Imagine, if you will, a world where magicians are the single hottest form of live entertainment. Where magicians are a massive cultural phenomenon. Where every single person on a city street, young or old, wails wildly and clutches their chests when a magician suddenly appears to perform a pop-up show. Of course, this is all because the magicians in question are master criminals who expose the corrupt and steal from the rich, sharing their massive fortunes with the common folk like a group of Robin Hood Houdinis. This is the world that was envisioned by screenwriters Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt, who co-wrote the script for Now You See Me, the first film in the series about magician criminals, alongside Bill & Ted and Men in Black writer Ed Soloman.
This world seems better, simpler than our own—magicians are important, even necessary cultural figures, capable of enacting structural change on a wide scale, who are led by a shadowy Illuminati-esque organization that believes magicians hold some greater purpose. In this world, magic acts draw fawning crowds of thousands outside of Las Vegas residencies. Most important to the narrative, however, is that the art of sleight-of-hand deception and trickery can be used to engage in criminal activity on an immense international scale, then to defensively ward off the FBI—or, in one of the film’s most ludicrous sequences, to fling standard playing cards like paper cut-inducing ninja stars. There’s a time-honored tradition of trying to make magic cool, and it reaches its apex with the Now You See Me series. In my head, the films are like the cinematic equivalent of the word “himbo”—dumb, hunky, but ultimately harmless and sweet. That’s the Now You See Me films: A harmlessly stupid and wildly fun series that’s trying very hard to be cool, striving for something along the lines of a magician-centric Oceans franchise, mixed with Mr. Robot and National Treasure.
Five years ago, Now You See Me 2, was released in theaters. It has received light taunting over the years following its release for the glaringly obvious missed opportunity of naming the film Now You Don’t to finish off the classic phrase from which the titles of the films derive. This clever wordplay was apparently initially intended by Soloman, but he revealed that the idea was scrapped by marketing. The final decision fits like a perfect puzzle piece into the whole vibe of the ridiculous series, to the point where calling the sequel Now You Don’t would have robbed the films of their dumb, timeless charm (albeit, save for a transphobic joke in the first film). While operating on the same frequency as the long-running Fast and Furious franchise and the ultimately discarded sincerity of Zack Snyder’s vision for Justice League, the Now You See Me films not only embrace a similar earnestness that’s all-too infrequent in goofy, modern blockbusters, but apply it to a concept as deranged as magician anarchists. Like Snyder and his beloved superheroes, there is a sweetness to the concept of making audiences take something ridiculous—like magic—very seriously.
IP franchise films making in-jokes and ironic references have an inclination to distance themselves from their own irrationality by relating to the audience they’re trying to pander to—to make us feel better for watching these stupid movies and, at the same time, distract us as they swallow up the rest of the media world. But in the Now You See Me universe, there is no “wink wink, nudge nudge” metatextual cognizance to let the audience know that the film or its talented cast is in on a joke filled top to bottom with nonsensical plot developments and gaping holes in logic. The idea that magicians can use their entertaining skills suited for children’s birthday parties to thwart cops and pull off heists is depicted as on par with Danny Ocean’s panache. Because of this, the films embody a sort of charm that’s been mostly lost to big mainstream films since the 2000s. The irony-poisoning of blockbuster cinema is a disease, attempting to mask inherent corporate malignancy with an audience-winking façade.
But the blockbuster product known as the Now You See Me movies don’t want to trick you—well, they do, but only in the form of illusions. Perhaps partly due to the ridiculous and unmerchandisable premise, the Now You See Me world is as yet contained to the silver screen. The films follow an underground organization known as The Eye and its disciples, the Four Horsemen. The Eye is an ancient, mythical (fictional) secret society of magicians dating back to ancient Egypt who, legend has it, have access to real magic. The Eye use their supernatural abilities to take down the wealthy in service of the common folk. And so, in the first film (directed by Louis Leterrier), The Four Horsemen—Danny Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco)—are put together by an as-yet-unknown leader in service of The Eye, engaging in a series of public shows and “tricks” that dupe corrupt elites. Their criminal exploits are pursued by FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), French Interpol agent Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent) and ex-magician Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman)—the latter of whom uses his sleight-of-hand know-how to explain magicians’ tricks, hoping to expose the Horsemen as the frauds he believes them to be.
While the first film sees the Horsemen strictly engaged in various feats of illegal do-goodery, the sequel shifts their deeds towards hacktivist anarchy territory (also, due to her pregnancy, Fisher was replaced by Lizzy Caplan as the girl Horseman who is, this time, constantly workshopping terrible stand-up bits). The second film leans farther into absurdity while still maintaining the same self-serious tone as the first installment, even with the added goofball bonus of Woody Harrelson playing his own twin brother with fake teeth and a spray tan. Beyond that, we’re meant to take seriously the idea that there’s a secret, all-powerful organization of magicians that has the ability to take down the corporate world at large. There’s something simplistically delightful about this world, where hypnotism not only actually works on everyone but can be used as practical mind control; where a deck of cards can be utilized as weaponry; where magicians can free themselves from any standard set of police-grade handcuffs; and where Eisenberg is basically playing magician Mark Zuckerberg.
Yes, the best thing about the Now You See Me franchise is not that magicians are made to be ludicrously cool, but that magicians are effectively omnipotent. They aren’t just a few steps ahead of everyone, like what is constantly being espoused by their various adversaries. The Horsemen can get out of any situation, outwit any enemy, use any magic trick to fit the needs of whatever sticky, real-world problem they’re in. If this were possible, then wouldn’t criminals everywhere surely become magicians to commit acts of malfeasance with ease? These films halfheartedly try to anchor themselves with a theme which is appropriate both in real life and to the idea of magicians/illusions themselves: That magic tricks are only effective because we allow ourselves to be deceived. Thus “not everything is as it seems” and, if you look closely, there’s always an answer that makes logical sense. The offshoot of this, when applied to these films, is that nothing ever makes logical sense, and both everything and everyone are never as they seem in the universe of Now You See Me. Everyone in these films is tricking everyone, to the point where nothing really holds up if you look at things with even a modicum of scrutiny.
If you can ignore the gaping plot holes—such as why Agent Rhodes (secretly the leader of the Four Horsemen) continues to go to such great lengths to pretend like he’s searching for the Horsemen, to the point where he tells Agent Dray to shoot Danny Atlas in the first film, and seemingly goes out of his way to keep the investigation going in the second film—the Now You See Me movies are just plain old fun.
There’s a particularly impressive card trick sequence in the second film, filmed in one continuous shot and utilizing the camera in such a way that the audience is made to feel as if they are the card being hidden and passed between the Four Horsemen. Sequel director Jon M. Chu—currently celebrating the release of In the Heights—explained that the scene required lipstick cameras, CG, Steadicam choreography, GoPros, “four different types of drones,” and even playing with perspective, “making things large so that bigger cameras could go through things that look like bigger shirts and jackets.” And the films aren’t all CGI movie magic either—the cast do take part in some practical magic tricks, with the films requiring an official magic consultant to help pull them off. Franco apparently really did master card-throwing…even if not quite to the extent of utilizing cards as true artillery.
It is in such quaint yet inane ideas that the Now You See Me films flourish as oddities in the world of mainstream cinema—critically disregarded, but successful enough to warrant more than one sequel. The writers asked the pressing question “What if magicians were also hacktivist criminals?” and this is what we got; and audiences, miraculously, responded to it. Blockbuster movies like Face/Off don’t really exist anymore, so if the closest thing we can get to a goofy, original, studio film is watching Academy Award-nominated actors enact stylishly-executed, CGI magic acts to take down corporate elites while engaging in the kind of bantering dialogue that no human actually speaks, then I’m there.
The appeal of big budget “dumb fun” has waned over the years when so much of it is so overtly attached to growing monopolies that want to dull our senses with things that we recognize so we’ll want to spend our money on more of them; Now You See Me doesn’t want us to recognize anything but the artistic merits of a good card trick. On that note, perhaps if enough of us watch the Now You See Me films, and we all believe in magic hard enough, we can manifest the Four Horsemen to come take down our own evil corporations that are destroying both the physical and media landscapes. If seeing is believing, then maybe magicians really can save the world.
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.