My brother, my sister and I have played World of Warcraft for years. It’s fun, but it’s also a way for us to find time to talk and to hang out despite living thousands of miles away from each other. So when the release date for Warcraft was announced, we knew that there was really no way we were not going to see this movie, reviews be damned. And yes, the reviews were absolutely awful.
Here’s the thing: watching the movie I understood the complaints of every single reviewer who found themselves sitting in a dark theatre watching the silly portentousness of it all. Their suffering must have been real and was surely terrible.
But the movie wasn’t for them. It was for me and my brother and my sister, who laughingly compiled our list of all the very cool (but yes, if you want to be a killjoy, also very silly) things we hoped we’d see. And I’m happy to report, almost everything was checked off our lists, including a sheep. Even better, we got to see a major scene near the film’s midpoint echo one of our favorite moments from the early storyline of the last expansion. So for us, this film was a complete and total win and we were ecstatic.
But once it was done and I was home, the film got me thinking about a couple things. The first is that, despite its budget and blockbuster sheen, Warcraft was a small film in the sense that it aimed to be nothing other than a niche product appealing unashamedly to the specific segment of filmgoers who were ready to enjoy it for what it was. And in this way it reminded me of Krull, my go-to example of an amazingly effective stab at pure-fantasy filmmaking.
And that target audience? They turned out and bought tickets to watch it. My theatre was full of men and women of all ages, all of them clearly gamers, all of them laughing and having a good time together, and all of them clearly chill (except for the Fury Warrior sitting two rows up with a snack ready to go in each hand). It was a great crowd, and crazy as it sounds, I kinda felt like, once the end credits were rolling, that we should all share our specs, guilds and realms so that we could hang out afterwards. I was attending a WoW party in my hometown, and I was a bit sad when we all got up and disappeared back into the world.
Second, I realized that this film does something at the level of production that was different from what I’d seen before. Films with product tie-ins or that adapt popular stories or properties are as old as cinema itself. So it’s easy to mistake Warcraft as more of the same. But I really don’t think it is.
Now I haven’t dug around or done the necessary research—so consider this bar talk slash intuition translated into print—but in every other example of a non-incidental tie-in or adaptation that I can think of, the Hollywood film operates as the hub of the cross-media and licensing strategies. In those cases where the non-Hollywood properties have seemed to have some level of independence and this hierarchy has begun to blur, I can’t think of one where either 1) the film didn’t flop terribly; or 2) a studio or conglomerate didn’t buy the property (or its owner) outright. In both cases, the priority of the film and studio in the cross-media story world is clearly reestablished.
Warcraft has not followed this pattern. Despite frenzied accounts to the contrary, the film did not flop and there will be sequels. But neither did it shift the story focus to a new film-driven franchise. Blizzard intended Warcraft primarily as a means to develop and to support the core game by providing backstory for the recent Warlords of Draenor expansion. They also aimed to support and generate interest in the next expansion, called Legion, by reintroducing ideas and themes from earlier expansions that the new game content would build upon. In support of these goals, Blizzard appears to have insisted on controlling the film’s narrative and its presentation from script development forward even though doing so reportedly put the project at risk more than once due to studio objections to their demands.
To my eyes, the film that came out in theaters this summer looks like the movie Blizzard wanted to make. It supports the emerging game story and fits seamlessly into the cross-media collection of supporting works being issued as book series and animated videos that develop and introduce that story to various audiences. The film is larger in scale than these other works, but in terms of narrative, it seems to be on equal footing with them.
Stated differently, the game and not the film remains the hub of Warcraft‘s story world, which means Hollywood is not in charge of this story machine; it is just one of the gears. I think that makes this situation something new and very much worth watching as it develops.