Fantastic Beasts is now the world's most problematic movie franchise
Between J.K. Rowling, Johnny Depp, Ezra Miller, and declining box office, the Harry Potter prequel might be cursed.
Is Fantastic Beasts cursed?
After two films and with a third on the way, Warner Bros.' Harry Potter prequel franchise is now in the unenviable position of having a trio of its key talents in varying temperatures of hot water.
Author J.K. Rowling has served as the films' screenwriter, yet is now a serious flashpoint of controversy due to her past (and still ongoing statements) about trans issues that have prompted even the stars of the Harry Potter and the Fantastic Beasts films to denounce her comments and distance themselves.
Actor Ezra Miller plays the critical lynchpin character Credence Barebone and in April was slammed after a video appeared on social media of a man presumed to be Miller seemingly choking a female fan to the ground outside a pub in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Obviously, each situation is very different and comes with its own context. Rowling has been universally criticized for her trans beliefs, while she claims she's a lifelong progressive advocating women's rights. Depp has strongly denied Heard's claims, saying that she abused him instead, and some fans feel Depp was exonerated by a leaked audio recording in January of Heard saying things to Depp such as, "I was hitting you" and "I can't promise I won't get physical again. I f---ing get so mad sometimes I lose it." Depp is also suing The Sun newspaper for libel over the abuse claims in a trial that's expected to begin Tuesday and could lend an official verdict of sorts to the issue. Miller has yet to comment on the choking video, which is unconfirmed to be him.
The problem for Fantastic Beasts is less about the particulars of each case (though the Rowling issue appears especially damaging, at least at the moment) than the fact there are now three lightning-rod talents attached to one upcoming film — which has some other baggage to carry as well.
The previous Fantastic Beasts movie, 2018's The Crimes of Grindelwald, wrestled mightily with how to handle Depp, who divorced Heard in 2016. The actor made an in-character appearance at San Diego Comic-Con and agreed to do just one interview to promote the film (with EW, where we asked him about the controversy). Adding to the uproar surrounding the movie: Some fans accused Crimes of keeping Dumbledore in the closet and handling Nagini's storyline in a racially offensive manner. Going into the third film, it's like that scene in Titanic when the captain realizes that five lower deck compartments have flooded: "[The ship] can stay afloat with the first four compartments breached, but not five. Not five!" The question is whether a massive expensive family-friendly film franchise can stay afloat with so many of its compartments flooded.
Because there's yet another factor to consider (another compartment, if you will) and that's Beasts' box office. The first film, 2016's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, grossed a hearty $814 million worldwide. Then Crimes worrisomely fell to $654 million worldwide (despite adding Jude Law to the cast as a charismatic young version of the fan-favorite character Albus Dumbledore), and also received much weaker reviews (just 36 percent "Fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes). The decline in fan interest and critical esteem set up the third film to have a considerable headwind going against it — and that's before you add all of the above.
And yet, halting the franchise could be financially painful for the studio as well. The first two films begin a story and their future value as products (for fans to rent and own) hinge on that story being complete. Even if the remaining films merely broke even at the box office they would arguably be worthwhile since a complete story from beginning to end is always going to be more valuable in the streaming afterlife.
And remember, there are supposed to be five of these movies! The original plan was to make a quintet of Beasts movies, each set in a different country in the Wizarding World.
So what happens now?
Production on the third film — largely set in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil — was scheduled to begin March 13, but filming was halted at the last minute due to the pandemic. The release date was Nov. 12 2021, but that will presumably change. Warner Bros. isn't commenting about the controversies for the time being.
Arguably the most difficult issue is Rowling, who is creatively integral to the franchise and quite adamant in her views — the author doing a total about-face and apologizing seems unlikely (and for many, it won't matter at this point if she does). On the third film, she's joined by Harry Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves, but there's no getting around the fact that she co-wrote the script and has outlined the remaining films. The Wizarding World belongs to Rowling just as much as Middle-earth belongs to J.R.R. Tolkien. To some extent, a certain degree of fandom uproar about major franchises seems increasingly inevitable (Marvel and Star Wars have had controversies, too, in recent years). Yet Beasts is now carrying a collective burden that no spell can easily vanish.