The latest entries in the “Fantastic Beasts” and “Star Wars” movie franchises share one painful thing in common: A totally uninspired twist in which a main character adopts a famous last name that you’d only recognize if you’re a fan of the series. Spoilers for both “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” up ahead.
For “Fantastic Beasts” its twist comes at the end of its second movie (“The Crimes of Grindelwald”) when a character we all thought was killed off in the first film, and probably should have stayed that way, named Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller) is given the name Aurelius Dumbledore by series villain Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) in a move that seems like it was meant to keep the rabid Harry Potter fanbase theorizing for a few years until the third Beasts film comes out. If you’re unfamiliar with why this should be a big deal, Dumbledore is the last name of famous headmaster of a certain school of witchcraft and wizardry that is very important in the eight Harry Potter films, but isn’t that important in “The Crimes of Grindelwald.”
The issue is, this twist is completely nonsensical and while it has the illusion of intrigue, it adds nothing to the movie whatsoever. Who cares if series main Headmaster Albus Dumbledore has a sibling we didn’t know about? It has no impact on the main eight “Harry Potter” films, and adds little substance to the “Fantastic Beasts” films. It feels weak, contrived and has all the depth of the worst Potter fan fiction.
However, Star Wars’s Rey Skywalker twist in last year’s “The Rise of Skywalker” has a little more meat on its bone, as that film deals with evil lineages (Rey is the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine, the villain for seven of the nine episodic films) and as such, she chooses to adopt the surname of her mentors, Luke and Leia, rather than that of her grandfather.
Still, there are issues with this, particularly because Rey did not have a great relationship with Luke, and we never really got to see her bond with Leia in a meaningful way because the sequel trilogy wasted too much time having her go on pointless errands in Episodes VII and VIII, and by the time Episode IX rolled around, it was too late. So while there’s a bit more sense to be made with Rey adopted a famous last name in “The Rise of Skywalker,” it too feels contrived and forced.
Something that I recognize!
The Star Wars and Harry Potter franchises are global brands established by cultural phenomenons that have lasted decades, so much so that they are ingrained in our culture and have grown so large that they can’t stop referencing themselves and are doomed to have to play off of already-established ideas from previous films. For both the Star Wars sequel trilogy and the Fantastic Beasts prequel series, both grapple with the suffocating legacies of their respective franchises, and what ruins them both are uninspired studio direction and a return to recycled ideas audiences have been done with for a while. There’s an inherent fear to properly explore new ideas.
Really, it seems that unless you’re a Marvel film, the Hollywood studio system will run your franchise into the ground sooner or later, and when we talk about how these franchises get so bad, it is the studios themselves who are to blame, either for giving the wrong people too much influence, or failing to give the right people enough creative control.
“The Rise of Skywalker” went wrong with one key hire: Chris Terrio, whose past credentials as a screenwriter for “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and its sequel, “Justice League”, should blacklist him from ever writing another Hollywood film again. It is beyond comprehension why Lucasfilm thought it was a good idea to hire a man responsible for two of the worst blockbuster films of all time to helm the last chapter of the Skywalker saga, and it’s safe to say they got what they paid for.
When you analyze it in detail, Episode IX’s Rey Skywalker twist is very similar to “Batman v. Superman””s Martha revelation. For context, that film focuses on an epic showdown between Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill) that is stopped dead in its tracks when they realize their mother’s have the same first names. It has the illusion of being clever, but it actually breaks the film, and is one of the most embarrassing moments in cinematic history as it makes both characters look ridiculous. It’s a level of writing you expect from an Ed Wood film. It’s literally throwing a name you recognize out on the screen and hoping it makes some sort of inherent meaning. It’s desperation incarnate, and while there is a little more to the Rey Skywalker reveal than the word “Martha” changing Batman’s character in a few seconds, it’s cut from the same cloth.
When we talk about where Fantastic Beasts 2’s Aurelius Dumbledore reveal comes from, I theorize it’s a result of Harry Potter writer J.K. Rowling having too much creative control behind the scenes, especially in the scripting department. My reason? Steve Kloves, the man who wrote nearly all of the screenplays for the Harry Potter films, has been brought back to write the screenplay for the third “Fantastic Beasts” film, which I’m not surprised by at all because the second film was a complete and utter mess, and a lot of that is on Rowling for turning in a messy script. Rowling is a brilliant novelist, and she did an OK job with the script for the first “Fantastic Beasts” film, which she wrote by herself, but she’s a novice screenwriter at best, and while she crafted a fantastic book series with Harry Potter and is capable of crafting more, like Star Wars creator George Lucas, she needs people in the room to tell her “no”, to balance and flesh her ideas out into something that can work on screen.
Nothing substitutes good storytelling
The “I’m going to adopt a famous name” or “I’m going to say a name you recognize to avoid doing narrative work” cliche is perhaps the most infuriating when it’s used to substitute good storytelling as used in Fantastic Beasts 2 and Star Wars: Episode IX, because it hopes that the shock value of its revelation or the quality of its reference will be enough for you to turn your brain off, and elicit a reaction that is unearned.
Great reveals and twists make you look at a film in a new light, and in the best cases, help you connect the dots of an important aspect the film has been slowly building in the background. They elevate the film they are featured in, making a second watch uniquely different from the first.
Within these two franchises, there are good examples of famous name reveals, particularly in the second Potter film, where Tom Riddle, a past student at Hogwarts who communicates with Harry Potter through an old diary, is revealed to be a younger version of series villain Voldemort (his name even ends up being an anagram for Voldemort), and the reveal of Alberforth Dumbledore, who helps Potter in the final two movies and injects some needed humanity and flaws into his brother’s character post-mortem, is also a welcome addition that adds depth and meaning to the existing story.
Star Wars itself has the greatest reveal of all time: Original trilogy villain Darth Vader’s revelation that he is in fact Anakin Skywalker, the father of protagonist Luke Skywalker, which evolves their relationship in an interesting way that also creates unique conflict. Suddenly Vader is no longer a faceless lackey, but the most important person on screen other than our heroes.
In these instances, name reveals serve to elevate character, whereas the Rey Skywalker and Aurelius Dumbledore reveals do not. If anything, they’re attempts at narrative shorthand, to imply character growth without actually showing it.
It is through a character’s actions, not their origins, that make a character interesting. Good reveals allow us to understand past and future actions in new contexts. Bad reveals add nothing of value but shock. Or a yawn.