ZatannaWhat has this charming young lady got to do with the terrific film The Prestige. Couldn’t I have found a picture of Scarlett Johanssen to illustrate some point about the movie instead, rather than this fishnet, top-hat combo? Or maybe the ladies would love Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale. IN FISHNETS! No, Zatanna is here (she’s a comic-book character – of course she is called something like Zatanna) to illustrate the key point of The Prestige. THEMATIC SPOILERS AHOY: LOOK AWAY NOW*.

Zatanna is a magician. And a super-hero. Her power is that she is a magician. But this being comics, she can actually DO magic. Basically if she says something backwards like “sehtolc lausac raew” her wardrobe would be automatically toned down from the fishnets and boots you cannot bend your legs in as seen here. Magic in comics is, on the whole, a bit rubbish. On the basic, Zatanna level, it generally allows the character to do anything. This is more powerful than Superman, and we know why that is a problem. At a more complex level, it means that the writers quickly have to insert some rules about how the magic is used. And once magic is subject to rules, it seems to become less magical.

What has this got to do with The Prestige? Well, Zatanna isn’t just a full-time superhero (the wages are lousy, and the clothing allowance non-existent). Her not very secrit identity is as a world renowned stage magician. Hence the doves out of hat cliche, and the Magician + Magician Assistant in one combo get-up. But remember a stage magician who can actually do magic. What The Prestige posits as an idea is that the tension, indeed the enjoyment, in watching stage magic is that it is clearly NOT magic. Indeed if Paul Daniels was actually able to saw his wife the lovely Debbie McGee in half, and then put her back together again, then surely she would suffer some terrible traumatic memory from actually being sawn in half. It is a trick, we are being tricked, and we like being tricked**. We both want to know and don’t want to know, as soon as we do know how a trick is done, it is spoiled for us.

The Prestige is all about showing how tricks are done. In some cases we see quite plainly the dodgy knots, the deadly birdcages and the substitution. In the case of the central trick, we are not told how both versions are done until the very end, though we should have guessed how one version was done by then. Indeed the films biggest trick is to fool us into thinking we are clever. That we have considered all possibilities for both tricks, and that having worked one out, we have also worked out the other. And then it pulls its coup de grace: its own clever trick on the smarties, on the rationalists, on the audience who have forgotten that ALL OF CINEMA IS ITSELF A TRICK!

Perhaps the reason Zatanna wears such stupid clothes is that her stage act does not draw the crowds. In a world where people can fly, and walk through walls, where is there room for a simple prestidigitator? Of course the flying men, and the power rings which can “do anything” are linked with science: only Zatanna’s schtick is called magic: though what else would you call a man who can catch a bullet in his eyelid? Would anyone go and see a magician, real or otherwise*** in such a world? Even if they were Hugh Jackman and had Scarlett Johanssen in a basque?

*Like many a lonely child, I studied the art of prestidigitation to a small degree, but was frankly crap at it. Therefore when attempting the slightest of hand tricks, rather than misdirect my audience, I would just ask them to look away while I fudged the fake shuffle.

**Speaking of Daniels I heard a tale told of someone going to a live gig, being pulled from the audience and being told to lie about the no-tricksiness of the equipment he was sent to examine. Surely bad form, but as it was said, you don’t want to spoil it for your kids!

***And this is the question at the heart of The Prestige. The hoary old chestnut that science appears to be magic to a backwards audience. But the science in The Prestige IS magic.