The theater where I saw Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore had a problem. Throughout all of the pre-film rigmarole—commercials and trivia, some previews and announcements—the screen didn’t work. All nine of us present in the audience on opening night could hear the advertisements, but not see them.
By the start of the feature presentation, the visuals had flickered on, so my viewing experience for the third Beasts film was not compromised. But I’m not sure how much I would have missed had the screen remained dark.
That might seem an overly harsh assessment of a movie that eclipses its predecessor in quality—though given the disorienting mess that was 2018’s Crimes of Grindelwald, that’s not a high bar to clear. But the Beasts prequel series is now more than halfway over, and it still lacks any sort of forward momentum or propulsive reason to continue.
After this latest offering, it’s clear the series is at war with itself, on many fronts: the second and third movies over where the plot should go; the “Fantastic Beasts” half and the “Crimes of Grindelwald/Secrets of Dumbledore” half over what kind of tone and characters should take center stage; and the creator, studio, and fandom over whether it’s even worth trying to press on.
To that final point, a Variety report last week revealed that inside Warner Bros., “there’s a growing sense the prequel series is no longer worth” the production headaches, and that the studio will wait to see how The Secrets of Dumbledore performs before giving the go-ahead to more Beasts movies. Based on the early returns—just a 49 percent rating from Rotten Tomatoes and a series-low $43 million in domestic box office returns from opening weekend—that go-ahead might never come.
If there is a sense of overarching doom around this stalled series, it at least deserves the pessimism. The seesawing plots of the past two Beasts movies confound. Perhaps the most important developments from Crimes of Grindelwald were:
- Credence’s reveal, courtesy of Gellert Grindelwald, as Albus Dumbledore’s brother
- Queenie Goldstein’s decision to switch sides and join Team Grindelwald
- The discovery of Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s blood pact, which meant the two could never fight against one another
- The introduction of Nagini as a human woman, born with a curse that would eventually and permanently turn her into a snake
- The sacrifice of Leta Lestrange, Newt Scamander’s childhood friend and Theseus Scamander’s fiancée
And now, one movie later, all five threads have been pruned, because by the end of Secrets:
- It turns out that Grindelwald was lying in the end-of-movie cliffhanger: While Credence is a Dumbledore, he is Albus’s nephew, not brother. Thus, the “King’s Cross” canon remains intact—though the resolution to two movies’ worth of plot is now apparently moot.
- Queenie is back with the good guys, and ends the movie marrying Jacob Kowalski after all.
- The blood pact is miraculously destroyed.
- Nagini didn’t appear at all.
- Leta is scarcely mentioned, and both Newt and Theseus appear to have moved on. At one point, Grindelwald removes Leta’s memory from her brother’s mind and destroys it completely—a most on-the-nose metaphor for how this third film treats its predecessor.
This sort of narrative whiplash is redolent of all the jarring reversals in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, a movie so misguided that it killed its franchise’s films for the time being. At least Star Wars had an excuse for its tug-of-war, as it switched directors and writers between films. (I can’t believe Secrets has me defending Rise of Skywalker by way of comparison.) The Beasts films are all author J.K. Rowling’s creations, yet they still can’t tell a proper story without doubling back on themselves more than they press forward.
That mismatch is exacerbated by the hyper-serialized nature of this story, as compared to the core Potter series. There, Harry repeatedly stops Voldemort as part of a broader battle, but each book (and all of the movies until the two-part Deathly Hallows) also has its own contained story with a clear beginning and end—as he defeats Quirrell, closes the Chamber of Secrets, and so on. Secrets, though, like Crimes before it, lacks that level of independent story. To the extent that Secrets has an open-and-closed through line at all, it concerns a character we don’t know winning an election we never previously cared about in a place we didn’t know existed until at least 90 minutes in. Another unflattering Star Wars comparison rises here: Not since Chancellor Palpatine wrested control of the Galactic Senate has a Byzantine electoral process been so vital to a mega prequel franchise.
The second of the series’ internal wars relates to the characters and events on which it focuses. Disparate elements of Secrets shine, such as the chemistry between Jude Law’s Dumbledore and Mads Mikkelsen’s recast Grindelwald, the latter a more grounded rendition after Johnny Depp’s more cartoonish portrayal. And the beasts, as always, are truly fantastic: The qilin was tremendously cute, and the crab-esque creatures added a necessary dose of whimsy to a broadly brooding film. But they were the only new animals of note—a far cry from the first film, which showcased a host of inventive creatures inside Newt’s suitcase in what remains the series’ best scene.
Squint, and this film, as the midpoint of a five-part series, could serve as a transition point from the characters who mattered in the 1920s part of the story to those who will matter in its 1940s endgame. Credence’s arc might be narratively complete—if now oddly incidental to the actual plot—and given actor Ezra Miller’s offscreen controversy, it would not be a surprise for that character to disappear from future installments. Tina was effectively a colead in the first film, then a less central but still vital side character in the second, and now she appears in all of one scene in Secrets and could take a permanent backseat going forward, even if we know she eventually marries Newt.
But then, is Newt still the story’s protagonist, or is Dumbledore? Can the narrative links connecting them hold, when they already are so strained after just a few movies? And why, I ask for the third time in three movies, does the story of Dumbledore’s decades-long battle against Grindelwald fall under the “Fantastic Beasts” umbrella, especially as the presence of beasts lessens in each successive film?
On the page, the Harry Potter series crammed in scores of side characters and subplots, but they all revolved around Harry and his seven-book journey. He was the point-of-view character for almost the entire series, making the few excursions to another’s mind—in, say, the opening “The Other Minister” and “Spinner’s End” chapters in Half-Blood Prince—all the more striking for their rarity. Yet the Beasts franchise jumps across characters and countries and conflicts with abandon, blurring the focus on any particular point.
The final of the film’s battlefronts takes place in the real-life metatext surrounding the movie. Rowling writes the scripts for the Beasts movies, but she continues to repel longtime fans with her public and persistent transphobia. The franchise appears in an effort to maintain its distance from her, and vice versa: Rowling was noticeably absent from almost all of HBO Max’s 20th anniversary Harry Potter special in January, and she hasn’t done any press for the new film. Nor does she use her 14-million-follower Twitter account to promote the series—she hasn’t so much as tweeted the word “beasts” since spring 2020.
Would-be viewers may choose not to watch this movie because of Rowling’s anti-trans toxicity, which is a perfectly understandable decision. That she so clearly contradicts her own saga’s message—about, as trans author Jackson Bird wrote in a 2019 op-ed for The New York Times, “the power of not just tolerance, but fierce acceptance and unconditional love”—makes for a deeply uncomfortable viewing experience for the three Beasts films, which further the same themes.
These intractable issues all contribute to a dour atmosphere around the franchise, with Secrets’ release giving off an air of obligation rather than celebration, as well as a film itself that doesn’t compel viewership. If Warners is waiting to survey the post-Secrets landscape before green-lighting a fourth film, it might not find much reason to continue. Crimes made less money than any previous Potter movie, and Secrets is 30 percent behind Crimes’ box office pace, whether because of Rowling herself, the previous film’s failures, COVID-era behavioral changes, the lack of momentum in the production process with three and a half years between movies, or some combination thereof.
But if Secrets is the last piece of Potter fiction—or at the least the last for a while, or the last written by Rowling—this bloated prequel franchise will not join the ranks of beloved stories canceled too soon. Three movies in, it offers no exigency nor excitement nor imperative reason to exist. If and when the screen goes dark on the series for good, at least it will have earned its abrupt end.