Fantastic Plots and Where To Find Them
There's a moment in the Transformers franchise in which John Turturo, in a refreshing lack of self-awareness, pleads with a long-winded robot for a "beginning, middle, end, facts, details. Condense, plot, tell it." It's a lesson that, a decade later, we've actively strayed from, choosing long-winded longform content in an era where attention spans progressively shrink. A single book is split into two feature films. What used to be contained in boring court documents can be turned into a sixty-hour narrative podcast. An initial two-hour script is stretched over a thirteen-hour Netflix season. You'd think that after three Hobbit movies, two Mockingjays, and two Breaking Dawns, we'd have learned our lesson. Not even the critical panning of Allegiant (the third Divergent installment, and the first part of the last book) could stop the creation of a fourth one, which is now apparently being turned into a TV show! How is this possible?!
And even one of the most iconic franchises in the history of film is not immune to such a construct. The Harry Potter fever is still so strong almost a quarter century after the first book that studios will keep making movies, knowing that the rabid fan population can at least break them even. After all, they have proof of concept – the main series split the final book The Deathly Hallows into two films, perhaps the only such successful instance on the silver screen. But you can get away with that when you have well-written source material that doesn't leave too much room for narrative freestyling. Yet the Fantastic Beasts franchise is on its own planet, telling a five-movie (!!) story based on literally a dozen pages of secondhand backstory explained in Hallows and a short supplementary field manual that simply listed all of the magical creatures in an encyclopedic format. That's almost as ridiculous as making five Pirates of the Caribbean movies based on a Disneyland ride (oh, wait).
The second Beasts movie, subtitled The Crimes of Grindelwald gives us a lot of screentime with primary antagonist Gellert Grindelwald and also… doesn't really do that much else. Grindelwald's reveal at the end of the first Beasts was unexpected and enjoyable, giving the movie purpose beyond a self-contained animal adventure. When I heard that Beasts was going to be made into a movie, I was disappointed – after all, of all the available canon in the Potter-verse, no one was clamoring to know the origin story of Newt Scamander. After all, he's just a zoologist. Rowling (probably unintentionally) gave us just a taste of some fascinating characters – from the four founders of Hogwarts, to the hallow-creating Peverells, to Professor McGonagall's backstory, to Mad-Eye Moody's career as an auror . There was even potential for a magic-based sports movie using Quidditch! Imagine Creed, but a lot cooler because you can FLY. Even for a creature-themed storyline, dragon breeder Charlie Weasley might have been a better bet. Someone like Kingsley Shacklebolt may well have been a better sell as a franchise lead.
But we ended up with Newt Scamander and Beasts. Something I expected to be boring and forgettable ended up being a fun romp that introduced a bunch of exciting creatures and more importantly, stayed away from anything that really mattered (kind of like Solo's role in the Star Wars franchise). It served the purpose that the first movie in a franchise should – to sample elements throughout the universe and deliberately leave room for wild speculation. When you're watching, you're tangentially aware of things like the Obscurial, or characters like Credence, but there's a solid hour in the middle where you forget they even exist. The beasts are in the spotlight, and you're just there for ride.
Beasts 2, interestingly, does many of the same things, none of which are appropriate for a sequel – it continues to introduce new characters who are individually important but somehow seem irrelevant within the context of the story, and fails to make any progress overall. It suffers from the burden of everything the first one managed to avoid – excessive tie-ins, a muddled plot, and little raw excitement – but retains the wild speculation that, at this point, should be toned down to just regular 'speculation'. The story pivots so hard from the 'Fantastic Beasts' part to the 'Grindelwald' part that Newt Scamander is almost written out of the movie that he's supposed to be leading. But here's a 350-word-recap if you got lost or fell asleep:
The kid with the Obscurial, Credence (who is also The Flash in the DC Cinematic Universe), somehow survived the first movie after the Obscurial was killed and the newly-revealed Grindelwald was taken into custody. Grindelwald escapes within minutes with some Polyjuice switcheroo that seems way too easy, and begins to hunt Credence (as does another mysterious man) for reasons unknown. The mysterious man ends up being Yusuf Kama, the half-brother of Leta Lestrange, who is hellbent on killing a Lestrange because his mother was abducted by Corvus Lestrange (Leta's father), and raped (producing Leta). But Corvus never really loved Leta (racism?) so she doesn't count as a worthy revenge target, leaving Corvus Lestrange Jr. (a product of Corvus Sr. and his second baby momma Clarisse). So Yusuf thinks Credence is Corvus, but Leta knows that's not true since the two were travelling via ship to America when Corvus was still a baby, and she switched him with another random baby during an emergency because he cried too much or whatever. Turns out, this random baby (now Credence), is actually Aurelius Dumbledore, a previously unknown Dumbledore sibling. In all the commotion, Newt (forgot about him?) manages to steal a capsule containing Grindelwald and Dumbledore's Blood Oath (which is kinda like an Unbreakable Vow?) to never fight each other, presumably paving the way for their eventual duel (which Dumbledore wins, as is canon). Leta (who is engaged to Newt's brother) needlessly sacrifices herself to let the Scamanders escape (she's romantically involved with Newt's brother), even though everyone should be able to disapparate instantaneously. The two sisters and the Muggle from the first movie are sort of around too – the Auror sister is mad at Newt because she thought Newt had a thing with Leta (because of an erroneous newspaper headline) but eventually makes out with Newt in a cliché let's-make-out-in-this-super-tense-high-stakes-moment trope, and the other sister joins Grindelwald because (?) she's in love with the Muggle from the first movie (who also remembers everything because the memory charm didn't really work).
Phew. It's actually slightly more complicated than that, considering the choice of dialogue doesn't really help explain a lot of it (e.g. how is Credence still alive? Why was a Dumbledore randomly on a boat to America?). And that's without really getting to the whole Leta-Newt-Theseus-Tina love rhombus, or Queenie's conflicted-but-unnecessary storyline, or the beef between Dumbledore and the Ministry. We didn't even get answers to a lot of the questions from the first movie, like what happened to Credence's creepy co-adoptee, and why Ezra Miller's hair was fucked up. I guess it's cool that Nicholas Flamel (a character mentioned only twice after the first book) and the sorcerer's stone had a few minutes of screentime. Sure, I'm on board with knowing that Nagini was actually an animagus, which I guess will be relevant? It's nice that Leta Lestrange is important because… she has the name Lestrange?
It's hard to even gauge whether Beasts 2 was good, because we don't even know the implications of what happened. Right now, the inclusion of certain plot points – Flamel, Nagini, and Leta among them – are just Easter eggs. That's it. Perhaps most confusing was the actual lack of crimes that Grindelwald committed – sure, he murdered Leta, but I'm fairly sure that qualifies as 'stand your ground' in places like Florida. You could make an argument that he committed more crimes in the first movie, when he was pretending to be someone else entirely.
But it's hard to even care about any of that stuff when you understand that the whole point of the movie was to get to the reveal of Credence as Aurelius Dumbledore, something that was not predictable (and not in the exciting, shocking kind of unpredictable, but rather the there's-no-way-that-works unpredictable). The rest of the movie is largely forgettable, in the sense that none of it will ultimately matter. And we're going to continue this every two years until we get to Beasts 5 all the way in 2024, where hopefully everything will make sense.