Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was (almost) everything I hoped it would be. The new movie has the same sense of wonder and whimsy that made Harry Potter a phenomenon, and the lurking menace of Gellert Grindelwald was enough to restore my interest in the franchise. At the very least, I’m no longer dreading the prospect of another four films.
Unfortunately, I am dreading the prospect of another four films starring Johnny Depp. Despite everything Fantastic Beasts does right, Depp is a specter hanging over the future of the franchise. The Wizarding World and the fans who love it are facing an impending crisis, and it’s going to be difficult for many to reconcile the ideals the character represents with their love of his franchise.
This post contains spoilers for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Proceed with caution.
The reckoning is coming sooner rather than later thanks to the earlier than expected appearance of Johnny Depp in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Though I knew that Depp had been signed for the sequel, I did not know that he would be making a cameo in Fantastic Beasts. It therefore came as an unwelcome surprise when he turned up as Gellert Grindelwald in the closing moments, removing the Colin Farrell mask that he’d been wearing for most of the film. Like most Potterheads, I’d realized that Farrell’s Percival Graves was in fact Grindelwald when he showed up with a Deathly Hallows necklace. I’d just assumed (and hoped) that Farrell had been cast as the dark wizard, and that he was able to hide in plain sight because no one knew what he looked like.
That proved not to be the case. Depp will be the primary villain for the next four films, driving the story in the same way that Voldemort drove the original series. The health of the franchise now depends on his ability to serve as an entertaining villain.
The problem is that seeing a Johnny Depp movie in 2016 is an unpleasant proposition for reasons that have nothing to do with acting. After several decades as a goth media darling, the Depp bubble burst in May when his then-wife Amber Heard went public with allegations of domestic violence. Beyond Heard’s own testimony, video and photographic evidence exposed a terrifying pattern of anger and abuse, leading to a divorce settlement that stated that "Neither party has made false accusations for financial gain." It was a tacit admission that Heard’s allegations had merit, albeit one couched in legal doublespeak that allowed Depp to admit guilt without actually doing so.
Their separation is now final as far as the courts are concerned, but Depp has yet to make any significant display of contrition. In the meantime, his star seems to be as bright as ever. He has both Fantastic Beasts and another Pirates of the Caribbean movie on the docket, rocketing him back to the top of the marquee after years of middling fare like Transcendence and Mortdecai. Depp becomes the latest male celebrity to enjoy a career boost in the middle of a personal firestorm, making it increasingly unlikely that he will face any serious professional consequences as a result of his actions.
That creates an uncomfortable bind for fans of Harry Potter. Though the story took many twists and turns over the course of seven books, Harry Potter resonated globally because the central theme is remarkably simple. Harry Potter is about compassion. From Muggles to Mudbloods, every single book reinforced the idea that love is more powerful than hate and that it is vitally important to have respect for other living beings. It was empowering because it taught readers that understanding and cooperation are viable antidotes to fear.
For many fans, it was also far more than an idle parable. Harry Potter became a legitimate call to action, inspiring real-world, fan-driven organizations like The Harry Potter Alliance (aka "Dumbledore’s Army"), a charitable non-profit that uses Harry Potter to foster a "collaborative culture that solves the world’s problems." Since 2005, The Alliance has sent relief to Haiti, raised money and awareness for Darfur, and advocated for safe spaces through the Granger Leadership Academy and Protego, an initiative that promotes trans rights.
Johnny Depp’s involvement in the Fantastic Beasts franchise directly repudiates those messages. Simply put, Johnny Depp did not respect his wife, and when his actions became public knowledge he led a smear campaign to undermine her credibility, invoking old, misogynistic stereotypes that tell us that women lie about domestic violence. To protect his reputation, Depp selfishly undercut feminist efforts to dispel that myth. His narrative was directed at an individual woman, but it reinforces institutional sexism (and makes women feel unsafe) because it ensures that the next woman will still struggle to be believed.
Fantastic Beasts finished filming in late 2015, which means that Depp’s role — and all of the relevant contracts — were signed long before Depp’s abuse became public knowledge. Even so, Warner Bros. is taking his side. Any studio that hires and promotes Depp in 2016 implicitly endorses his sexism, overlooking his personal history of abuse to capitalize a patriarchal system that devalues women’s voices. It feels like a betrayal when J.K. Rowling can offer support to the HP Alliance or defend the new casting of Hermione Granger while also praising Johnny Depp’s performance. The same franchise that delivered outspoken feminist icons like Hermione Granger, Luna Lovegood, and Minerva McGonagall is now telling us that women can’t be trusted as narrators of their own experience.
It’s disappointing because it indicates that Harry Potter is just as cowardly as the rest of us. The franchise’s respect for people — and women in particular — becomes a front that will vanish as soon as it becomes financially inconvenient. That’s long been the case when it comes to powerful men in Hollywood, but people expect better from fiction. We turn to fantasy to see an idealized version of our own world, a glimpse at what we could be if we could overcome our fears.
The Harry Potter Alliance and other groups are attempting to realize that world, drawing their mandate from the fact that Harry Potter is universally recognized as a force for good. That was best demonstrated through the successful "Not in Harry’s Name" campaign, which pressured Warner Bros. to use fair trade chocolate in its officially licensed wizard merchandise. As a fictional character, Harry Potter can set an aspirational standard that a real person or corporation could never hope to live up to. Depp’s casting breaks the illusion, his mere presence calling attention to our hypocrisy and serving as a reminder that certain people are considered more valuable than others.
That’s the bind. The fans who want more Harry Potter are presumably hoping that the Wizarding World will continue to advocate for respect, tolerance, and equality. Sadly, that’s not possible as long as Depp holds such a prominent position. If his performance is bad, the movies may flounder and Warner Bros. will devote fewer resources to the franchise. If the movies do well, Depp will be celebrated and fans will be forced to root for someone who represents everything Harry Potter is supposed to stand against. Either way, it could signal the death of the series. Warner Bros. can always churn out more licensed products, but their relationship to Harry Potter would no longer be recognizable without the moral foundation that sustained the books.
Ideally, the studio would recast the role and move on with another actor, just as Marvel does whenever it becomes dissatisfied with War Machine or the Hulk. Instead, it seems that Warner Bros. is hoping that audiences will forget about Depp’s abuse by the time the franchise reaches its conclusion. That’s probably a safe bet from a business perspective, but to fans, Harry Potter is supposed to be above such mercenary considerations. As long as Depp is attached to the franchise, it creates a schism in which Harry Potter as an institution is unwilling to take the kind of stance that made Harry Potter heroic as a character. It remains to be seen whether the avid fan base will be able to survive such a compromising rift.