The first instalment of the Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them series took me by surprise. I was excited that I could once again peer behind the curtain of the wizarding word – in all of its whimsical wonder – for another five films. The differences between American and British relationships to magic, seeing younger versions of fan-favorite characters, and the context of magic in the early 20th century really intrigued me. It was pleasantly surprising how much I became invested in the characters, especially protagonist Newt Scamander.
While an unpopular opinion, Newt is my favorite mainstream male protagonist (aside from Black Panther’s T’Challa). Scamander presents as an unconventional male hero, the kind of character typically relegated to sidekick status. He performs a refreshingly atypical form of masculinity, especially for the lead in a fantasy adventure film. His is a quiet, vulnerable, yet confident form of manhood. Newt’s character is largely defined by his extraordinary ability to connect with magical creatures and by his inability to connect with other human beings. He’s strongly opposed to segregation, discriminatory laws, capital punishment, and other violence committed in the name of justice. Newt’s truly special gift is not his magic, but his empathy. He’s sincere, nurturing, emotional, and sensitive. This type of quiet, sensitive masculinity is out of the ordinary for a leading man. Scamander’s version of manhood doesn’t stem from physical strength or combat skills, but rather his sensitivity. He’s a humble caregiver who is content with his personal goal: writing textbooks.
Walking into the theater to watch the series’ second instalment, The Crimes of Grindelwald, I was bursting at the seams with enthusiasm. Walking out was a completely different story. This movie did not work for me. It’s packed with information, doesn’t tell much of a story, and then it’s all over. The setting was sad and bland compared to the Hogwarts of the original franchise. When Rowling went to expand on her original Harry Potter series, I thought the thorough world-building that brought Hogwarts and the Ministry to life would resurface. It did not.
In Crimes of Grindelwald, an alarming number of coincidences happen in order to bring these characters together. The film introduces many themes based in lore, and takes for granted that the audience is more interested in the lore of Harry Potter. And if you’re not already aware of the dynamic between Dumbledore and Grindelwald, the film doesn’t attempt to help you out.
I was disappointed that this movie does exactly what I didn’t want: it places Newt in the background of his own story in the service of more traditionally masculine characters and the cheap thrills of Harry Potter nostalgia. The disregard of Scamander is especially disappointing considering all the themes that his character could be tackling. There’s so much to explore with a magical zoologist living after the Industrial Revolution but before the technological one. I would’ve wanted to see Newt, Jacob, Tina, and Queenie – the core four characters from the first movie – as well as Leta having their own story. I also wish that we had more time to go on fun and magical explorations before we get to the big, world-ending crises. Let us get to know and love these characters. Let us have some wonder and some whimsy and find some fantastic beasts before mentioning Grindelwald.
Nagini, Voldemort’s snake whose human form is played by South Korean actress Claudia Kim, does not have much character development or actual dialogue, and her only character arc involves befriending Credence. This reminds me of many stereotypes plaguing Asian female characters, who are often characterized as silent sidekicks.
As a black female Potterhead, I also can’t get over the characterization and fate of Leta Lestrange. When she was introduced with a cameo by Zoë Kravitz in the first movie, I fell in love with the idea of her, hoping that her Fantastic Beasts character arc wouldn’t end with her being a mere footnote in Newt Scamander’s life – coming second to his love story with Tina Goldstein, that is. But that turned out to be the least problematic part of her character arc. Leta dies at the end of Crimes of Grindelwald – something that could still be undone in later movies – but her death is particularly offensive.
In the film, Leta works in the British Ministry of Magic, alongside Newt’s brother, Theseus, to whom she is engaged. The first movie hints at Leta being a tragic and complicated character; here, it’s revealed that she’s defined by a past of neglect, pain, and guilt over something she did as a child. Her backstory is handed to the audience in one massive flashback. Shortly after this, Grindelwald holds a rally for this followers. Led by Theseus, Aurors (highly trained wizards) surround the rally to defeat his evil. Grindelwald fends them off while sending his emissaries across Europe to spread his message. He casts a circle of blue flames to divide his followers from his enemies. Leta sacrifices herself to save the other main characters – though not before declaring “I love you” to one or both of the Scamander brothers.
The problem with Leta is a problem of intersectionality, and, more specifically, a lack thereof. J.K. Rowling’s screenplay fails to consider that Leta is a black woman, and not just a woman, so the troubles she faces in her arc comes across as problematic. Leta’s half-brother, Yusuf Kama, reveals that her father, Corvus Lestrange Sr., was attracted to his Senegalese mother, Laurena. Corvus used a curse on her so that she’d sleep with him and eventually produce Leta. A white man magically taking control of a black woman and using that control, in part, to rape her, is a slavery narrative. The film uses it to cast Leta in the role of the “tragic mulatto” – an archetypical mixed-race person who’s assumed to be sad, or even suicidal, because they fail to completely fit into the “white world” or the “black world.”
And what makes it all worse is that the film employs the trope unconsciously. It’s implied by Leta’s words and the framing of her story that her life, her neglect, and perhaps even her mother’s enslavement, are due to the Lestrange family’s lack of respect for women, not because of their race. “My father owned a very strange family tree. It only recorded the men. The women in my family were recorded as flowers. Beautiful. Separate,” she tells Newt. The fact that a white man kidnaps and rapes a black woman, and that their daughter later sacrifices herself so that her white suitors can escape, is unbelievable. And that’s why I wish that she hadn’t existed in the franchise at all. The teases of Leta’s complicated history with Newt in the first film were so promising, only for her to end up as nothing more than a sacrifice. Leta and Newt simply have more chemistry than Newt and Tina. I want to see more black women be sought-after and loved as full human beings in sci-fi and fantasy spaces. Both Newt and Tina’s marriage and Bellatrix Lestrange exist in the Harry Potter books, so I assume that J.K. Rowling planned this storyline from the beginning. For me, the real tragedy of Leta’s character isn’t that she was unable to find acceptance; the tragedy is that her creator never saw her worthy of being the main love interest, one worthy of agency and humanity.
The film gets especially muddled as Rowling tries to layer our modern-day politics – particularly a discussion of certain leadership styles and ideologies – into the story. When she was writing Harry Potter, it was at a time when those parallels to the real world were less visible. She alluded to Hitler and Nazism, and it’s hard to keep doing that now while still telling a magical story full of whimsy, and while still touching on this mythology that she introduced in the original series.
Political and religious allegory can certainly be woven into a fantasy medium, but it must be done cleverly. Having Grindelwald preach about abolishing laws concealing wizards from muggles, and also utilizing future WWII imagery to justify worldwide wizard supremacy and domination, is not doing it cleverly. Rowling is trying to do too many things at once, and ironically, for a film series that’s about magic, there’s too little magic and whimsy. It is far more grim, which would be fine if it were in the service of a greater story, but it instead becomes a dreary mess.
The reveal that Credence Barebone is actually Alerus Dumbledore, brother of Albus (and therefore, Aberforth and Ariana), is in no way satisfying because there has been no time for the audience to build a connection with him. He spends most of the film moping around and not doing not much else. And if you’re going to include Albus and Grindelwald in a prequel series together, years after hinting at a more-than-platonic relationship between the two, then explore the storyline explicitly, for both plot and queer representation purposes. Rowling wants brownie points for representation without providing actual representation.
Throughout the whole film, events seem truncated because the characters and plot aren’t given room to evolve. J.K. Rowling has some wonderful ideas, but going forward, she could use the help of a co-writer or supervisor to guide her through adapting all of her ideas for the big screen, because it’s not the same as writing a book. Crimes Of Grindelwald, with its disregard for its revolutionary male protagonist, mistreatment of black and Asian women, erasure of queer characters, concentration camp imagery, non-existent three-act structure, little character development, and no sense of conflict, is everything but fantastic.