed to be heartening but was so cliche-packed that I kept thinking he was going to conclude by saying, "And always wash your hands and look both ways before you cross the street." Generally the effects were superlative, but something about the CGI work on Voldemort's face made it look like he had a blurry white moustache. Still, these are mostly nitpicks. Overall, the film was moving and true to the Harry Potter spirit. Thankfully, the ending packed a punch and didn't fall into the Lord of the Rings slo-mo hugging trap.
And don't worry about Harry Potter being over. The boy who lived is going to keep surviving, and reminding us that life is only good when other people and creatures live alongside you. Harry Potter is a massive enough phenomenon that I think we can be confident that his story will outlast us all, leaving behind a snapshot of the human imagination at the turn of the twenty-first century. A good snapshot, that shows us in our best light.