This past weekend I saw Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, and I really enjoyed it. It had the feel of North By Northwest or The Man Who Knew Too Much–an innocent abroad who stumbles upon a terrorist conspiracy and must find the real villains in order to clear his name. The cast is excellent, the special effects are seamlessly integrated into the story, and the overall feel of the film is just plain fun.
There is one point in particular I want to discuss, however, and offer as a contrast to another film franchise that contains many similar elements: Bryan Singer’s X-Men series.
Fantastic Beasts, much more than the Harry Potter series, deals with the interaction of the wizarding world and the non-magical majority. In this way it shares many common themes with the X-Men films. (Or at least those that I have seen. There is still one, maybe two, that I haven’t watched yet. From the reviews I’ve read I am fairly confident that the newer ones continue in the tradition of the older ones.)
In both universes there is a minority of people who are born with innate abilities that make them far more powerful than ordinary humans. That is a very rich mythos and it resonates deeply with audiences. Who hasn’t felt alienated at one time or another, and wished that feeling of strangeness was a harbinger of abilities beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals? Who hasn’t imagined one day finding a community of people who share both the feelings and the imagined powers?
However, there is a rather significant difference in how the two universes handle the issue.
In the X-Men films (I can’t really speak to the source material, but I have heard that it is much more nuanced) Mutants are good and Humans are bad. I asked my roommate (who is a fan of the series) if she could come up with a single positive non-mutant character in the films. She mentioned a female FBI agent in First Class who fell in love with Charles Xavier (and later had her memory erased by him) but couldn’t recall the character’s name. I didn’t remember that character at all.
I do understand that the character of Eric/Magneto was a villain in the source material, and he was a bit heavy handed in the first film, but the conflict between him and Charles seems mostly to be regarding methods rather than goals. The overall story arc seems to be that Humans try to exterminate Mutants, Mutants argue about the best way to fight back, Humans and Mutants fight, Mutants win.
On the other hand, Fantastic Beasts (and to a lesser extent the Harry Potter films) shows the Wizard/Muggle relationship to be more complex and more realistic. There are both good and bad wizards, and both good and bad muggles (or “no-majs” to use the American term.)
The group of anti-witch humans are shown to be a fanatic fringe group that is largely ignored by the mass of humanity. (Granted, a big part of that is that wizards are much better at concealing themselves than mutants, and the mass of humanity doesn’t believe in magic.)
More significantly, Jake, who is a simple, common non-magical man, reacts not with horror but with wonder at his accidental introduction to the wizard’s world. Yes, he is afraid (and justifiably so) of the power that the wizards possess, but he accepts the wizards themselves as human beings and friends.
Fantastic Beasts has none of the “us versus them” mentality of the X-Men films. The wizard world is a place apart, but it is a place that exists alongside the human world, comfortably for the most part. The wizards who see muggles as the enemy (such as Voldemort in the Potter franchise) are not the mainstream, they are a dangerous fringe.
In short, the X-Men cinematic universe shows a contempt and hatred of ordinary people that is refreshingly lacking in Rowling’s wizarding world. We can be different, Fantastic Beasts says, without being enemies. People who are not like us are still people, and still worthy of respect and affection.
That’s a message that we sorely need to hear these days.