Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (2013)
Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief was one of those movies I disliked for reasons I could never quite put my finger on. Oh, there were plenty of obvious things to loathe about it: It was uninspired and had no identity of its own outside of mimicking a trend, it was dull and unmemorable, the characters were flat and unengaging, etc. But in the sequel Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, which is everything bad about the first one cranked up to eleven, it finally becomes obvious: Percy Jackson is basically racist Harry Potter.
But not in the sense that Percy sits around talking about how Asians can’t drive. I’m merely noticing a recurring theme, however unintentional, of genetic privilege in the Percy Jackson movies. In Camp Half-Blood, the secret summer camp for the half-human offspring of the Greek Pantheon around which the series revolves, who your parents are is all that defines you.
Annabeth* is the smart one because she’s Athena’s daughter. Clarice is the tough one because she’s Ares’ daughter. And Percy is the hero because he’s the one living son of one of the original three gods**, and there’s a prophecy that says he’s the hero. Because every screenwriter knows that if you can’t give your protagonist a personality, you can always give him a destiny.
[*I had to look up most of these names, by the way. Such was the impression the movie left on me. There’s one character who accidentally calls Annabeth “Annabelle” and I was like “oh, I thought that was her name.”]
[**Which is bullshit, because Zeus and Poseidon were two of the biggest man-sluts in Greek mythology, so the idea that they have no other living bastard children is ludicrous.]
I could not tell you the first thing about Percy as a person. I only even remember his name because it’s in the title. The movie relies entirely on the prophecy and his genetic lineage for his entire motivation. It’s the worst possible use of the Hero’s Journey. The movie begins with Percy afraid that he has no identity outside of being Poseidon’s son and that all his victories have just been handed to him by fate, and by the end of the movie it seems that’s pretty much the case.
And in the context of this movie, that leads to some unfortunate implications. Camp Half-Blood isn’t just home to demigods; there are also satyrs, centaurs, and other races from Greek mythology running around, all of whom are essentially second-class campers. I could understand them receiving less attention or being considered less important, if all the demigods were possessed of superpowers (just to complete the X-Men scorecard that every Harry Potter-wannabe follows). But thus far, the only demigod we’ve seen demonstrate any special abilities is Percy. Satyrs and other lesser races seem to exist only to serve them as caretakers and protectors. And this detail wasn’t added to set anything up, like the Harry Potter series did with the plight of house elves or the Death Eaters’ crusade against mudbloods. The racial privilege of demigods over other magical races is just the plain old status quo that nobody ever questions***. In fact, more than anything, it’s played for laughs. Grover, the Ron Weasley of the series, pretty much exists to be humiliated at every turn for comic effect, and when combined with his rather stereotypical “black sidekick” persona, one can’t help but raise an eyebrow. The only time any of this comes to a head is in the introduction of the camp’s first half-cyclops camper. Annabeth is immediately prejudiced against him due to his heritage, which makes her incredibly unlikable and petty even after it’s explained away. Sorry, but if a Klansmen told me a black guy killed a friend of his once, I wouldn’t say, “oh, well, that’s perfectly understandable, then.”
[***Except for Luke, the villain, who it’s becoming increasingly hard not to root for. Not only is he the only well-rounded character in the entire cast, but his more-than-a-little legitimate grievances against the gods are never really considered or taken seriously by our heroes.]
Of course, the fact that the movie has some troubling, presumably unintended undertones has nothing to do with whether or not it’s a good movie. As it so happens, beyond the aforementioned vacuous protagonist and predestination-driven plot, the film is a complete mess. Characters come and go with no rhyme or reason. Several campers who join the main villain are never given any introduction or even screen time before their betrayal, so when the characters ask, “So-and-so? You betrayed us?” the immediate reaction is “Who?” It’s a lot of poorly set-up import for a group of characters who are never used as anything but mute henchmen. Another character, a macho satyr set up early on as Grover’s rival in the same way Clarice is to Percy, disappears before the second act begins, and is later hand-waved away as having died off-screen, making his entire existence pointless to the plot.
What little strength the film has lies in its world-building. The basic conceit of “Greek mythology reimagined in a modern setting” has some clever moments. Hermes (played by Nathan Fillion in the best performance of the movie) running a magic UPS Store for the gods, the Gray Sisters as cab drivers for the damned (though, the Fates might’ve been more appropriate), Circe deciding to create an amusement park (though, we’re never shown that part, unfortunately), Clarice getting a Civil War battleship crewed by zombies as transportation from Ares, all this could have given a better movie its own unique flavor.
And though it’s no Guillermo del Toro, there is a decent menagerie of creatures on display, including a manticore, a steampunk mechanical bull with an impressive arsenal of weapons, and a hippocamp. It’s marred, however, by the fact that despite the title, only about twenty minutes of the movie actually takes place at sea, during which there is precisely one monster.
It truly is a tragic waste of potential that these films keep turning out so poorly, because there’s fertile creative ground here. So much could have been done with the series’ themes of parental abandonment, the search for identity, destiny vs. free will, etc. Why not have Percy’s arc be all about distancing himself from his imposed destiny and absentee father, and inspiring his fellow demigods to do the same? That kind of thing was certainly hinted at earlier in the film, but tragically, nobody cared enough to give it an actual payoff. A young man discovering who he is beyond being his father’s son is a timeless story that could have been great if well-told, but unfortunately Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters itself has no identity outside of its own father: Harry Potter.