The Order of the Phoenix

Warning: Spoiler Alert.

Following on John’s post (“Thrown Out of the Man Club,” 12 July 2007) about the detrimental impacts of Harry Potter on his manly virtue, I went to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix today. I was initially hesitant because I thought that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was such a weak showing. However, under the influence of S., her friend and her friend’s six year old son, I went to see the latest and totally loved it. S. has been trying to get me to read the books and Order of the Phoenix has come about as close as anything to convincing me that I should. I may have to read at least Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, least S.’s mood upon completion give away the big secret.

The Archetype. I think the thing that I most liked about it is that the story has really flushed out all of the traditional elements of the hero narrative. We find a world with dark shapings afoot, but denial and corruption on the part of officialdom. A secret society formed to confront the villainous in its previous incantation has been decimated and scattered. Remnants try to pull together to prepare for the coming conflict (they are called The Order of the Phoenix in this version of the story in case you needed a few more clues), but that they are only a tiny band of resistance is okay because they are in possession of a powerful secret, that a prophesy of a budding power of good is about to bloom. And finally, of course, an agent of destiny who, at the key moment comes of age to fulfill said prophesy. At first people are in doubt as to the true nature of this individual, but eventually events bring everyone around. This agent of destiny is shepherded through the beginning of his trials by members of the old guard, but eventually reaches that point beyond which his teachers cannot help him, after which he must find his own way. But he is not alone and pulls together a small band of the new generation to fulfill the work of the old. This time the Scooby Gang is filled out into a full crime-fighting team, even if the original trio had to be rounded out by a couple of unnamed in the background like a Star Trek away team. Don’t wear red on a sleepover at Harry Potter’s house.

The True Battle is Within. Throughout the film the focus is on the mind. In the climactic battle between Dumbledore and He Who Cannot Be Named, Dumbledore may rout corporeal Voldemort, but the real battle takes place between the good and evil inclinations in the mind of Harry Potter, portrayed too briefly in a series of images from Harry’s life stitched together from the previous films, shifting from fear and loss to happy memories of Hermione and Ron.

When Harry is teaching the other members Dumbledore’s Army how to produce the Patronus Charm he tells them that they must remain focused on their happiest thought throughout, no matter how frightened they might be. Snape insists that Harry “control your mind.”

When Harry has downed the death eater Bellatrix and ponders what to do with the creature that has just killed his godfather, Voldemort appears behind him and goads Harry, “You have to mean it, Harry. You know the spell. She killed him. She deserves it.” Whether killing a death eater or producing the Patronus Charm, it is the state of mind that is most consequential. It was all too reminiscent of the temptation of Luke Skywalker in the Emperor’s chamber in Return of the Jedi: “Take your weapon. Strike me down with all of your hatred and your journey towards the dark side will be complete.” In each instance, it is not the violent act itself that leads one to the dark side, but, again, the state of mind one is in when committing the act, whether it is done dispassionately, or filled with passionate anger.

The National Security States. There is apparently something of a debate on the bloggosphere over whether Michael Bay’s Transformers is about the Bush administration and the Iraq war (the only bubblings-up that I have seen are via Matthew Yglesias, “ Michael Bay and the National Security State,” 11 July 2007; “Strong Reading,” 12 July 2007). Partisans really getting worked up over this issue should go see The Order of the Phoenix.

Harry Potter is slightly confused in its symbol system. In Harry Potter it is the good guys who know that forces are gathering and war inevitable while it’s the perfidious Minister of Magic, Cornelius Fudge, who is the one that’s in denial. Meanwhile Laura Bush cum Professor of Defense Against Dark Arts, Dolores Umbridge, seems to be running the Hogwarts Department of Homeland Security at the same time she is administering No Child-Wizard Left Behind. She replaces the previously experiential curriculum of Defense Against the Dark Arts with pure book-base memorization aimed at passing the O.W.L. exams. She cavalierly brandishes accusations of disloyalty. At one point Ms. Umbridge is warned that a particular method or interrogation that she is about to employ on Harry Potter would constitute torture and according to the Ministry of Magic is illegal. Ms. Umbridge slaps the face of a photograph of the Minister of Magic face-down on her desk: “What the Ministry does not know will not hurt it.”

As for the things that I didn’t like, first I want Harry and Hermione to be getting it on. But no, the bookish overachieving, running with the wolfs woman is always shuffled off with the red-headed step-child. Meanwhile Harry is hooking up with the moody but insubstantial Asian hottie. Second, while the film partially embraces contingency it ends on a note too naive not to get my hackles up, even in fantasy. In the after-action debrief, the gang is all gathered together and Harry Potter reassures them that they will defeat Voldemort because, “We’ve got something he doesn’t have. We’ve got something worth fighting for.” It’s not one of those ridiculous inspirational pep talks that one might expect from, say, a Roland Emmerich film — if anything the virtues of the Harry Potter films is the degree to which the moral uplift is quiet and meek — still, if only. History is littered with the decent and worthy laid low by the stupid and cruel, but powerful. The outcome is not ordained.