Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald finally lets Harry Potter fans appreciate and judge Albus Dumbledore for ourselves. (This article includes minor references to the plot and conclusion).
When we meet Albus Dumbledore for the first time in The Crimes of Grindelwald, the greatest wizard in the world is handsome, young, and — there’s no other word for it — familiar.
Even rewound in time, he is all gravitas and twinkling eyes, all brilliant mind and unassuming power. The Dumbledore of 1927 is a crystal-cut version of the man whose life Harry Potter fans know (or think we know) so intimately well. What we, and Newt and Leta and Theseus expect, we see, and what we see, we expect.
When Dumbledore first appears to lead Newt on a merry jaunt around London, he is sprite-like and focused, a steadying presence for all that he is energized and intent. In Dumbledore’s natural setting of Hogwarts, he shines all the more brightly, every inch the calm, kind, and encouraging teacher who inspires loyalty in generations of wizards.
In other words, this new-old Dumbledore in The Crimes of Grindelwald is as aspirational and brilliant as those involved in the Wizarding World, both as viewers and as participants, could have hoped.
But — and here is the crucial thing — this Dumbledore is also quite another thing entirely. It is an unmitigated achievement of The Crimes of Grindelwald that the film is willing to display Dumbledore with intimate honesty, in the fullness of his undeniable and sometimes chilling humanity.
In Fantastic Beasts, we meet Dumbledore not as an interpretation, memory, or marvel, but as a man. He is unglazed by the eyes of admirers or enemies; we have no Harry to tint his every action with awe, no Aberforth to chill his legacy. Instead, we are allowed to see him as he was; to observe, unvarnished, how Dumbledore’s darker aspects gleam with equal portent to his virtues.
The professor’s merry jaunt with Newt is light, and, congenial, and earnest… and breathtakingly manipulative. It seems clear that Dumbledore cares about Newt (as he will care about another boy many years in the future) but that doesn’t stop him from nudging Newt, carefully and pawn-like, on his grand chessboard.
Nor is Newt the only piece which Dumbledore shapes and advances across the span of the film. The flashback to Dumbledore’s active lesson on boggarts is keenly instructive here. Yes, he is a genuinely kind and empathetic teacher. But learning of Newt and Leta Lestrange’s darkest fears also allows Dumbledore a critical window into the drives and desires that motivate these young wizards.
Newt, terrified of slaving away his life as a rule-following office man, is a prime target for Dumbledore’s call for stealth and illegal adventure. Leta, beset by secrets and regrets, is equally vulnerable to Dumbledore’s suggestion that she take absolving action against her torment. From a certain point of view, one could even say that Leta’s death comes about because she resists Grindelwald’s temptation, and succumbs to that alluring suggestion of Dumbledore’s instead.
Even the Ministry of Magic bends beneath Dumbledore’s subtle sway. It hardly seems accidental that the professor’s call for restraint sends the Ministry in precisely the opposite direction, haring off to Paris where they are perfectly placed to add the final touch to the confrontation of Grindelwald.
It is also critical to understand how close a resemblance Dumbledore’s careful manipulation and planning bears to the activities of his dark counterpart. Throughout The Crimes of Grindelwald, both men are engaged in, let’s call it a strong degree of encouragement toward the vulnerable, nudging them down a path that already tempts them.
Newt wants to go to Paris; Dumbledore just… helps him see the way there, as it were, but for his own reasons. Credence wants to learn who he is, so Grindelwald lays a breadcrumb trail of clues (and murder) that, conveniently, leads to his side — also for Grindelwald’s purposes. Even Queenie is seduced to follow the dark wizard out of grief for her seemingly fruitless love for Jacob. She chooses to hope for a different world, while Grindelwald is now possessed of a singularly powerful Occlumens — not accidentally, a great help toward further purposes of manipulation.
On opposite sides, in different countries, Dumbledore and Grindelwald play the same game. They speak in half-truths, concealing inconvenient details that would expose the true nature of their work and their aims. They provide guidance for those who are lost or wanting, and both men keep their silence about the secrets (and clearly, the love) that still binds them.
But Dumbledore holds back from Grindelwald’s complete methodology in one very crucial way. Grindelwald promises his followers everything they desire; love, power, safety, identity… peace. These promises are lies, false lures to entrap his own budding army. Dumbledore may manipulate and elide and speak in half truths, but he makes no promises and tells no lies. Grindelwald spins his falsehoods from a well of ambition and disregard. Dumbledore, at least, bends the world to his wishes out of need.
And to be clear, while Dumbledore’s dark side is indeed mercilessly manipulative and even ruthless, he is not subsumed by his own darkness. The Dumbledore who coerces his students into confrontation with his own terrible enemy is the same man who coaxes them calmly through their greatest fears. The Dumbledore who refuses to define the terms of this fight, blinkering those who battle in his place, also aches with regret over his lost sister and old love.
He is, to be blunt, deliciously complicated.
Still, it is a gutsy move on JK Rowling’s part to display this side of Dumbledore’s character in so unvarnished a fashion. The gambit is successful, and for precisely the reasons why other elements of The Crimes of Grindelwald have proven controversial. This is Dumbledore as he always was, just with a little less narrative influence over his own story.
We have long known the ultimate effects of Dumbledore’s particular alchemy of cunning and care, power and pacifism. Reconciling these elements of his ultimate protector is a defining struggle for Harry as he grows through his years at Hogwarts.
Now in Fantastic Beasts, that work is our own; to contrast the crimes of Dumbledore with his goodness, and ultimate, to choose a side.