Harry Potter and the Cursed Child artwork

Pain, Drama, and the Ongoing Franchise

I liked Star Wars: The Force Awakens and I liked Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, both of which scratch a familiar itch and do so with a unique energy that is both fresh and familiar. But they both hurt and they both leave their respective universes messier than they were before. Both film and play seem to have a single goal in mind: how do we create enough disarray to generate drama for the foreseeable future?

The Force Awakens is a bittersweet film: Han Solo is dead, but Starkiller Base has been destroyed. Ben Solo is still a servant to the Dark Side, but Rey has managed to track down Luke Skywalker. The Cursed Child reaches a similarly unsure place in its final pages: Voldemort has an evil daughter, but she’s locked up (for now). After all kinds of time travel shenanigans, the timeline has been fixed, but Harry’s parents and Cedric Diggory (and countless others) are still dead. Harry and Albus have the conversation they’ve needed to have for a long time, but the healing process has barely begun. Everyone hurts.

It’s easy to have a cynical reading of this. Of course The Force Awakens will end like this! Star Wars: Episode 8 is on the way and Star Wars: Episode 9 is already in the pipeline. And while there hasn’t been any buzz about a direct sequel to The Cursed Child, the fact that the Harry Potter series is getting its own spin-off in this year’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (to say nothing of the enormously popular theme park attractions Universal Studios has been building all over the world) is all the evidence you need to know that Rowling and her collaborators aren’t finished with this world quite yet. Both of these new entries are here to feed the beast of fandom while keeping them hungry. Here’s a taste of what you love. Just remember that there’s more where that came from.

But let’s just be honest for a moment here: the taste we are granted, from both Star Wars and Harry Potter, is nothing short of delicious. The Force Awakens is a fast and colorful delight, a film with such momentum and charm and wit that it’s easy to forgive its numerous flaws. It’s a cinematic warm hug from an old friend. The Cursed Child is more melancholy, but it’s a surprisingly sobering examination of what happens when your promising childhood gives way to an adulthood where you can’t stop letting everyone, including yourself, down at every turn. The Potter fans who have aged into adults and parents over the past decade may have the wind knocked out of them by this play. I know I was gutted.

So while you can point at the transparent attempt of both The Force Awakens and The Cursed Child to elongate seemingly finished franchises, these aren’t simple victory laps. Neither of them feels tired and or unnecessary. This is brand extension in the most interesting way possible. These are sequels that aren’t afraid to burn bridges. These are massive franchises whose shepherds recognize that drama, the pain that accompanies it, is key to keeping the fans invested. And I can’t help but be okay with that.

the force awakens flashback

Everything is Different, Everything is the Same

But for everything they do right and everything they do different, neither Star Wars: The Force Awakens nor Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is immune to nostalgia. Both are similar in ways that go beyond their rejection of a happy ending and both seem to suggest a future model for all major serialized storytelling. Or franchises. Or whichever other word we want to use here.

The Cursed Child is actively and openly obsessed with the past. Once the major players have been introduced and re-introduced, it quickly gets down to business: it’s a time travel story, a look at what happens when Albus Potter and his best friend Scorpius Malfoy use one of the few remaining Time Turners to return to the events of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire so they can fix one of Harry’s few major mistakes. They’re going to save Cedric Diggory…and they’re going to fail several times, forcing them to frequently revisit key scenes from the fourth book from a new perspective. Eventually, the time travel shenanigans throw history out of whack, leading to a new present where Voldemort won, Harry Potter is dead, and, wouldn’t you know it, fan-favorite characters like Severus Snape get to show up to remind us that we like them so much!

Snape is the melted Darth Vader helmet of The Cursed Child – here’s something very popular that will get you talking and make you excited and inspire all kinds of feelings to crawl out of your chest despite not adding that much to the actual plot of the story. In other words, it’s fan service.

The Force Awakens is also connected at the hip to previous Star Wars adventures, but unlike Harry Potter, the constant revisiting of past storylines isn’t literal. Instead, the way the film echoes the plot of the original 1977 Star Wars is treated like one massive Easter egg. You notice it. It kicks up that nostalgic dust. You feel good. And then you feel bad later when you realize that the new aspects of the film, the stuff that has no direct connection to the past movies, are the strongest elements. The Force Awakens doesn’t actively and literally revisit the past, but it might as well: there’s a desert planet, a scrappy young hero, a cynical mentor, a dingy alien bar, and a desperate assault against a super-weapon.

The way that both The Force Awakens and The Cursed Child lean on their own series’ history can be frustrating, especially since both function without needing those nostalgic triggers. They want to have their cake and eat it, too. They’ll burn down those happy endings, but they’ll also pause a few too many times to comment “Hey, remember when such-and-such happened? That was pretty cool, right?” It’s frustrating to watch two worlds with infinite possibilities barrel toward the future while remaining so closely tethered to the past. Star Wars and Harry Potter are bigger than our old memories. They are universes built create new ones.

Continue Reading The Death of the Happy Ending >>

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