Even as part three begins filming in the UK, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is beginning to look like a cursed franchise. Many of us are wondering how it even made it this far: the second instalment of the Harry Potter prequels was an over-designed mess and a box-office disappointment.
Since then, the magic has worn off alarmingly. JK Rowling has turned into a kind of cultural Sorting Hat, alienating swathes of fans with her comments about the trans community. Ezra Miller, who plays a pivotal character, saw their reputation as a non-binary style icon take a fall this April after footage emerged of them appearing to choke a female fan to the ground. And then there’s Johnny Depp, whose recent libel trial aired way too much dirty laundry about his relationship with Amber Heard – allegations of domestic violence, abuse, alcohol, drugs and even defecation.
So, Fantastic Beasts 3: The Chamber of Toxicity? In retrospect, Warner Bros might be wishing it had pulled the plug in March, when the production was halted by the pandemic and before this perfect storm of PR disasters struck. But given the success of the Harry Potter movies, Fantastic Beasts is too valuable a property to simply give up on. As we know, the modern movie business depends on franchises, not just to fill cinemas but also to draw subscribers to your streaming platform – a growing concern post-Covid. You set them up, you milk them for all they’re worth, you reboot them. Which is why we’re also due a sequel to a Spider-Man spin-off (Venom 2) and the umpteenth reincarnation of The Batman – also from Warners, whose misfiring stewardship of the DC superhero franchise includes a planned solo movie for The Flash, played by, er, Ezra Miller.
As well as the industry, you wonder what this situation means for acting. Traditionally, we’ve allowed great actors to be eccentric, erratic, even downright terrible human beings. Plenty of latitude was given to old-school “hellraisers” such as Oliver Reed or Richard Burton, but you’d never trust them to anchor a mega-budget, multi-movie franchise. Depp, a lifelong idoliser of celebrity rogues, managed to keep Pirates of the Caribbean afloat for 14 years, but success has clearly been a double-edged sword for him.
With so much at stake, casting a modern franchise movie has become more like selecting a political candidate. It is as much a matter of background checks and risk assessments and psychological profiling. Talent is still an asset, but nothing too “wild”, thank you. Better a safe pair of hands. Depending on your point of view, this is either making Hollywood a duller place or a safer place. But when the off-screen antics are more talked about than the on-screen ones, you know you’ve got problems.