Just a few days ago, Warner Bros. politely asked Johnny Depp to get out of their Harry Potter franchise, after the actor lost a libel case about whether or not newspaper The Sun could legally call him a “wife beater.” The embroiled actor resigned from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’s central villainous role of Gellert Grindelwald, opening the door for Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal, Casino Royale) to come and replace him, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Depp’s replacement has been messy, building for years—with allegations and official studio responses coming before The Crimes of Grindelwald (the second film in the Potter spin-off series) released in November 2018, and could be the best thing to happen to the franchise since its inauspicious debut.
Fantastic Beasts, so far, has been anything but. The first film made a ton of money, riding the wizard robe coattails of its scarred predecessor to financial success. People were hungry for more magic and, in 2016, Harry Potter author/Beasts screenwriter J.K. Rowling hadn’t yet made a habit of airing her bad politics all over the internet. We can be forgiven for going to see someone named Newt Scamander galivant about while Gridelwald’s crimes (which are introduced a full film before The Crimes of Grindelwald frustratingly set up the sequel, in what our critic Andy Crump calls a bunch of “Standard Issue Dark Wizard Shit.” The movies have not been good, partially because there’s a ton of convoluted plot and no focal point through which we can accept it.
The first Harry Potter partially works because even when we’re thrown in the deep end of Diagon Alley, the looming, killer shadow of Voldemort gives us a great evil to latch onto as a reference point. Sure there are three-headed dogs, racist schoolchildren, a sorcerer’s stone, Quidditch, centaurs, and a baby dragon—but everything is still set dressing as the story builds to the first battle in the black-and-white war between He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and The Boy Who Lived. Grindelwald…not so much.
Introduced first, like Voldemort, in disguise, the character decided to disappoint us right off the bat. Colin Farrell turning into Johnny Depp has never felt like such a slap in the face. Once Depp finally has his shot to give the new franchise its own Big Bad, there’s not much to it. His pissy Jack Frost just doesn’t do much.
Our own Michael Burgin described Depp’s performance in The Crimes of Grindelwald as “a bit stymied by the film’s vision of Grindelwald as an amalgam of Voldemort and Magneto.” Stoic Depp has only ever worked when he’s been a goth alien, out of his depth and deserving of our sympathies: Edward Scissorhands, Ichabod Crane, Victor Van Dort. Otherwise his power has come from bluster and mania, confidence and swagger: Ed Wood, Cry-Baby, Raoul Duke, Willy Wonka, and (of course) Captain Jack Sparrow. Tim Burton isn’t the only one to unlock these performances, but he understands Depp’s strengths as an actor. Strengths which don’t really translate to a potent enough on-screen villain to make up for his film franchise’s muddy plotting.
Enter Mads Mikkelsen, a man with an even more wizardly name than “Gellert Grindelwald.” The actor many know as the charming cannibal that carried Hannibal, Mikkelsen is a figure able to play a franchise villain with enough complexity and allure that other quibbles can fall away. With a sexy/scary vampiric screen presence, Mikkelsen’s odd handsomeness (along with a self-assuredness that evokes an eternal creature of the night walking slowly, slowly towards his victim) is magnetizing. He has a luxurious enunciation and unnervingly steady gaze when he becomes the baddie that help create that larger-than-life monster in human form. His Hannibal Lector inspired millions of horny Tumblr posts about a character made famous by Anthony Hopkins, while his Le Chiffre helped make Casino Royale a resurgent force in the James Bond world. His Grindelwald could do the same thing.
Not to dive too deeply into the lore, but Grindelwald isn’t just a Dark Wizard—he’s a bad boy that once had a romance with Hogwarts head Albus Dumbledore. It all ended in tears, of course, but it’s an element that needs to be played in the future films. Depp’s Grindelwald had the sexual draw of a Hot Topic mannequin left in the alley behind the mall. Jude Law’s Dumbledore deserves someone that’s able to carry murderous intent and sexual tension all at once…something Mikkelsen did for three seasons as Hannibal grew closer and closer to Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham. Even Mikkelsen’s bonkers, burnt-up eye makeup in Doctor Strange enhanced his dangerous charm.
As the Fantastic Beasts series involves Grindelwald more and more, culminating in a 1945 duel to end all duels, Mikkelsen’s abilities are going to be so much more important than a problematic A-list name. Does his casting mean that the films will become less labyrinthine? Of course not. But, with Mikkelsen’s Grindelwald leading more and more of the franchise as evil’s power grows, an increasing portion of the plots will be anchored by an actor that can sell all the necessary complexities of a genre villain. If you were wondering “whether this particular branch of the Potter cinematic family tree was worth cultivating,” like our critic, Mikkelsen’s casting is the first bud after a long magicless winter.