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SPOILERS FOR IT CHAPTER TWO FOLLOW. THOSE WHO IGNORE THIS WARNING WILL BE EATEN BY PENNYWISE.
Viewers of It Chapter Two get all the killer clown mayhem they could possibly want. Bill Skarsgård, the standout of It’s first installment, continues to terrify as Pennywise — but this time around, a critical consensus is emerging that places Bill Hader as It Chapter Two’s “Holy sh*t, this guy is awesome” player.
That’s not exactly a surprise, as over the past decade-plus Hader has low-key emerged as one of the most consistently talented actors in the business. In Saturday Night Live, Barry (It Chapter Two director Andy Muschietti is a fan), The Skeleton Twins, Documentary Now!, Trainwreck, and others, Hader displays a mastery of comedy and drama that’s fully utilized in It Chapter Two.
In It Chapter Two, Hader plays the adult version of Losers Club member Richie Tozier, played in 2017’s It by Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard. Richie is the loudmouth joker of the group, and after he leaves Derry he embarks on a career as a stand-up comedian. When Pennywise sticks his red nose back in Derry's business, Richie — along with the rest of his childhood friends — returns to his hometown to hopefully take out Pennywise for good. To counter, Pennywise has a weapon up his puffy sleeves: psychological torment, specifically making the Losers Club relive their childhood trauma.
For Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain), it’s the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. For Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy), it’s the guilt he feels for “letting” his younger brother Georgie be killed by Pennywise. For Richie, it’s his sexuality — specifically his childhood crush on fellow Loser Eddie Kaspbrak.
“It’s very subtle in the book, what happens with Eddie and Richie,” says Muschietti in a phone interview. “Some people see more than friendship there.” Others don’t. “In this case, I wanted Richie to have a bit of a surprise journey. And that’s why his trauma is about hiding this sexual identity.”
Pennywise, as part of the “mess with the Losers’ heads tilt-a-whirl,” makes adult Richie relive a situation where, as a child, he was bullied by Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his band of roving jackasses for trying to become friendly with one of Bowers’ relatives. Later, we see him scratching “R+ __” on Derry’s bridge. Only after he and the Losers defeat Pennywise is Richie finally able to come to terms with his feelings for the (unfortunately now deceased) Eddie (James Ransone), filling in the empty space with the letter E.
“He’s afraid of being exposed, of having his sexual identity exposed,” Muschietti continues. “So he builds, basically, this persona [as a standup comic] of this guy that basically tells jokes about women and him being… well, you saw the joke!” The joke in question is, needless to say, of the vulgar “I definitely have sex with women” variety. It's one of the first things we see from Richie in the movie. Though Richie's sexuality isn't definitively stated in It Chapter Two, the subtext that existed in the book has clearly passed on to the “text” stage. Richie, hating himself for his sexuality, blocks out his feelings for Eddie and subconsciously overcompensates by presenting himself as a big ol’ corndog.
In a landscape where Hollywood releases tend to give lip service at best to LGBT representation — Sulu getting to hug (!) his husband in Star Trek Beyond; Trini maybe being bisexual in Power Rangers; one of Avengers: Endgame’s directors popping up in a cameo as an gay character who doesn’t have a name and is never seen again; and, of course, who can forget Beauty and the Beast’s “exclusively gay moment” — it’s a step forward that It Chapter Two positions Richie’s sexuality as something more than a box to be ticked in order to claim progressiveness.
It Chapter Two treats Richie’s sexuality with respect — not sensationalizing it, but at the same time acknowledging the effect it has on other areas of his life. As a result, the entire movie is improved.
Another noteworthy scene in Stephen King’s It is focused on a gay character, Adrian Mellon (played in It Chapter Two, oddly enough, by wunderkind French director Xavier Dolan), who is brutally beaten for his sexuality before being butchered by Pennywise. It’s an uncomfortable scene that hasn’t aged particularly well; its disconnect from the rest of the story makes it feel like a cheap attempt to wring shock and horror out of readers at the expense of a gay character. The movie’s revelation about Richie’s sexuality adds resonance to Adrian's fate. 27 years after the Losers Club’s first encounter with Pennywise, Derry is still a dangerous place to be out and proud, which makes Richie’s eventual self-acceptance all the more poignant.
And, not for nothing, Richie's It Chapter Two plotline gives the character more dramatic heft, giving Hader free rein to craft a career-best (so far) performance — while he's also being menaced by a killer clown.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.