Secret to succession: does it matter if a film franchise changes its star?

It tangled Spider-Man and dethroned The Crown – but keeps Bond alive. Now Fantastic Beasts must replace Johnny Depp

Johnny Depp in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.
Making way … Johnny Depp in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Photograph: Allstar/WARNER BROS.
Making way … Johnny Depp in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Photograph: Allstar/WARNER BROS.
Luke Walpole

Last modified on Mon 16 Nov 2020 07.26 EST

At the climax of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Gellert Grindelwald, the ultimate threat to peace in the Wizarding World, is revealed. Having supplanted the form of Percival Graves, a high-ranking wizard in the American Ministry of Magic played by Colin Farrell, the character makes his entrance as the music thuds and the camera weaves … and there sits Johnny Depp. Someviewers shrugged their shoulders. Others wished Farrell had stayed.

Yet Depp remained in the role – and gave a lively performance in the follow-up, The Crimes of Grindelwald – or he did until this week, when he “stepped down” following his failed libel case against the Sun. On a purely commercial level, the Fantastic Beasts franchise could not afford another PR issue. After JK Rowling’s Twitter wars and the footage of Ezra Miller appearing to choke a female fan, the latest news concerning Depp leaves the series in a precarious state. Whether or not it ends up being Mads Mikkelsen who takes up Grindelwald’s wand as predicted, Warner Bros has been left searching for a lead actor midway through a five-part saga.

It isn’t the first film franchise to be left in the lurch, and it won’t be the last. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Edward Norton played the Hulk before Mark Ruffalo, moving on due to creative differences, while in the time between Iron Man and its sequel,Terrance Howard morphed into Don Cheadle after contractual disagreements.

Fostering a relationship … Anthony Hopkins and Julianne Moore in Hannibal.
Fostering a relationship … Anthony Hopkins and Julianne Moore in Hannibal. Photograph: Allstar/MGM

Cheadle and Ruffalo took to the roles successfully. The main impact, perhaps, was on the wallets of Norton and Howard. In the Dark Knight trilogy, Katie Holmes departed after Batman Begins, replaced by Maggie Gyllenhaal with little material difference.

But some forced changes don’t work as well. For Hannibal, Jodie Foster, who won an Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs, was replaced by Julianne Moore. Moore may be a fantastic actor but the golden thread that tied the first film together was the cat-and-mouse game between Foster and Anthony Hopkins. Returns were diminished in the sequel.

The Wizarding World, too, had to switch Dumbledores following the death of Richard Harris. Michael Gambon never sat particularly well with Potterites, but the franchise still built on its early success. Forced casting changes, in which Depp’s situation precariously sits, are often deemed understandable by audiences, even if the toxicity of this particular court case complicates the picture.

Then there is the active choice to recast. Changing actors can offer the promise of a soft reboot if things are becoming staid. James Bond thrives from the incessant rumour mill over who will play 007 next. Similarly, Doctor Who capitalises on semi-regular recasting, using it as an opportunity to wipe the slate clean while keeping the same core following. The inane controversies over who should and shouldn’t get the roles all serve as free publicity.

Claire Foy and Matt Smith in The Crown.
High bar … Claire Foy and Matt Smith in The Crown. Photograph: B/Netflix/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

An interesting model comes from The Crown. Peter Morgan’s idea was always to have the real-life characters be depicted by different actors as the series’ timeframe progressed. It is a neat idea, but the superb performances of Claire Foy, Matt Smith and Vanessa Kirby in the first two seasons may have had their downsides. The muted response to season three speaks to the issues that can arise when you mess with a winning formula.

And this is perhaps the rub. Audiences like familiarity, especially with tentpole franchises. Changing out of choice is risky. Just look at the dwindling ticket sales from the Terminator franchise or Foy’s outing as The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Andrew Garfield, though an amiable Peter Parker starred in a Spider-Man franchise that never met the financial bar set by Sam Raimi’s original trilogy.

Though a reboot and a change of star can bring short-term success, it more often damages the integrity of the series. While forced changes have had a mixed legacy, unforced alterations tend to leave audiences cold. The Depp case is complicated by the fact that many called for his removal prior to the verdict, with others now leaping to his defence and threatening a boycott.

The Crimes of Grindelwald was the Wizarding World’s least commercially successful film. Whether it comes from Mikkelsen or not, the franchise desperately needs a sprinkle of magic.