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Why we’re glad ‘The Mummy’ didn’t kill off Jonathan Carnahan, the true heart of the franchise
“Well, everyone else we’ve bumped into has died. Why not you?”
When we first watched The Mummy in 1999, we did not expect Jonathan Carnahan to survive. We had full faith that both Rick and Evelyn would live happily ever after, but Evelyn’s swindling con-man brother? Surely he’d bite it before the credits rolled.
We were wrong, and we are so thankful for that.
Jonathan, as played by the brilliant and consistently underrated John Hannah, provides much of the comedic relief in all three of movies in The Mummy trilogy, now streaming on Peacock. We’ve already professed our undying devotion to his sister Evie (Rachel Weisz), and let’s just say that Jonathan is no librarian. He’s also not a charming swashbuckler like Rick (Brendan Fraser). We thought he was expendable, but he most certainly is not.
He’s along for the adventure much like Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) and Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot) are in the Indiana Jones movies. Both of those characters have comedic moments (Marcus goes almost full comedy in The Last Crusade), but they remain serious men for the most part. They are selfless in helping however they can.
Jonathan is not selfless at all. He’s a huckster, a gambler, and a scoundrel. He’s not as much of a bumbler as Marcus Brody, but he’s no Rick and he definitely isn’t an Indy. He’s never very serious in The Mummy, and he is attached to the promise of wealth as many of the movie’s more greedy characters.
The greedy treasure-hunters of The Mummy get picked off one by one, so when Jonathan gets one of those flesh-eating scarabs on him, we were certain that his time had come. Not to be! Rick had a knife out in a flash, and he cut the dreaded undead bug out before it could eat Jonathan alive. There’s no moment where Jonathan suddenly decides to sacrifice himself for his sister, and there’s no scene where he chooses the greater good over himself. He just keeps going with the flow and taking things as they come. He gets lucky.
With a quip and a quote for almost every encounter (including his ongoing recitations of the biblical plagues), Jonathan sails right above the danger. When their camp is attacked early in the movie, Jonathan stands behind a wall and fires a gun at any riders who pass his way. He has a bottle of whiskey in his other hand. He never comes close to dropping it.
If you’re gonna get shot at, why not have a drink? He likes to scream as well, not caring about looking cool, calm, or collected. He reacts to the movie's paranormal events in the same way we would. His screaming luck couldn't possibly last, could it? We were surprised that it did. He survives despite the fact that he doesn’t really learn anything. He doesn’t grow or change. He’s true to himself, loyal to himself, and all about himself.
This is what makes him so much fun to watch. John Hannah’s comedic timing and natural eccentricity makes us root for him. In lesser hands, the character would be despicable. Hannah makes him irresistible.
When we realized that Jonathan was going to live, our surprise quickly turned to relief. That relief turned to joy. We didn't want him to die, we wanted this gleeful scamp to keep running around with a gun in one hand and a whiskey bottle in the other. It doesn’t matter whether he’s just some really good comic relief, or something mythically deeper. When we rewatch the movie these days, we can’t imagine it without him living to the end.
A great side effect of Jonathan surviving the first movie is that he gets to return in the second one. He immediately proves (just in case we missed it) that he's learned no lesson. He starts The Mummy Returns by crashing in Rick and Evie’s mansion with a flapper who hangs her knickers on the door. A couple of minutes later, he’s hiding from the bad guys in a tub of bubble bath.
Are his jokes all played out at this point? Not at all, because the sequel often pairs him with Rick and Evie’s young son Alex (Freddie Boath). Jonathan is on the exact same level as this precocious child, and their bickering double act is an unexpected highlight.
Does he ever get serious? In one moment, yes. When Rick has to save Alex and run through an oasis full of undead pygmies, Evie and Jonathan are perched on a cliff with rifles to clear the way. Evie tells Jonathan to make her proud, because that’s her husband and her son down there.
Jonathan makes her proud indeed, getting a good shot in at a pivotal moment. Has he actually grown? Not really, because just as he’s being pulled to safety via blimp in the ultimate climax, he sees a gargantuan diamond and risks his life to nab it. He squabbles about ownership of the diamond as the blimp sails away and the movie ends.
The absence of Rachel Weisz in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor makes Jonathan’s presence absolutely necessary. Brendan Fraser is thankfully back as Rick, but Evie has been recast with Maria Bello. Alex is older now, so he has been recast as well. Our beloved Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr) does not appear, and it wouldn’t have made sense for the filmmakers to go back to the Imhotep well for a third time. With no Rachel Weisz, no Arnold Vosloo, and no Oded Fehr, John Hannah is essential. Aside from Rick, he’s the only character who ties us back to the first two movies.
Does he finally grow? Not in the slightest. He owns a nightclub named after Imhotep, that’s how much respect he has for the dangers that he’s been in. He ends the third movie absolutely sick of dealing with mummies, and he decides to venture off where there are no mummies to be found. He washes his hands of mummy matters, so perhaps he has learned something after all. He’s learned that his luck with surviving these movies could run out at some point, perhaps. He's a survivor, not a hero.
Fate has other plans, because some on-screen text tells us that mummies are soon discovered in the very place Jonathan is fleeing to. Destiny has decided that Jonathan is not just comic relief; he’s a divine fool, and he’ll be quipping and screaming about mummies forever.
These movies wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining without Jonathan Carnahan, and there's no Jonathan without John Hannah. He makes sure that we never go home empty-handed.
Now how about you, darling? Would you like a little kissy-wissy? Whew!
The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor are currently streaming on Peacock.