In which I over-analyse two seconds of a Harry Potter trailer

The final trailer for Warner Bros Presents JK Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (a Wizarding World™ Product) has landed, and it shockingly features a slimy, hideous creature whose inclusion in the movie is both capital-P problematic and a dubious decision from a creative standpoint.

But as well as Johnny Depp, it’s also got a big snake in it. In keeping with the strange and inexplicable-even-to-myself fascination I have with this spin-off franchise, I immediately gave it a look.

When I watched the trailer initially I just said “looks kind of neat, still not going to pay to watch it for previously-stated reasons.” But if you’re a major Potter fan—a Pothead, as it were—this trailer apparently contains explosive information.

I had to read an article and do a little wiki-diving to get what everyone was losing their shit about, but basically: in the original Harry Potter novels, Voldemort has a giant snake that he keeps as a pet like a big creepy weirdo. The snake is named Nagini. It shows up in the background a few times, becomes more important right at the end, then dies. Apparently, a lot of fans speculated that Nagini is actually a human in disguise. I don’t remember whether there’s anything in the books that ever suggests this, but an animal turning out to be a person on the down-low is a thing that happens.

It’s easy to miss, but in the trailer, The Flash from Justice League whispers “Nagini” to a lady in a cage before she turns into a big snake. So, like. Theory confirmed, I guess.

A few things about this.

Firstly, as has been extensively documented elsewhere, the Harry Potter series has a bit of a diversity problem, and a lot of people were hoping the new movies, being divorced from the books, would remedy that. As such, introducing an Asian woman only to have her turn out to be a plot device that the heroes kill at the climax of the original story is…kind of a let down, to put it mildly.

Secondly, JK Rowling has a nasty habit of engaging in a sort of ad-hoc wokeness, in which it’s “revealed” after the fact that certain characters are—or could possibly be—representations of minority groups. The whole “Dumbledore is gay” thing is the most obvious example, but her reaction to the minor kerfuffle over Hermione being black in the play was more recent, and for some people stung a lot more. I know just from scanning my twitter timeline that some people found the black Hermione thing to be empowering (largely because it acted as a sort of authorial approval to draw fan art depicting the cast as not white) but many others felt that it was an insulting cop-out.

Similarly, we now get the after-the-fact “reveal” that there was another person of colour in the story the whole time…and it’s Voldemort’s snake. Which kills and/or eats several people over the course of the story, including at least one main character that I can recall.

It’s not quite as bad as revealing that Harry’s wand was secretly an Indian guy in disguise, but it doesn’t seem far off. This is the exact sort of thing that people made up to take the piss out of Rowling back when the play’s cast was unveiled, only now it’s happening for real.

But I’d like to look past the race angle (there are lots of other people more qualified than me writing about it) and talk about what this means narratively, and for whatever quality I guess I was hoping the Fantastic Beasts movies were going to have going forward. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that I don’t see it as a good sign.

Taken at face value, it comes off as extremely “prequelly.” Prequels, extensions and spin-offs of popular stories have a bad habit of bolting new additions or information onto the original narrative, often achieving nothing more than adding complexity while conversely making the story and setting seem smaller. The Star Wars prequels are infamous for this, but in my opinion the worst offender in any medium is Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea, a prequel/companion piece that exists solely to make the original game’s backstory needlessly convoluted.

You can tell when a prequel is doing this because it will prove answers to questions that didn’t need to be asked. The Phantom Menace solves the utterly non-existent “mystery” of where C3PO came from, and since “he got churned out by a random android factory” would be underwhelming, the movie feels the need to connect his origin back to something from the original trilogy (the specific tie-in they went with—Darth Vader built him as a small child—is probably the worst possible direction that Lucas and co could have chosen, but for some reason they did it anyway).

Nagini turning out to be a human in disguise is absolutely one of these instances. Her origin is technically a “mystery" in that you never find out where Voldemort got her from, but it’s not a question that anyone reading the books is going to be burning with curiosity to have answered, since most people will assume he just bought her at a shop or something (if the audience can immediately fill in a blank without needing to be directed to do so, you can reasonably conclude that the story itself doesn’t need to bother).

Even worse, this is the second time that Rowling has done this: the play includes an utterly bonkers bit where it turns out the lady who pushes the snack trolley on the train to Hogwarts is actually an immortal demon-like creature with gigantic razor claws (no, I am not making that up). Again, it’s an embellishment on the original story that exists solely for the sake of being an embellishment, as well as just being incredibly strange and out of place in its own right. If you’re going to try to do this thing where you reveal shocking twisteroos about the original story, the reveals should elicit reactions of surprise and delight—"Oh, so that’s why that character had that weird habit, I always wondered about that”—and not confused befuddlement or blank stares.

All of these creative decisions feel, to me, like the signs of a writer who told the story they originally set out to tell, said what they wanted to say, and should now probably leave it alone. That there was going to be more Harry Potter properties was an inevitability, and I don’t think it’s a bad idea on the face of it—the setting and world have promise, which I’d love to see a better author pick up and run with—but it’s abundantly clear by this point that Rowling wasn’t the person to bring them to life. Like a lot of people who work on one series for years and years, she can’t seem to disengage from the original books, which is what any Harry Potter spin-off would have to do to keep my interest.

As I’ve said in previous posts, the basic direction that The Crimes of Grindelwald (you have to type it like that) is taking seems extremely suspect—they’re going to need a really really good reason why Newt Scamander of all people should be tasked with bringing Grindelwald down—and this new development doesn’t make me any more positive about this ongoing story. Between this and the Depp situation, whatever interest I had in the series as a result of the first movie is pretty much gone.