First impressions: ‘It: Chapter Two’ (2019) and the town librarian hero

“That was long overdue. Get it? ‘Cause we’re in a library.”

If you’re a regular reader — as always, thank you! — then you know that I highlight scary movies every October. Perfect timing, then, as I recently was able to watch the new film It: Chapter Two, which I also thought would make a good entry in my continuing “first impressions” series of posts. The film follows It: Chapter One, which was released two years ago. I published my first impressions of It: Chapter One back in Oct. 2017.

What’s a “first impressions” post?

First things first, “first impressions” posts focus on current films that I have watched in theaters that include reel librarians and/or library or archives scenes. The resulting posts are necessarily less detailed — hence the “first impressions” moniker — as I don’t have the luxury of rewatching scenes and taking notes in the movie theater. I do, however, take notes as soon as I can after watching the film.

What’s ‘It’ all about?

It: Chapter Two reunites the Losers’ Club 27 years after they first faced off again It, aka Pennywise the Scary Clown. Pennywise has returned to wreak havoc on the town of Derry, and Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) calls everyone back to finish off Pennywise once and for all. Will they succeed, or will they die trying? The film also heavily features flashbacks NOT included in Chapter One, so we get reintroduced to the teen actors playing the younger versions of the Losers’ Club.

Below is a trailer for It: Chapter Two (2019):

“IT CHAPTER TWO – Official Teaser Trailer [HD]” video uploaded by Warner Bros. Pictures, Standard YouTube license.

***SPOILERS AHEAD***

Meet Mike Hanlon, the town librarian

In my write-up for It: Chapter One (2017), I highlighted the main scene set in the public library, which featured Ben, and how Ben fulfilled the historian/researcher role in that film, rather than Mike. Here are some excerpts from that post:

While I appreciated that there was a library scene in the film, I was disappointed that the research angle was taken away from the character of Mike, the only African-American and person of color in the group. In the book, Mike was the historian of the group. His father kept an album of photos of Derry’s history, which included several photos of Pennywise. Mike then researches the history of Derry — and later becomes the town’s librarian. Since he is the only one who stays in the town, he is the one who summons the rest of the Losers’ Club back to Derry 27 years later.

Therefore, it unsettled me that the remake changed the historian and research role from Mike in the book to Ben in the movie. 

From ‘First impressions: ‘It’ (2017) and its library scene,’ Reel Librarians, 11 Oct. 2017

As I wrote then, Mike Hanlon is the most important character in the story, in my opinion, and in the end, the town’s true hero.

In It: Chapter Two (2019), it is Mike’s voice we hear introducing us to the present. The first word we hear him say? “Memory.” He sets the tone for this film, with its bittersweet and mournful memories amidst all the nightmares and horror.

Meet Mike Hanlon, reel librarian.
Meet Mike Hanlon, reel librarian. Screenshot from “IT CHAPTER TWO – Final Trailer [HD]” video uploaded by Warner Bros. Pictures, Standard YouTube license.

Contrasted with Richie, as played by Bill Hader — who gets all the fun lines and steals scenes whenever onscreen — Mike, as played by Isaiah Mustafa, grounds the story. He is the institutional memory, the gatekeeper, the “man with the plan.” It totally makes sense that he becomes the town librarian, the keeper of memories and archives.

By the way, the word “librarian” NEVER gets mentioned in this movie. The word “library,” yes. But never the word “librarian.” But Mike clearly IS the town’s librarian — even living in the public library’s attic! And the fact that he is a reel librarian is absolutely essential to the movie. Therefore, Mike Hanlon is a Class I librarian, a major character whose librarian occupation is integral to the plot.

Scenes in the town library

There are a few scenes set in the town library. The library set in Chapter Two looked just like the library set in Chapter One, with its traditional look of half-paneled walls and dark wood trim.

Reel librarian Mike in a scene set in the town library.
Reel librarian Mike in a scene set in the town library. Screenshot from “IT CHAPTER TWO – Final Trailer [HD]” video uploaded by Warner Bros. Pictures, Standard YouTube license.

Early in the film, Mike brings Billy back to the library — “Didn’t it used to be bigger?” — and takes him up the attic to show him artifacts and historical records of Derry. The purpose is to convince Billy about the past, so that the others will stay in Derry and reunite to fight Pennywise.

About two-thirds of the way through the film, Mike is waiting for the others to come back to the library after they find their tokens from the past. As Mike walks through the darkened library and rows of books, the spirit of It re-reveals itself to Mike through the dropping of a library book, The History of Old Derry. Mike then gets attacked by the bully Bowers. In a Deus ex machina moment, Richie shows up in the nick of time and kills Bowers with a hatchet. Richie then gets the single-best line in the film:

That was long overdue. Get it? ‘Cause we’re in a library.

GROAN. But I still laughed out loud in the movie theater.

Mike as the hero

I’ve already said that, in my opinion, Mike is the true hero of the story.

Mike leads the Losers' Club.
Mike leads the Losers’ Club. Screenshot from “IT CHAPTER TWO – Official Teaser Trailer [HD]” video uploaded by Warner Bros. Pictures, Standard YouTube license.

Mike is the one we the audience believe in, even when the rest of the Losers’ Club don’t. He is the center of the whole film. Writing down notes after having watched the film, it struck me that Mike is the one who drives the entire plot structure: beginning, middle, and end.

  • Beginning: Mike has a list of the Losers’ Club and their current phone numbers, and he checks off their names as he calls everyone. He has to remind them of Derry and the oath they swore as teens to return when needed. He reunites the Losers’ Club.
  • Middle: After everyone else starts remembering Pennywise and the horrible things in their past, Mike says he has a plan to get ready to confront Pennywise again. He explains that each of them has to get a token from their past and to meet back at the library. Therefore, he serves as the catalyst for the entire middle part of the movie.
  • End: Mike figures out how to kill It, once and for all. He unites the Losers’ Club in this final battle.

It is interesting to note that in the book by Stephen King, Mike is left out of the climax and final fight with Pennywise. I’m so glad they changed that for the film!

It is also important to note that Mike is NOT perfect. He is human, and therefore imperfect. He shows that he feels vulnerable and scared sometimes. He also admits he stole a Native American artifact, he drugs Billy, and he lies to his friends by omitting part of the truth. But this does not diminish his worthiness, the sacrifice he made to stay in Derry all those years, to carry the burden of remembering.

Mike as a Liberated Librarian

The male Liberated Librarian character type always has a character arc. Initially similar to the Librarian as Failure character type, the Liberated Librarian breaks free (often at the very end of the film) of whatever barrier(s) is holding him back. Usually, this ‘liberation’ requires an external force or action. Liberated Librarians are usually younger or middle-aged. They also become more assertive after the “liberation.” Usually, being “liberated” means leaving the librarian profession (e.g. Tom Hanks in Joe Versus the Volcano), but not always (Noah Wyle in The Librarian TV movies and The Librarians TV series).

Mike Hanlon serves as a classic Liberated Librarian:

  • In a flashback, young Mike reveals that he wants to go to Florida. We know that he stays in Derry so that he doesn’t forget, so he can bring back the others when necessary. And he becomes the town librarian to be in the position of researching the history of Derry and keeping records. Therefore, his barrier is Derry, of being the librarian of Derry, of being the one who remembers. He has sacrificed himself, his own happiness, for the greater good.
  • At the end, Mike says to Bill that he was “in a cell” and now he wants “to see the sky.” The word “cell” in that line is an interesting choice — the “cell” could be a “prison cell,” or like a “cloisters” cell, like a monk. Both ways work.
  • At the very end of the film, we see Mike packing up his car and heading out of town. He literally is liberated from the town of Derry AND his role as reel librarian.

Let’s talk about race

In my write-up post for It: Chapter One (2017), I highlighted Zak Cheney Rice’s key insights into the erasure of Mike’s backstory, in  this article on the Mic website:

The film doesn’t just flatten Mike’s backstory. It reduces him to the kind of token black character that King’s novel was so adept at avoiding.

In the film, Mike barely has any lines. The role of group historian has been taken from him and given to a white character instead. He still gets targeted by Henry Bowers, but gone is the racial subtext that made the experience so entwined with Derry’s history of violence. His blackness seems largely incidental. And as a result, the film never has to address the messy topic of race or how it informs the lone black character’s life.

Zak Cheney Rice, Mic, 9 Sept. 2017

It seemed to me — and please note that I am a white woman, so my perspective is limited — that the film did a better job in It: Chapter Two (2019) about highlighting Mike’s backstory, agency, and experiences as a black man. The film also includes references to the long-lasting effects of racism that Mike continues to endure.

For example:

When Mike brings Billy back to the library in order to convince him that Pennywise is back, he says that he has compiled notes and clues from numerous Derry residents — the ones “who will talk to me, at least.” He then mutters, almost as an aside, a line (and I’m paraphrasing here from memory), “The people who won’t talk to me, that’s an even longer list.

Mike also says he needed to convince Billy (a white man) so that the others would believe him (a black man). Again, this is almost a throwaway line — and actor Isaiah Mustafa says this line in a low, weary tone — but it is SO revealing.

After the violent scene with Bowers in the library, Ben asks, “Are you okay?” Richie answers right away, but Ben says something akin to, “No, I meant Mike,” and turns to Mike. Both Mike and Richie look surprised at this. It’s clear that they both assumed Ben would be asking Richie (a white man) if he was okay, rather than Mike (a black man). This short bit reveals the specter of conditioned, internalized responses to systemic racism.

Mike states early in the film:

Something happens to you when you leave this town. The farther away, the hazier it all gets. But me, I never left. I remember all of it.

All the white members of the Losers’ Club leave Derry and forget the horrible nightmares of Pennywise. They enjoy the privilege of being able to forget. All the white characters enjoy financial and career success. Mike, the sole black member of the Losers’ Club, has to stay behind in Derry and is forced to remember and relive the past horror of Pennywise. He also is “just” the town librarian and lives in the messy, crumbling attic of the town librarian. I would argue this serves as a metaphor for white flight and subtly shines the spotlight over the unacknowledged burdens and hidden labor that people of color endure.

I’m sure there is more to unpack in the film in this vein — not to mention the lack of agency that the Native Americans depicted in the film have over their story and artifacts — but I appreciated how this film incorporated deeper and darker themes in amongst the scary clown sightings and red balloons.

Your thoughts?

Have you seen It: Chapter Two (2019) in theaters? What are your thoughts? Do you prefer the new movie versions or the 1990 miniseries? Did you know that Isaiah Mustafa, who plays reel librarian Mike, also played the original Old Spice man, aka The Man Your Man Could Smell Like, in those iconic commercials?! I literally did not realize that until I started writing this post.

Old Spice meets reel librarian? I will take it. 😉

Sources used

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Author: Jennifer

Librarian, blogger, movie lover

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