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Is Pennywise the Clown Good at His Job?

In ‘It Chapter Two,’ the once-prolific “eater of worlds” suffers a drop in production, buckles under pressure, and often displays a lack of interest in his child-devouring tasks

New Line Cinema/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

While It Chapter Two and its predecessor deployed myriad jump scares and lurid CGI monstrosities to varying degrees of success, the recent franchise is at its most frightening when Pennywise uses his powers of persuasion before delivering a sinister chomp. What made the 2017 film’s opening sequence so unnerving wasn’t just poor Georgie’s death, but the clown’s cat-and-mouse tactics that preceded it—keeping the little guy’s paper boat just out of reach in the sewer drain—as the child was lured into that awful fate. Pennywise does something similar in the sequel, coaxing a bored little girl behind the bleachers in the middle of a baseball game. She’s initially (and quite understandably!) hesitant to go near this shifty clown lurking in the darkness; she knows better than to trust a stranger. So Pennywise changes his game plan, appealing to the child’s empathy by saying nobody likes to approach him because he looks funny—a sentiment that she, with a red birthmark on her face, can relate to. He then promises that he can “blow” her birthmark away if she inches closer, which she dutifully does. Unfortunately, you can guess where things go from there. The scene embodies what makes Pennywise such a terrifying figure—a predator, in every carnivorous sense of the word, who knows how to cajole impressionable young minds and prey on their fears and insecurities.

And yet Chapter Two calls into question whether the legendary clown is that legendary at all. For the rest of the unnecessarily long sequel, Pennywise isn’t very prolific at the one thing he’s supposed to be good at. In terms of onscreen deaths, the monster is responsible for only three others, none of which is nearly as nuanced as the first: He munches on the victim of a hate crime after yanking him out of a river, kills another child in a fun house after repeatedly bashing his clown-head against a mirror, and fatally impales Eddie Kaspbrak in the film’s climactic showdown after transforming into a Lovecraftian clown-spider-hybrid, uh, thing. In Chapter Two, our guy’s working at around one death per hour, which is an extremely underwhelming success rate for a cosmic evil capable of transforming into anything it so chooses.

You’ve got to wonder whether Pennywise even wants to continue his unholy calling, wherein he gets the equivalent of the munchies every 27-odd years like an evil cicada. Mike Hanlon informs us that there have, in fact, been other killings in Derry, Maine, that signal Pennywise’s return after the Losers Club defeated him as children, but that isn’t really the problem. We don’t see all of his victims—clown’s gotta eat, but we don’t need to get repetitive over here—but the countless times that the monster didn’t capitalize on taking out our protagonists is surely a mark on his résumé. For someone whose only apparent weakness is a group of self-professed losers banding together to stop him by confronting their fears head-on, Pennywise the Dancing Clown has a terrible sense of self-preservation. And he might not be as good of a human killer as his reputation suggests.

Even if we disregard everything Pennywise-related from the first film, Chapter Two employs a similar (and, frankly, derivative) structure: The adult Losers split up to find various “tokens” from their childhood to perform a watered-down version of the book’s Ritual of Chud, something that Mike claims will destroy the monster once and for all. (Sidenote: Mike is low-key a terrible friend, since he declines to mention that the last attempt at the ritual ended with the gruesome butchering of all its participants.) The token-finding also serves as a trip down memory lane, since none of the characters can remember the details of their messed-up childhoods—meaning that, yes, in addition to individual adult encounters, we get a series of individual kid flashbacks. And like 2017’s It, splitting up means each character is terrorized by Pennywise in his many forms, including but not limited to: a creepy old lady, a slimy leper, and a giant Paul Bunyan statue.

That’s all well and good—Pennywise’s metamorphoses are elite, no doubt—but for every time Pennywise corners a member of the Losers Club, he fails to deliver a fatal blow for … reasons. Per Stephen King’s source material, Pennywise wants to elicit someone’s fear before chomping on them—the monster likens it to [holds back vomit] “salting the meat”—which explains why he loves goading children into super-tense situations. And yet, despite repeatedly cornering the protagonists and scaring the ever-living crap out of them using the same playbook, you never get the feeling he’s even interested in killing someone from the Losers Club.

To list and describe all the encounters across Chapter Two’s nearly three-hour running time would risk turning this blog into a shitpost novella, so here’s just one damning example: When Bev visits her late father’s apartment, Pennywise appears as an old lady who’s taken up residence (a scene that makes up the bulk of Chapter Two’s first trailer). Old Lady Pennywise invites Bev in, offers her tea, and lets her snoop around her old digs. Slowly but surely, Bev realizes that something’s amiss—as the old lady transforms into a gangly monster, Pennywise shows up clawing into his own Bill Skarsgard–looking face, and it’s revealed that the entire building has been out of commission for years. But despite Pennywise’s shape-shifting, going so far as to change Bev’s perception of her surroundings, and most importantly, frightening her, she’s able to run out of the apartment largely unscathed.

While this sequence is quite faithful to King’s book—though I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that, in the novel, Bev realizes she is drinking a cup of sewer water (Pennywise is an elite troll)—the scares feel diminished because the Losers Club’s safety is all but guaranteed. (To say nothing of the childhood flashbacks, since we already know they’re all gonna live to be adults.) This is also an occasional symptom of King’s text, but because the book crosscuts between the past and the present, It hammers home the point that you can’t escape the horrors of your past—the scares aren’t the point as much as the trauma inherited from them. However, after an entire film that was dedicated to the childhoods of the Losers Club, the Chapter Two sequences/flashbacks only reinforce the notion that Movie Pennywise is a maddeningly inconsistent murder-clown.

Thanks to his ability to shape-shift, ostensibly apparate anywhere he chooses, and hide in plain sight in a town that appears to be complicit in his evil, my dude has the narrative definition of a home-field advantage—all of which makes it even more embarrassing that he’s initially bested by a bunch of kids. Of course, Pennywise goads the Losers Club into reuniting in Derry as adults by literally painting “Come Home” in blood for Mike to see. He’s not just hungry for kids: He wants a rematch.

It makes sense that Pennywise thinks he can beat the gang as adults. For starters, the Losers Club can’t even remember half the things they did when they were kids. Plus, you know, Pennywise is akin to an interdimensional god, whose universal counterbalance is a giant, benevolent turtle who created the known universe. (This is not a joke.) Which is why, as far as power imbalances go, the way Pennywise loses—by getting roasted (also not a joke)—is one of the lamest outcomes ever for a villain of his stature. Because his cosmic powers are deeply tied to his psychological influence over victims, Pennywise’s force is diminished when the Losers Club confront him, get over their fears, and chastise him as “just a clown.” In a literal sense, Pennywise shrinks under the rampant humiliation—until the Losers can hold his beating heart in their hands and slowly crush it. “Look at you: You’re all grown up,” is the last thing the clown utters, which is, admittedly, a hell of a punch line.

Pennywise might be one of the most singularly horrifying creations in King’s expansive canon, but getting bullied to death is a really tough look for the self-described “eater of worlds” who spent centuries terrorizing and devouring Derry’s inhabitants. It’s one thing for an antagonist to eventually lose to the good guys; that’s how most of these stories go, no matter what Ramsay Bolton tries to tell you. But Pennywise had all of the power and all of the opportunity, only for his tiny heart to get crushed by a bunch of so-called losers. A victim to his own hype and hubris, Pennywise the Dancing Clown blew the monster equivalent of a 3-1 lead.