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National Treasure: Edge of History Complicates the Nicolas Cage Movies, To Thrilling Results

The Disney+ spinoff maintains the film's campy tone, while interrogating its preoccupation with white male heroes.
  • Justin Bartha and Lisette Olivera in National Treasure: Edge of History. (Photo: Disney+)
    Justin Bartha and Lisette Olivera in National Treasure: Edge of History. (Photo: Disney+)

    When rebooting a beloved piece of IP, one must walk a tightrope between recycling old tropes and reframing them for a new audience. While some extensions fail to strike the right balance between old and new (Criminal Minds: Evolution chief among them), others, like AMC’s Interview With the Vampire, succeed by making the subtext of existing projects text, a decision that expands the world of the show while remaining true to its characters.

    Disney+ drama National Treasure: Edge of History is the latest of these revivals, and in one of the most delightful surprises of the year, it lands squarely on the Interview With the Vampire end of the spectrum. The spinoff series maintains the lighthearted, campy tone of Nicolas Cage’s film franchise, which followed a group of explorers as they searched for lost valuables of great historical importance. However, it raises the stakes by introducing a new lead treasure hunter with a very different relationship to American history, spinning a far-reaching mystery yarn that raises questions about whose stories are told and whose are left on the margins.

    With its PG rating and minimal violence, 2004’s National Treasure was always aimed at a younger audience, but Edge of History makes that explicit by replacing Cage’s Benjamin Gates with 22-year-old Jess Valenzuela (Lisette Olivera). A resourceful DREAMer grieving the recent death of her mother, Jess hopes to one day join the FBI’s cryptanalysis division, but in the meantime, she’s content to outsmart escape rooms and solve small riddles with her friends. Little does Jess know that her long-deceased father, a man she always believed to be a “thief and a reckless good-for-nothing,” was one of just a few people tasked with protecting an ancient Pan-American treasure that was hidden by Indigenous women when Europeans colonized the Aztec Empire.

    Soon enough, a mysterious stranger gives Jess a clue to the treasure, which prompts her to rethink everything she’s been told about her father. She puts her skills to the test, venturing with her friends to find answers in their hometown of Baton Rouge. But their effort is quickly derailed when they’re intercepted by Billie Pearce (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a billionaire and black market antiquities expert who’s willing to do whatever it takes for a big payday. Zeta-Jones plays up Billie’s bad side, and she carries herself with the sinister swagger, not to mention the wardrobe, of a woman who has done unspeakable things to acquire wealth. (“I didn’t expect someone who looks like they walked out of the town in Big Little Lies,” Jess says when they first meet face-to-face).

    Still, Billie is begrudgingly impressed by Jess, whom Olivera imbues with a Disney-fied spunk, and by the end of the first episode, they begin a race to the treasure that requires viewers to suspend their disbelief entirely. Everything has to go exactly right for Jess to find the first piece of the puzzle, which is located in a place that almost certainly would have been checked in the past 200 years. The series even incorporates a few magical flourishes to reinforce that Jess is on the right track, as when the stars engraved in the altar at a Masonic lodge glow beneath her fingertips.

    But what is National Treasure if not proof that fun can be had by fudging the line between fact and fiction? The franchise’s best moments were also its most ridiculous, like the Declaration of Independence lemon scene or the crew dumping out their water bottles to find the entrance to a lost city of gold. The series — which is created by Cormac and Marianne Wibberley, co-writers on the original film and its 2007 sequel — similarly embraces theatricality. Episode 3, “Graceland Gambit,” includes a sequence that feels like a callback to Ben Gates’ National Archives heist, but set at Elvis Presley’s Memphis home; the following episode, “Charlotte,” sees Jess and Riley Poole (franchise alum Justin Bartha), Ben’s right-hand man, puzzle-solve their way out of a deadly trap.

    In these episodes, and throughout the season, the Wibberleys craft seemingly insurmountable challenges for Jess and her friends to overcome, only to reveal an escape hatch at the last minute. Typically, these 11th hour saves would limit viewers’s investment in the characters (why does their journey matter if we know they’ll turn out okay in the end?) but Jess’ status as a DREAMer proves to be Edge of History’s secret weapon. Finding the treasure requires a certain amount of criminal behavior, what with all the breaking and entering, internet hacking, and fraud, and if Jess is caught at any point, she’ll likely be deported to Mexico. This isn’t something Ben Gates had to think about, but it impacts every decision Jess makes. When she chooses to continue the search, she does so fully aware of the risks, creating an additional layer of tension that simmers beneath the treasure hunting plot.

    Jess’ identity also becomes an interesting wrinkle in a franchise that previously focused on white male figures in American history. Unlike Cage’s character, who revered the Founding Fathers, Jess approaches history with a healthy dose of derision and skepticism: She’s particularly frustrated that she can’t apply for the FBI until she’s a naturalized citizen, a fact she finds ridiculous, given that “Texas used to be Mexico.” Though she’s saddled with some heavy dialogue, Olivera shines in these cheeky moments.

    Edge of History’s greatest strength is its commitment to complicating the narratives we’ve been told for centuries. The legend of the treasure hinges on a reevaluation of the woman known as La Malinche, who was forced to act as an intermediary for Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. La Malinche is a complex figure — she’s considered both a traitor and a victim, depending on who you ask — but the show adds another interpretation to the mix, suggesting she was a “master spy” who used her position within Cortés’ camp to protect the Aztecs’ most valuable artifacts.

    Whether this is true or not, Edge of History begins from the perspective that La Malinche’s bravery, and that of generations of Indigenous women that followed, has been conveniently forgotten by white society. As Jess and her friends follow the clues, they realize that these undersung heroes hold the key to the treasure, and along the way, they begin to chart a new history that finally celebrates the contributions of these non-white and Native figures.

    It’s a credit to the Wibberleys and executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer that National Treasure: Edge of History’s lessons in historiography never feel preachy or, even worse, boring. Instead, they’re a natural extension of Jess’ identity and point of view, one that adds a new layer to a franchise once preoccupied with white, male heroes. History may be written by the conquerors, but the Disney+ series aims to reclaim some of the spoils, to thrilling results.

    National Treasure: Edge of History premieres Wednesday, December 14 on Disney+.

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    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: National Treasure: Edge of History, Disney+, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Cormac Wibberley, Harvey Keitel, Justin Bartha, Lisette Olivera, Marianne Wibberley, Nicolas Cage