There is a special kind of spectacle in watching something beloved and previously respected start to eat itself alive. It’s like walking in on someone during a weepy phone call, or locking eyes with a dog while it poops — you feel like you’ve intruded on something messy that you weren’t meant to see. That’s how it felt watching Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the second installment in the Harry Potter offshoot that’s become known as the Wizarding World franchise.
Where the original Harry Potter books were well-written and thoroughly plotted with engaging characters, The Crimes of Grindelwald pulls at that series’ many narrative strings as if determined to unravel every one of them. A movie so bafflingly determined to undermine its own legacy is a rare beast indeed.
Though the depths of its narrative troubles are a new development, The Crimes of Grindelwald has been controversial since before the first Fantastic Beasts movie even hit theaters. Warner Bros. officially announced Johnny Depp would be playing the malevolent wizard Gellert Grindelwald two years ago. Many fans were immediately incensed, hurt that the continuation of a series that contained such poignant writing on abuse would employ a man whose ex-wife, Amber Heard, had sought domestic violence charges against him. (Heard later dropped the case, and she and Depp released a statement saying that “neither party has made false accusations for financial gains”; Depp later alleged that Heard had also been physically violent with him.)
When the #MeToo movement entered the mainstream lexicon in 2017, pressure from fans for Warner Bros. to drop Depp from the Fantastic Beasts movies intensified. After Warner Bros., screenwriter J.K. Rowling, and director David Yates all declared they’d be standing by Depp and not recasting the role of Grindelwald, several fans spoke to BuzzFeed News about their disappointment and the sense of betrayal they were feeling. “If Ridley Scott can reshoot an entire movie in two weeks, you can recast Johnny Depp,” Harry Potter fan Cate Young said at the time. She was referring to Kevin Spacey’s firing from the film All the Money in the World after allegations of sexual assault and misconduct, and his swift replacement by Christopher Plummer. Warner Bros. chose not to recast, and so the specters of #MeToo and the endless debate around the separation between art and artist have remained an inexorable part of the air around The Crimes of Grindelwald. At times the conversations around the man playing the film’s villain seemed as if they could threaten the whole marketing campaign.
Wildly, though, Depp is hardly the only distracting thing about The Crimes of Grindelwald. Even as he cavorts through the film looking like a melted candle or a piece of white bread left in the back of a pantry that’s grown its own topography of mold, the movie’s own crisis of identity swallows him up. Depp’s presence is basically a fly buzzing around viewers’ heads during an already bad time.
The Crimes of Grindelwald picks up where Fantastic Beasts left off and follows the awkward, earnest Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) on orders from a young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) to track down a tortured lost young man called Credence (Ezra Miller) before he falls into the hands of the villainous Grindelwald. A sprawling cohort of other characters get pulled into Newt’s gloomy jaunt, too, but every single one of them gets lost in the endless shuffle of plot. The film barely seems able to wrap its head around all of its own characters and what motivates them.
The snake-woman Nagini (Claudia Kim), who trails after Credence, doesn’t seem to have much inner thought aside from caring for him. Tina Goldstein (Katherine Watson), who was a main character in the first Fantastic Beasts movie, is mysteriously relegated to surly love interest here. The Muggle Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who was one of the bright spots of the first film, is essentially only used for a few lines of comic relief. The most compelling among The Crimes of Grindelwald’s characters is Leta Lestrange (Zoë Kravitz), whose inner turmoil is actually explored, albeit through a wild sequence that may or may not involve the Titanic (long story!). Unfortunately, her motivations in her relationship to Newt and his brother Theseus (Callum Turner) go completely unexplained, and the movie kills off the character just as she’s about to get really interesting. But no one in the film’s as confusingly written as Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol), the telepath who somehow transforms from Fantastic Beasts’ charming heroine to The Crimes of Grindelwald’s newest villain, all because — uh??? — she wants to marry Jacob, and Grindelwald is preaching free love.
It would be laughable to call this film meticulous, but its determination to undermine its own narrative context is impressively thorough. In the first Fantastic Beasts film Queenie was bubbly, ballsy, and kind; here she’s mopey and cruel, throwing around love spells as if they’re not a massive violation of consent. The Crimes of Grindelwald’s first act devotes several minutes to simply waving away the entire ending of Fantastic Beasts, restoring Jacob’s obliterated memories with a few lines of dialogue and providing no explanation for Credence’s survival after the first film made a big deal of his death scene.
Those plot contrivances are only a teaser for what’s to come. The most mind-breaking decisions The Crimes of Grindelwald makes are found in the moments when the film is trying most directly to pander to fans. Pandering in franchises can be fun! The ancient alchemist Nicolas Flamel (Brontis Jodorowsky), for example, is featured in the movie, and that’s a perfectly fine choice: A Harry Potter prequel of course opens the door to play around with characters mentioned but never seen in the original series. There’s a simple thrill in The Crimes of Grindelwald’s jokes about Flamel’s age, and in a brief shot of the Sorcerer’s Stone that gave the first Harry Potter book its title. It’s with the cameo by a woman identified as “McGonagall” (Fiona Glascott) that the film makes one of its more egregious swings for the fences.
McGonagall appears as a Hogwarts professor in the mid-1920s, which seems like an innocent enough shoutout to a revered character until you get into the weeds of her presence. Fans have long estimated McGonagall’s birthdate to have been somewhere between 1925 and 1937. In an interview posted on Scholastic’s website in 2000, Rowling said that Dumbledore was 150 years old, while McGonagall was “a sprightly 70.” Pottermore later listed Dumbledore’s birth year as being 1881, making him roughly 30 years younger than previously stated but more fitting for Jude Law’s age range in The Crimes of Grindelwald. But even giving or taking a few years and allowing for wizards’ wonky aging habits, the age gap between the characters makes it a bit of a stretch that McGonagall was running around as an adult woman in the 1920s. It’s unlikely that the “McGonagall” featured in the film could be her mother, either; the character’s Pottermore profile goes into detail about her parents but includes no mention of Isobel McGonagall ever teaching at Hogwarts.
Wanting to give fans the joy of seeing a young Minerva McGonagall onscreen is understandable — but tying your narrative timeline in knots over a haphazard cameo is not. Part of what has kept the Harry Potter series in people’s minds throughout the years is that people are constantly re-reading the series and discovering intricate foreshadowing and layered, painstakingly crafted storytelling in every book, from the first one to the last. Plenty of other children’s fantasy series have evaporated from the public imagination; Harry Potter has endured in part because the plotting and character work in the original series is largely respected. That high esteem makes it all the more notable that The Crimes of Grindelwald tap-dances all over the Harry Potter legacy and then takes a big old dump on it. The Crimes of Grindelwald practices self-destruction under the guise of giving the fans what they want.
The final twist in The Crimes of Grindelwald comes via Credence, who is revealed to be the long-lost and previously unmentioned brother of Albus Dumbledore. This brings up several potential narrative conundrums, though unlike the McGonagall cameo, it at least appears as if one of the next three Fantastic Beasts movies may attempt to address the answers. Then again: Oh god, we have three more of these movies left to go.
Even if The Crimes of Grindelwald is a filler movie, a bridge between major conflicts as the series slowly slides toward WWII, the fact that the films have already completely lost their grip on their characters and story does not bode well. This is a film that turned Queenie, previously a good person, into what essentially amounts to the wizarding version of a Nazi. The film’s writing assumes we’ll buy Queenie’s turn to the dark side simply because her desire to marry the love of her life trumps everything else. Forget that she’s a mind-reader and should be able to tell that Grindelwald — who she has pledged her allegiance to — is a murderous and evil nationalist. This series is no longer interested in the details.
Grindelwald’s climactic monologue is just as muddled: He preaches to his followers that they must oppress nonmagical people because World War II is on the horizon and threatens to destroy everyone. It’s a circular argument — he apparently wants to round up and kill Muggles because the Muggles are rounding up and killing one another. It’s unclear whether Grindelwald wants to stop the war or just take advantage of it. The original Harry Potter series, meanwhile, was known for its political allegory to the point where debate erupted in 2017 over so many people bringing the series up in reference to the Trump administration. The Crimes of Grindelwald, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to have a clear understanding of its own villain’s logic. If the film does know what Grindelwald is talking about, it doesn’t know how to present his train of thought in a way that makes any damn sense. That lack of comprehension trickles out to every single character, even the heroes. That a Wizarding World movie in 2018 is so confused about the basic ideological points at its center is tragically telling.
The problems within The Crimes of Grindelwald are so numerous that one could be forgiven for momentarily forgetting about the man who threatened to topple the whole endeavor. Rest assured: Depp is not good in this movie, either. This movie ruined itself all on its own, but Depp contributed in his own ways. The Crimes of Grindelwald is a continuation of Depp’s 15-year commitment to roles that cover him in makeup and loud costumes so that he can get away with doing little more than strutting around with a cartoonish voice. Everything Depp does in The Crimes of Grindelwald would have been approximately 50 times better if played by someone else, and there were plenty of opportunities within the narrative to make that happen. There’s an extended sequence near the beginning of the film wherein Grindelwald swaps faces (and tongues?) with other characters. It’s a scene that might make some viewers long for him to just keep one of those other faces already and put us out of our misery — or at least some of it.
The Crimes of Grindelwald couldn’t have been saved by removing Depp, but it might have made the film a small degree more tolerable. Casual fans may find the movie to be totally fine, and might be excited about the prospect of exploring the background of a brand new member of the Dumbledore family. Some will likely have no issue with celebrating a cameo by the iconic McGonagall, even though she seems to have wandered away from her own timeline. But for many longtime devoted fans, The Crimes of Grindelwald plays like a dead canary in a coal mine: stiff, morbid, and foreboding, warning viewers of a larger, deeper-rooted problem.
With The Crimes of Grindelwald, the Wizarding World franchise has lost track of what it means to craft a good story. It doesn’t seem like much to ask that a movie have characters whose motivations make sense, or that a series that makes such direct shoutouts to its predecessors honor the stories it’s playing off of. The Harry Potter series is a remarkably strong legacy to build on, but The Crimes of Grindelwald still finds a way to blow that foundation to pieces. It begs the question: If this story is so determined to cannibalize itself, then what is even the fucking point?