This post spoils a few scenes in The Crimes of Grindelwald, to the extent there’s anything to spoil.
To the haunted saga of whether one of the great “gay” characters of our time will ever actually be gay, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald adds some heady new developments: a same-sex hand grasp and at least one breathy line about the nature of brotherhood. Whew! In the new movie, the second in an apparent five-film series, we finally meet young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), who first appears on screen as a flamboyant glove in 1920s Europe. Dumbledore’s schemes this time around lay the early mechanics for an inevitable final standoff with Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), the series’ new baby-murdering supervillain, a fellow great wizard and boyhood friend of Dumbledore’s who was also, it seems, his first love.
That is not actual Harry Potter text, mind you. Neither is Dumbledore’s sexuality. It’s been gleaned from breadcrumbs and an ongoing campaign of suggestion from J.K. Rowling, who can’t stop making declarations about Potter lore without bothering to add them to the actual product—most notoriously that Dumbledore is, and always was, gay. Two years ago, Rowling further inflamed the issue with taunting statements about an openly gay Dumbledore in the new movies. This unfortunate habit has now set up fans of the series (and even casual blockbuster fans starved for gay heroes) to turn over every sparkly apparition in search of the character she claims she’s written.
The Crimes of Grindelwald invites this tradition in mostly inoffensive ways, given how little actually happens in the movie. But it does begin to hint at the backstory of Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s relationship, and just like Rowling, who wrote the screenplay, it’s more than happy to tease. In the sequence in question, told in magic-summoned visions, Dumbledore describes his days as a willowy young counterpart to Grindelwald, and we see the teenage boys clasp hands, stare at each other with intention, and do magic with their wands. In what is, I’m sorry to say, the money shot, another character tells Dumbledore he and Grindelwald were closer than brothers—and Dumbledore replies, not without some burden, “Closer than brothers.”
That’s … about it. And yet others who saw the movie early confirmed the line brought down the house in exalted laughter. I happened to see it at a packed screening for the series’ most hardcore fans—quite the setting—and as the flashbacks unfurled, the giddy theater grew quiet, and three women seated in front of me leaned closer to the screen. At “closer than brothers,” the reaction was so uproarious I was worried someone might get hurt. Such is the self-parody that this series’ gay (sub)text has become: The coyness now seems less about the traditional concerns like squeamish audiences and overseas returns and more about Rowling seizing every opportunity she can to contort Dumbledore’s sexuality into an ever slightly more conspicuous Easter egg. For her, it’s one more lever of fan nostalgia she can pull. If you still wonder why people insist on seeing this movie (and series) at least partly through a gay lens, it’s because its creator keeps reminding us to, again and again, even while she does little to warrant the attention.
Let us stipulate that the Fantastic Beasts movies are unlikely to deliver a satisfying arc about a great gay wizard, let alone a breakthrough in blockbuster representation. Rowling has already suggested that the relationship in question was unrequited—that Grindelwald recognized the nature of Dumbledore’s love for him and stoked it to neutralize him as an enemy. (Indeed, in the new movie, Grindelwald continues his seduction of a powerful teenage wizard, toned down from a depiction that turned some heads last time.) But if the movies do locate a queer aesthetic, it may come in the central performances. Depp plays Grindelwald as a blood-drained dandy with an aristocratic snarl, and his political and sartorial stylings register somewhere along the scale of gay fascism. Law, who once earned an Oscar nomination for a canny bit of gay-baiting, goes for broader charm, but he inhabits Dumbledore with a strapping, weary wit that at once reminds us how sexy he can be and suggests a fuller character somewhere in there, waiting to escape. I hope, someday, he does.