‘Warcraft’ and the Complicated Disappointment of Video Game Movie Mediocrity

Somewhere between Azeroth and Hollywood, everything that made 'Warcraft' fun got misplaced.

Duncan Jones’s new Warcraft film is, if nothing else, a fantasy marvel. The action envelops the wild, seemingly huge world of Azeroth, and includes an impressively large cast of distinct-ish characters, from wizards and warlocks to queens and prisoners. It’s got clay golems infused with arcane energy, griffons that tear the heads from Orcs, and attractive men in bad wigs who conjure rain made of lightning. It is an unabashedly nerdy spectacle, filled to the brim with CGI creatures and nods to the millions of us who have played either World of Warcraft or its now lesser-known predecessors. It is also, in the end, basically mediocre, and so dishearteningly disappointing.

Of course, to be disappointed by this movie requires foolishly high expectations — and really, “foolish” could be used to describe any expectations at all for this film, based on its production history alone. The project was first announced way back in 2006, two years after WoW came to dominate the online gaming market and a decade after Warcraft: Orcs and Humans threw a wrench into the real-time strategy (RTS) genre. From there, the movie languished in the all-too-familiar development hell of Hollywood, with Chris Metzen, one of the creators of the Warcraft universe, insisting that the screenplay lacked nuance.

A lot of folks came and went. Uwe Boll tried to direct, but was, thankfully, rebuffed; Sam Raimi was rumored, too. Paul Dano was at one point attached to star, but apparently whiffed the stench of the overstuffed screenplay and bailed. It was only with the 2013 mention of Jones, who directed the very good sci-fi films Moon and Source Code, that anyone began to have hope that this thing would satisfy the fans, let alone critics. Well, it’s finally been released, and while the film has certainly given the critics something to pile onto (“Warcraft, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing”; “Imagine Battlefield Earth without the verve, or the unintentional comedy, and you’ve got Warcraft”; “Warcraft is a once-in-a-generation disaster, one of the most ill-advised and ill-conceived studio films of this modern blockbuster era”) it will very likely please fans of the games, even if they don’t quite remember why exactly they became fans in the first place.

The film, for what it’s worth, is driven by the actions of the powerful, brown-and-green Orcs, who are forced to flee their home world of Draenor after it’s been devastated by an unseen force. Driven by the dark Fel magic of the warlock Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), the Frostwolf Clan’s chief, Durotan (Toby Kebbell), leads his people through a portal powered by dead bodies to the world of Azeroth, which is ruled by the Humans. Lothar (Travis Fimmel), a nondescript (but fierce!) Human warrior, teams with a snot-nosed mage, Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), and the weary, serious Guardian Medivh (Ben Foster) to combat the horde of Orcs. Along the way, the half-Orc, half-Human Garona (Paula Patton) is captured by the Humans, and becomes sort of a double agent. There’s also a mysterious group of blind, bright-eyed magi called the Kirin Tor, a decrepit witch-seer-thing played by Glenn Close, a bunch of CGI wolves, a slobbering murloc, and a tiny Orc baby (Thrall) who, if the studio gets its way, will be the star of just one of the many Warcraft films to follow this one.

This film is a lot. In fact, it’s probably too much for viewers who know nothing about the franchise, and will likely leave them clueless as to the appeal of the über-popular games. (For an easy analog, imagine watching The Avengers while completely ignorant of the rest of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.) And that’s important, because, as much as Jones was able to create wonder from bringing certain characters and locations to the big screen — the destruction of Karazhan, a key location in WoW, was particularly amazing to witness — he ultimately failed to create a film that stands on its own. What’s worse is that he failed to capture the spirit of the games. Though, to Jones’s credit, due to the the wild success of WoW it’s no longer exactly clear what that spirit is.

It’s a mistake to do what many critics have attempted, which is to conflate the world of this film with that of World of Warcraft. It’s an understandable assumption, given WoW‘s once ubiquitous place in pop culture, but it’s incorrect for many reasons, including the fact that WoW placed anonymous, bedazzled heroes at the center of the action and story and so, plot-wise, has nothing to do with Jones’s Warcraft. His film instead draws from a few different places, but especially the first two RTS games and their supplemental books. That’s where the fan attachment to the universe began, and also where it became clear that, beyond the superficial, the Orcs were not necessarily bad and the Humans were not necessarily good. (That moral ambiguity is successfully conveyed in the film, but that’s certainly not evident in the trailers, even if the billboards are emblazoned with the word “UNITE.”)

These foundational games were high fantasy, yeah, and drew liberally from J. R. R. Tolkien, Dungeons & Dragons, and, especially, Warhammer. But by Warcraft II, the fantasy, as happens in all good fantasy, faded to the background, becoming a platform for nuanced characters, some idiotic, some heroic. And the world itself, with its ramshackle, spit-and-mud building design, along with its absurd, superhero-esque weaponry, began to adapt an original aesthetic language that would eventually set WoW apart from the milquetoast Everquest, which, until WoW dethroned it in 2004, had been the largest Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMORPG) ever. This is all to say that the success of the Warcraft games had almost nothing to do with their being firmly planted within the fantasy genre, and the ultimate failure of the film is not in its dedication to its deep source material, but rather its embarrassing dedication to the signifiers of the genre of fantasy itself.

Now, fantasy shouldn’t be a problem — audiences are hungry for the nerdy. This is evidenced by the success of Game of Thrones, the Marvel vs. DC war for Hollywood, and the fact that we consistently send shows about zombies and books about vampires to the top of their respective charts. But there’s something about Orcs and hyper-colored spells of magic — especially evil magic, such as this film’s neon green Fel energy — that, when depicted with any kind of seriousness, are just plain awkward. It’s one thing to see Kit Harington frosted white and raised from the dead, and it’s an entirely different thing to see Foster doing an awful job in the role of Guardian Medivh, scowling and flashing magic-making jazz hands. (To draw another parallel to superhero films, the reason this kind of wizardry is rarely seen in serious fantasy is probably the same reason the big studios have seriously toned down superhero costumes.)

Maybe this type of magic just doesn’t have a place in “good” films, but Schnetzer’s Khadgar is evidence otherwise. He’s not the best actor in the world, yet he manages to wring a kind of joy from his own bolts of bright light in a way that reflects the kind of fun the audience wants to have with magic, and fantasy in general. It’s that fun that’s all but missing from this film, mostly thanks to the poor comedic chops of Fimmel, who tries his damnedest to be Ryan Reynolds but just can’t cut it. It seems trite to insist that a film that is fundamentally about love, corruption, and slaughter should try to lighten up, but then again, it is based on a video game, which is, kind of by definition, fun.

And maybe, in the end, that’s the inescapable problem here: that this film comes from a video game. Set aside the connection to the stories formed by those of us who spent years at LAN parties or weekends hunched over our computers, stuck in raids that lasted for more than six hours, and it becomes very difficult to defend the film. Yes, sometimes the CGI is awful; yes, the cast is definitely way too white; yes, Paula Patton and Ben Foster are too serious; yes, Patton does look like she’s wearing a cheap She-Hulk costume with stick-on fangs; yes, Fimmel’s accent does range from Southern to Irish; and, yes, the Orc males do have very prominent nipples.

Still, after all that, I feel the need to defend this film, even if it doesn’t need my help: It’s already broken records in China, where World of Warcraft‘s player-base is still going strong, and you can already find bitter gamers who love the idea of the film’s spectacle attacking critics in the comment sections of all the negative reviews at places that are unlucky enough to have comment sections. The wasted potential of this film is staggering, and that’s why it’s so disappointing. That potential wasn’t just that it could have redeemed the cursed video game movie. It’s that it could have — and still, I suppose, might — served as the launching pad for straight-up great fantasy films, video games be damned. (There are those foolish expectations again.) For now, we’re left with this, which is just a fun collection of little problems that illustrate that the filmmakers either didn’t really understand what caused the games’ fandom, or that they did, and just weren’t able to capture it.