Significant spoilers ahead for Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.
2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them had its issues: two years ago, I wrote that the first film in the Fantastic Beasts franchise was the Phantom Menace of Harry Potter films, with the same childish, pandering humor and inability to choose a tone. It seems like the people behind the series’s second film, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, learned that lesson. But Crimes is still stuck in the same mold as its predecessor. It’s the Attack of the Clones of the Potter world when it needs to be The Last Jedi.
The surface similarities between the two middle movies’ plots practically write themselves: both films are older, darker second installments in a prequel series where the opening salvo was derided as too kid-centric. Both Crimes and Clones begin with a rainy, airborne chase sequence, and then we watch the main character (Obi-Wan Kenobi in Clones, Newt Scamander in Crimes) spend a disproportionate chunk of the movie on an investigative mission to uncover an ultimately meaningless secret (except for the people who were rocked to their cores by the histories of the Lestrange family and Jedi Master Sifo-Dyas.)
After that, all of the characters get together in an arena, there’s a fight, the heroes and the main villain both narrowly escape, and the stage is ominously set for the real war that’s to come in future films. Much like Attack of the Clones, whose titular clone battles are oddly absent from the actual film, The Crimes of Grindelwald promises a wizarding war but fails to deliver one. It rearranges the metaphorical silverware rather than diving into the main meat of the story.
But there are bigger thematic parallels between Attack of the Clones and The Crimes of Grindelwald that reveal the larger problems with the new Potter films as a whole — mainly seeing J.K. Rowling (who wrote the screenplay for both Beasts films) follow Star Wars creator George Lucas in his mistakes with his own prequel series. Much like Lucas with the prequel trilogy, the latest Fantastic Beasts films are an earlier story that the creator of the franchise claims represents their original intent for their franchise, even as it retroactively resets whole chunks of that franchise.
So the audience gets fan service-y scenes, like McGonagall’s timeline-breaking cameo in Crimes or the nonsensical appearance of the Death Star plans in Attack of the Clones decades before the Empire existed. Both nods are present so existing fans can recognize them and shout, “Hey, I know and like that thing,” even at the expense of the present story. Some of these bizarre new twists recontextualize the original work, like C-3P0 being Anakin’s creation or Nagini being a shape-shifting human before she becomes Voldemort’s familiar. Other plotlines just don’t make sense, like Anakin being a messianic virgin birth destined to save the galaxy or Credence’s secret heritage being tied up with that of the Dumbledore family, timeline be damned.
Who would dare tell J.K. Rowling that her timeline is off?
It’s easy to understand how we got here: Rowling and Lucas are creators who built universes that people love, and they earned carte blanche control over new stories set in their worlds, no matter how illogical the outcome may be. It’s no coincidence that the Fantastic Beasts movies are the first Harry Potter stories written by Rowling since the original books, just like the Star Wars prequels were Lucas’ return to his saga as sole story creator for the first time since the original film. After all, who would sit in a room with George Lucas and tell him his vision of Star Wars is bad? Who would dare tell J.K. Rowling that her timeline is off? Star Wars and Harry Potter are seemingly unstoppable forces of pop culture. But the Lucas-helmed prequels are proof that lightning doesn’t always strike twice, and it’s possible to lose sight of what people loved about your original work to the point that it takes a $4 billion Disney-backed reset to get back on track.
Add to that the general tiredness that both Clones and Crimes elicit. Both movies are middle installments in prequel series, building toward a big battle between two best friends who grew to hate each other, and the audience is already aware of how those battles turn out. Those final fights may be thrilling, but they’re hollow. Albus Dumbledore’s past victories are not the most interesting thing about him, and Darth Vader falling in a lava pit doesn’t shed any new light on science fiction’s most famous villain. If anything, learning the stories behind these characters only robs them of their mystique. Harry Potter fans have it even worse: Attack of the Clones viewers only had one more movie before they got to the big finale. Crimes of Grindelwald viewers have three more to slog through, covering 17 years of history, before the final battle.
That’s where The Last Jedi comes in. Much like The Crimes of Grindelwald, The Last Jedi was controversial among the fan base, but for very different reasons. The issues with Crimes come from Rowling’s desire to appeal to fans by referencing the previous Potter films at the expense of continuity and plot. The Last Jedi riled up some sectors of the Star Wars fandom, but at least it did so while trying something different, instead of just clinging to and repeating the past glories of the franchise. Whatever your feelings are on it breaking the Star Wars mold, the end result was a Star Wars movie unlike any we had seen before that set the stage for a future of the franchise where it feels like anything could happen.
Crimes, on the other hand, is stuck in the same mindset as Star Wars prequels. Just like Lucas’ films, which frame Anakin Skywalker and his progeny as the literal Chosen Ones, the single most important people in the galaxy, Crimes of Grindelwald falls into the exceptionalism trap.
There’s that same desperation to force connections where none were necessary, to make the world smaller by creating new characters, then shoehorning them into the previously existing lore. Percival Graves, the villain from the first Fantastic Beasts? He’s actually the famous dark wizard Grindelwald. That mysterious woman in the carnival? She’s Lord Voldemort’s pet snake! Credence, the lost, abandoned boy? He’s the long-lost secret brother of Albus Dumbledore. Even Grindelwald’s mission statement in his grand speech feels like a callback to Star Wars’ maligned midichlorians: “Magic blooms only in rare souls,” he intones, as he implies that only a special chosen few who are willing to commit genocide can… save the world from World War II. (This is an actual plot point.)
The Last Jedi tried to course-correct that trend with heroes like Finn, a generic stormtrooper-turned-hero, and Rey, whose parents turn out to be “filthy junk traders who sold her off for drinking money.” Kylo Ren taunts Rey by saying, “You have no place in this story. You come from nothing.” But Rey proves him wrong by going head-to-head with a Skywalker scion and showing she’s a key part of the still-unfolding tale. It’s a lovely idea, after years of an ever-narrowing Star Wars lens, where the all-powerful Jedi Knights had to be born into the right family if they wanted to save the galaxy. The Last Jedi went back to heroes who could come from anywhere and start as anything: a garbage-trader, a random soldier, even a slave-boy with a broom. Is Snoke a clone of the Emperor? Is he Darth Plagieus? “Who cares?” The Last Jedi practically shouts. “It’s time for something new.”
Rowling’s Wizarding World could similarly stand to take a few steps back from padding out the same central story and instead explore something entirely new. There’s a reason that world is so beloved and why fans have clamored for more of it over the years. Fans fell in love with the relatable characters and magical setting that Rowling created, and to this day, they want to continue to explore it in new ways. The Fantastic Beasts movies are raking in hundreds of millions of dollars, so there’s every reason to believe that plenty more Potterverse projects will join them in the pipeline. We’re not likely to leave this magical world behind anytime soon.
But the world is bigger than Rowling is allowing it to be. Hopefully, future installments will learn the lessons of The Last Jedi and start to reflect that by taking some risks, leaving this familiar storyline behind, killing some sacred cows, and trying something new. To quote some advice from The Last Jedi, it’s time to “let the past die. Kill it if you have to.” Otherwise, we may all end up stuck watching the revenge of Revenge of the Sith in two years’ time, when the next Fantastic Beasts rolls into theaters.