WoW Factor: How do we make a good Warcraft movie?

The stars are over Dun Morogh.

Sometimes, dear readers, things simply do not line up. I really have a long piece I’m looking forward to doing, and then Blizzard does something terrible (or wonderful, but terrible is more likely these days) and my entire plan gets shot straight to heck as I’m rushing to catch up. Other times… well, I spend some time idly thinking about how to make a Warcraft film, and then Duncan Jones decides to bring the topic back onto everyone’s mind.

Now, understand – as a fan of World of Warcraft, fantasy films, and Duncan Jones as a director (seriously, the man is a really good director, although maybe not such a great writer), I was of the mind that the film was absolute garbage. Could we have gotten a good one? Well, yeah, I think so. And I think some of that would just rely on making decisions that the production staff didn’t seem to want to make… but hey, as long as we’re thinking about it, how do we make an actual good movie based on Warcraft?

To a certain extent, this is one of those questions that is kind of a mug’s game by design. How do you make a good anything movie? You make a good movie, and it happens to be about something specific. Want to make a good Superman movie? Make it a good movie that is about Superman. Thus, asking this question is really more like asking “are there a priori assumptions that would be more likely to lead to the decisions necessary to making a good movie instead of a bad one?”

And in the Warcraft case, yeah, I think there’s a big one, one so big that I think basically every fan is immediately going to have a visceral and negative reaction. You know where you start? You don’t make the movie an existing story.

None. None of them. Not about the first war, not about the second war, not the third war, none of it. You spend absolutely no time setting up and retelling these old stories. Right from the start, this is a new script telling a new story in this universe.

Seriously, cool it.

Yes, I hear you in the back there talking about the iconic stories, but there are two things that absolutely need to be reckoned with there. The first is that these stories were written for and worked within the context of a video game, something that has a very different narrative structure than a film because, well… there’s gameplay in the middle there. The First War isn’t really a “story” in the sense that it was always front and center, but it was part of the grander sweep as you moved through various maps.

The other thing is that when you try to strip everything down and rearranged these characters and stories into a cinematic structure, you wind up with something not far removed from the actual Warcraft film, a mess of stock characters without any real depth or any emotional tissue tying you to them. There’s just not that much depth there.

“But you have to set the stage!” No. You don’t. You honestly don’t, and that’s one of the big advantages of the Warcraft universe. No one needs an explanation of fantasy kingdoms or orcs or trolls beyond one or two establishing lines, especially not one that has that surface accessibility. In 2016, everyone understood what “fantasy world” looked like, and the same is true in 2020. Want to use Draenei? One line about “they look like demons but they’re filled with Light” and bam, general audiences will be able to follow along with the concept pretty easily.

That’s the starting point right there. You don’t try to retell a story from the games, from the RTS on through the MMO. You don’t worry about creating something that has to link in to powerful existing continuity. You try to tell a solid story set in this world with characters made for this film, and you fill it with enough weird visual flourish that non-fans feel like it was neat and fans can appreciate it on an extra level while still getting a good movie out of it.

So what should the actual story be? That one’s more speculative, but I do have some things that seem like no-brainers to me, at least.

Oh my.

First and foremost, you don’t center it on the Alliance vs. the Horde, but you do make that a strong secondary conflict. There are lots of potential enemy groups, but for a first film the Burning Legion or the Scourge are your obvious villains. Whatever story you’re telling, “an Alliance team and a Horde team are both trying to do something that pits them against the Burning Legion/Scourge and in competition with one another” feels like the right broad-strokes idea.

The reason I’m splitting the difference there is that the Scourge offers a lot of comparisons to Game of Thrones, so you have cultural reference, but also a certain amount of fatigue. Do as you will.

Note that when I say “team,” I’m thinking small. It’d be enough, say, to have two Alliance people and two Horde people both chasing a MacGuffin or trying to rescue someone important, enough so you get some actual character dynamics. Heck, you could even have them link up along the way. Orc and troll hook up with human and night elf trying to get the Artifact of Something, the Burning Legion has it, fit in a draenei and an undead along the way in the supporting cast, and you have the pieces in place for it to feel like Warcraft and run for a solid stretch.

On that note: no sequels. No writing for sequels. No teasers, no huge dangling threads, none of that. The focus is on telling a story about this group of characters that is interesting to watch now, leave enough of them around that you can still tell a later story if you want to. Someone should probably wind up dying because it’s thematically on-point, but it’s the “victorious sacrifice” kind of death instead of the “no, I have to go Avenge You” sort of death. Let’s face it, killing someone and also destroying the Bad Thing is kind of on-brand for orcs anyhow.

Does this ensure a good movie? No, as I mentioned; what ensures a good movie is a good movie. But I submit this does at least start from the right place. Instead of trying to shift all of the pieces into place for the next part of the franchise or moving something around so it’s telling a familiar story, it’s a light thing focused on character interactions instead of plot contrivance. Everything’s going to depend on the cast and the script, sure, but it has better odds.

Ultimately, it’s so much speculation; the series had its shot, and it’s pretty clear that the critical and financial drubbing were enough to kill any further projects. (Yes, it was a financial failure; it made $435 million worldwide, but most estimates put it at needing $450 million to break even. Film accounting is complex and I don’t have time to explain all of this.) It’s probably not a huge loss. But hey, sometimes you spend some time thinking about these things, and then it’s back in everyone’s mind again and you might as well write it out.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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