Warcraft, the new fantasy blockbuster adapted from the video games of the same name, is, at its heart, a romantic tragedy. The story of a half-orc girl and a human warrior who are brought together by war, and ultimately, torn apart trying to end it. It’s a great choice for a movie like this, one that grounds huge, sweeping stakes in a handful of fairly intimate relationships. This sort of character-driven storytelling is exactly the kind of thing I recommend genre storytellers do; the end of the world only matters to viewers if they care about the people inhabiting that world.
Unfortunately, the movie just assumes that hook is enough, and does nothing to flesh it out.
Over in my series of articles on Tony Award winning sensation Hamilton, I have been discussing how the Broadway play manages to dramatize a nuanced, sophisticated relationship between Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Eliza, in a story that didn’t necessarily require a great deal of focus on the two of them. Warcraft is the flipside of that, a story in which the ultimate drama seems to depend heavily on three relationships – Lothar (Travis Fimmel) and Llane (Dominic Cooper), Lothar and Garona (Paula Patton), and Garona and Llane – but which spends so little time developing those relationships that the big moments of betrayal and tragedy utterly fail to land.
The story, with spoilers: Orcs, a monstrous race from a dying world, suddenly begin appearing in Azeroth, kidnapping humans and destroying villages on the orders of their sinister leader, Gul’dan. Lothar, a military commander among the human forces, captures Garona, a half-orc slave, and takes her to his king, Llane. They win Garona over, eventually making her a trusted member of his forces, and with her help form an alliance with a noble orc tribe to prevent Gul’dan from summoning more orcs into Azeroth. Garona and Lothar even begin to form a romantic bond. Working together, they close the portal, but realize that their forces are hopelessly outnumbered and the king will surely die. He asks Garona to kill him, using her victory over him to gain power and prestige in orcish society and work towards a lasting peace between humans and orcs. But Lothar sees Garona’s betrayal, and without knowing that it was on the king’s orders, believes that she was a traitor all along.
Now, the plot, similarly with spoilers. Orcs, a monstrous race from a dying world, suddenly begin appearing in Azeroth, kidnapping humans and destroying villages on the orders of their sinister leader, Gul’dan. A runaway magician named Khadgar discovers that the orcs are being powered by something called Fel energy, an evil magical force created by sacrificing lives. He takes this knowledge to Lothar, who takes Khadgar to meet his king, Llane. Llane asks Lothar and Khadgar to go see Medivh, the most powerful sorcerer in the land, to ask for his help. While there, a ghostly figure and glowing tattoo convince Khadgar to steal a book from Medivh’s library. Lothar, Khadgar, and Medivh go out to track the Fel energy and come across an orc patrol, which they kill, capturing a half-orc slave girl named Garona in the process. Meanwhile, Durotan, a noble orc and one of the few survivors of that fight, realizes that there’s something sinister about the Fel and begins scheming against Gul’dan. Back in Stormwind, Lothar takes Garona to meet Llane. They imprison her, but then the next day they let her out and they all seem cool. Garona agrees to work with Lothar and shows them where the orc camp is. There, Durotan seeks them out and wants to discuss an alliance. Meanwhile, Khadgar is investigating the book he stole, but Medivh finds out and destroys all his research but a single hidden sheet. That sheet reveals that the orc portal had to be opened from this side. Llane, Lothar, and Garona go to meet Durotan, but Gul’dan’s orcs ambush them both. Medivh is able to save most of the human forces, but Lothar’s son is killed. Medivh collapses, as he has been weakening over the course of the movie, and we learn that he is corrupted by the Fel energy, which is now sentient and is causing him to lose time and turn into a demon. Now totally corrupted, he goes to advise Llane, but Lothar, bitter after his son’s death, suddenly seems to know that Medivh is evil now for some reason. Medivh makes fun of him a bit, and then Lothar gets thrown in jail while Medivh persuades the king to ride and attack the orc forces for some reason. Meanwhile, Gul’dan has decided to purge Durotan’s tribe for their betrayal, but Durotan’s wife and infant child escape. Durotan is brought before Gul’dan, and challenges him to trial by combat. Gul’dan cheats to kill Durotan and all the orcs are angry, but then they just go along with it anyway. Meanwhile, Khadgar goes to the floating mage city that trained him, where he is immediately granted access to the High Council despite having no rank at all himself. But then he tells them what he learned from the book he stole, and it turns out the book references an artifact they’ve been keeping around. When Khadgar approaches it, the ghostly spirit who led him to the book appears and tells him that she was the previous Guardian of the realm, and Khadgar is destined to be the next one for some reason, but first he has to stop Medivh. Khadgar goes and recruits Lothar, and the two set off to fight the most powerful wizard in existence. They win, quite cleverly, but Medivh has already helped Gul’dan open the portal back up. Thousands of orcs stream in, and Llane’s forces are almost immediately overwhelmed. But then Medivh saves them with his dying breath, opening a portal to Stormwind (this portal doesn’t require life energy for some reason), and Llane and Garona begin freeing human prisoners and sending them through. Medivh dies, the portal closes, and Llane knows he is about to die. He asks Garona to kill him so she can rise in the orc ranks and try and broker a peace, and she does so. But Lothar arrives soon thereafter and witnesses her betrayal. He leaves broken-hearted and vows to protect the human kingdom against the orcs. Then Durotan’s infant is found by some humans. The end.
The vast majority of this stuff never actually matters to the character driven drama. Medivh, Khadgar, the floating city, the corruption of the Fel – none of this ends up being terribly important to making the big emotional climax between Garona, Llane, and Lothar. But, as you could see, it took up the bulk of my plot description by a considerable margin. The fact is, all that stuff ends up overwhelming the character drama, sucking up enormous portions of the runtime.
Now, a caveat. Yes, I know this is based on a series of video games. I’ve played them all, though most not for a great many years. I understand that much of this is pulled from the lore of the setting. But that’s not an excuse for shoddy storytelling. A good adaptation must make changes to the source material in order to make an effective, interesting 2 hour long movie. There’s so much extraneous stuff going on here. It’s just cool-looking filler.
Don’t get me wrong, I like cool-looking stuff. The magic in Warcraft looks great, it’s well-designed and ethereal but with an intriguing physicality that sets it aside from most movie sorcery. It’s probably the best part of the movie, honestly, particularly for an old-school fantasy nerd like myself. But if that’s the part that you’re interested in putting a lot of attention on, make a movie about that. You can’t have all this magic completely disconnected from the rest of the story and expect it to be interesting. And, similarly, you can’t have so much runtime dedicated to a subplot if you want your core story to land the way you had hoped. If you want Lothar’s son’s death to matter, we need more than one scene between the two of them. If you want Garona’s seeming betrayal of Lothar’s trust to hit, we have to see him earning her trust, her coming to appreciate something of human culture. Instead, we are just bluntly told what these characters feel towards one another, as though that’s a substitute.
If you want the drama, the impact, of your story to hinge on relationships between characters – which Warcraft unquestionably does; this is not like The Raid: Redemption, where you’re dealing with pure action storytelling – you need to show those relationships. We have to see how they develop, how lived-in they are, why they matter. We have to want those relationships to succeed. They have to feel like they matter, and in order for them to feel like that, the filmmaker can’t just assume that we’re by default interested in those relationships. It takes real, genuine work. Warcraft had plenty of good ideas, but the relationships between characters ultimately felt considerably more weightless than the CGI sorcery that so dominated the action.
Warcraft is out now in theaters everywhere. Directed by Duncan Jones and written by Duncan Jones, Charles Leavitt, and Chris Metzen, Warcraft stars Paula Patton, Travis Fimell, and Dominic Cooper.