One thing Now You See Me 2 has going for it: a vice-grip on the art of misdirection. The downside? All the sparkly lights and the pop-rock anthems have one design: to make you miss what the movie doesn't believe in—magic. And so it siphons off what makes movies great.
Now You See Me 2 is, weirdly, like that annoying kid in the audience at a magic show who yells “I know how you did that!” at the magician on stage. The rest of us are just out here in the audience knowing there must be a logical explanation, but willing to be swept up in the awe of it all. No awe! the movie shouts. No magic, no mystery at all. All that's here is science and physics, light and trickery. I mean, sure, we always knew that there were reasonable explanations, but isn't it more fun if you let us think there weren't?
The movie follows the same contours of the original, insofar as it follows the Horsemen, a group of magicians played by movie stars (though we've swapped out one lady magician for another and sprinkled in some perfunctorily feminist comments that seem written by Woke Dudes on Twitter who are offended you might think a woman doesn’t know how to use a motorcycle). On it goes, through a convoluted plot of set-pieces and inexplicable deceptions so forced even the characters seem unsure why they've been kept quiet. It's a year after the last film, and the Horsemen have been in hiding, waiting for word from the all-seeing “Eye.” Meanwhile their leader has been working as kind of a double agent in the FBI. But don't worry, guys, he's got a reason.
And then they—actually, you know what? The plot of this film is firmly beside the point. If you enjoyed the original film, you'll enjoy this one. It has all the same flaws and recommendations, plus Daniel Radcliffe and Lizzy Caplan. Some of it’s in China! There are some fun card tricks! It's still bent on taking down Evil Capitalists, in a vague way, but they've added People Who Steal Your Private Information, which I'm sure we all agree is horrible while continuing to merrily post on Facebook.
But the “good guys” aren't much better, with their pride, ego, and need to be adored, which the movie reminds us about at every turn. Nobody is good. Everything is cool-smile revenge. And we are complicit in rooting for it.
Now You See Me 2 is a deeply cynical film, almost nihilistic. In its view, you'll root for the guys with the flashiest act. The ultimate triumph is not seeing your enemy brought to justice, but embarrassing him in front of the entire world: the bigger the screen on which his humiliation plays, the better. Root for the smartest. Cheer for the fittest. Support the strongest, especially if they claim it's for your own benefit.
The strangest thing about the film is that it delights in bringing hauling in a lot of religious language, things often attached to wonder and mystery. There's the Horsemen, of course—four of them, reminiscent of the Biblical language about the apocalypse (there were four horsemen in X-Men: Apocalypse, too). People talk about a moral compass, though they don't exhibit one all that much, except that you shouldn't mess around in someone else's business. One character says only God can stop rain, then proceeds to do so—except, of course, he hasn't; it wasn't an act of God, it was “an act of me, and strobe lights, and rain.” The film's recurring motif has to do with the idea of an “eye for an eye,” some kind of justice, I suppose—though in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus preaches something much closer to the world most of us want to live in:
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
In this movie’s view, nobody is actually worth supporting for their upstanding character or altruism. Anyone who appears thus is just employing some elaborate trickery. You're a sucker if you fall prey to the act. It's a message that's especially resonant with a voting populace that believes it’s stuck “choosing between lesser evils,” sure—but it's also the worst possible of the messages to deliver. More troublesome: the “opposition” of this film is worth opposing. But if we reduce them to caricature, why worry about them? After all, they’re engineering the box-office grab, right? In the end, in Now You See Me 2, the smartest, fastest, tricksiest guy wins which, in this case, is whoever collected the $18 you spent at the box office and is reading your Tweets about it. Might makes right.
All this is unsettling, but on some level you can watch it, shake your head, learn what a nasty world looks like, and maybe still enjoy the magic show. But Now You See Me 2 also commits the sin of smearing the fun of cinema, which is the suspension of disbelief—the glorious moment when the lights come up and you sink into your seat, ready to have some fun, knowing that this isn't “real.” This movie doesn't want that. It wants to show you a glorious trick, then slap you in the face for believing.
Leaving the theater, I felt exhausted, like I'd watched a two-hour music video while lightly but repeatedly stubbing my toe. Now You See Me 2 is determined I not succumb to wonder, and no slapped-on ending will fix that. There’s no room for mystery. No place for hope. Its world is irreversibly dark. And I, for one, don't want to live there.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today’s critic at large and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. She is author, with Robert Joustra, of How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World (Eerdmans). She tweets @alissamarie.