This article contains spoilers for Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.

The final showdown in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore is supposed to be epic. Albus Dumbledore, the mighty wizard played by Jude Law, comes face-to-face with his former lover turned nemesis, Gellert Grindelwald (Mads Mikkelsen), breaking the pact they’d made as young men never to fight each other. But when the two began firing flashy spells from their wands, the audience at my showing—nowhere near sold out, on a Saturday evening—laughed.

Maybe they were thrown off by the rushed lead-up to the scene, which had, a beat earlier, involved an election for the next leader of a magical society. Maybe they found the look of the action—all CGI whizbangs against a colorless backdrop—silly. Or maybe, given how the clash arrived around the two-hour mark, they were simply too exhausted by the film to process what the moment meant. (I know I was.)

The Fantastic Beasts films, a prequel series that once seemed like a foolproof moneymaker to extend the Harry Potter franchise, have become an expensive exercise in diminishing returns instead. Over the weekend, Secrets, which reportedly cost $200 million to make, drew $43 million at the domestic box office, the softest opening ever for a release from the Wizarding World. Off-screen, the franchise has been plagued with trouble, including the author J. K. Rowling’s polarizing comments about the trans community, multiple cast members’ scandals, and the pandemic’s impact on the viability of theatrical releases—all of which likely contributed to an awkward press tour and rumors about an early end to a planned five-film arc.

Yet the biggest reason for Fantastic Beasts’ decline is not the pandemic or the tarnished public image of the talent involved. The series, across three installments, has never understood the audience it was trying to serve—the millions of readers and viewers who helped make Harry Potter the best-selling book series in history, turn the films’ young cast into household names, and conjure a market for a successful Broadway play. Fantastic Beasts has tried to capitalize on that massive built-in fan base, but the movies neglect the original franchise’s most spellbinding features: substantial storytelling with heaps of enduring charm.

[Read: J. K. Rowling and the curse of the prequel series]

That’s ironic, considering Rowling herself wrote the screenplays for the Fantastic Beasts films—something she never did for the Harry Potter adaptations. For Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Rowling’s first screenwriting endeavor, she tried replicating a trick she had pulled off in the book that started it all, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. She nestled a lighthearted adventure inside a darker conflict, with a climax that revealed a trusted character—in Fantastic Beasts, a lawman; in Sorcerer’s Stone, a professor—as a vessel for a malevolent wizard, setting the stage for sequels to come.

But in copying the structure of the beloved novel, she overlooked the element that made her readers turn to her books again and again: an identifiable lead character whose emotional journey served as the story’s anchor. Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne), the ostensible hero of the spin-off series, has a much less resonant narrative compared with Harry, a fish-out-of-water protagonist with a classic coming-of-age arc. Newt’s the only “magizoologist” in the wizarding community, defined by his passion for studying magical creatures. Plot-wise, Harry’s escapades at school delivered self-contained stories; his encounters with Voldemort, the overarching villain, didn’t overshadow his experiences. In the first Fantastic Beasts film, the shift from meeting playful critters to contending with a murderous antagonist resulted in severe tonal whiplash. The twist ending to the first film overwhelmed Newt’s story so completely that by the time Secrets begins, he’s become a mere pawn in a larger war between good and evil.

Jude Law as Dumbledore in "Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore"
Jude Law as Albus Dumbledore in Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (Warner Bros.)

The world building that captivated fans of Harry Potter has also suffered in the prequel series. The former, in both book and film form, introduced the eccentricity of the magical realm gradually—a whimsical-sounding charm that levitates objects here, an enchanted mirror there—and viewed those moments through Harry’s eyes, grounding the story in humor and delight. Without such an accessible protagonist or premise, the Fantastic Beasts movies have struggled to organically expand, operating instead as a rote trivia machine. Did you know that in America, Muggles (non-magical people) are called “No-Maj”? Or that the equivalent of the Ministry of Magic is called the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA)? The films’ new details are haphazardly added, disappointingly stale, and ultimately unnecessary. In Secrets, the characters access the German Ministry of Magic through a brick wall—an idea Rowling has already applied to several other secret locations. In The Crimes of Grindelwald, the second installment, MACUSA is listed as the “American Ministry of Magic,” discarding the terminology laboriously established for the previous film.

Most of all, Rowling seems to forget what made her characters appealing to so many. The Harry Potter series offered a sprawling but well-defined ensemble; even third-tier wizards had memorable traits and loyalties. The Fantastic Beasts prequels abandon consistency and coherent development in favor of shock and awe. New characters enter and exit story lines without fanfare; Newt’s love interest, the co-lead of the first film, barely appears in Secrets. Backstories are hard to follow; the mysterious Credence (Ezra Miller), revealed in Crimes to be a Dumbledore sibling, gets rewritten in Secrets as Albus’s nephew. The confusing stakes and connections give viewers little reason to remain invested—a problem Secrets self-consciously acknowledges when Newt spends an entire scene running down the résumés of Albus’s allies, despite the fact that most of them were already introduced in Crimes.

Indeed, Secrets does seem aware of many of the franchise’s shortcomings. Warner Bros. enlisted Steve Kloves, the screenwriter on seven of the eight Harry Potter films, to co-write the screenplay with Rowling, and their collaboration resulted in a sequel that’s marginally leaner and more logical than Crimes. But these fixes come too late for the fan base that the studio had been counting on to purchase tickets. From the outset, viewers wanted more stories, not more fun facts. They wanted character development, not endless plot twists. And besides, a screenplay hasn’t even been written yet for a fourth Fantastic Beasts film. If the series were to fizzle out, that would be a relief. No amount of movie magic can save it now.

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