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Movie Review: Warcraft

A Mage, a Knight, and a Half-Orc Walk Into a Tavern . . .

Let me state up front that I have never played Warcraft the game in any of its incarnations, and so may be in a good position to judge this as a movie and not as an artifact of some other thing. Honestly, the only thing I really know about Warcraft is Leeroy Jenkins.

But I have played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons.

One of my own personal categories of movies is “a million times better than the actual Dungeons and Dragons movie.” You know, the one that came out in 2000 and didn’t have any scenery left after Jeremy Irons finished chewing it. It’s a very low bar. It includes films like The Forbidden Kingdom, Your Highness, and Dragon Crusaders. (The Asylum’s very best movie, in my opinion. I understand this is also a very low bar, but I would watch Dragon Crusaders again.) My biggest question heading in to see Warcraft: would it earn a place in this category?

Answer: Warcraft is a million times better than the actual Dungeons and Dragons movie.
This is not to say Warcraft is a good movie. It’s the kind of movie that forces a great actor like Ben Foster to use his talents to intone lines like “I live to protect the realm!” Where an orc mother sets her baby afloat in a basket on a river and is killed right after. Where “From light comes darkness, and from the darkness light!” is passed off as profound philosophy.

I suppose this is where I should mention that Warcraft is directed and co-written by Duncan Jones, who directed and co-wrote Moon, which won a Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation in 2010. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

The real charm of a D&D-style movie that’s better than the actual Dungeons and Dragons movie (a charm that movie lacked) isn’t its quality, but the number of times over the course of the film you find yourself thinking, “Oh my gosh I was totally in that campaign. That totally happened to my character.” Like this scene, when the ancient floaty glowy artifact produces an oily doorway, and the young mage asks, “Am I supposed to go in?” and the crotchety old mage answers, “I don’t know, it’s never done that before.” Yeah, I’m pretty sure I once had a character involved in that scenario. Also, when our heroes are on the road, they set a watch, just like every adventuring party in D&D history, and they make the young mage go first. It’s awesome. I giggled pretty much all the way through the movie. (“Doesn’t this seem kind of cumbersome?” my friend leaned over to ask not ten minutes in. “No,” I insisted. “It’s adorable.” I’m pretty sure the filmmakers weren’t going for adorable.)

Our story opens with a sweet domestic scene between an orc couple who are expecting their first child. It’s fun. It’s nice. (Spoiler: Both mom and dad orc end up dead by the end of the movie. Considering I thought these were going to be our viewpoint characters all the way through, which would have been very cool, this was disappointing.) The future of the orcs is uncertain—their world is dead, but a powerful orc mage, Gul’dan (yes, it has an apostrophe, I checked), has discovered how to open a portal to a new, vibrant land. All they have to do is overrun this new land of Azeroth and they’ll be set. However, Durotan, brand-new orc father and war chief main character (temporary), discovers the truth: they will destroy this new land, too, because the Gul’dan’s power is drawn from the land itself, and he will kill whatever he touches. Durotan must ally with the humans in Azeroth if any of them are to survive. Meanwhile, the human king and his best knight, Lothar, make plans to defend against this invasion. Along the way we meet a young human mage, the powerful human Guardian mage, the king’s kind and beautiful queen, and a hottie half-orc who feels rejected by both her peoples but comes to find a home among the humans. Until she doesn’t. It’s a long story.

Spoiler: Things go badly. There’s this strange theme of characters insisting that they have to die in order to rally their people against the forces of darkness. It doesn’t seem to ever work but it keeps happening. What story there is completely falls apart in the third act, when our heroes triumph, the bad human mage turns good and saves the day right before he dies, and it looks like we’re going to get a happy ending with kissing and everything. But no. The portal that will save them all slams shut, the king demands the hottie half-orc kill him because then she’ll become leader of the orcs and make peace. Except she doesn’t, and long after the story should already be over there’s a big fight between Lothar and one of the main bad orcs—I sort of lost track because there were more than one—and Gul’dan, the really bad orc mage who’s ruining everything for everybody, who you know is the big bad guy because he has an apostrophe in his name, isn’t defeated at all, which is very frustrating and that’s when I realized this all mainly serves to set up a sequel. Total pain in the ass.

Our very last scene shows the baby orc floating down the river, both his parents dead. But I’m not worried about him because the Nelwyns will find him and he’ll meet Madmartigan who will protect him from Bavmorda—

Oh wait. Wrong movie. Sorry.

I felt bad for the actors. The human king is played by Dominic Cooper, last seen charming the pants off us in late ’40s LA as young Howard Stark in Agent Carter. The last time I saw Ruth Negga, who plays his queen, was as delicious villain Raina in Agents of SHIELD. Here, these two lovely charming actors didn’t get to do anything but look serious and trustworthy. I couldn’t even figure out who Clancy Brown was playing until the closing credits ran. (He’s the orc Blackhand.)

For all its easily identifiable faults, Warcraft has a few cool things I didn’t expect. Some beautiful scenes that ought to be the foundation of any fantasy movie. I love the gryphon, which provided an easy way for the characters to show us distant corners of the kingdom quickly. In one scene the young mage Khadgar goes into a magical library, because of course, and when he slams a book shut, dust puffs from it into a sun beam. It’s a lovely moment I might have imagined for any of my various D&D characters.

The movie also passes the Bechdel test, and quite nicely. The hottie half-orc Garona is actually an interesting, developed character. While her background of horrible abuse, including rape, is stereotypical, the movie’s handling of it is not: it’s only ever obliquely referenced (“Broken bones heal stronger. My bones are very strong.”), and Lothar expresses his sympathy kindly and without condescension. Queen Taria does everything she can to welcome and comfort Garona, as if she understands how difficult and traumatic it must be as a woman alone, surrounded by strangers. No default cliché catty competition here. I can try to fault the movie for maybe treating the women characters like tokens, but moments like this mean I can’t, really. There is effort here, maybe imperfect but still visible, to include female orcs in the crowd scenes, at least one female human warrior in the background, and people of color among the king’s advisors.

I found myself a little bit overwhelmed and unhappy with the sheer quantity of FX. Vast seas of CGI orcs, many motion-capture orc characters, mages with glowing eyes (good = blue, bad = green), complicated animated spells, CGI cityscapes and mountainscapes and gryphons and so on. I started feeling nostalgic for what I consider the golden age of fantasy cinema, which produced movies like Conan the Barbarian, Beastmaster, Ladyhawke, Dragonslayer, The Neverending Story, Willow, and The Dark Crystal, all of which might have been simple but were also solidly real. Where the magic and monsters really inspired awe because they weren’t pervasive. Warcraft the game has been around for twenty years, and I’m certain the movie looks very much like the World of Warcraft incarnation that so many are familiar with. So what’s special about the movie, then? I don’t know.

I’m absolutely certain I missed some things, not being a player of the game. In fact, the best way to describe the movie might actually be as a giant Easter egg for people who love the game. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t really aimed at a general audience. Not even a D&D playing one.

Alas, the movie makes no reference to Leeroy Jenkins.

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Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn

Carrie Vaughn’s latest novels include the post-apocalyptic murder mystery, Bannerless, winner of the Philip K. Dick Award, and its sequel, The Wild Dead. She wrote the New York Times bestselling series of novels about a werewolf named Kitty, along with several other contemporary fantasy and young adult novels, and upwards of 80 short stories, two of which have been finalists for the Hugo Award. She’s a contributor to the Wild Cards series of shared world superhero books edited by George R. R. Martin and a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop. An Air Force brat, she survived her nomadic childhood and managed to put down roots in Boulder, Colorado. Visit her at carrievaughn.com.