How Fantastic Beasts' Newt Scamander Represents a Rare Kind of Movie Hero

Image: Warner Bros
Image: Warner Bros

Though he’s the hero of the Harry Potter spinoff movies, Newt Scamander is no Potter-esque hero himself. That’s not just because he’s a new lead steering a new corner of the Potter movieverse in a different direction. It’s also because he’s quite unlike the typical heroic figure—like Harry and countless other male genre leads—that we see in film.

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YouTuber Jonathan McIntosh’s latest episode of Pop Culture Detective—a series we’ve featured before—examines just how Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Newt often clashes with the type of character we’ve come to expect (and even prefer, given the sample of reviews McIntosh quotes decrying Redmayne’s performance as limp or “tampering down” his charisma) from science fiction and fantasy blockbusters. Newt isn’t a superhero, a gruff soldier, or even particularly a master of wizardry. He’s a zoologist who primarily cares about listening and caring for other people (or his fantastic beasts), rather than being a bold leading man. In Harry Potter terms, he’s a Hufflepuff, rather than a Gryffindor.

Now, Newt isn’t exactly the perfect portrayal of an sensitive, empathetic male lead—Fantastic Beasts often uses his sensitivity and standoffishness to make up for the fact he can be remarkably, hilariously idiotic. But even then, Newt’s vulnerability is rarely shown as a weakness in Fantastic Beasts. The fact that he isn’t necessarily a gung-ho, all-wands-blazing hero like we see in so many genre movies is a positive step in diversifying the kind of male heroes we see on the silver screen.

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We’ve had plenty of heroes like that on TV—among them, Matt Smith’s portrayal of the Doctor on Doctor Who (I’ll agree to disagree on McIntosh’s characterization of the Doctor’s own empathy in comparison to Newt in the video); Steven Universe; even Barry Allen on The Flash to an extent. But it’s rare to see that kind of male lead in a genre movie, and it’s something we could probably do with more of... although maybe not quite as goofily incompetent as Newt can be sometimes.

James is a News Editor at io9. He wants pictures. Pictures of Spider-Man!

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DISCUSSION

“He’s a zoologist who primarily cares about listening and caring for other people”

But he doesn’t care for other people. He cares for animals over people. And there is nothing wrong with that - there are people like that in real life.

The problem is, in a movie, a character like that is booorrriiinnnngggg. In a book, where I can get into the head of characters and know what they think even if they barely interact with others around them, he would have worked. But in a movie, where I can’t read his mind, Newt just remained a big stone wall, and nobody can sympathize with that.

The other huge problem is that the plot was not tailored to the character. The story seemed to be happening around Newt, who was barely aware of the plot most of the time. This didn’t felt like Newt’s story. It felt like a story Newt just happened to be in the background of.

Newt did not have to be dashing action hero and leader. But he also did not have to be a stone wall who barely interacts with others and barely cares about the plot.