(Warnings: Possible spoilers for Fantastic Beasts and Doctor Strange)
I want to start off this post by saying that generally I enjoyed both these films. They were fun expansions to the established universes and I will probably be going to see the follow-ups in the series.
However, there was one thing which has been nagging at me. I didn’t love them and I have been trying to work out why, when for all intents and purposes they should have been amazing and, especially in terms of Fantastic Beasts, a nostalgic escape. (To be fair, it was to some extent: I nearly squealed at the opening credits and my friend laughed at my over-excited reaction). So far I have come up with two explanations:
1. The Expectation Game:
Of course film promotion is necessary and I love watching all the interviews and chat show appearances and trailers but as many people have noted, starting promotion 12 months in advance is pushing the boat out a little too far. Also, especially before Doctor Strange, all the reviews were saying that the film “revolutionised the Marvel canon” and that it was a “visual masterpiece”. Now I enjoyed the effects and I’m excited for how they use these more magical elements in future films (in Fantastic Beasts the introduction of the magical beasts was the hilight of the film for me) but that was it. I enjoyed it but I didn’t feel my opinion on the Universe as a whole had changed. It’s a tricky line to walk as you want to know if a film is worth seeing but everything is subjective to your own personal experiences and if you’re expectations are pulled up too high, you are inevitably going to feel disappointed, even though that’s not the films fault.
This is the main offender. After seeing Doctor Strange one of my lecturers called it “just a Marvel film” and I think this is the crux of the issue. Both Marvel and the Harry Potter cinematic universe have in-built audiences by now, which mean the studios can do more world-building and playing around with the possibilities as they know an audience will go. However the problem is that they have forgotten that even if you have an audience there, to make them care about a film you need to make them care about the characters and the only way to do this is to build characters worth caring about.
All I know about Stephen Strange’s character is that he was an arrogant neuro-surgeon and now he’s somehow a slightly less arrogant sorcerer. The middle-bit has loads of punch sure, with the introduction of the boundaries of the magic, but there’s nothing there making me care about the person wielding the magic. Sure he saves the world but the stakes somehow seemed removed from the fear of other films like Captain America: Winter Soldier, a film with lesser stakes perhaps but which I was more compelled to be scared about because I cared. Here there was nothing to cling onto apart from some so-so quips and the film insisting that these disparate people were now a team against an enemy you weren’t taught to fear. I think this is why the second end-credit scene didn’t have quite the impact it was supposed to have. I knew logically I should feel a sense of betrayal but I hadn’t found the connection with the characters to really empathise and feel personally slighted.
In Fantastic Beasts, my favourite scenes were not of the big set pieces of magic, but the interactions between Jacob and Newt when looking at the different magical creatures. It felt more ‘Harry Potter’ than any other scene, a mixture of wonder with humanity as Newt cares for the creatures his fellow wizards dismiss and introduces Jacob to the magic. Similar to Doctor Strange the film’s core team felt forced upon me: here are the characters you are going to care for, here is the side you are on, obviously, because these are the good guys and that’s all you should need to feel for them. I spent the entire film being irritated with Tina and Queenie’s characters, feeling they were too frilly and vague, removed from me, with nothing to create the solid kinship I felt for Hermione, Ginny, and Luna. I wanted to love the Madame President and felt with more screen time for her I would have but in the few scenes she was offered, she just came across as unnecessarily cold. The scene in the subway was confusing as, although explicitly told that Graves was “using” Credence, there was no evidence of why he was being used beyond Graves being vaguely evil in some mysterious way. More than anything I wish the film had built up Newt more. Being played by Eddie Redmayne, I already felt I loved the character as the person playing him was so lovely in the promotion, but the actual film left me with confused feelings towards him as, like the other characters, I don’t feel I actually know him.
What I wish for both these films is that, at the expense of some of the big, flashy shots, more time was spent on simple character building.
[Also personal point: Please FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, do not ask me to expect Newt to have fallen in love with Tina. They have exchanged roughly 14 lines, most of them about how irresponsible it was for Newt to set his magical creatures free (despite it not being his fault), and with Newt not really listening, worrying about the aforementioned creatures. Ditto for the Rachel McAdams story-line. If you are going to put in a love story-line, make it worth it and necessary for the plot. If you are going to add in female characters, which you obviously should, please please please don’t leave them as one-dimensional. Like, once we have more female characters who are fully developed, then one or two one-dimensional ones won’t matter but when it’s every character…]
I think mainly, both of these films felt like long, expensive set-ups to the main event…which will be happening in 2-3 years time. There was so much time plugged into building up the background, trying to set up all the little bits and pieces which can be fleshed out later, that it seemed to forget that these were films in their own right.
I’m hopeful about the sequels and will probably end up seeing them in one way or another and will probably love them. I just wish I could say I loved the ones we already have.