It Is No Longer Our Choices: The Mediocrity of “Crimes of Grindelwald”
SPOILERS AHEAD: PROCEED WITH CAUTION
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald has defied the central tenet of the Potter series: characters making choices based on their feelings and morals.
Now, it appears that all the characters’ decisions are now being dictated by external magical forces. Of course, this is a convenient shortcut when your movie has about four actual characters and a dozen human-shaped cardboard cutouts in the cast. But it’s just such damn lazy writing.
It matters what someone is born, not what they grow to be!
Quick, think of a quote from Harry Potter!
You went with “It is our choices…” (CoS, ch. 18), didn’t you? The entire shtick of the Potter series is emphasizing one’s choices. This is presented in the contrast between Voldemort and Harry. Voldemort touts himself as the Heir of Slytherin and wants to elevate in society those of a certain birth. Harry is just a boy, not the Heir of Gryffindor, and treats all beings with dignity. Dumbledore encapsulates this in his quote to Fudge in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Chapter 36):
You fail to recognize that it matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be!
Well, forget all that now! In general, the wizarding world appears to have entirely moved away from this philosophy: Now all that matters is who one has been born as. In Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the villain is Voldemort’s daughter. In Fantastic Beasts, everyone is completely obsessed with who Credence was born as: a Lestrange, a Dumbledore, a Potter, or a Riddle, for all we know. It shouldn’t matter.
I was so excited, briefly, when it turned out Credence wasn’t the Lestrange baby. Brilliant! What a subversion of expectation! All this hubbub that he was a Lestrange, and now he’s a regular wizard baby! Now Credence’s character would be based on just him and his life, not his genealogy. It recalled a similar reveal in one of my favorite fantasy series, Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, where Taran wanders looking for a noble birthright, and it turns out he was just a random baby found on a battlefield. This would have been classic Rowling.
In the Potter books, your family background didn’t mean anything. Harry was a Potter, but his family was the Weasleys. Sirius’s last name was a brilliant misdirect in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but he wanted nothing to do with the Blacks. Even the easy connections, like making Zacharias Smith related to Hepzibah, were never explicitly stated. That’s what captured the imagination of a generation: Even if you were born nobody special, you could hope for someone to give you a letter and announce, “Yer a wizard” (SS, ch. 4).
But now… no. No, it’s all about the power of what your last name is in this brave new wizarding world. Aurelius Dumbledore – bah! If the Fantastic Beasts movies couldn’t be consistent with the Potter books canonically, I at least had hoped they would be consistent thematically. But it looks like they have all the thematic resonance of the umpteenth Transformers movie, whose trailer played in front of my showing of Crimes of Grindelwald.
Your word, Dumbledore… in blood!
Why can’t Dumbledore move against Grindelwald? Well, we received an answer that was a beautiful character moment for Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Chapter 35):
It was the truth I feared. You see, I never knew which of us, in that last, horrific fight, had actually cast the curse that killed my sister. You may call me cowardly: You would be right. Harry, I dreaded beyond all things the knowledge that it had been I who brought about her death, not merely through my arrogance and stupidity, but that I actually struck the blow that snuffed out her life… I think he knew it. I think he knew what frightened me. I delayed meeting him until finally, it would have been too shameful to resist any longer.
See? Choices! Free will! Emotions! All those good things that make for good storytelling and good characters that intrigue us a decade after their story ended.
But now, never mind all that. Now, Dumbledore can’t move against Grindelwald because they made a blood pact. Merlin’s pants, but that is LAME. It’s so cheap to have Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s behavior dictated by magic instead of by emotion; it’s an excuse not to delve into their feelings and spend precious screen time on explosions instead.
I was so happy when Jo did not make Dumbledore and Snape form an Unbreakable Vow: Dumbledore trusted Snape to do what needed to be done due to Snape’s character and feelings. But Jo did not extend the same trust to her characters as Dumbledore did to Snape. And I care much less about Dumbledore trying to break a magical MacGuffin than I would have about his emotional turmoil over Grindelwald.
You are setting just enough store by the prophecy!
If the characters’ family baggage and blood pacts aren’t enough, there’s apparently a whole book of prophecies that are also dictating what happens. A book of prophecies that apparently all the characters have read but none wants to say out loud for fear the audience will find out what’s going on.
Prophecies are a signature trope of fantasy literature, and a fairly tired one: Characters raging against their fates needs to be done with a deft hand. Jo threaded that needle perfectly in the Potter books, where Dumbledore emphasized to Harry that the prophecy does not mean Harry has to do anything, and that they all still have free will. Voldemort continually set store by the prophecy, but he was the only one. All the other characters acted without knowledge of their fates.
Indeed, the centaurs are skewered by the author for emphasizing fortune-telling over what’s actually happening. There is no patience for the “ruddy bunch of stargazers” (SS, ch. 15) muttering about Mars being bright when in the here and now there is a boy to be saved from a Dark Lord.
Once again, that’s all thrown aside, and we now have prophecies galore in the wizarding world: ones that will doubtless come true in dramatic fashion throughout these movies and ones that will continue to motivate the characters.
So a summation: The characters of Fantastic Beasts do things because of who they were born to be, because of prophecies indicating what they will do, and because of blood pacts limiting what they can do. Are any of the characters going to make decisions based on how they feel and their moral code? That doesn’t look likely.
The strength of the Potter books has always been the characters: The characters are the ones driving the plot. Umbridge’s sadism, Crouch, Jr.’s obsession, Voldemort’s desire for immortality, Hermione’s compassion, Ron’s inferiority complex, Draco’s arrogance, Fudge’s ambition, Lockhart’s desire for fame, Snape’s need for atonement, Lupin’s need for acceptance… these are what kept us turning over 4,000 pages to find out what they’d do. Replace all that with significant last names and prophecies, and I don’t particularly care what they all do.