I’m not going to lie to you and say that this was a good movie. Because it wasn’t. It really, really wasn’t. But.
I did enjoy the hell out it.
So what gives? Normally I pride myself on liking things because they’re, you know, good. I like movies with strong storylines, intriguing characters, complex motivations, and this movie (and the book, for that matter) had absolutely none of those things. So why do I like it so much?
I’m pretty sure that I like it because it has so incredibly little depth that it comes back around again. It’s so shallow and blatantly wish-fulfilling and juvenile that it becomes somehow sweet. It’s fun. And, as it turns out, I like fun.
But, for those of you who have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, here’s the deal.
City of Bones is the first installment in the Mortal Instruments series, originally a series of books by Cassandra Clare. Cassandra Clare, mind you, is mostly famous (or infamous) for a huge fanfiction plagiarism scandal in the mid-2000s. Okay, it might be a little confusing to hear that the fanfiction community argues about plagiarism, but trust me when I say that it was totally a thing, and awful.
Also, in case you thought 50 Shades of Grey was the only fanfic ever turned into a major property, got you there. The Mortal Instruments was originally a truly epic Harry Potter fanfic.
Anyway, the story, which is unadulterated YA fluff, follows Clary Fray (Lily Collins), a normal sixteen year old girl who likes books and tea and art and all those things. You know, the sensitive artsy chick. Clary and her best friend Simon (Robert Sheehan) go out to a club to celebrate her birthday, only to run into a group of invisible demon hunters that only Clary can see.
Shortly thereafter, Clary’s home is ransacked and her mother (Lena Headey) goes missing. Everyone claims to be looking for “The Mortal Cup”, which they think her mother has. And Clary slowly begins to realize that there is something seriously not normal going on.
Oh, and there’s a really cute boy named Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) following her around, saving her life, and being super attractive at things. Also some demons and stuff.
Look, the plot is not the major draw here. Not only is it not particularly good, it’s really unnecessarily complex. Just the idea of trying to sum it up…bleh. There’s too much. But here, let’s run through the bullet points. The bullet points of why this movie (and book series) is too much fun to think about how bad it actually is.
Point the first: the story is just ludicrous enough that you stop trying to think about it and just enjoy the journey.
For starters, this whole thing hinges on a bunch of backstory we don’t actually get until well into the story. Maybe halfway? So for the first hour or so of the movie, you don’t know why Clary can see the Shadowhunters, why the Shadowhunters want the Mortal Cup, who the hell Valentine (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) is, and why everyone dresses in fetish-wear. That last one never does get explained.
But you know what? You stop caring. Because this movie isn’t about things making sense. They never ever do. It’s about watching an awkward girl blossom into a confident, dominatrix-dressed woman, who rides motorcycles and is better at magic than everyone ever because of reasons, and who all the boys want to be with, and who gets a makeover. Which brings me to the second point.
The makeovers. Oh the makeovers.
Somewhere about twenty minutes into the movie I think I gave up on taking this seriously and gave in to my intense entertainment. Because damn do I love me a makeover scene. This movie had them in spades. Taking already-pretty Clary from normal girl to demon hunter with a dominatrix side-business. Do I wish I could work a pair of leather pants like that? Yes I do. Do I think that wearing leather pants would ever lead to anything better than a yeast infection? No, I do not.
Third point? Clary is the most magical special person to ever specially magic. Normally this would annoy the hell out of me, since every two seconds we find out yet another reason why she’s better at magic than people who have been studying it their whole lives. Because of course she is.
The fourth is pretty easy. This movie is so totally a soap opera. There are misunderstandings, long-lost relatives, comas, betrayals, melodramatic exclamations of love or passion or disappointment… Actually, now that I think of it, it’s pretty hard to think of ways in which this story isn’t a straight up soap opera.
For starters, Clary is the center of a “who’s my daddy” controversy, with her mother conveniently in a coma and thus unable to refute. And it turns out that the bad guy, Valentine, is her father. But for some reason, Valentine also insists that Jace, her love interest and the guy she’s been macking on for a few scenes now, is also her brother, and since Jace recognizes Valentine…It just gets all kinds of awkward.
I mean, where other than a soap opera have you seen a plotline with borderline incest, long-lost parents, and this many riding crops?
The fifth point is really the sum of it all, and it’s why this movie, book series, whatever is so insanely popular. Because we all know it’s bad. I don’t think I’m blowing anyone’s mind with that. We get it. It’s popcorn. Bubblegum. Cotton candy for your brain.
But we like it. And we like it because it’s about us.
The Mortal Instruments series is pretty unabashed in how much it caters to its female, teenage audience, and I find it difficult to criticize the work for that. Oh, I can criticize it for other things, like how it objectively sucks, but I can’t find fault with this. This is a story that combines every single trope of a female based coming of age story. It fulfills all the fantasies we harbored throughout middle and high school.
That we were secretly special. Magic. More magic than anybody else, for that matter. That we were chosen for a secret society. That our parents were more special than we could imagine, and that we were important. That we were beautiful and people wanted us. Lots of people. That all that was standing between us and a magical world of adventure was our own blocked memories.
And, in a way, it’s kind of true. Because we are beautiful and special and important. Just in much more simple and unobtrusive ways. I like the fantasy because it makes clear what we all already know. That it’s just a fantasy, but that there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be special and pretty and powerful. The problem comes when you forget that you already are.
There is something subversively feminist here. Clary is the most powerful character. She is the most important. And she is the most desired. But she's not super concerned with that all of the time. Her most fundamental and important relationship in the movie is with her mother, which is pretty rad. Even if it is also unhappy, because her mom's only on screen for a little bit of the story.
Still, I like that. I like that Clary, magnet for the ridiculous she may be, makes her own choices and owns her life. She might be a completely unrealistic dream of a teenage girl getting everything she ever craved, but she's also a cool chick who makes some good calls. And there's nothing really wrong with that.
So take it from a former teenage girl here, the fantasy is damn addictive. And silly. And even though you know it’s wrong you still love it. But it’s not all there is.