Nicolas Cage or Not, National Treasure Deserves to Live On

Or, Nic Cage is not the most important thing about the National Treasure movies, fight me.

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Nicolas Cage or Not, <i>National Treasure</i> Deserves to Live On

It’s the line that launched a thousand memes:

“I’m gonna steal the Declaration of Independence.”

But National Treasure, the 2004 Jon Turteltaub-helmed film, is more than a meme. It’s a franchise that changed my life. (No, really.) The film, followed by 2007’s National Treasure: Book of Secrets, is a strange mix of early-2000s action machismo combined with historical revisionism: Benjamin Franklin Gates (yes, that is his full name), played by Nicolas Cage, seeks to avenge his family name by finding a world-spanning treasure that was hidden by Freemasons. After a disagreement with former treasure-hunting partner Ian Howe (Sean Bean), Ben’s search brings him to D.C.’s National Archives, where he and his partner-in-crime Riley Poole (Justin Bartha) try to explain to archivist Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) that Howe is going to steal the Declaration. Ben’s solution? Steal it first.

The film is a fast-paced treasure hunt, with various connections to historical documents and events: the back of the Declaration has a cypher written in invisible ink, the Silence Dogood letters are used as a key for that cypher, and so on. The team succeeds in finding the treasure, constantly described as too large for any one person to have, and they give the findings—statues, scrolls, and more—to various museums. There are always more secrets to be uncovered, though, which resulted in a sequel and a fairly devoted fanbase hoping for more. While there are conflicting accounts of whether or not a third movie will ever be made, there is something else on the horizon: the 10-episode Disney+ series National Treasure: Edge of History. The series will follow a new character, DREAMer Jess Morales (Lisette Olivera), and feature a younger cast, with Bartha returning as Riley. Though more information will be given at the San Diego Comic-Con panel on July 21, we can expect that the adventure will be self-contained: according to Collider, it will be set in the world of National Treasure, but somewhat independent of the film’s events.

When the title for the new TV series was announced on July 6, many clamored for the return of series-star Cage in some way. This reaction was understandable—I’m defensive of these movies and hoping for a sequel, and I love a good Nic Cage freakout. But something rubbed me the wrong way, and I think it’s because the characters themselves weren’t what created the movies’ enduring spirit.

Hot take, but hear me out: I truly don’t think that Nicolas Cage is the most important thing about the National Treasure movies. And I’m one of the biggest National Treasure fans out there—since seeing the movie for the first time at eight years old, I was hooked on the combination between action-movie hijinks and intellectual problem-solving. My family traveled to the Intrepid aircraft carrier in New York City or Independence Hall in Philadelphia, spurred on by our mutual love of these locations as setpieces. We even took the National Treasure: Book of Secrets tour of Mount Vernon where I could walk through the same secret tunnels that Nic Cage did. I can quote the movie backwards and forwards, the specific cadences of the line readings burned into my memory. And although the movie’s historical accuracy is questionable at best, it was the treatment of that fictional history that stood out.

National Treasure made me believe that history is cool. History can actually be a tool that the hero uses in action movies, like hacking or martial arts, and for a kid who was much more interested in reading than typing at the computer or punching and kicking things, I now felt like there was a place for me in the action pantheon. History has always been my favorite subject, spurred on by enthusiastic teachers who brought the past into the present. When I think of this movie, I don’t think of Nicolas Cage’s more subdued performance, which only briefly breaks into a characteristic yell. In fact, this was my first experience with his work, so I was pretty shocked to see that the guy I perceived as a fairly straightforward Hollywood actor growing up had put out something like Face/Off. Instead, I think of the feeling I got when the score swelled and Ben Gates figured out a clue, based only on his knowledge of the past. That was a superpower, and I wanted to wield it.

In that way, I hope to see the Edge of History series grapple with the complexities of history in a way that the original film didn’t, focusing instead on how each clue can fit together while exploring the more general (and controversial) theme of American exceptionalism. Giving the story more time to breathe in a 10-episode format might even allow for a more nuanced and critical portrayal of history. There’s an opportunity here to preserve the same energy that the original movies have, the same reverence for history and the interconnectedness of everything in our country, while also telling the ugly truth.

The bottom line is that the television series should be about more than just continuing where a movie left off. I’m still hoping for a third movie with the original cast (after all, we still have to figure out what’s on page 47 of the president’s book of secrets, which the last movie teased). But a spinoff series’ existence does not mean a third movie won’t be made. Pitting these two very different formats against each other is a false dichotomy: National Treasure is more than its three main characters; it’s a world where historical knowledge is rewarded, and the more stories that take place in that world, the better. The show isn’t erasing what came before.

We’ll also get to see a woman as our main character, which might help the blatant sexism problem that much of the original movie has. (Watching it again as an adult, I was shocked by how many times Ben told Abigail to shut up, playing it off as comical. I’m happy that I didn’t let this dissuade me from being interested in history, but it’s not a great look.) Plus, having a more diverse cast opens up an entire history that is too often unrepresented. As noted above, it’s rumored that the series will follow Jess’s family history, which, seeing that the character is a Latina-American DREAMer, is likely to bring up some of the darker parts of America’s past. Perspective matters in history, both in whose story gets told and who tells the stories themselves, and showcasing new perspectives on the back of an established franchise is a step in the right direction.

This brings me to the overall reasoning behind why Edge of History’s existence is so important. History is so much more than stories of grandeur and infallible heroes. In fact, it’s much more interesting, if necessarily sobering, to learn the truth about our “heroes”—and in a country like America, there is a whole lot of shit in our past that isn’t pretty. Today, there are constant discussions and legislation regarding the teaching of “American exceptionalism” in schools, and how the past should be taught, with frightening implications. We deserve to know the truth about our history, however awful and messy and horrifying it is.

Edge of History isn’t necessarily going to be an examination of the facts: entertainment is the goal, after all, and any take on history as entertainment is going to lose some details, especially one marketed towards a younger audience. But it’s not the details that matter. What does is preserving the notion that knowing about history—that caring about the truth of the past—is important to society. It’s critical to show kids that being curious about the past is helpful, interesting, and, yes, badass. There aren’t enough stories that show this inherent coolness in history (RIP my beloved Timeless, canceled twice but never forgotten). It’s a terrible wonder to figure out why our world—our amazing, cruel world—is the way it is, and that’s exactly why we should promote stories like this.

So, yes, while I will miss Nicolas Cage and his strange acting style, I’m excited for Edge of History to take up the mantle and make some needed updates to the series. More than anything, I’m hopeful that this series will show kids that history isn’t just something you learn about to be tested on. History is living and breathing, much like the National Treasure franchise itself deserves to be.

Catie McCarthy is a geography student, knitter, and film score connoisseur who is still holding out hope for another season of Timeless. She has written for The Dartmouth and The Daily Fandom. Talk to her about Moonfall on Twitter.

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