With the release of their first cast photo for the sequel to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Warner Bros. have set in motion the rest of the extended universe for this Harry Potter spin-off. The first film was something of a risk for the studio - Harry Potter is popular but there was no guarantee fans would turn out in their record breaking numbers to make a series with no familiar characters successful - but with a $814m worldwide gross to its name (the 8th highest grossing film of the year), it was inevitable that the planned 5-film saga would be given an opportunity to reach its bombastic conclusion.
The second film, subtitled The Crimes of Grindelwald, will centre the action on the series’ major villain, a dark wizard whose evil is surpassed only by Lord Voldemort himself, and the man who Albus Dumbledore fell in love with. For many Potter fans, Grindelwald was one of the book series’ greatest reservoirs of untapped potential, so to see him get a full narrative in the Fantastic Beasts films, one where even the most ardent readers wouldn't be sure what will unfold, was an exciting prospect. When Grindelwald was revealed to be played by Johnny Depp, the enthusiasm of many fans dissipated quickly, and seeing him in the new cast photo proved immensely disheartening. On top of him looking sad and ridiculous, it was a painful reminder in our post-Weinstein age that Hollywood still has much to do when it comes to dealing with major stars who are proven to be abusive.
After a very public break-up with his wife, Aquaman actress Amber Heard, in which she provided evidence of physical abuse he inflicted upon her, Depp's team went into overdrive to ensure his reputation remained reasonably intact: He kept out of the public eye, except to promote the latest Pirates of the Caribbean film (which included surprise appearances on the Disneyland ride, to much positive press attention) and the media avoided asking the tough questions. Even as a lawsuit between himself and his former business managers revealed the bizarre extent of his spending habits (and further confirmation that the actor "got physical" with Heard), there didn't seem to be much in the way consequences for the abuse, or any dent in his career. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales made a lot of money, Depp remained attached to the questionable Universal attempt to create the Dark Universe in the role of the Invisible Man, and prestige projects rolled his way, including a role as antivirus creator (and accused rapist) John McAfee. If you didn't read the news, you'd think nothing had changed for Depp.
But here’s the thing: things have changed. We have photographs of bruises on Heard's face, we have video of him being verbally abusive and intimidating towards her, and we have his former managers admitting that he had "gotten physical" with her as well as being informed he "had violently kicked Heard during an incident that took place in or around 2014." People may like Captain Jack Sparrow, but that does nothing to excuse or justify rewarding of Depp in one of the biggest and most anticipated franchises of the past decade.
It feels like an age since the first allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein were made public in the New York Times, and it’s easy to lose count of how many women, many of whom are incredibly famous and beloved, have since come forward with their own stories against him. For the first time in an age, we have reached a cultural tipping point where misogyny, rape culture and systemic abuse have become utterly impossible to ignore in all walks of life, and people have run out of patience for dealing with it. People now feel able to tell their stories free of judgement that had previously plagued them, and action is being taken. For many, it seems that said action is only happening because industries or individuals had to be publicly embarrassed into doing so – rumours of Weinstein’s behaviour were well known for decades before action took place – and that the rules have been unfairly applied across the board: Some notable figures face consequences while others are overlooked and allowed to continue as normal.
It’s staggering that Depp has been allowed to stay on board the Fantastic Beasts franchise. It’s possible his contract is iron-clad or that he has people at Warner Bros. on his side, but it can’t be seen as anything other than a PR nightmare beyond this point, particularly since the Harry Potter fandom have spent many years proudly defining themselves as a socially progressive group. Keeping Depp in the series does nothing good for it: He’s a glaring elephant in the room, he’s not the actor he once was, and he replaces Colin Farrell, who many felt was a much better fit for the role of Grindelwald. Given that this universe features both transfiguration and Polyjuice potion, it seems unusual that Warner Bros. and J.K. Rowling wouldn’t at least consider these options to replace him quietly and keep it in canon. It’s magic!
It’s also just how film-making works, and the old excuses no longer fit our world. Any justifications that Depp has to stay in the films because of budgeting, scheduling or continuity no longer work, particularly since, in the aftermath of the allegations against Kevin Spacey, Ridley Scott showed the world how that problem could be dealt with in less than two months, as Christopher Plummer was brought in to take over the role of J. Paul Getty in All The Money In The World. Indeed, that decision may prove more financially beneficial for the film, as audiences are less likely to avoid it now that the offending problem has been removed. The Fantastic Beasts franchise is more review-proof than that, but it cannot avoid being seen as a complicit part of a system that allowed the repeated rewarding of abusive men in the face of overwhelming evidence. It’s bad enough we all have to pretend Mel Gibson is cool now.
Johnny Depp has offered no penance or understanding of his abuse to the public, and yet he continues to be rewarded in obscenely expensive and creative ways. If the film world is ever to learn from the mistakes of its past, it must look inward and understand the shadow of mistrust and perpetuated misogyny it creates when it looks at what Johnny Depp did to Amber Heard and decides it wasn’t bad enough to warrant changes to a movie. It is crucial that we always remember that people can, should and must always come before art.
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