Friday, July 8, 2022

Green Phoenix - Building Better Backstories VII

A man with a suitcase on a foggy city street. Behind him are two women and a man.

I have made it no secret that I have a rather neutral, leaning-negative, perception of the Fantastic Beasts franchise. Several weeks back, I had the "pleasure" of reviewing the third film in the franchise and while I will admit that I enjoyed it significantly more than its predecessors, even then I noted that it had a tremendous amount of problems attached to it that were simply systemic of the franchise as a concept.

Which is a real shame because I absolutely love the Harry Potter franchise and it made an incredible impact upon my childhood and teenage years. The world-building was superb and was deeply connected to the characters that inhabited that. While I have grown to hold some reluctant hesitance with regards to uncomfortable subtext within the universe due to the reputation of the author, the series as a whole still holds up.

This enjoyment of Harry Potter, but general ambivalence towards Fantastic Beasts, has been a consistent mystery to me and motivated me to explore and figure out what about the prequel series has me so frustrated and disappointed. The conclusion I came to, and the solution that I would prefer, was something that I absolutely knew needed to be my next issue of Building Better Backstories, especially in the wake of The Secrets of Dumbledore. As you will see in the article below, that film had an element present that the other films were mostly missing. A crucial element that truly helps set the tone and genre of the Fantastic Beasts.


What's the Point of Newt Scamander? - An Issue of Tone and Genre

Within the Harry Potter franchise, the titular character plays a central role in the telling of the story and the resolution of its plot. Harry Potter, for better or worse, is integral to the very nature of how the Harry Potter series is told. The same cannot, unfortunately, be said for the...protagonist?...of the Fantastic Beasts series, famed Magizoologist Newt Scamander.

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely adore the character of Newt Scamander and Eddie Redmayne's portrayal of the character is equal parts charming and deeply relatable. It's simply the fact the Scamander oftentimes doesn't really feel like he has a reason to be in the story. Most of this, as far as I can tell, seems to stem from the general focus of the prequel series and the overall genre trying to relate and connect itself to the later Harry Potter series.

The Harry Potter book and film series is organized as a teenage adventure fantasy that slowly transitions into an adult fantasy adventure towards the latter half of the series. In that same way, Fantastic Beasts also tries to focus on being an fantasy adventure in the same style and tone, despite covering subjects which honestly require a very different tone. The first few books and films in the Harry Potter series focused heavily on the world-building and slice-of-life adventures within a central location (Hogwarts). This allows the series to more heavily focus on character relationships and maintains surprise because Harry Potter isn't a prequel series like Fantastic Beasts, where the outcome of certain characters or events is already known.
Fantastic Beasts tries to have this same genre and tone, but due to the fact that the series seems intent on focusing more on the feud between Dumbledore and Grindlewald than on Scamander's character arc, that focus gets very muddled. As far as I can tell, Newt doesn't even seem to really participate in most of the major moments of the series, sometimes I even forget that he is in a scene at times. The fact that the Fantastic Beasts is also heavily focused on exploring multiple regions and unique cultures throughout the Wizarding world, but can't really get into greater detail because the larger "Grindelwald" plot keeps railroading exploration, which is especially frustrating because we all know how that story will turn out. So there is little to no tension there.
Couple that railroading with the fact that Grindelwald himself isn't particularly engaging as an antagonist or very active, seemingly coming off as a proto-Voldemort with a bit more charisma, leaves the franchise slightly underwhelming.

The solution, I think can be seen in two sources then. We study how The Mandalorian's shift in genre and tone reflects on the Star Wars series, and how contextualizing the Fantastic Beasts series as a Wizard James Bond-style spy franchise would improve the entire focus and direction of the franchise.


Fantastic Beasts - Harry Potter, Star Wars, & James Bond

The Star Wars films are fantasy space operas set in a science-fiction inspired universe. However, the various side-stories introduced in the new canon have enabled writers and creators to flex their muscles by shifting tone and experimenting with genre, to fantastic success. Of all the releases, The Mandalorian is probably the most popular. And it completely reexamined the Star Wars universe as a western film. There are tons of subtle contextual and subtextual themes and motifs of the Western genre present in The Mandalorian and it enabled a completely unique feel and narrative direction for the series that was completely different from and yet entirely within, the larger Star Wars mythos.

It is with this switch in genre that I believe the Fantastic Beasts might've been saved or improved. But not by switching the films genre to a Western, like The Mandalorian, but rather by shifting the genre to be more evocative of another quintessential British icon, the James Bond-style spy thriller. In fact, when one examines the underlying structure of the Fantastic Beasts franchise, all the elements of a James Bond film are already there.

A man with unique skills and an equally eclectic personality travels across the globe to achieve a certain mission and defeat a particular enemy, using strange technologies granted to him by his job. Often accompanied by a leading romantic love interest and a few humorous allies. With just a slight refocusing of the story to focus more on individual adventures around the globe, with only a passing mention of a wider inter-connected storyline, I could easily see Fantastic Beasts take on a spy thriller flair. And if you really want to include Grindelwald, you could include him as a Ernst Blofeld style villain, working in the shadows and as a manipulator of all of the individual adventures going on for Newt Scamander. And having Newt be your replacement for James Bond could actually allow for some very interesting and fun criticism of the more toxic elements of Bond's character.

I can just see it now. Newt Scamander travels the world to perform various tasks and assignments for Dumbledore and his allies, using his skills and genuine passion for magical beasts as a cover for his activities. On his first assignment in America, he joins forces with a Muggle to uncover some type of mass governmental conspiracy using a dangerous magical creature tied to a young Creedence Barebones. The plot could then be a hunt for the child as Newt is chased by the corrupt elements within the Wizarding government, only for the audience to discover that the corruption was masterminded by Grindelwald the entire time. And that would be the first film.

We could then have a second film that's completely different, set in France. I have no idea what this plot would likely entail but we could perhaps have a reveal of Grindelwald's organization towards the end of the film and the declaration of a shadow war between Dumbeldore's forces and Grindelwald's.

The third film's entire political election fraud scheme is actually rather good and I would leave that storyline largely intact, though I would have the film end with an actual declaration of war occurring between Grindelwald and the Wizarding world as the film's acutal villain is defeated and Grindelwald sees that he has no option for subtle fighting.

The fourth and fifth films could be set during the actual war and detail Scamander's efforts to combat attempts by Grindelwald's allies to destablize the world like you would expect from a Roger Moore-era James Bond film. At the end, if you really want to show the Dumbledore/Grindelwald fight, you can have it paired with a Scamander fight with whatever the villain du jour is for that film. Dumbledore can be your traditional wizard fight, where Scamander would fight with his magical beasts. Really setting the character apart from Bond's more traditionally macho aesthetic.

I mentioned it briefly above, but that difference between Bond and Scamander really would make the entire franchise from a thematic standpoint. Scamander is coded as on the spectrum and possesses many traits that are not traditionally masculine that make him singularly unique as a protagonist and to place him within the archetype of possibly the most traditionally toxic male in cinema would be subversive and fun in a very refreshing way, especially if you then counterpose him with more traditional archetypes like his brother Theseus and Grindelwald's supporters.

Plus switching the focus of the film back onto Scamander and his struggle with individual villains, will take focus away from Albus Dumbledore. Don't get me wrong, Jude Law is great. But Dumbledore feels like he is only in the film in order to connect the franchise to the original series and because Grindelwald's plot is going to be resolved through him. That's what really hurts Fantastic Beasts. In Harry Potter, you knew that Harry Potter would eventually defeat Voldemort. But in universe, Scamander has no role in Grindelwald's defeat so you know, no matter what Scamander does, he will eventually become a side character in his own goddamn series. Dumbledore should play a role as an M type figure, being Scamander's boss in this "proto-Order of the Phoenix" that would play the MI6 counterpart. And you could even have his fight with Grindelwald, but it shouldn't be thematically tied to the overall series. It should be secondary to whatever fight Scamander is having. Dumbledore and Grindelwald's fight should be a background set piece, maybe even impacting Scamander's fight to make it harder or easier. We know how that story ends, so it shouldn't be a point of tension, but a unique set element.

And that can be how the franchise ends. In truth, Dumbledore's fight doesn't need to even truly end in a way the audience can see, so long as Scamander defeats the enemy in his final fight. He could maybe even assist in some small way that is quintessentially Scamander. And then we can have him retire, marry the romantic lead and publish his adventures and magical studies. 

And so much of this is honestly just off the top of my head.



As you can see, there is so much potential here. So much so, that I almost want to completely rewrite the entire Fantastic Beasts franchise. I've been thinking about doing a livestream talk show on Twitch or YouTube where I discuss or go into further detail then my articles. And this might very well be a topic worth going into further details.

I really wanted to see more of J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World and was incredibly excited when Fantastic Beasts came out. But the issues with the franchise just really tapered much of my enthusiasm, to the point where I will likely only see the fourth and fifth film because I am literally obligated to do so. Maybe they will surprise me, but I honestly prefer to re-imagine what could've been, if the Fantastic Beasts franchise had been Rowling's attempt to make a Wizard spy thriller, rather than a weird proto-Harry Potter film that desperately wants to connect to the previous franchise rather than stand on its own two feet.
If Warner Bros. insists on stumbling to the finish line with this franchise, I guess it will have to be on us and fanfiction to see what Scamander's adventures could've really been.
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