Both on screen and off, there are big challenges facing the upcoming Fantastic Beasts 3 – and the ongoing franchise may very well hinge on it.

A spoiler lies within for Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them

The news just before the weekend that Johnny Depp was asked to resign the role of Gellert Grindelwald in the Fantastic Beasts films might have come out of the blue, but there was a feeling the writing had been on the wall there for a little while.

Even when he was cast in the first place, amidst serious allegations to do with his personal life, the creator of the franchise – J K Rowling – ended up issuing a statement on her website to defend his casting, such was the volume of the backlash. In the aftermath of his unsuccessful libel trial against The Sun newspaper – hardly a bastion of pleasantness itself – Depp is now facing a film career in tatters, at least when it comes to high profile roles.

Quickly there was a fan push for the part to revert back to Colin Farrell, who portrayed the character in the original movie (although news today suggests that Mads Mikkelsen will be taking it on going forward). Going back, there was some surprise anyway when that original casting switch was announced, and that Farrell wasn’t the choice going forward.

That said, that was the creative decision made, and across the original Harry Potter series of movies that preceded the Fantastic Beasts saga, the core team  consistently got far more calls right than wrong. This one? Less so. It’s easy of course to sit here in hindsight, but across the duration of the eight Potter films, a statement didn’t have to be issued to justify the casting of an actor before. There were warning signs, but when things were weighed up, a choice was made by people who made a call based on the information they had. Entirely their right of course.

Yet all this adds further pressure to a series of stories that also – across two films so far – hasn’t found its footing for me. We’re two movies into an announced series of five, and I can’t help but feel that if there’s not some course correction coming, Fantastic Beasts 5 is a longer shot than originally thought.

The challenges facing the third film are multiple.

Firstly, what’s on the screen.

If the first Fantastic Beasts movie was a pretty okay, functional setting up of the new ‘Wizarding World’ – and it had a lot of work to do, in terms of introducing a whole new collection of characters into a series facing high fan expectation – the second I found a real grind.

There’s the old theory that one film tends to be a reaction in part to the movie before it, he says badly paraphrasing, and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald thus took a journey direct to Hogwart’s that pretty nearly took me out of the film. It felt – and I’m an outsider with no insight on this, and talk from that perspective – that the criticisms of the first movie had been absorbed, and there was an eagerness to respond to them. Just that things swung too far the other way.

I was also reminded of how much fun the previous Potter films were, how delightful it was to spend time with the characters. How I kept wanting to know more, even though I knew what was going to happen. I’ve never had that really with Fantastic Beasts. The characters that have shone through – Queenie, Jacob and Tina – keep being removed from the centre of the story. I’ve no problem with Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander – lord knows having an introvert at the heart of a big story is a bold choice that I really admire – but the character hasn’t quite clicked. I keep wanting the films to follow other’s stories, rather than his.

I don’t think I’m alone either. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald received middling reviews at best, but crucially there were the first signs that the audience was waning. Box office was notably down – although at $655m, we’re hardly talking a flop – and there were complaints that not much actually happened. That it was a cluttered film that spent so long building for stuff to come, it forgot to let us have some fun now.

Two films in, I’d suggest that for many people the Fantastic Beasts movies feel some way from capturing the Potter magic on the big screen again. And I think whilst the hardcore audience will always stick with the series, at $200m a film just to make, Warner Bros needs more than that.

It’d be remiss too to not acknowledge what’s happened off the screen.

The controversy over Depp’s casting in the first place did seem to place a small spell of unease at least over the second film. His replacement in the third should address that.

J K Rowling has also been in the news, of course. This isn’t an article to dissect the arguments that she’s been raising, primarily because there are far more knowledgeable people than me with actual, proper insight who can articulate their viewpoint better than I could. Rowling, for her part, has published a detailed explanation on why she has used her platform to speak out – in her words – on sex and gender issues.

This article at USA Today, meanwhile, gives voice to some in the trans community who have struggled with the position Rowling has taken.

Whether intended or not, many saw Harry Potter as a safe and inclusive space, and its reputation for that has taken damage for off-screen reasons. How much damage remains to be seen.

It’s against this backdrop too that Fantastic Beasts 3 has one hell of a metaphorical needle to thread.

It has to address the declining cinema audience for the last film, and try and reverse that fall in a world under the shadow of Covid. Even if all things were equal, that’d be an enormous challenge. I’m reminded that Sony abandoned it’s The Amazing Spider-Man franchise when the second film made ‘only’ $700m, and I’d imagine a cost-conscious Warner Bros has its eye firmly on what audience the third film attracts.

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The next movie also has to find a way through a fractured community, and to give fans that safe space. To find a way for the Wizarding World to capture for people what Harry Potter was. Is that possible? Again, I don’t have the insight. Thing is, I’m not sure anybody does. There are many who suggest they’ll boycott the next film, but until it’s out, it’s unclear how big and potent a threat that is.

And then on top of all of that, the film has to make this Fantastic Beasts series finally work. That it has to give it a reason for being, outside of many of us wanting to see more adventures in this world.

What’s the story these films are going to tell? Why does it need five films to tell it? Why should we be rooting for all of these characters? I’m not sure we’ve seen the answers to those questions so far.

Steve Kloves, who adapted Rowling’s books for the Potter movies, has been drafted in on co-screenwriting duties this time around. That feels to me that there’s an acknowledgement somewhere along the line that help is needed, and it’s also a wise hire. It puts at the heart of the movies now the full core creative team that drove the back four Potter films.

What’s unclear though is whether it’s going to be enough, whether it’s in time, and whether the interest is still there. The pressure’s really on here, on lots of fronts, and that’s a difficult environment at the best of times to deliver a terrific movie in. Problem here is, if they don’t this time around, the chances of Fantastic Beasts 4 are going to dramatically narrow. The next film is due in July 2022, with production already underway. There’s going to be much riding on it…

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