The election dominated the news last week—as it should—but one thing did manage to crack the all-encompassing vote watch on Friday, and no, it was not chartthrob Steve Kornacki and his big board. It was a statement issued by Johnny Depp, that he has been asked to step down from the Fantastic Beasts franchise, and that he has agreed to do so. The role of Gellert Grindelwald will be recast.
This comes on the heels of Depp’s defeat in UK courts in a libel case against The Sun for a 2018 headline that labelled Depp a wife beater. Ironically, that article, written by Dan Wootton, was criticizing JK Rowling for standing by the decision to cast Depp as Grindelwald in the first place. So, basically, if Warner Brothers and Rowling—who is a credited screenwriter on each of the Fantastic Beasts movies, something I am also sure, um, no one at Warners has cause to regret by now—had listened to the fan outcry, this mess could have been avoided. Generally, I don’t think studios should listen to fans, because fans usually get mad about stuff like casting Black people and women in prominent roles. But in the case of Depp and Grindelwald, the outcry came from people pointing out that a dude accused of spousal abuse might not be the best fit for a franchise based on children’s books. That is a valid point and one that, ultimately, the fans ended up being right about.
Back in 2017, though, Warners and Rowling stuck to their guns, and Depp ended up suing The Sun over being labelled a wife beater, and now here we are. Warners ended up dismissing Depp anyway, and Depp lost his libel suit, which means The Sun can call him a wife beater with impunity (and they are). I don’t, however, think this means that Depp’s career is dead. He will find plenty of people to support him and give him opportunities (I mean, Mel Gibson is still working). But starring in billion-dollar studio franchises might be over. Disney was already considering a Depp-free Pirates of the Caribbean reboot, and I can’t imagine another studio hiring him for such a gig, not so long as every UK media outlet has free rein to start every casting announcement with the headline, “Wife beater Johnny Depp…”
That is entirely why Warners asked Depp to leave the franchise. Fantastic Beasts is not on solid ground—Crimes of Grindelwald made $160 million less than Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which made over half a billion less than Deathly Hallows – Part 2. There are indications this is not the follow-up franchise fans were looking for after Harry Potter’s story ended, and casting Johnny Depp as the main villain did not pay off. Even back in 2017 he seemed to be adding to the franchise’s liabilities, and now he is a major liability simply because, again, an entire country’s press can call him a wife beater in every publication and broadcast. No one wants that associated with their franchise, and especially when the series creator herself is becoming an albatross around the franchise’s neck. Fantastic Beasts is already operating from a publicity deficit, and Johnny Depp just became one burden too many to carry for Fantastic Beasts 3 (which is currently filming).
For those screaming about why Amber Heard hasn’t been fired from the Aquaman franchise, if and when she loses a similar court case, maybe she will be. The problem for Warners isn’t the accusations, it’s the liability of the legal loss. They were willing to stand by Depp as long as the accusations were he said/she said. Public apologies from Depp and Heard were enough for the studio back in 2017. But Depp losing his libel case changes the game entirely. It changes his narrative entirely. There are plenty of fans who continue to support him, but if you’re responsible for a billion-dollar franchise which sells not just movie tickets but books, toys, merchandise, and theme park passes, you can’t take chances, especially since your new movie franchise isn’t doing as well as you’d like. Casting Johnny Depp as Grindelwald was meant to energize Fantastic Beasts, but it’s been nothing but controversy since day one, and that controversy culminated in an embarrassing legal loss which pretty much forced Warners’ hand. In short: they should have cast Colin Farrell to play Grindelwald in the first place.