Fantastic Beasts had all the makings of a slam dunk for Warner Bros.: spinning off from the hit Harry Potter series, luring author JK Rowling to make her screenwriting debut, casting newly crowned best-actor-Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne, and listing David Yachts, who helmed the final four Potter films, to direct.
But somewhere between Johnny Depp‘s public fall from grace and Vladimir Putin‘s comparison of Russia’s plight to Rowling’s cancellation, Fantastic Beasts seemed to take on more baggage than it could carry. As the third film, The Secrets of Dumbledore, arrives in US theaters this Friday, the series has already inspired headlines like Time‘s “Just Cancel the Fantastic Beasts Franchise Already” and Entertainment Weekly‘s “Fantastic Beasts is now the world’s most problematic movie franchise.”
THE DECLINE OF DEPP
The first scandal that plagued Fantastic Beasts threatens to never end. A second defamation trial between Amber Heard and Depp, who was cast as the villainous Grindelwald to Jude Law‘s Dumbledore, began this week in Virginia. Depp is suing Heard for $50 million after she wrote a 2018 Washington Post op-ed in which she said she was a domestic abuse survivor. She is countersuing for $100 million. (Depp sued The Sun‘s executive editor and its publisher, News Group Newspapers, for libel after the British tabloid used the term “wife-beater” to describe him in a 2018 headline. I have lost the case in 2020.)
Despite his once-legendary box office appeal, Depp’s brief appearance was kept a secret before the release of 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. After the abuse allegations—all of which Depp has denied—first surfaced in mid-2016, it would have been easy enough to recast the actor for the sequel: Grindelwald can easily change appearance and was played by Colin Farrell for most of the first movie. Still, the Fantastic Beasts creative team opted to stand by the star.
“Honestly, there’s an issue at the moment where there’s a lot of people being accused of things, they’re being accused by multiple victims, and it’s compelling and frightening,” Yates told Entertainment Weekly. “With Johnny, it seems to me there was one person who took a pop at him and claimed something. I can only tell you about the man I see every day: He’s full of decency and kindness, and that’s all I see.” Rowling released her own statement of support: “Based on our understanding of the circumstances, the filmmakers and I are not only comfortable sticking with our original casting, but genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies.”
Depp would go on to appear in 2018’s Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald in a larger role, fan outcry be damned. The tide changed, however, when unpleasant details emerged in Depp’s first libel trial and he lost the case, leading him to resign from the franchise at Warner Bros.’ request. As noted by Variety, AT&T had merged with Warner Bros.’ parent company, Time Warner, resulting in a leadership change that had less tolerance for “courting mercurial—but historically popular—talent like Depp.” Warner Bros. publicly thanked Depp for his service, but cast Mads Mikkelsen in the third installation. Depp received his full $16 million salary for the third film nonetheless, after having shot just one scene. A source told Variety that Rowling approved of Depp’s exit, but she has not yet publicly addressed it.
SCANDAL, SHE WROTE
While one controversial figure had been replaced, another would emerge—and it’d be someone the franchise couldn’t as easily slough off. despues de Fantastic Beasts was first announced in 2013, The Hollywood Reporter reported that Rowling had requested, and been granted, a great deal of creative control: Warner Bros. could not hire someone else to rewrite any of her scripts for the franchise’s films without her approval.
Rowling’s central role in the Harry Potter spin-offs was initially a badge of honor for Warner Bros. As noted by TheHollywood Reporter, the trailer for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them prominently read, “JK Rowling invites you,” and the sequel’s trailer boasted her involvement too. However, a December trailer for the Secrets of Dumbledore downplayed Rowling’s role, per THR. Despite being the film’s producer, co-screenwriter, and creator of the source material, her name was barely visible on the credits card.