Memorable new characters and creature designs.ESB and TTT introduce memorable, consequential new characters and state-of-the-art creature effects—sometimes at the same time, the crowning examples being Yoda and Gollum. Consider also Treebeard and the Ents; Taun Tauns, Wargs and winged Fell Beasts; Lando Calrissian, Éowyn, Éomer and Faramir.
Characters and creature effects, of course, have been a stock in trade of the HP series. For nearly a decade, a who’s who of British thespians sporting outrageous prosthetics and even more outrageous performances have brought to life a supporting cast as colorful as Batman’s rogue’s gallery; and we’ve seen everything from giant three-headed dogs to Hippogriffs.
DH1 is a veritable “Mii Parade” of characters, many familiar, some new—but do we meet anyone here remotely as consequential or memorable as even a Lando or a Faramir, let alone a Yoda or a Gollum? Or, to cite HP touchstones, a Sirius Black or even a Dobby? As for creature effects, we’ve seen big snakes and house elves before.
The hero’s journey. In ESB, Luke progresses and matures significantly as a hero. At the end of the original Star Wars, he was a wet-behind-the-ears Alliance recruit who made a spectacular shot at the battle of the Death Star. In the sequel, he goes from being a rising Alliance leader to training with Yoda and finally confronting Vader one on one. On Dagobah, he comes face to face with his frailty and his fears; battling Vader, he is physically and emotionally crippled, but summons the strength to reject temptation and call for help. In the end, Han’s fate as well as the endgame with the Empire is in his hand(s).
By contrast, Harry is actually less active and effective in DH1 than, say, a couple of installments earlier, in Order of the Phoenix, where he led Dumbledore’s Army. The new film opens with the Order ignoring Harry’s objections to its decoy strategy for moving him to the Burrow; Hermione doesn’t even ask Harry before pulling the needed strands of hair from his head. Once at the Burrow, Harry immediately wants to leave, and Ron has to talk him down. Hermione covers his butt most of the film; even Ron saves his life at the frozen pond. The one move I can think of that is clearly his initiative—seeking out Bathilda Bagshot—is a disastrous mistake. Not that it’s his fault. I’m just saying.
Keeping score.ESB gave the world John Williams’ immortal, ominous “Imperial March” or “Darth Vader’s Theme.” TTT introduced Howard Shore’s haunting “Rohan” theme. Does DH1 offer viewers anything new they’ll be humming on their way out of theaters? Or after watching the Blu-ray for the tenth time?
Wizards redivivus. Gandalf was triumphantly reborn White in TTT. Ben Kenobi returned in spectral form in ESB. Dumbledore appears in DH1 only as a glimpsed corpse, and possibly as a pair of eyes in Harry’s magical mirror shard. (Don’t tell me about the next film. We’re talking penultimate films here.)
Romance.ESB is far more romantic than its predecessor. The tension and chemistry between Leia and Han, from the wary glances across the command center to the last longing look at the carbon-freezing platform, is classic stuff. It’s one quotable line after another: “I’d just as soon kiss a Wookiee”; “Sorry sweetheart, haven’t got time for anything else”; “I think you like me because I’m a scoundrel”; “I know.”
I won’t defend TTT on this front—the Aragorn–Arwen subplot is surely one of the trilogy’s big mistakes—but I submit that there’s more chemistry even between Éowyn and Aragorn than Ron and Hermione. If anything happened in DH1 to set hearts fluttering, I missed it. At any rate, DH1 isn’t particularly romantic even by the standards of some previous installments in the franchise.