On the release of 2016’s magical Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, it was hard to imagine its sequel putting a foot wrong. The Harry Potter spinoff was a total delight that placed viewers behind the scenes of New York’s magical community and used its world to to riff on contemporary issues: Trump-style racism, Pence-style homophobia, and how to tackle them. It was just the right balance of grown-up clout and childish wonder.
The same doesn’t seem to be quite the case with Fantastic Beasts: the Crimes of Grindelwald, this year’s follow-up, due in November. It’s been an improbably controversial film ever since the first set photo was released in November last year, through which it was made much more widely known that Johnny Depp would be playing the titular Grindelwald.
In 2016 Depp was accused of assaulting his ex-wife, Amber Heard, a claim Depp denied in the face of what appeared to be damning video evidence, before the pair later settled their divorce and domestic abuse case. In the wake of the Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement, Depp’s continued presence in the film has riled many. “If Ridley Scott can fire Kevin Spacey after filming an entire movie with him and voluntarily reshooting it a month before release,” wrote one widely retweeted Twitter user, “then y’all can do the same thing with Johnny Depp, because you still have a year to go.”
December 2017 found screenwriter J.K. Rowling frustrating fans by saying she wasn’t able to talk directly about the issue because of “the agreements that have been put in place to protect the privacy of two people.” But she went on to defend the man who’d been accused of domestic abuse, writing: “Based on our understanding of the circumstances, the filmmakers and I are not only comfortable sticking with our original casting, but genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies.” Director David Yates added: “I can only tell you about the man I see every day: He’s full of decency and kindness, and that’s all I see.” It was like watching Lena Dunham defend Murray Miller all over again. In January Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe was asked about the Depp issue and diplomatically said that he could “see why people are frustrated.”
It’s not just the Depp furore that’s cast a weird shadow over the franchise. In 2007 J.K. Rowling revealed that Dumbledore was gay, and LGBT viewers might have been excited to see that fact addressed for the first time in this film, which features the young Dumbledore debuting in the form of Jude Law. Fans will be aware that Dumbledore was in love with Grindelwald at one stage, and that must have some bearing on the plot of this film, right? Apparently not: asked yesterday (January 31) if the film will make clear that Dumbledore is gay, director David Yates said: “Not explicitly”. Not explicitly. “But I think all the fans are aware of that,” he added.
If you watched the original Fantastic Beasts, you may have recognised the allegory for internalised homophobia that found itself in the character of Credence Barebone, who was taught by his family to resent his own magical abilities so much that his pain physically manifested as a horrific magical maelstrom that destroyed everything around him. It’s ironic for this film to gloss over – or ignore – the sexuality of its only gay character because “all the fans are aware” that he’s gay. It’s on a par with the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “gay moment” in 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, which seemed to want praise for an empty display of tokenism.
In a thread that chimed across Twitter, one user summed up fan frustration at the decision: “It would genuinely kill JKR to acknowledge gay men as sexual beings,” he wrote. “He’s not a celibate thousand-year-old in this one, so we gotta be sure we keep it off-camera. I don’t even care because the last thing I want is to see some movie about a gay character’s love for Johnny Depp as Wizard Hitler but if you’re going to do the thing, do the thing. Jeez.”
Rowling has hit back at her critics, writing: “Being sent abuse about an interview that didn’t involve me, about a screenplay I wrote but which none of the angry people have read, which is part of a five-movie series that’s only one instalment in, is obviously tons of fun, but you know what’s even *more* fun?” To this tweet she appended a GIF of Lil Yachty hitting the ‘mute’ button.
Fair enough – perhaps we’re all going to be proven wrong – but with her movie already shaping up to be this tone-deaf, perhaps muting the opposition isn’t the best idea.