SPOILERS / TRIGGERS
I’m going to generally assume you’ve seen this film and the previous one.
It is entirely apt that the poster for The Crimes of Grindelwald features a crowd of people wandering about looking confused; it’s both an apt depiction of the film and of the audience on their way out of the cinema.
An even better encapsulation: the sinking of the Titanic features, briefly, as a throwaway and perfunctory period reference, in a flashback scene in the middle of an infodump, part of the resolution of a pointless subplot… and nobody asks why the wizards on board didn’t stop it sinking.
Bluntly, this film is a mess. The plot flaps around, bifurcating into dead end after dead end. Things are set up and not paid off. When the payoffs do arrive they are sudden, arbitrary, and unsatisfying. There are lots of events but nothing really happens. Nothing is achieved. Every time you think progress might be made you find yourself stuck in a new subplot surrounded by characters who are multiplying around you like those cursed goblets in the final Potter film.
The first Fantastic Beasts movie had a more than incipient case of this, with the subplot about a plutocrat Jon Voight and his two sons, on top of the subplot about witch-hunters, and the plot about Grindelwald in disguise hunting a powerful cursed child… all on top of the stuff about Newt getting entangled with new friends and local magical authorities in 20s New York while trying to recapture the magical creatures that escaped from his case. This last would’ve made a perfectly entertaining little movie all by itself.
The main attraction of the first film – the likeable main characters; played by a uniformly charming cast – is squandered. The core cast do their best but they get very little time together, and even less in which they can have fun. The mood is dour compared to the first film. These stories about people with magic wands who conjure bats made of bogeys at each other are getting Dark and Serious again.
The colour pallette has been drained correspondingly. The first film allowed us a bit of sunlit sepia in 20s New York; this gives us 20s Paris almost in monochrome. Just as everyone is starting to snap out of that trend for washed-out colours and oppressive shadows, David Yates is digging his heels in and making Wizarding World movies the same murky way he shot Half-Blood Prince. Some of the production design is nice, especially the art nouveau interior of the French Ministry of Magic – even if it’s always a bit too evident in advance which era cliches the production designers will give a perfunctory magic twist.
But the overall grey uniformity of the film – also mirrored in the poster – is fitting for such a lifeless experience. A lot of effort is expended seemingly just to get new characters in place ready for future installments. They’ve tried to cram lots of set-up for the next movies into this film, almost as if they realised they came perilously close to telling a self-contained tale last time. The film has the feel – far from uncommon in films these days – of having been made by people who actually want to be making a Netflix series. That’s what this feels like. A 10 episode season of a Netflix show, savagely edited down into 2hrs (well 2hrs 15 actually) and consequently rushed, jumbled, overstuffed, overpopulated, under-characterised, incoherent, full of narrative cul de sacs. Yet, in true Rowling style, for all that the film is a spaghetti junction of plots, nothing really happens. Those parts of the story which initially alter the status quo at the end of the first film – Jacob gets his memories back, Creedence isn’t dead after all – happen off-screen before this film starts. At the end of what we do see, all that has really changed is that Grindelwald is free again and now he has Creedence and Queenie. Problems the film invents are summarily laid to rest again. A few extra ‘facts’ about the characters have been revealed by the Omniscient Author.
One of the strengths of the Potter books – at least the early ones, before Rowling became enamoured with side-fluff, and too lucrative to be edited – was that they were structured like whodunnits, and quite well too. She, of course, went on to write actual (and extremely poor) whodunnits. And Crimes of Grindelwald is a bad mystery story in the manner of the Strike novels. The mystery is unfocused, the protagonists fail to actually investigate, they don’t figure anything out. They just get to the end, whereupon it’s time for things to be ‘explained’ – very quickly, very confusingly, and largely irrelevantly – by people who could’ve explained before had they been cornered. Rowling’s method in the Potter books of unravelling the mysteries in long monologues at the end doesn’t work in movies, as she should’ve noticed by the way Steve Kloves used to mostly cut them. (I wish these new movies were being written by Kloves working from Rowling’s synopses.)
One of the characters who gets an expository monologue at the end has to be rendered unconscious in the middle of the film (by one of several crowbarred-in magical creatures) so that he can spend a chunk of the story silent and unable to explain himself earlier. Similarly, at the end, new character Leta LeStrange – Newt’s ex – simply confesses her dark secret because the film is nearly over. But it’s a side issue. All it changes is her own plotline, which consisted entirely of her being sullen about something not yet explained.
One of the most aggravating things is the film is the treatment of Queenie, one of the returning characters from the first film. She puts a spell on Jacob in order to make him marry her despite his reservations; he’s worried that she’ll get in trouble because in America it is illegal for a witch or wizard to marry a ‘No Maj’. Newt is disapproving, though it is left unexplained why what Queenie has done is worse than the sort of routine fucking about with muggles’ heads that wizards – including Newt – feel entitled to do all the time. But it’s just the start of Queenie’s ruination as a character. She ends the film joining Grindelwald, the wizard fascist leader. It is implied that she does this because she buys his rhetoric about believing that muggles are different rather than inferior, and that his regime would allow her and Jacob to marry. But he is explicitly a wizard supremacist. He is known for believing that wizards should take over the world and run it. He makes a speech in front of Queenie in which he makes it clear that he considers muggles to be persecutors, dangerous to wizards. Her decision to join Grindelwald in order to be with Jacob is ridiculous – not least because she actually leaves Jacob’s side in order to do it, while he begs her not to! Even more aggravatingly, Queenie has been established as a legilimens – a person who can read the minds of others – and yet at no point does she read duplicity in the minds of Grindelwald or any of his henchmen. This is not even lampshaded. Is this meant to suggest that the fascists are honest?
As I say, there are too many characters, including loads of new ones, and old ones from the Potter stories reintroduced. Most of them do very little. For instance, Nagini is introduced as a woman cursed to become a snake, and… does nothing except follow Creedence around (he’s the young man cursed with dark power from the last movie). She and Creedence are working in a wizard freak show at the start of the film (which raises questions the film has no idea how to answer). The film’s decision to utilise a version of the ‘dragon lady’ trope by casting an actress of Asian extraction to play the snakewoman has been much remarked upon and much criticised – rightly so. (It sits alongside the unpardonable decision to hire and retain Depp.) Aside from that, Nagini is pointless. She does nothing. She barely has a line of dialogue.
In an early scene a Ministry auror (wizard cop) is introduced, and he’s clearly a) known to Newt, and b) evil. Newt never sees him again. He drops out of the film two thirds of the way through, having done nothing that changes the plot except conveniently kill a character who could’ve delivered an infodump too early… except that she’s already said she doesn’t have the crucial information she’s being asked about. (Also, J. K., if you don’t want her to explain anything, why introduce her?)
A character called Yusuf Kama is introduced, and has an entire extraneous subplot. It’s not immediately apparent that it’s extraneous because it turns out to intersect with another character’s backstory… but it is extraneous. You could cut him and the only thing you’d lose (apart from some diversity in the cast) would be Tina getting captured for most of the movie.
Nicholas Flamel – referred to in the first Potter book – pops up in order to have one conversation with Jacob in which Jacob learns something he could learn another way, and then help the heroes survive a magical battle they could’ve won by themselves. He too is superfluous to the plot. Just more lore for the fans.
Of course, some people do go to Rowling’s work to get loads of lore, and to speculate about future developments, or the backstories of even minor characters. Trouble is, that seems to be the audience this film is mainly aimed at. It doesn’t just make for unprofessional storytelling, it’s actually revealing about Rowling. She writes for that audience because she’s part of it. She’s one of those people who think stories are ‘gossip about imaginary people’, and the point is to immerse yourself in either ‘facts’ about those people that you get fed by the omniscient author, who acts as a kind of oracle for dispensing ‘knowledge’, or to immerse yourself in speculation regarding the bits you haven’t yet been filled-in about yet.
Dumbledore himself is reintroduced as a younger man and… does nothing, except have a few portentous conversations. Well, he does kickstart the plot by sending Newt to Paris… but you don’t need him for that. There are at least two other ways set up in the film that Newt could end up going to Paris. The Ministry ask him to go to find Creedence in an early scene; he could accept. Also, he learns that Tina is there and now thinks he’s engaged to someone else; he could go to find her and explain. Or he could just follow Jacob who goes there to find Queenie after she storms off during an argument. (Actually, he does go for some of those reasons… but also because Dumbledore sends him!)
Dumbledore is shoehorned in because they want Dumbledore in it. Dumbledore is back and played by Jude Law. Good for the trailers and pre-buzz. The fans will love it. That’s why he’s in this new film. But his absence from the first Fantastic Beasts film – part of a relative absence of established lore generally – was one of the things that made it relatively fresh and likeable. Also, Rowling needs him as her self-insert, the voice of moral authority, manipulating everyone behind the scenes instead of just intervening himself. She just digs that shit. And she obviously also thinks Dumbledore is the acme of morality. But then she would. Because he’s a benevolent and wise liberal/centrist ruler who uses the little people in his chess game against evil and thus solves everything from above… but we’ll get to the politics.
Newt gets a Miss Moneypenny analogue, Bunty, who makes eyes at him in an early scene and then disappears. Like all the other female characters in the film she lives only through and for men, and spends all her screentime orbiting a man, thinking about a man, looking at a man, loving a man, etc.
For instance, there’s Tina, returning from the first film, and probably wondering why she bothered. The wonderful Katherine Waterston is given almost nothing to do. She gets a bit of detective work at the start, which amounts to standing around looking at stuff. She finds Creedence before anybody else (don’t these people talk to each other?) but doesn’t help him escape the freakshow where he and Nagini are being held captive. He escapes on his own. Then she gets captured by Yusuf (off-screen). Then she gets rescued by Newt, having spent most of the movie sat in a cell (again, off-screen). Then she pouts at Newt because she thinks that he’s engaged to Leta. (She thinks this because of an inaccurate newspaper article… despite her and Newt having been in contact by letter.) Newt eventually tells her he isn’t engaged to Leta, whereupon she makes gooey eyes at him. Then she – along with the rest of the main cast – stands around and listens to those infodumps/flashbacks I mentioned earlier. Then she escapes with everybody else – through no merit of her own, naturally. That’s it. Her arc in this movie is literally to fail at her job, get captured, sit around, get rescued, realise she’s not lost her boyfriend, hear people explain shit, and then – through someone else’s intercession – not get killed.
Newt’s brother Theseus appears and also does next to nothing. His biggest role in the plot is to act on a suggestion made by Dumbledore… one that he could’ve thought of by himself. But then we need Dumbledore to be be right about everything, and to be the source of all good ideas, apparently. (Not that the idea in question actually is good, but the film thinks it is… but again, we’ll get back to this.)
As mentioned, Newt’s ex-girlfriend, and now Theseus’s fiancee, Leta LeStrange is also introduced.
I come to her last because I want to concentrate on her the most, because she’s emblematic of everything wrong with this film.
Leta’s conflict is the focus of the film, to the extent that it has one. But what is her conflict? We’re not given enough to suggest she’s conflicted about whether to marry Theseus or not because she secretly still loves Newt, though that is obviously what we’re supposed to suspect – especially at the end with her ambiguous “I love you”, spoken apparently to both of them. Is she conflicted about her loyalties? She doesn’t seem to have any interest in politics at all. There’s never a sense that she’s interested in stopping Grindelwald for its own sake. She seems to just tag along with Theseus on his work travels. Her conflict seems to simply be guilt. But again, we don’t know about what until she just announces it at the end.
It transpires that Yusuf is her half brother. She seems uninterested in him after learning this. She seems uninterested in everything except wallowing in self-pity about things she did when she was a child. She really should tell someone about these things before her last-minute infodump, given that the information would be pertinent to the mission she and Theseus are on. Dumbledore knows about it, seemingly, but being Dumbledore he doesn’t tell anyone either. No doubt he would have high-flown justifications for this, but it’s still a dereliction of duty under the circumstances. The secret she carries is that, because she swapped her baby brother for another baby when she was a kid, Creedence is not her biological brother as people seem (for some reason) to suspect. (This revelation changes nothing by the way; Creedence is still feared by the authorities and wanted by Grindelwald just the same.) Even so, under the circumstances, you’d think she’d be interested in Creedence. She gives little sign of it. She just keeps saying “He’s not my brother” without explaining further. As I say, this muddled and largely irrelevant mess of backstory is quickly and confusingly infodumped and flashbacked at the accumulated main and subsidiary characters as they stand around together in a room near the end. It fails to answer loads of questions the film has thrown up.
Quite understandably, Zoe Kravitz – yet another talented actress wasted – plays Leta as blank. What else could she do? Any affect she shows is going to clash with at least one of her half-realised and clashing motivations.
This is yet another manifestation of Rowling’s central thesis that blank, self-involved passivity is what makes a person ‘good’. And Leta obviously is meant to be good, because she submits to death at the end. It is her expiation. In Rowling’s work, when someone gives up their life, they are always inherently good. Accepting death is the ultimate passivity, you see, and passivity is the ultimate virtue for Rowling. This is why the basic horror of Voldemort is that he doesn’t want to die. This is why Harry Potter is intensely passive and reactive, doing as he’s told, learning everything via eavesdropping or infodump, acting usually only when forced to or prodded into it, manipulated and predestined into being the hero, spending most of his final battle with Voldemort sat in a tent whining and sulking, and ultimately proving his worth by submitting to death after being egged on a creepy death cult consisting of the ghosts of his parents and adult friends, all of whom think it’s just great that he’s about to commit suicide.
But even on its own terms, Leta’s death doesn’t work dramatically. We the audience are not affected. We hardly know Leta. We don’t know how Newt feels about her now. We’ve seen almost nothing of her relationship with Theseus. Meanwhile, we get flashbacks to her and Newt’s schooldays. This sets up her inexplicable unpopularity, and also her budding love affair with Newt. But this goes nowhere. We don’t find out why they broke up. And this requires explanation, because in Rowlingworld, you meet the person you’re supposed to live and breed with for the rest of your life in your first year of secondary school, and if this goes awry it totally fucks the rest of your life.
Leta self-fridges for the Scamander brothers and their big tragic manpain feels. But what else was there to do with Leta? Newt is clearly in love with Tina. If they were trying to suggest that he’s conflicted about who he’s in love with, and would maybe want Leta back if she left Theseus, they failed utterly to convey any such thing. Similarly, they failed to convey any longing for Newt on the part of Leta. They never establish any conflicted feelings on the part of any of the characters in the triangle. There isn’t even really a triangle. A triangle – well, a quadrangle if you bring Tina into it – wouldn’t have been a particularly interesting plotline, but it would’ve been something. It could’ve run through the films, forming the dramatic backbone. (This would’ve been the bedrock of the Netflix series.) But no, it gets faintly suggested, is left without being fleshed out, and is then immediately shut down by Leta’s autofridging at the end. A woman who has been the victim of emotional abuse from her father (which we learn at the last minute), and bullying from classmates (for some reason), decides to kill herself in order to somehow help a pair of men she has, at best, vague and muddled feelings about.
But the point of the exercise was never to set up a viable running storyline. The point of the exercise was to slightly problematise the romance between Newt and Tina, and give Rowling the opportunity to indulge, yet again, in two of her biggest obsessions as a writer: relitigating her schooldays and, as I say, fetishizing suicide as the ultimate glorious embrace of passivity.
The storyline explaining Leta’s backstory is as tasteless as it is confusing and pointless. Leta is a woman of colour. It transpires that she is the daughter of LeStrange and a black woman who he mindcontrolled into leaving her (also black) husband and ‘marrying’ him, i.e. being raped by him under brainwashing. There was simply no need to introduce a storyline about rape, let alone one about the rape of a black woman, into what is supposed to be a family movie. Or any fantasy movie really. Really… just leave rape out of Fantasy stories. Is this so hard? It’s an important issue, one that art can tackle, but not in Fantasy. The problem, of course, is that Rowling & Co don’t perceive this as being a story about rape. They perceive it as being a pastiche of a late 19th century gothic romance. And it is. The trouble is… loads of late 19th century gothic romances were about rape. The problems are only compounded by the fact that the family being predated upon by LeStrange are black, of African extraction. And this leads us directly into the utter morass that is the Fantastic Beasts films’ attitude to, and depiction of, race.
In both these films so far, a conscious decision has been made to make the cast more diverse. So far, so good. Unfortunately, the decision has a weird scrambling effect when it comes to depicting a past in which racism in Euro-American societies was open, institutionalised, legalised, and endemic. (This isn’t to say racism isn’t still all those things to some degree – but it was generally worse in the past.) In the first Fantastic Beasts movie, set in early 1920s New York, the President of the American wizarding world is a black woman. She faces no prejudice whatever. Meanwhile, ‘racism’ is depicted in the film in the form of laws in America prohibiting a wizard or witch from marrying – or even socialising with – a No Maj. This was much remarked upon at the time, and is far from unique to these films, so I won’t go into it in too much detail. But it is reproduced in this new film, albeit in a less acute form. The presence of Yusuf, a gallicised man from an African family, suggests a smothered reference to French colonialism which raises many of the same sorts of questions. What are the racial politics lurking behind his mother’s abduction by Leta’s (white) father? These things are not examined.
It is depressing that, while we must laud the good intentions on display in such commitment to greater diversity in casting, the effect is to scramble and sanitise history, to scrub it clean of horrible realities. In the name of a superficial form of anti-racism – one aimed at ticking boxes of various kinds – it scrawls modern pieties over the brutal, ugly history of imperialism, racial hierarchy, and white supremacy in Western capitalist societies. This is, by the way, absolutely not a call for less diversity and representation in media. But I’d like to see less lying about the past. Less colonization of the past by contextless and ahistorical neoliberal ideology. Fewer attempts by a present that imagines itself to be post-racial to go back and convert the past so that it was never racial to start with. The Fantastic Beasts films are far from the only offenders here, but they do distill the problem to a quintessence. In these films, wizarding society is aracial, while also being steeped in national stereotypes. How did this situation arise in the midst of an outside world mired in racism and imperialism? And how do we read the various metaphors about intolerance within wizarding society once racism – like sexism, homophobia, etc – has been literally foreclosed upon as a possibility?
Speaking of homophobia…
The flashbacks to Leta’s schooldays at Hogwarts take place within a narrative digression that serves no purpose but to build up Dumbledore as always having been a teacher who meddled in politics (while ignoring endemic bullying in his actual sphere of responsibility). Even back when he was Jude Law, he schemed behind the backs of the proper authorities, and nevertheless expected them to trust and obey him. He, of course, is asked to join in the fight, and take down Grindelwald, because he’s the most powerful wizard in the world. But he refuses. We find out here that he doesn’t just refuse because Grindelwald is (it’s heavily implied) the lost love of his life, but also because there is some kind of magic spell that stops them fighting. But he doesn’t tell this to the authorities. If they knew, they could make a point of attempting to acquire the little bauble containing the spell. If the enemy had the key that made your biggest weapon work, you’d try to snatch it from him, right? They presumably had the bauble in their possession for ages while Grindelwald was in custody. But they didn’t even know about it. Because Dumbledore didn’t tell them. Presumably because he’s embarrassed about having once sworn a blood oath with Grindelwald. Is this because he used to be a fascist for a couple of weeks when he was a teenager? The even less tasteful reading is that he’s closeted and doesn’t want anyone to know he and Grindelwald were once fuckbuddies. This doesn’t just resurrect the spectre of the appalling non-plotline from the last Potter book that the final Potter film wisely all-but junked; it also re-raises the entire issue of closeting in the Rowlingverse… something that nobody wanted re-raised if J. K. was the one doing the re-raising, given her less than triumphantly sensitive and intelligent treatment of these matters so far.
Is homosexuality taboo and oppressed in the wizard world in the same way as in our world? Given how racism is a non-issue in wizard society, even as wizard bloodlines are obsessed over and some dream of racial mastery over muggles, I guess not. But we don’t know. The nearest we ever get to a gay character is Dumbledore, famously declared gay by Rowling outside of the books in a tone deaf move that has become one of her signatures. Dumbledore, in fairness, is strongly implied to be gay in the books, because he’s a flamboyant and fey old single geezer who wears purple silk and curly slippers, so… no problems there then. He is especially implied to be gay in the last book because of his youthful ‘friendship’ with Grindelwald. His teenage gay crush on a budding fascist ruined his life and left him unable to have relationships. So being queer, in Rowlingland, in the one place it almost comes up explicitly, is linked to both perverse ideas and life-wrecking misery. Great. Meanwhile, we get no clarity on the thunderingly obvious question I asked at the start of this paragraph.
Rowling hints at the issue elsewhere, in metaphor. But Rowling’s metaphors are famously fucked up. Lupin, the werewolf teacher in the Potter books, is subtextually kinda a gay man and also kinda an HIV sufferer (they’re just kinda the same thing) because he was bitten by another werewolf. He is thus discriminated against so keeps quiet about it. Rowling is clear that the discrimination is ‘wrong’, but also that gay = HIV, and that it’s a kind of curse, which can also make people dangerous. A perfect example of her utterly dunderheaded variety of liberalism, which sees ‘discrimination’ is a sort of abstract ‘bad’ because its mean, and which sees tolerance as the most important issue… thus implying that people like LGBT people and HIV sufferers, etc, are people who need to be ‘tolerated’. The main thing is the sense of warm self-satisfaction and moral superiority that people like Harry – y’know, normal people – can feel when they tolerate the monstrously different and look down on the unenlightened. Meanwhile, people who are discriminated against are stripped of their actual histories and identities. Turned into moralistic homilies in the form of incoherent yet also literal and totalising allegories which are generally deeply insulting.
Meanwhile, it is hard – given that he is strongly implied to be gay – not to view Grindelwald as a dangerous militant gay activist. But this is just one dimension of his political fucked-upness.
He gets lots of villain business to do. He kills a fantastic beast for no apparent reason except to show us what a shit he is. We get similar reassurance of his bastarditude later in the film when he and his followers massacre an entire family – including a toddler, whom Depp stares at with evil curiosity for a ridiculously long time before a henchwoman kills it – in order to steal their flat and turn it into their headquarters. To be fair, we need these jammed-in instances of Grindelwald’s evil because by other measures he fits the template I established elsewhere of a villain who actually has a far better moral position than the ‘good guys’. The first people he kills are people who have imprisoned and tortured him, or been complicit; he helps Creedence find out who he is and rescues him from government forces who want to assassinate him; he tells his followers not to attack the aurors who come to arrest them for doing nothing more than attending a political meeting; he even tells them not to respond after the aurors kill one of them; his stated aim is not enslave or genocide the muggles but to stop them doing a World War 2, including a Holocaust and a Hiroshima, which is very… evil? …I guess? Of course, he’s meant to be lying. He’s actually a wizard supremacist and doesn’t really care about stopping wars, and is lying when he claims to think the muggles are different rather than inferior. But it’s interesting that Rowling is now playing into – even more fully than before – the trope of making the villain sound like a progressive revolutionary. Rowling is nothing if not a conventional bourgeois thinker, and she is happy to accept and regurgitate the mainstream and centrist ideology which makes almost every character in the capitalist culture industries who wants to radically change the world into a ruthless, callous, fanatical, machiavellian demagogue dictator.
Of course, fascists do copy progressive rhetoric. If I were being generous, I’d say that this is something Rowling has managed to pick up on. Today’s fascists talk of ethnostates, but supposedly only because they just want to preserve their own culture; not because they think white gentiles are better than everyone else, but simply because they want the right to freedom and life and self-determination too, which is supposedly something they don’t have now, or are losing, etc. The problem here is that this accurate bit of satire fails utterly to fit into any other accurate depictions of fascism in the story… for the simple reason that they’re not there. In our world, the people who are seduced by fascist movements are not a persecuted minority, whereas in Rowling’s world, they are.
Rowling’s conception of a ‘racist’ is a big old meanie who thinks they’re better than a certain group they see as ‘different’… which makes her metaphors tricky because non-magic people undoubtedly are objectively biologically inferior to wizards in her stories, thus making wizard supremacists – her analogues for real-world racists and fascists – factually correct. When her racists and fascists say “We’re better than muggles, it’s in the blood”, they’re right. They’re also right that, at least historically, muggles have persecuted wizards.
Incoherently, muggles are the persecutors of wizards and also inferior to them… once again, as with the goblins, Rowling accidentally – one hopes – stumbles into endorsing racist stereotypes; the Jew, in the mind of the antisemite, is at once inferior and powerful and threatening, as is the black man in the mind of the white supremacist.
Let’s return to the issue of Queenie’s defection. What’s ultimately meant by it? What’s meant clearly is not that Queenie is attracted to Grindelwald’s message because he’s all about wizard supremacy and she’s actually a shitty person who thinks she’s entitled to brainwash muggles into marrying her. Rowling isn’t that self-aware about the horror of consent-violation that she routinely depicts as charming whimsy. What is meant is that Grindelwald has tricked a good person who just wants to live in a way her society disapproves of by pretending to care about tolerance and freedom. But she was asking to be tricked. Her own folly brought her half way.
The law in the US against wizards marrying No Majs (No Majes?) is not interrogated or criticised as an injustice by anyone except Grindelwald, who surely doesn’t really mean it. By everyone else, it is simply accepted as a sad fact of life. Even when Newt comes close to an actual political critique of American wizard law on this point in the first film, he then just stops. There is no hint of any of Our Heroes deciding to fight the law, because that would be them being active, you see, and in Rowling’s world, the moment you become active against anything except a threat to the status quo, the moment you start fighting to do anything but keep the world the same, you become evil, or at least foolish. The proof is that the rather sweet ending of Fantastic Beasts, where Queenie turns up in the obliviated Jacob’s shop, becomes, in Crimes of Grindelwald, a storyline about her foolishness in trying to defy the law, which then leads her inexorably into the arms of fascism. While her turn to Grindelwaldism makes no sense in terms of her character as already established, or in terms of any of the actual ideology being displayed, it makes perfect sense in terms of Rowling’s underlying political assumption that actively challenging the established status quo is inherently evil, no matter how bad it is.
As has been noted, part of Grindelwald’s pitch for power is to point out that, left to themselves, the muggles will soon be World War Twoing, Holocausting, and Hiroshima-ing. War is yet another big problem the wizards could help us with but choose not to, for reasons Rowling has never troubled to explore. But the main focus of criticism here has been that the film is (another) allegory about the rise of fascism, but the stated aim of the fascist villain is to stop the Holocaust from happening. Again, in the hands of a more savvy and thoughtful writer, this would be potentially interesting. It wouldn’t exactly be walking an untrod path, but it would at least be something to chew on a bit. But from Rowling it just stinks of her usual centrist befuddlement about what fascism is and why its bad. For a start, when fascists claim they’re saving you from oncoming doom at the hands of an outside group who will, if not subjugated and/or destroyed, cause your downfall… they’re lying. They’re usually talking about inoffensive and largely helpless people who are not, in fact, a threat. They’re usually talking about misunderstood and persecuted minorities. But in this story, the threat of fascism comes from within the minority group, and threatens – far more explicitly with Grindelwald than with Voldemort – to harm the majority. In this, the genocidal fascist dictator-in-waiting is the leader of a radical activist liberation group within the persecuted minority. In today’s context, this isn’t just Rowling getting fascism all wrong. This is her getting it exactly wrong. This is her saying that fascism is something that comes from a dangerous and radical conspiratorial current within a minority, a secretive minority with occult and hermetic rituals even at the best of times. You can probably already see where I’m going with this. This fascism presents itself as a radical challenge to the status quo, using the rhetoric of liberation, peace, opposition to war, equality, and freedom. It is actually a murderous criminal conspiracy. This fascism is the minority posing a threat to the majority. This fascism is, in other words, everything from Black Lives Matter to Antifa. It is redolent of antisemitic ideas about ‘the Jews’ as a secretive group of plotters, secretly orchestrating all the strife that is coming to engulf us. This obviously isn’t deliberate. And we’re meant to like the minority in question – wizards – on the whole, at least as a concept. Even so.
This isn’t the first time Rowling has fallen into a trap like this. As many have noticed, her goblins are big-nosed greedy bankers. (By the way, just contemplate the sheer brass neck of her accusing Corbyn and the Labour left of antisemitism when she repackaged and sold the hoary antisemitic stereotypes of old to a generation of kids…) But that aside, fewer people have noticed that the goblins are also communistic in their inability to comprehend ‘human’ notions such as private property. They believe – horror of horrors! – that a person owns a thing because they made it. They reject the idea that Gryffindor ‘owns’ the sword they made just because he paid for it. They reject as intuitively wrong the entire concept of the commodity. So they are not just an antisemitic stereotype; they’re specifically a Nazi antisemitic stereotype of the Jews as both capitalists and communists.
Grindelwald and his crowd aren’t quite that bad a representation, but they’re still both reactionaries and revolutionaries at once. Grindelwald considers himself superior by virtue of his blood; he wants to be the leader of a racial elite; he dresses aristocratically; he moves into a luxurious apartment in Paris. But Grindelwald also rallies support from ordinary people with fiery speeches in which he preaches quality, tolerance, freedom and peace. He poses as a man persecuted by the forces of law and order. He preaches non-violence in response to an attack. He is an even more acute expression of something Voldemort expresses: the paradox whereby the people in these kinds of stories who want to change the world for the better, who identify and rail against its injustices, are always the bad guys. Their fanaticism always coexists with their cynicism. They are always both demagogues and machiavellians. They use the rhetoric of revolution and liberation while scheming for power for reasons that amount to little more than pathology, even when ideologically formulated… which they rarely are, at least not clearly. When they rail at the injustices of the world, their moral outrage and desire for change is always specious, dishonest, opportunistic. Their sanctimony is as straw-stuffed as their arguments. This is not a bad outline description of fascists. It’s not even a bad description of some who have claimed to be on the Left. But that’s the point. In this way of representing radical challenge, any distinction is collapsed, simply by virtue of similarities that look like identities from a bourgeois, centrist, ahistorical, politically-illiterate point of view. Every radical figure inevitably becomes not only both Hitler and Stalin simultaneously – in line with an ahistorical oversimplification that we needn’t have any sympathy with Stalin in order to reject – but also becomes every other radical movement. Everyone I don’t like isn’t just Hitler, they’re also Stalin, and Bernie Sanders, and Jeremy Corbyn, and Black Lives Matter, and Antifa, etc. Rowling might not endorse this as an actual position, and I’m sure it’s an accident as I say, but it is inescapably the political logic of her representations. In her stories there is no space in which to angrily denounce the status quo of society, to hack away at injustice at the root rather than just recoating the withering flowers with some nice bright paint. There is no way to safely or morally seek to radically change the world. Any such attempt either makes you an incipient dictator, or under the sway of such a dictator. And your project chugs inexorably towards concentration camps, gulags, and cracks in Tucker Carlson’s door – all of which are equally as bad, or at least on a line of progression.
The attempts to aesthetically place Grindelwald in the zone of Nazism – he’s aggressively blonde, has a nordic name, lives in a castle on a mountain reminiscent of Hitler’s Berghof, etc – do not change anything. They simply indicate the depth of Rowling’s confusion, and via her the depth of a certain kind of liberal centrist confusion about what fascism is. She is merely an exemplification of this confusion, a distillation of it. To these people, ‘fascism’ isn’t, say, a reactionary and counter-revolutionary form of political mass-mobilisation, open to being co-opted by the capitalist state when in crisis, based in the middle classes and petty bourgeoisie, ideologically opportunistic but inherently racist and sexist, always aggressively right-wing except for insincere populist rhetoric which is dropped when power is achieved, etc. It isn’t the complex but distinct phenomenon that, y’know, historians and political theorists have studied and charted. It is, instead, any kind of radical activism that involves people challenging the bourgeois status quo. It’s when liberal, centrist, wannabe-intelligentsia and culturati types get stridently criticised on Twitter for posing as moral heroes of progressivism despite being politically-illiterate corporate billionaires who reject the self-activity of the oppressed, or anything to the left of New Labour. Fascism isn’t just Steve Bannon; it’s also the people who protest him being allowed to spout his poisonous bullshit almost unchallenged at the Oxford Union. Ultimately, because they have no trust in the ability of ordinary people to engage in radical self-activity, people like Rowling find it impossible to believe either that radical movements can ever be anything other than herds of sheep under the sway of charismatic leaders, or that they can ever achieve anything except making things worse. They are convinced, a priori, that progress comes about by waiting, passively, for the Powers That Be, be it Clio the (Whiggish) Muse of History or enlightened elites, to hand reforms down from on high. When ordinary people get involved – marching, chanting, shouting, demanding, campaigning and voting for socialists – they see only conformity, idiocy, and incipient disaster. When ordinary people get angry and challenge power and entrenched interests, people like Rowling see only the onrush of gulags. They’re happy to patronise movements for gay rights, etc, as long as they’re well-behaved, limit themselves to the territory of identity (which they wrongly see as safely isolated), and don’t branch out into demanding more than ‘equal rights’ with the rest of the fucked-over masses. Don’t seek radical change, no matter how radically you are being fucked, because that will upset the apple cart, and that would be worse than an upright apple cart standing next to starving kids whose hands will be chopped off if they reach out to take what they need. If you are asking to be tolerated, to be indulged, to be acknowledged, and nothing more, J. K. will smile upon you. If you are demanding, or trying to take, a bigger slice of the cake than you’re ‘allowed’… you’re a fascist. You can have a slice the same size as that given to the other little people, but you mustn’t ask why J. K. gets 80% of it and you and everyone else has to equally share out the remaining 20%. And when – to switch metaphors as gracelessly as Rowling herself might – actual fascism breeds in the wounds created by the system J. K. and people like her sit atop of, don’t try to sew them up or clean them. Just sit and wait for them to heal. Even if they gape and gush and fester, even if the patient looks like they’re going to die, just sit and wait. That’s the kind of action J. K. approves of. If you try to sew up the wound, you’re stabbing the flesh with a needle, you’re pouring stinging antiseptic in, and that hurts, so it’s just as bad as being one of the germs breeding in the wound, or creating the wound in the first place.
There are some telling moments in this film. Dumbledore – still Rowling’s moral and political mouthpiece; and still a dishonest, scheming, elitist, manipulative bastard who scorns legality, accountability and democracy – advises the Ministry aurors not to break up Grindelwald’s rallies. The worst thing you can do, apparently, is try to stop fascists organising. That’ll just make things worse. The Ministry aurors take this advice, and so try not to act aggressively when they infiltrate a Grindelwald rally. But one of Grindelwald’s followers, moronically enraged and resentful at the clueless but well-meaning forces of law and order, attacks an auror. The auror responds by killing her. Grindelwald’s followers at the rally are restrained from responding angrily by Grindelwald, who again poses as a man of peace, thus showing us (again) the insincerity of radical voices who morally criticise the violence of the state.
But look at what has happened here. People trying to shut down a rising fascist movement have been told that the worst thing to do would be to actively challenge it.
In this story the people challenging the fascists are, of course, the ‘police’, because actual popular antifascist movements don’t exist in this schema – the masses being too apathetic, and all possible activism occurring under the fascist banner. The entire opposition to fascism thus comes from the police. Anybody who has been observing the rise of fascism in our own societies in recent years will understand what a sick joke that is. But more: the antifascist police(!), while trying to adopt a ‘softly softly’ approach, have still made the cardinal error of challenging the rising fascism at all, even carefully! They thus hand the fascists exactly what they want. That, by definition, is what happens when you challenge fascists: they win. And how do they win? In the film, they win because of the death of an activist in a confrontation with antifascists. The activist in question is a young woman. A young woman who is a fascist because she is a radical, and all radicalism is indistinguishable from fascism. So it’s kind of her own fault. Indeed, she brings her death on herself by attacking. She dies owing to a defensive move by the person she attacks.
Just let all that sink in.
To this film, all radical activism is fascism. The fascists and the ‘antifascists’ are interchangeable. In the resulting mess, people are dying. But the corpses are indistinguishable as fascists or antifascists, because there really is no difference.
And if you think I’m reading too much into this, Rowling herself has tweeted about how “left-wing fascism” is as much of a threat as right-wing fascism.
This is what Charlottesville looks like to Rowling and her class, and to the smothering mainstream ideology that arises from capital as a whole, and has the gall to claim to represent the centre. This is the ideology that can, with a straight face, show us a mushroom cloud, and then ask us to side with the centre that dropped it against the man who wants to stop it.
You have to wonder, by the way, when Grindelwald summons up a vision of the coming mushroom cloud, exactly what that particular staggering technological and scientific achievement says about his claim that wizards are superior to muggles. Have they got anything even remotely as powerful in their arsenal as even a primitive 1945 nuke? Most of the stuff wizards can do amounts to inefficient versions of stuff we can do with tech. It makes a lot of sense to continue the Wizarding World stories by pushing them backwards into the past. Since Rowling started writing, and Warner Bros started filming her stories, the world has actually caught up with a lot of the stuff in her Potter stories that initially seemed to mark the Wizarding World out from ours. By the time of the last Potter movie, people were walking to the cinema to see it past moving advertisements on screens that look better than the living posters in Diagon Alley, and scrolling up and down Twitter to at gifs from the movies that work more or less exactly the way magic photographs do in Hogwarts. Set a Wizarding World film in the present day and the workings of the Wizarding World would look crude and quaint next to what almost every cinema-going muggle carries around in their pocket. As it was, in order to avoid this exact problem, the Potter movies had to not only keep their version of the muggle world in a kind of eternal 1999 but also have the Wizarding World stuck in a mishmash of Victoriana and the 1940s. It wasn’t just clashing directorial visions and hamfisted visual metaphors about fascism that did this; it was the fact that the kids who grew up watching the movies also grew up with a different phone every year or so.
There’s a potentially interesting story in what the wizards would do when muggle scientific and technological progress surpassed their magic. Rowling will never touch it. Because the whole point of the exercise for her, it seems, is the crudeness and quaintness of the Wizarding World, the nostalgia of it. Nostalgia for childhood, for the jumbled and confabulated golden past. Living in the Wizarding World is living inside nostalgia. It is nostalgia for the life you currently lead, or rather it is experiencing your current life as if it actually were your nostalgic idea of your past life. It is – if I may indulge my obnoxious habit of inventing pun-based neologisms – ‘nowstalgia’. Also intensely appealing, it seems, is the supposedly enforced separation of the wizards from the muggles, of the fantasists from the real world, of the noswtalgia from any actual now that might pierce the bubble with its sharp edges. This is why her villains always threaten to end the division. This is why the wizards never intervene to stop mushroom clouds or sinking ships; why Rowling would think it evil of them to do so. It wouldn’t just be dangerously activist. Rowling likes keeping the wizards stuck in amber, in a world that is a benevolent dictatorship not only of a Ministry of Magic but also of a past that refuses to explain itself, or progress one iota, or engage with the adult world of real life. Even the problems in the Wizarding World she acknowledges are always past problems. They are always ‘the rise of fascism’. That’s okay because we know – don’t we? – that fascism lost, that it was defeated, that everything was all right in the end. Fascism, by this reckoning, is itself something to be looked back on with fondness, by virtue of its having-been-defeatedness. As Rowling’s apparent pathology gets deeper and weirder, she is pushing the Wizarding World back into the past so that her villain this time can be 1930-40s Wizard Hitler instead of 90s Wizard Hitler. As much as Crimes of Grindelwald wants us to see it as about ‘Now’, it is actually less about Now than about the assurance, given by Rowling to herself, and to those who think and feel like her, that Now will take care of itself and go away.
Ultimately, there’s really only one thing to say to Rowling and her class, and the cretinous ideology they churn out: Expelliarmus!
If you enjoyed this, consider bunging me a buck on Patreon. My patrons (just the best people) got exclusive access to an earlier version of the above piece ages ago.