This piece contains spoilers for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
This weekend, after some house cleaning and the chaos of Thanksgiving, my mom and I went to the movies. We both wanted to see Moana and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, so we settled on a double feature: Fantastic Beasts first, then dinner, and Moana for dessert.
Over dinner, we discussed the first movie. We both liked it, we agreed. We thought the visual effects were (pun intended) fantastic, the creatures were fascinating, and that Eddie Redmayne was a great choice for the lead.
But as we discussed, a thought occurred to me. I turned to my mom with a question.
“Did you understand who Grindelwald was?”
Her answer, of course, was no. My mom has seen the movies, but she never read the books. Though she might have remembered his brief appearance in the final films, he wasn’t really highlighted. For her, Grindelwald was just a name on a newspaper. The significance of his presence in the film was lost to her entirely.
Fantastic Beasts is a movie produced under strange, but increasingly common circumstances. Harry Potter is a global phenomenon — you’d be hard pressed to find someone of my generation who hasn’t read or at least watched it. It sparked films, LEGOs, theme parks, and the ever-expanding Pottermore, for those who just can’t get enough of the world. Fantastic Beasts is a product of that multimedia empire and ravenous fanbase, always clamoring for more — it’s a story already sketched out in vague lines for devoted fans who picked up the “textbook” on which it is based.
But the film fleshes that story out. And as a part of a multimedia franchise, it does so in a manner that assumes many things about what its audience knows about the setting. If Fantastic Beasts were merely a sequel, that might be okay. There is an expectation with sequels that you really only get the full picture if you’ve followed the series (although skilled writers should be able to ground you in the story regardless.)
But Fantastic Beasts isn’t a sequel, as such. It’s the beginning of a new series, one that, while related to Harry Potter tangentially, exists entirely on its own plot and characters. It is our entry into a world familiar, yet strange.
But if this is our entry point… boy, is it muddled.
The Grindelwald issue, and indeed the assumptions made by the filmmakers, stem from a larger issue in media, particularly in speculative fiction. For the purposes of this article, I’ll call it “origin fatigue”.
Speculative fiction, in large part, is grounded in the archetypal “hero’s journey”. It is The Boy Who Lived defeating Voldemort. It is Captain America, being transformed into a super soldier and sacrificing himself for the good of the world. Even Moana, the second film of my marathon weekend, fits nicely into the hero’s journey paradigm.
But the hero’s journey in sci-fi/fantasy film is often an origin — it is the quest, the overcoming of personal weaknesses and adversity to rise to become the heroic figure. And the origin is a story we see played out over and over again. How many times can we watch a white guy undergo a superhero transformation? The answer is a lot, but people have begun to recognize the pattern. While origin stories still pull in good box office numbers, they garner more criticism. They require more scrutiny. The more origin stories there are, the better each individual one must be to rise to the top.
I think Fantastic Beasts attempts to answer this problem. It is not the story of our protagonist finding himself, of his misfit school days or discovering his calling to work with animals. Newt Scamander is who he is. He’s already on a mission. Fantastic Beasts begins in media res.
In some ways, this works well. Newt is a wonderfully realized character, whose struggles to understand people are clear without the need for melodramatic spotlighting. For strong characters, beginning in media res can be a wonderful way to circumvent the necessity of an origin. It allows the plot to push forward in new and innovative ways.
But when it comes to worldbuilding, in media res gets trickier. Fantasy worlds operate under a certain set of rules. Some are easily explained away by logic — wands to do spells, erasing the memories of non-magical beings to keep the magical world safe. But some, like Grindelwald, require more than just a few spinning newspapers and some powerful wizards saying his name in hushed tones. Unless you have read the books, Grindelwald is just a name. Another big bad, with no clear motive, no backstory, no context. His reveal at the end of the film has no impact.
And thus, Fantastic Beasts fails as a film, because the entire premise on which it rests is utterly opaque to an unfamiliar audience.
This doesn’t mean that I didn’t like the movie. Despite some objections to the way things were handled (the destruction of the Obscurial being a HUGE one), I enjoyed it immensely, as I’m sure many people have and will. I merely think it speaks to a problem in speculative fiction-based film that hasn’t been solved yet and needs more consideration.