Or: Why the critics are wrong.
I finally saw the Warcraft movie the other day, and my eyebrows were sufficiently raised for me to want to write about it.
This review contains no major spoilers.
Now, I have some history with Warcraft. As a boy I was fascinated by the original RTS – it may have been the first in the genre to which I was exposed, actually, preceding even my discovery of Dune II – and the sequel, though I only ever had the demo, appealed to me even more. Despite a lasting affection for those games, I moved on from them pretty quickly and didn’t come back until ten years later when a friend got me into playing World of Warcraft. While it wasn’t technically my first MMO, WoW was my first experience in a lot of gaming tropes and mechanics which would come to dominate the next five or six years of my social and entertainment life. And more to the point, it was gorgeous. My first few experiences of the Night Elf starter zone had me hooked, with vibrant colours, a great ambience, larger-than-life cartoony style and a surprising sense of oldness to the world. That combination of gameplay, aesthetic and social interaction kept me going for years.
As such I was pretty up to speed with most things lore-wise in the Warcraft universe until I quit WoW four years ago. I was never a lore fanatic, but I liked to pay attention as much as I could to what was going on around me, and the supposed reasons for what we did in the game.
Ironically that was the beginning of the end for my fascination with Warcraft: it was precisely the point at which I started really trying to figure out the story, the characters, the history of the world that I began to lose interest and begin my long and painful bounce off the franchise (and everything else Blizzard had created). The story, so far as I was concerned, simply wasn’t very good, the characters tropic and dull, the beats and rhythm of the game’s ongoing plot – even given the demands of a videogame – more often than not left me cold. What’s more I’m very, very sensitive to plot twists and character turns which exist solely to propagate conflict, and every time WoW did it (it’s called ‘warcraft’ after all), I hated it a little bit more.
By the timeI finally quit the game I’d repeatedly been critical on my WoW blog of Blizzard’s storytelling and was more than happy to leave behind what I felt by then to be the ridiculous soap-opera-slash-comic-book narrative tropes. Most of what I missed about the game were aesthetics and mechanics. I assumed I’d never be interested in another Blizzard-created world ever again.
This remained true right up to and including the announcement, release and subsequent critical panning of the Warcraft movie. In fact it continued right up until I was bored and watched CinemaWins’ “Everything Great About” feature on the movie. I have to confess: I love CinemaWins. Dedicated to pointing out what’s enjoyable about movies – even movies that are arguably bad – even movies that I personally didn’t enjoy. More of this! Well anyway, I was intrigued enough by the clips from the movie to check it out.
So here is my verdict:
It’s actually a really good movie.
What there is to like
I’ll be upfront with something that might not sound like a great reason to like a film, but which certainly helped for me: the thing that most caught my eye about it – and which, I think, failed to shine through in the early trailers I saw – is the gorgeous, colourful, vibrant aesthetic they went with. WC3 and WoW with their larger-than-life, cartoony styles have plenty of colour in them, but the movie really turned it up to eleven. And this is great. Too many movies and TV shows try their hardest to eke every last shade of brown or grey out of their filter palette – too many video games, too, for that matter – and as a deeply aesthetic person I can’t stand that. How joyful, how wonderful, how delightful to see a film which isn’t afraid to double down on colour and beauty even though its storyline is so dark.
Along with the beautiful colours and scenery, I was really impressed by the CGI characters – especially the orcs Durotan and Orgrim. Their expressions and body language were so steeped in emotion and pathos, I was captivated every time they were on screen. Now, bearing in mind I’m a deeply aesthetic person who’s generally not into things like tooth necklaces and skulls adorning doors and so forth – not a monster fan, if you will – for me to be eagerly anticipating the next time I see an orc on screen is an astonishing achievement.
This point blends nicely with the movie’s focus on character. Far, far too many action/CGI movies focus on explosive action, or their ‘epic’ storylines, or their tone/atmosphere, or whatever. Warcraft does something brave and intelligent: it focuses squarely on its characters (even, as mentioned above, the CGI ones). The story is there, yes – and it’s arguably varying shades of epic, I suppose? – but it’s all told through the lens of the experience of these characters, and its impact on them, and how it changes them. That’s the proper way to tell a story, folks. Well done Warcraft.
I was also surprised, given how monotone the criticism of the movie’s alleged “taking itself too seriously” was, to find that the film was actually a lot of fun for what actually amounts to quite a grim tale. There’s banter, there are visual jokes, there are grand old mages with glowing eyes having delightfully child-like reactions to things they didn’t expect – combined with the vibrant colour palette and character-focus, I found myself smiling quite a bit through the film. In fact those three aspects formed a sort of self-reinforcing cycle whereby the film inveigled its way into my appreciation.
I don’t want this piece to be about disagreeing with critics – I’d rather discuss the movie on my own terms – but I have to put in an aside here and ask the question: why do so many reviewers criticise the movie for taking itself too seriously? I don’t think it did. I think it got exactly the right level of taking-seriously. It’s a film that springs from video games, but that doesn’t mean it has to be tongue-in-cheek and camp. Indeed, there are plenty of absolute fanatics when it comes to WoW lore, just as engaged and committed as fans of Tolkien or Asimov. Warcraft 3 and WoW in particular have told epic fantasy stories through the medium of computer games. Personally, I don’t rate the stories, or the way they’re told (sorry, WoW), all that highly – and yet even I think the film got its tone perfectly right. The story it was trying to tell was a not a light, fluffy story – its characters not tongue-in-cheek camp stereotypes. Why should it have attempted anything less than it did? I wonder if, in part, this is because Marvel has taught us that movies based on similar source material (comics are the closest analogue to WoW’s world, I think) work best if there’s a palpable air of fun about proceedings – but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to make a film work. Perhaps in ten years’ time we’ll sigh and cluck our tongues at Marvel’s wit in the same way so many of us do when considering all the fashionably grimdark films of the late nineties and noughties.
OK, so another cool thing about the Warcraft movie: magic was cool. This is not something I’ll often say – my boyhood long over, I’m not the sort of person who’ll easily admit to finding spaceships/magic/swordfights/cool technology/etc ‘cool’. But Warcraft’s magic was pretty great. It was fun, it was confident, it was vibrant, it was easy (for me, at least) to understand what was going on with it, and it affected the plot in sensible ways. Though there’s one moment at the end which skirts dangerously close, magic never feels like the old reverse-the-polarity-on-the-tachyon-emitters techno/magi-babble deus ex machina solution, nor are there any moments where characters who have been established as powerful through their magic get suddenly and inexplicably one-upped in a way you’d expect their magic to prevent. Perhaps ‘not succumbing to stupid tropes’ is not particularly high praise, but I feel credit where it’s due. The only comment I’d make here is that I wish the setup for Khadgar’s moment with the Fel had been more involved, so that the payoff made more sense and felt more satisfying. As it was it was OK, and I appreciated that at least some character groundwork had been laid for it.
The final thing to comment on before I talk about the actual story is the film’s reception by Warcraft fans, a lot of whom (perhaps a vocal minority) have apparently been very disparaging about the movie. I get this. Warcraft, despite continual ‘retcons’ and revisions of old storylines to fit new content, has a large, established world with a story that players can live through themselves by means of the games. Changing things can feel like invalidating something you love about the universe. From my perspective, though – again, as someone who was never all that enamoured with Warcraft’s stories – you can’t expect to make a film about a larger work without changing details to fit the format, and I think the Warcraft movie was right to change some things. If anything I’m surprised it didn’t change more, as even for an erstwhile fan some details were confusing. I tell you what, though – I hope there’s a sequel, because I’m looking forward to seeing what the Warcraft story can be with some of the (many) layers of fat trimmed off it.
Right, so let’s talk about the plot. (Again, no spoilers here.) I identified the main characters as: Durotan the Orc, Garona the half-orc, Lothar the knight and Khadgar the mage. King Llane and his wife have important supporting roles, as do Medivh and Guldan – but the character development very much focuses on those first four.
As game development matures, so to do game developers. We’re in a place now where there’s a really heavy influence on game storylines by young-to-early-middle-age white dudes with young-to-teenage children. This is very different to, say, ten-fifteen years ago, when many of these same developers were bachelors in their early twenties. As a result, there’s a noticeable drift towards storytelling elements in videogames that are based around the father/child relationship. Additionally, most game developers, especially in AAA, are still white males. Hence the continued focus on white males as the important characters (and of course, protagonists) in games.
Warcraft, creatively helmed by Blizzard’s Chris Metzen, has always been a case in point. Though it doesn’t entirely neglect women or minorities, most of the game’s history and lore has always been driven by young male heroes, with those who aren’t technically white usually being so because they aren’t human – i.e. they are orcs, trolls, night elves, etc. (I don’t want to focus too much on the race issue here – what I mean is just that the creators make characters in their own image, and I don’t regard the fantastical monsterification of that image as in any way challenging the racial factor.)
Thus the Warcraft movie – based heavily around the ‘plot’ of the first RTS – inherits this white-male-centric world and story, albeit slightly updated with the more contemporary concerns of the more mature game developer who now has a family to worry about. Thus all the major characters are white guys, except the orcs, who are still guys, except Garona, about whom I’ll talk in a minute. Also almost all the major characters are dads, except Garona and Khadgar, and their relationships with their sons are major locii of character development.
Khadgar is interesting. The film makes a point of showing us that he doesn’t really fit amongst the other heroes. I suspect, had the film been made with exactly the same characters ten or twenty years ago, the relatively young (and bachelor) Khadgar might well have been the author-insert character. Instead his youth and lack of rootedness counts against him. Amongst all the dads fighting for their sons, Khadgar comes across as a bit – well – disconnected, I suppose. But again, the film makes reasonably good use of this fact.
Garona, I suppose, was the original lore’s action girl-cum-femme fatal-cum-Ms. Fanservice. She proves that Blizzard’s creatives can find women characters interesting and consider them important, but as with the games’ other female characters I think she’s really underused for what she represents. She’s also gone through more retcons than any other character I can think of offhand. The movie retcons her yet again, giving her some dignity and making her integral to the plot – she gets some genuinely fantastic character moments, and is arguably not only the most important character for driving the film’s narrative but also the one the film is most interested in developing. Despite this she is, a lot of the time, fairly passive – even her character’s climax at the end barely qualifies as a choice. What’s more, the risk with ‘strong female characters’ in movies otherwise dominated by males is that they become sort of tropic dumping grounds. While this is arguably true in the games, it’s less true of the film – which is good – but there are still some pretty creepy tropes going on for Garona which, despite the respect the film obviously pays her, still made this viewer a little uncomfortable at times.
Having said that, I think the film does treat her pretty well, and gives her enormous amounts of screen time and character development. The fact that she’s not far and away the most interesting character in the movie is only because the other characters are also drawn so well, and so sympathetically.
This brings me at last to the overall arc of the plot.
It was alright. It was better than I thought.
Warcraft can easily tend towards unearned faux-tragedy as a cheap way to up the stakes in its games. By and large I felt the movie, while still tragic, steered clear of that. What’s great is that you have characters repeatedly making brave choices motivated by hope and love. These are qualities which have always been present in Warcraft, but which are too often undermined by the aforementioned need to generate conflict so that the game can justify its ‘war’ prefix. The movie, though, puts these qualities front and centre in characters on both sides of the war, and allows them to steer the story. It’s not so much a tale of good guys vs bad guys as it’s a tale of hope and love vs fear and despair.
Even Gul’dan, the main villain of the film, is shown to have a heart: though we never quite sympathise with him, he at least manages to rise above mere pantomime villainy. His motives are never truly explained, but the force which drives him is strongly hinted at, and it’s easy to imagine that when he started down his path his motives were basically good.
One other thing that surprised and impressed me was just how gentle many of the male characters are. King Llane is so gentle and laid back he spends half the movie seeming almost asleep, and Durotan – considering he’s a gigantic slab of betusked muscle serving a power-crazed warlock on a mission of destruction – is basically an enormous softie. Khadgar’s initially presented as a bit of a nerdy wuss, and even Lothar – the film’s warrior hero – is painted with enough vulnerability and heart that you almost forget he’s meant to be a soldier of incredible proficiency.
Warcraft is a visually stunning movie, confident in its depiction of its vibrant world and affectionate with the characters whom it wisely allows to drive the plot. Despite inevitable tragic leanings, it’s a film with heart and wit, and it earns its tragic conclusion even as it plants the seeds of hope that things might one day be put right.
For once I find myself hoping for a sequel. Can it be as good? I guess that depends on how brave the filmmakers are in sticking to this original vision in the face of criticism – as well as whether they can continue to avoid some of the worst excesses of the Warcraft games.