Editors’ note: This piece originally ran following the release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Now that the film’s sequel title has officially been revealed as Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, we’re resurfacing this primer on Johnny Depp’s very blond and very evil dark wizard.
The word is out — Johnny Depp is in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. And fans who caught the movie now that it’s out in theaters already know who the Oscar-nominated Animagus is actually playing in the new franchise.
Because the internet can’t have nice surprises, news broke earlier this month that Depp would appear Fantastic Beasts — which, if you hadn’t known this when you saw the movie, is a reveal that would have rendered you utterly speechless (I know, because I hadn’t, and I was). But now, the dissection can begin: Who is he playing, and what does it mean for the next four Beasts movies?
SPOILERS FOLLOW! DON’T GET MAD! YOU LITERALLY CLICKED THIS ARTICLE SO THIS IS ON YOU!
Voldemort, I’mma let you finish, but Gellert Grindelwald is the greatest dark wizard of all time. And now he’s being played by three-time Oscar nominee and 13-time People’s Choice Award winner Johnny Depp.
Depp is now and forever Grindelwald, aged 43, a prolific although largely unseen wizard in the Harry Potter saga who precedes Voldemort as the greatest threat to wizardkind — but figures most prominently into the backstory of Albus Dumbledore. If Harry’s biggest personal foe is Tom Riddle, Dumbledore’s is Grindelwald — they’re of similar age, of equally matched power, and their final duel in 1945 would become one of the most legendary face-offs in wizard history. (They might also have been lovers, but that’s a thinkpiece for another day.)
The key thing to know about Grindelwald, unlike Voldemort, is this: The level of his danger is uncharted territory in the Roaring Twenties, both in North America and Europe. No wizard ever threatened the world order in such a severe way before Grindelwald came along.
Before diving into his appearance in Beasts, let’s get into some backstory: Grindelwald was a student at Europe’s Durmstrang Institute (later, the school of Viktor Krum) but was expelled for practicing dark magic. Upon going to live with his great aunt, magical historian Bathilda Bagshot, in Godric’s Hollow, Grindelwald met young Albus Dumbledore. As wildly clever teens, the two struck up a deep friendship, bolstered by a shared belief that muggles should be subservient to wizards. Dumbledore’s moral values varied slightly from Grindelwald’s, but nevertheless their relationship blossomed, as did their ambitions — until Albus’ brother, Aberforth, confronted the two about their troubling worldviews. The result was a contentious three-way duel, which ended in the accidental death of the Dumbledores’ little sister, Ariana.
Following the inadvertent casualty, Grindelwald fled. That was 1899.
Fantastic Beasts takes place in 1926, which places Dumbledore back at Hogwarts as a Transfiguration professor and Grindelwald making a name for himself as a fugitive terrorist pursuing a world where wizards outwardly rule muggles, rather than live in hiding. Newspaper headlines confirm that he’s already a major international threat. Similarly, consider a scene in the film in which Newt is interrogated and mentions the villain’s credo: “Mass slaughter for the greater good? … I’m not one of Grindelwald’s fanatics.” Grindelwald clearly has a dark presence, as well as some sporadic adherents, if not an entire organized following just yet.
So, what’s Grindelwald doing in New York? He’s in search of a parasitic dark magic force called an obscurus. He’s had a vision that a powerful one is hiding somewhere in New York, and it has led him to a spooky orphan named Credence, whom Grindelwald believes can help track down and harness the creature. (My theory: Could Ariana Dumbledore have been an obscurus? It could explain Grindelwald’s obsession with this one.) To blend in, Grindelwald disguised himself as Percival Graves, a fearsome security Auror at MACUSA; however, it’s unclear how long Grindelwald has been undercover as Graves, just as it’s unclear whether his disguise is through Polyjuice Potion (which would require Graves to be alive somewhere) or through some other disfigurement charm (which seems more likely, considering Newt exposed Grindelwald using a simple Revelio spell).
Unmasked, Depp has two lines. The first — “You think you can hold me?” — all but promises that his custody in MACUSA won’t last very long. The second is a little more interesting: “Will we die, just a little?” he says to Newt before he’s escorted away. Frankly, I won’t lie — I have no idea what that means. A friend suggested it might have something to do with horcruxes, but I can’t imagine we’ll go down that route again, not the least of which because we know how Grindelwald eventually meets his fate (and it’s not through the destruction of another damn tiara). It may also refer to his feeling that his noble cause is for the greater good, and wizards like Newt and Tina who stand in the way of his progress are essentially hurting themselves by halting his mission.
Nevertheless, moving forward, Grindelwald will soon gain rampant followers and rise to power in Europe; he appears to be working mostly as a renegade wizard right now, fighting the solo fight against the International Statute of Secrecy. Based on his age, he ostensibly already has the Elder Wand (and did you catch Tina Accio-ing the heck out of it!? Guess who’s got it now, baby!) and given that he’s already co-opted the Deathly Hallows symbol, we should assume he’s actively on the hunt for the other two. Eventually, he’ll start the first wizarding war, and in about 20 years, he’ll find himself face to face again in a legendary duel with Dumbledore at the end of World War II.
While it looks like I’ve just spoiled this whole arc, there’s actually quite a lot to Grindelwald’s story that we don’t know from the books. Most of it, really. Rowling only laid out the broadest strokes, and Fantastic Beasts will tell that tale in between — or at the very least, the last two decades of it, with likely flashbacks to their disastrous fall-out in 1899. We know close to nothing about the details of how Grindelwald spent the 46 years after his departure from Godric’s Hollow, how he rose to power, what fresh terror marked the height of his reign, and Dumbledore’s relationship to him through it all. (Fun idea: Who will be his Bellatrix? Could it be that Zoe Kravitz’s character Leta Lestrange, the onetime paramour of Newt, becomes Grindelwald’s right-hand woman?)
Either way, you must agree: Fantastic Beasts‘ five-movie plan suddenly makes a lot more sense after the Depp reveal, which effectively renders this first film to be pure exposition introducing us to the foursome that will presumably be instrumental in the Grindelwald-Dumbledore story. How will Newt, Tina, Jacob, and Queenie figure into the chase? Heck, will they even? Will they pursue him across America and, perhaps, to the U.S. wizarding school Ilvermorny first? And how soon will we find ourselves back in England for the inevitable legendary duel between Albus and Gellert?
Meanwhile, the casting of Depp himself demands certain discussion — both because of the actor’s real-world controversies and his performance. From an onscreen standpoint, Depp — like Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort — has a lot of character evolution to build upon. In Beasts’ fleeting moments with him, Depp’s approach to Grindelwald seems to be frenzied and deranged, leaning heavily into the ‘toonish quirks of physical appearance, as Depp is wont to do. (Speaking of physicality, I hereby officially deem ignored the fact that Jamie Campbell-Bower, who looks next to nothing like Depp, played a younger Grindelwald in barely-there flashbacks in Deathly Hallows.) Like it or not, it’s too early to judge Depp’s take, but personally, the casting is exciting. Depp should bring some manic fun to this new franchise by offering a more animated, almost Joker-esque madman take (though more Leto than Ledger) on a wizard villain rather than treading the same all-terror, all-the-time territory as Fiennes’ Voldemort. It’s a type of nemesis we haven’t seen in the wizarding world before, and one that I’m confident Rowling will guide to genuine fright by the franchise’s end.
But there’s one more important thing to remember about what the Grindelwald reveal means: Young Dumbledore is coming. Cinematically, hot young Dumbledore. A hot young gay Dumbledore, at that. Forty-something British actors better start buffing up their resumes (among other things) now, as this casting is the next benchmark to tide us over until Fantastic Beasts 2. It’s the real silver lining in all of this. Or, silver fox lining, if we’re lucky.