Have y’all see those trailers and commercials for the Warcraft movie that’s coming out in June? What’s up with those green guys?
Yes, I’m being facetious right now. Well, I’m being slightly facetious. Warcraft has a reputation—a very deserved one—for being nerdy as hell. The most prominent part of the franchise is the massively multiplayer role-playing game World Of Warcraft, a game most people probably know from the episode of South Park that lampooned its players. Tens of millions of people have played it, but basically everyone who hasn’t thinks of it as that nerd thing that nerds play too much and get dumped by their significant other/fired from their job/evicted from their home over.
And they watch these ads for the Warcraft movie and see all those green guys talking and shrug because holy shit that was really nerdy.
Blizzard, the juggernaut of a video game company that created Warcraft two decades ago—and more recently merged with Activision, the juggernaut that created Call of Duty—seems to be trying to pull off something odd with this movie. They’re doing what I’ve dubbed a “reverse Star Wars.” That is, a franchise that is popular first and foremost because of the films, and which later fed its burgeoning nerd cult with piles of “Expanded Universe” materials—novels, video games, comic books, etc. Most people still only care about Star Wars for the films. The Force Awakens made more than two billion dollars at the box office, but none of the tie-in non-film stuff will have a fraction of the movie’s cultural impact.
Warcraft the movie, on the other hand, is 100 percent expanded universe and always has been. It’s a $100 million+ attempt at creating a real pop culture centerpiece for a brand that is big in gaming but marginal in a “total population of Earth” sense. Video games may be big business, but their reach is small. And Blizzard knows that.
“We wanted to share this story, this world of Warcraft with everyone around the world,” the company’s senior vice president for story and franchise development, Chris Metzen, said at a press Q&A at Blizzcon last year. “And there’s still inexplicably, somehow, a vast population on planet earth that doesn’t play games. I don’t understand that at all. But since it’s a truth, we wanted to take this idea as far and wide as we can. And film has been the primary storytelling vehicle of our age.”
Director Duncan Jones, the man behind cult hit film Moon and David Bowie’s son, followed up Metzen’s comment with a similar sentiment. Understandable, given he himself is a well known World Of Warcraft fan.
“One particularly unique benefit of having the chance to make a film of Warcraft, for all of us who care so much about the game, it’s a chance to communicate and show people who we love what it is that has gripped us so much for such a long period of time. Come and see the movie and then you’ll see what it was that we were doing for hours while you were sleeping.”
Which is honestly a strange thing to say because the initial hook for most World Of Warcraft players is not the game’s storytelling. Maybe you’ll enjoy that aspect of it, but you have to love its mechanical trappings first or else you won’t last with it. The idea that people become obsessed with it for the same reasons someone would enjoy the movie feels pretty ludicrous. I mean, maybe there is somebody out there who’s been playing WoW for a decade primarily because Warcraft lore is meaningful to them—as opposed to because the game’s progression systems keep players hooked for years, or because it’s a social game that many people play with friends and family—but that person would be a huge outlier.
That’s because the Warcraft lore is a giant quagmire of stuff. It spans multiple games and has been retconned repeatedly. When you’re playing, it requires paying attention to scenes between characters and reading lengthy quest descriptions, rather than just running off to kill your next 10 wolves in the woods or gang up with friends to destroy your next boss. There are novels that spin off in different directions and thousands of Wiki pages dedicated to a universe that is Tolkein-esque in its magnitude. WoW is a game full of sprawling story, but story is by no means its focus. And somebody who likes the movie and tries out WoW for the first time because of it will probably be disappointed.
That’s not some profound observation. It’s just common sense. Most people who don’t play games don’t play games because they don’t want to play them. That’s fine. It’s also fine that people enjoy WoW. You do you. When I say Warcraft is some nerdy shit, it’s just an observation, not an insult. It’s the weird pretense here that I find annoying.
On the other hand, part of my problem in parsing all this is figuring out where the pretense is coming from because this does all seem pretty sincere. Like, I don’t think Duncan Jones is messing with me. But Jones did tell this long anecdote about how he ran a guild in Ultima Online (one of WoW’s predecessors in the world of massive online games) and when WoW came out everyone migrated over to that game. He said his guild (of human players) were like a family, loyal to a fault. “Going into the movie, that sense of loyalty and what loyalty is and who you care about and who you look after, that’s at the heart of the movie. Because that’s at the heart of the game.“
That’s an idea that probably sounds good to WoW players but it doesn’t make much sense to everybody else. The people who played WoW with Duncan Jones aren’t part of Warcraft lore, or the story being told in the movie. That they ran raids together all the time for years isn’t going to speak to the themes of the movie for me when I watch it. It’s a personal and insular view that’s not going to appeal to those not already steeped in this stuff.
There is a way to promote this movie in a way everybody else can understand, though, and it’s not that hard. Paula Patton, who plays a half-orc, half-human named Garona in the movie, even did it on that same stage during that Blizzcon Q&A last year.
“It really mirrors the world we live in right now,” Patton said. “The idea of good versus evil doesn’t necessarily exist. You have two people from two different worlds that equally want good for their family and the people of their country or their universe or what have you, and are willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen.“
She talked about Warcfrat like it’s a movie (because it is a movie) rather than a spinoff of an MMO game. You share things you love with a resistant audience by emphasizing the things you’d expect them to like about it. That’s basically what Metzen started off the panel saying: “film has been the primary storytelling vehicle of our age” because everybody likes movies and that’s why they’re doing a movie. They are certainly counting on all the Warcraft fans showing up at the theater to watch it, but what really matters is everyone else.
And there’s a big barrier to getting all the Everyone Elses of the world to like Warcraft: those green guys and how half the movie is about them. That’s as nerdtastic as it gets. That’s the kind of thing that keeps the normies away. If Blizzard and co. want to sell this movie to those people, they need more of Paula Patton’s rhetoric, less chatter about MMO guilds, whether they’re on their home turf onstage at Blizzcon or anywhere else.
Because right now, a month from release, Warcraft looks like a movie that’s just for the nerds.
Phil Owen is a freelance journalist and critic based in Los Angeles. He tweets for free at @philrowen.
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