A decade after it began, with the same three principals steered by four different directors, the Harry Potter film series has come to a rather thunderous end.
All films must stand on their own merits, of course, but they invite and often deserve comparisons to sequels and prequels. However, Harry Potter, like few franchises before it, must be viewed both on a case-by-case basis and as one mammoth work.
On its own, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is very good, although looking back at the others, it may not be the best. Some observers were at first left wondering why there is even a Part 2, since the final two films came from the same book. The answer, as it usually is, is money. The final chapter begins where and how its predecessor left off, and Part 2 is awfully moody, but it lacks that artistic and almost powerful silence that marked Deathly Hallows: Part 1.
Those who know the story already understand why this installment can't remain silent: All hell has to break loose. This is the ultimate battle between good and evil, with Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) finally squaring off for all the marbles against Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). Director David Yates, who has been behind the final four movies, does his best work yet coordinating all the incantations, explosions and that dreaded 3-D so that the scene always matches the scope. The 3-D is actually helpful for a change, unlike its deadening effect on the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie. It works early and often, and never looks overly forced.
Considering how little story this film contains, Yates is to be commended for making it all work. Outside of some essential backstory that shows one of Hogwarts' signature characters in a new light, the plot could fit in a thimble. Yates ties up the loose ends while still propelling this massive snowball down the mountain, and in record time—Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is by nearly 10 minutes the shortest of the Harry Potter movies.
It is appropriate that many of the veteran actors who have been on board since the early films have reduced roles here. Naturally, some of the characters are dead by now, but the others recede into the background as the boy wizard must finally fulfill his destiny—and that's not usually a team effort. Even constant companions Hermione and Ron (Emma Watson and Rupert Grint) come across as something like the anonymous guys who held James Brown's cape.
It's fitting, too, because Radcliffe has matured greatly as an actor over these years, in line with the deepening and the darkening of the story. He's gone toe to toe with Alan Rickman, Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon and, most notably, Fiennes without looking overmatched. So now, with his world quite literally crashing down around him, Harry Potter is believable (even when casting that hokum hocus pocus), heroic and still slightly tragic. It has all pointed to this, and Radcliffe is once again up to the task.
Zooming out to look at the series as a whole, Deathly Hallows: Part 2 obviously provides closure. Then again, so did the final episode of Lost, and even people who pretended to understand that didn't necessarily find it very satisfying. It's a tricky thing, wrapping up a sprawling epic, which is why it's so important that those key players along the way aren't cluttering the landscape now. It would have been easy to give a lot of victory laps—the supporting cast is a who's-who of British dramatic acting—but Potter does the right thing, because this is about a boy's rite of passage, and not a bunch of old wizards winding down.
Given how good this franchise has been—always at least above average and, nearly half the time, simply outstanding—it is surprising that more series of this magnitude never operate as consistently. Star Wars produced two good movies out of six; Lord of the Rings has had a hell of a time launching The Hobbit; and anything close to Potter in target demo and style has failed, many times spectacularly (see The Chronicles of Narnia). Most of the attempted copycats never get to the second movie.
About the only franchise that can really hold up to the comparison is James Bond, which has produced maybe 10 worthwhile movies out of 22, and that crosses nearly 50 years. Harry Potter is on the plus side of the ledger at least five times out of eight, being fair to the material. Yates' first, Order of the Phoenix, is the only one that almost feels out of place, and none of them make the tragic mistake of being bridges to the film that follows it. They each try to make their own mark, and most of them will stand the test of time.
This franchise truly is the long-sought synthesis of massive commercial appeal and fantastic storytelling, and we'll probably not see it again for quite a while.