Critics vs. Audiences: 5 Things that Explain Warcraft’s Polarizing Nature
June 23, 2016 \ Movies \ 0 Comments
At the time of writing this article, the critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes for Warcraft is 29%, while the audience rating is 81%. Every so often movies have huge disparities like this and I suspect there are people on both sides who can’t comprehend what the other is thinking. This is most certainly true in the case of Warcraft, which is possibly the most fan-friendly video game adaption ever made. As someone who has experience with both worlds, I’d like to take a look at Warcraft from both a critic and a fan perspective to help illuminate the disparity between critics and audiences.
This won’t be an exhaustive look, just five things that will hopefully help give insight into both camps. (Oh. And I spoil a lot of the whole movie. Spoiler alert.)
1. Warcraft Lore and the Nature of Cinematics
Compared to other video game movies (Prince of Persia, the Resident Evil series, Tomb Raider) Warcraft has much deeper, more rich background story. The first PC game, Warcraft: Orcs & Humans (1994) had a handful of pages of background on both the Human and Orc side, but has (over the course of several more games) expanded the lore extensively and into other media like books and comics.
Much of this core story is told through exposition in the games, with some in-game graphic sequences with dialogue later on:
Every game, though, (even the first two in the series) had cinematics that you saw by completing some portion of the game. These would often be full CGI sequences that were more engaging and easy to follow because they were easier to invest in than text boxes.
Over the Warcraft games legacy this has created a kind of yearning for a more cinematic storytelling. And the more players invested themselves in Warcraft games, the greater the fervor for a Warcraft movie. This is important to consider when thinking about how fans would digest the movie, because it is a potentially twenty year-old itch being scratched.
2. Unpacking Warcraft Lore
Like a lot of video games, you don’t have to follow the story for any Warcraft game. If you really wanted to, you could just listen to or read the objective for every mission and never pay attention to the story. But fantasy genre games don’t tend to work like that; people tend to want to explore the worlds they are playing.
Eventually, players found their way into the manuals for the games. Inside they found the rich history supporting the games they were playing. I remember re-reading my Warcraft II manual over and over, fascinated by Gul’dan and events like the assassination of Blackhand by Orgrim Doomhammer.
For all the Warcraft games (and particularly the earlier real-time strategy ones) I suspect this is a common player interaction with the game; you play the game, but you study the lore independant of the game. Almost like reading the lore was a secret, rich history you were exploring for yourself.
This unpacking of lore is the same way fans interact with the movie; a large part of the movie experience for a fan becomes an unpacking of Warcraft lore. The Warcraft fan is constantly scanning the film to see where it goes, what stories it will cover, who will show up, and what changes to the lore will occur. This is similar to how the book fans would watch a movie adaption. Except in Warcraft‘s case it would be a book series that had been going on for over twenty years.
In fact, for fans this aspect of the film can be so important that it may overpower their movie experience. When I asked my Warcraft friends what their favourite part of the movie was the answer was some variation of, “the part where they referenced something in the Warcraft games.”
3. Too Much Information?
One of the chief complaints about the Warcraft movie is that it is so dense with Warcraft lore that it is difficult to follow. While it’s pretty clear Warcraft was designed with fans of the franchise first and non-fans second, the film definitely makes an effort to help newcomers.
The fan-focused intent of the film is made clear by the opening which mirrors the Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos intro:
While the opening sequence establishes some basic information, like the two sides of the conflict (Orcs and Humans), that their conflict is ongoing, and that there is evil green magic that effects the Orcs called the Fel, the nature of the opening feels more like an immediate nod to fans.
As the movie opens, we hear a lot of names thrown around: Durotan, Orgrim, Laughing Skull, Blackrock, Blackhand, Gul’dan, The Horde, The Guardian, Medivh, The Fel, Khadgar. We also get a lot of location names: Ironforge, Stormwind, Goldshire, and Karazhan. All these names and locations are within the first fifteen or so minutes of the film. To be fair, that’s a lot to throw at someone who hasn’t heard of any of those names before.
However, there is quite a bit the movie does to try and bring newcomers in. For example, when Lothar (Travis Fimmel) meets Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), he reveals the mark on Khadgar’s arm and says, “that’s the mark of the Kirin Tor,” (which would be confusing) but he continues by saying, “what are you doing in my city, spell-chucker?” This is a simpler way of identifying Khadgar’s abilities without calling him a mage (a less audience-friendly word).
The film also makes an effort not to overload the audience with Warcraft names. At the start of the movie when we meet Durotan (Toby Kebbell) and his wife, Drakka, Durotan doesn’t refer to her by name. He simply calls her “wife,” so we can focus more on Durotan’s name. Similarly, when Lothar and Khadgar arrive at Karazhan, Medivh (Ben Foster) asks, “who’s the boy downstairs?” and then we move to a scene with Khadgar. This type of exchange slows the pace of new names slightly by not overburdening the audience and establishing how the characters relate to each other.
The movie also makes a small effort to remind us of character names. Like when King Llane (Dominic Cooper) asks, “what are we gonna do about … what is his name,” he turns around to Khadgar who repeats his name for the audience.
In addition to repetition, the film also tries to clarify terms used earlier in the dialogue that weren’t explained. In an early scene, Medivh tells King Llane, “I exist to protect this realm, my Lord. It is my very purpose. I am The Guardian,” which tells us who The Guardian is and The Guardian’s job.
So it’s not as if the movie did nothing to try to help the audience with the information, the question becomes did they do enough? I’ve heard there were a lot of Warcraft fans who saw the movie with non-fan that said their friends were able to keep up. On the flip side, one of the friends I saw the movie with played World of Warcraft for four years and he said he had no idea what was going on.
I think if you’re good at picking up new names and information and are (more importantly) keen on dissecting the details, you might be OK, but it’s clear not everyone was willing or able to do so.
4. Establishing Friendships
When you have characters that are friends or characters that are working together, it’s good to have well-established relationships between those characters so that when events happen that challenge them, or place the characters at odds with each other, we feel for them and their relationship.
Warcraft doesn’t do a great job with relationships. We are told that Llane, Lothar, and Medivh are all friends, but what do we see that shows us their friendship? Llane hugs Medivh when he sees him and says, “it has been too long,” but an audience needs something a little more tangible.
Even Durotan and Orgrim (Robert Kazinsky), in the scene where Orgrim throws a pebble at Durotan’s head and they chuckle, then reminisce about the Frost Wind Junes and hunting, we get a sense of this comfortable, easygoing relationship between them, but we don’t see it — we’re simply told about it. Even when Orgrim stands protectively in front of the other Orcs the first time Durotan challenges Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), there isn’t a lot of weight to that action.
Here’s an example from Guardians of the Galaxy that shows a relationship being formed:
Now I’m not saying that every time you want to draw a relationship between two people you have to have one person save the other’s life, but it wouldn’t hurt.
Warcraft certainly makes an attempt at these relationships. If you’re looking hard enough for them, there is some kind of relationship there you might care about, but it’s not enough for everybody. And I think on the whole, people would be more invested in Peter and Gamora’s relationship than Llane, Medivh, and Lothar’s relationships.
The reason strong relationships matter to Warcraft is that so that when Lothar is trying to convince Fel-possessed Medivh at the end and says, “Llane, he believed in you. Don’t kill your kin. Don’t kill your friend,” when Medivh hesitates it would stir our feelings for that already established friendship. But it doesn’t.
5. Why Character Deaths Matter
If you’re going to dedicate a lot of time and prominence to a death in a movie, it ought to have a strong setup and emotional weight behind it. Callan’s death in Warcraft, unfortunately, does not.
Lothar and Callan don’t have too much time together prior to Callan’s death. There is an introductory moment that tells the audience their relationship to one another when Lothar thanks his son in the Lion’s Pride Inn. Then there is a small scene where Lothar is talking to Lady Taria and we learn that Callan looks up to Lothar and “wants to follow in his Father’s footsteps.” Unfortunately Callan is not present for this conversation so there’s no interaction between Lothar and Callan. Then there’s a quick lesson Lothar gives to Callan about Orcs: “Don’t try to take them on with brute force. They’re stronger; be smarter.” And a brief moment between the two when Callan is injured and Lothar tells him, “You had me worried. Don’t be in such a hurry. You’re all I have.” Unfortunately, Callan brushes this moment off and says, “I know. I’m a soldier.”
We learn after the fact that Callan and Lothar had a shaky relationship growing up, and that Callan’s Mother died giving birth to him and Lothar blamed Callan for a long time for that. And while Travis Fimmel’s performance during that scene is OK, it’s too late. Callan is already gone.
Let’s take a look at a couple of scene from The Lion King to see a strong example of how to do a character death and make it matter:
Notice the difference between Lady Taria saying Callan looks up to Lothar, and Simba telling Mufasa directly, “I was just trying to be brave, like you.” There’s a genuine exchange between Father and Son here. Simba is ashamed and fearful of retribution, but his admiration of his Father shines through. And Mufasa admits fear to his son; it’s a honest exchange. So when Mufasa dies:
We feel that loss more deeply. What’s more, Mufasa’s death has a tremendous impact on Simba; not just how he feels, but in what he does. He leaves Pride Rock. He hides from himself and his destiny. Mufasa’s death changes him.
Callan’s death doesn’t change Lothar at all. Before Callan’s death Lothar is focused on protecting the realm, and after Callan’s death Lothar is focused on protecting the realm. It’s as if Callan’s death exists purely to make us feel something for Lothar, without earning that emotion.
It’s unearned empathy that draws the line between people who loved the film and hated it. Warcraft makes an earnest effort. It gives Warcraft fans a story filled with lore they can unpackage, and tries to sketch in enough details to make non-fans care about the characters. It has clear, (sometimes) effectively acted moments that show us the characters caring about each other, just not enough history between those characters to justify the emotion we’re being shown. Invested viewers may find enough to care about, but not all viewers.
Imagine walking into Warcraft without previous knowledge nor with an invested Warcraft fan at your side. How much of what you enjoyed about the film would be taken away? There would be no joy at the glimpse of a murloc, no appreciation that the griffin landed in the right place in Stormwind, and no inner child marvelling at the scale of the dark portal remembering all their own experiencing crossing through it. And worse, no one to tell you about the lore that filled your heart for years.
It’s a chilling thought, and I fear there might not be enough in the film to warm everyone the way it warmed me.