Of Orcs and Men, and Why Their Best-Laid Schemes Sometimes Go Awry

If you told me 14 years ago that there would be a movie based on the Warcraft series, I would probably have looked at you in awe. If you would have told me that during my college career, several years after I had given up World of Warcraft and many more years since I had played Warcraft 3: The Frozen Throne, I would have shrugged and thought it was a neat idea. When I found out that a director named Duncan Jones (known for his 2009 movie, Moon, and for being David Bowie’s son) would be making a Warcraft movie back in 2014, I was cautiously excited about how the movie might succeed, as well as the numerous ways in which it could utterly fail. And now, having seen said movie, I’m left with a rather curious rift in my conscience.

Warcraft manages to simultaneously indulge in and estrange Blizzard’s beloved Fantasy franchise. It reinterprets and presents to us anew Warcraft’s greatest strengths, while draining the essence from all of the meat surrounding said strength.

For starters, Warcraft is not a movie about World of Warcraft. It actually takes place during the first Warcraft game, titled Warcraft: Orcs and Humans (1994). It also draws upon retroactive histories contained within various novellas tied into the early Warcraft universe. Here’s a synopsis:

The Warcraft series mainly takes place on a planet named Azeroth. Azeroth is inhabited by various sentient races: Humans, Dwarves, Goblins, High Elves, and many other beings. Unbeknownst to the peoples of Azeroth, a planet far away called Draenor is in the midst of a crisis. A serious one, at that, because the planet is literally falling apart. Draenor is inhabited by numerous other sentient races, one of these being the Orcs. The Orcs inhabit a totemic society that values ancestor worship, honor, and battlefield prowess above all else. An Orcish warlock called Gul’dan, though, has dabbled in the dark Fel magic of demons. Gul’dan promised to find a new world for the Orcish tribes using that Fel magic, which, unfortunately, requires the life force of other beings like the peaceful Draenei (the blue people we see at the beginning of the film). Once Gul’dan creates the Dark Portal, his Orcish army spills out into the world of Azeroth and begins razing every Human settlement in sight.

The Chief of the Frostwolf clan, Durotan, isn’t too happy about this. He feels as if Gul’dan is leading both the Orcs and Azeroth toward further destruction for his own benefit. The Human Alliance isn’t too happy about its villages being attacked, either, so they rally some armies to fight the threat. Thanks to a half-Orcish woman named Garona, the two armies meet up and come to understand each others’ similar goals. It’s up to the Humans and their newfound Frostwolf allies to defeat Gul’dan and save both the Orcish people and Azeroth from demonic influence.

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One reason why the Warcraft series has always held such a tender place in my heart – at least as a guilty pleasure – was because it took Fantasy genre conventions and imbued them with interesting twists. The Warcraft series has never borne the scholarly load of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series, which is renowned for its then-unprecedented attention to and reforging of classical European myth. Nor has the Warcraft series ever delved into the darkest depths of the Human psyche to the extent that Games Workshop’s Warhammer series has (or, in turn, Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné series of novels, which inspired the Warhammer series). Instead, Warcraft gives us new perspectives on the things we take for granted in Fantasy, then packages them in an easy-to-swallow pill that is accessible to most audiences.

The Warcraft series is perhaps best known for its Orcs. As of Warcraft 3 (2002), Warcraft’s Orcs are far removed from the brutish greenskins of the Warhammer universe. Retcons by Blizzard writer Chris Metzen and various other authors over the years have made sure that the Orcs were always a sympathetic people, one with which audiences can connect on an emotional level.

Jones’ Orcs, who inhabit the era of the first Warcraft game, are no different. They laugh. They cry. They tease each other. They worry about their children’s futures. They indulge in bouts of nostalgia for old battles and old hunts. They’re a people with differing opinions, different tribes, different codes of honor, and respect for one another and (sometimes) for other beings. In the state we find them in, the Orcs have rallied under Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) in the hopes of finding a new homeland via the Orcish tradition of clan warfare. Durotan (Toby Kebbell) and his Frostwolf clan, meanwhile, question how the demonic demagogue has manipulated their brethren purely by exploiting cultural values. A parable for modern times, no?

So it’s no small wonder why Jones decided to give Warcraft’s Orcs the spotlight. Not only do the Orcs provide some of the movie’s more contemplative dialogue, but much effort was also clearly made by Warcraft’s animation team to make the Orcs as relatable as possible. Their muscled bodies possess a remarkable amount of heft and lifelike weight. When they move, you can sense that they’re brimming with primal power. When an Orc smashes a Human’s head in with one of the series’ iconic war mauls, the impact left behind shakes your own bones. Their range of emotion also stretches to the tender, as seen when Durotan coddles his newborn son with one of his massive hands.

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But a solid representation of the Orcs is not enough to carry a film. Knowingly or not, Warcraft follows its source material’s empathy for the Orcish race perhaps a little too closely. By comparison, the Alliance – composed of standard Humans, as well as of Dwarves and High Elves (and Gnomes, but we don’t see them here) – is shockingly stiff in the personality department. King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper) halfheartedly shouts his commands on the battlefield without moving his mouth more than what conversational speech would require. Travis Fimmel gives the most genuine performance as Anduin Lothar, champion of the Alliance and Warcraft’s resident ‘gruff and witty man who is willing to toss aside his society’s values for its greater good,’ but is ultimately forgettable due to his lack of backstory.

Warcraft‘s spell casters give particularly stilted performances. Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) the rogue mage is as uncertain of his next line as he is of his own skill in magic, while the mighty Archmage Medivh (Ben Foster) delivers his platitudes with all the candor of an early 90s home-to-video anime dub. What may have seemed like jokes in Warcraft’s script come off as flaccid asides in the mouth of Medivh. Foster’s performance is especially uncomfortable to me, a Warcraft fan, because I know just how imposing Medivh actually is in his home series.

The unwilling half-Orc/half-Draenei ambassador, Garona Halforcen (Paula Patton), nearly salvages the Human race from a life of verbal tedium. Her snide remarks and openness to the compassion of the Humans make her both likable and relatable. She flirts a little with Khadgar, dabbles in love with Medivh, then is whisked away to the battlefield and is forced to make some rather tough choices regarding her newfound Human friends.

Part of what makes Garona demand our compassion is that we learn a little about her past. She was disowned by her fellow Orcs for being half-Draenei, and she faced much abuse during her childhood. She’s propped up to be Warcraft’s strong female lead, and she does a decent job of doing so because we know where she’s coming from, why she must fight, and why she’s ultimately distraught when she must turn on her benefactors for the good of Azeroth (though in the original game, she does so of her own volition).

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It’s that city with the giant cobblestones.

And that might be one of Warcraft’s biggest issues: world-building. World-building is a broad term for the act of making backstories not only for a fictional universe’s characters, but also for its belief systems, its technologies, its magics, its histories, and so on. Together, these aspects give a story’s world texture. They give us a reason to care about the fate of the world, its characters, and all of the goodness that would be lost if its cultures were all killed off. It’s a task with which many Fantasy works struggle, and one which few manage to fulfill (ironically, the original Warcraft series does a satisfactory job of achieving this goal).

Warcraft rarely grants us the opportunity to become invested in its characters. At the movie’s onset, we’re thrust into a cacophony of names, places, historical events, and concepts with implicit (yet never explained) meanings. We’re neither privy to the richness of its peoples, nor to the philosophies behind its magics. At one point, we’re whisked away to Dalaran, the renowned city of mages. But unless you’re a Warcraft fan, why should you care about some city floating in the sky? What happened to the Orcish homeworld of Draenor, and how did Gul’dan manage to win the hearts of desperate Orcs with Fel magic alone? Non-Blizzard audiences may not be left in the dust, but they may feel as if there is a body of knowledge restricted from them. Blizzard fans, meanwhile, might feel as if that body of knowledge has been given short shrift by Jones.

When the Orcs become fully embroiled in the fate of the Human Alliance, even they start to become paper-thin. A father-son-killer revenge subplot is haphazardly established near the middle of the film, then is dredged up in the film’s climactic battle in a limpid attempt to elicit audience tearwelling. Gul’dan’s Orcs are also rather quick to change their allegiances. After Gul’dan breaks a traditional Orcish rule of combat, his followers spit in his face and call him dishonorable. A moment later, they obey his will and turn on an approaching army of Humans. Ten minutes later, they turn on Gul’dan once again for desecrating Orcish battle rituals. It’s all very confusing, and we’re never left with a clear reason to sympathize with one party or the other.

There are, of course, plenty of visual easter eggs for diehard Warcraft fans to feast upon. Near the beginning of the movie, we are given a glimpse of the famous Ironforge forges, with their cascades of molten metal and tireless dwarves hard at work. A murloc gurgles its familiar warcry near a riverbank while a caravan of Alliance soldiers passes by. A panning shot of the Stormwind gryphon rookery gives way to a view that any Alliance player should recognize when flying into the Human capital. In an especially delightful moment, Khadgar casts Polymorph on a prison guard and temporarily turns him into a sheep. These references are scattered throughout the movie, but surprisingly, they’re never significant enough to leave non-Warcraft fans in the dark nor make Warcraft fans squirm in their seats.

It is a bit disappointing, though, that we never see Gul’dan faithfully represent the Warlock class in this film. He does cast what appears to be Drain Soul several times (with an accompanying cheesy visual effect), but we never see him summon a demon or fling a green Fel fireball. It’s a minor complaint from a former WoW player, though having Gul’dan do any of the above would have confirmed his immense power for uninitiated audiences.

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A very boring man bereft of all emotion. Also, those magic effects are hilarious.

Part of the reason why Warcraft ultimately feels vapid (in spite of the Orcs) is because of the source material upon which it is based. While the Warcraft series as a whole received many updates to its lore over the years, Warcraft: Orcs and Humans began as a very simple game. It drew heavily upon Fantasy universes like Warhammer and painted a shallow picture of its two main races: Humans good, Orcs bad. It wasn’t until Warcraft 3 that we were given the holistic view of the Orcs that we know today.

With this knowledge, it’s easy to question just where Warcraft fits in a Fantasy climate of comparatively elaborate offerings like Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings. But remember that the Warcraft series is known for its creative reinterpretations of Fantasy convention. Maybe Warcraft, as a movie series, can exist on its own as a unique entity within the world of cinematic Fantasy, given the right nudge.

Indeed, even the most ardent Warcraft fans might be left wondering why Jones chose this particular story arc to kickstart his ambitious film series. Why not begin with the legacy of Thrall, who dredged his downtrodden people up from despair and lead them forward to build a great new home for Orc-kind? Or the tragic saga of Arthas Menethil, whose descent into madness is filled with conflicted moral choices, betrayal, and a whole cast of fascinating and terrifying undead monstrosities? Or even the chronicle of The Sundering, in which Azeroth’s most important Night Elves make some very tough decisions about the use of magic while their pristine world plunges into demonic chaos?

These three stories alone grant the Warcraft universe a great deal more depth than what most outsiders will see as a generic clash between humans and ugly people. To be sure, a planned Warcraft film saga requires us to know just where the Orcs and Humans are coming from. But, as others have pointed out, that knowledge could have likely been contained within a short prologue at the beginning of the film.

Put simply, are audiences willing to see more Orcs and Humans squabbling?

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Just imagine clicking on all of those soldiers and making them say silly quips over and over.

While it’s easy to lambaste Warcraft for its stale Humans and flimsy world-building, it’s also important to recognize that Warcraft mostly accomplished one of its main goals: portray the Orcs as a varied, complex people. It’s just unfortunate that the Orcs are weighed down by their pink-skinned counterparts’ middling dialogue and acting performances. It’s more unfortunate that this mediocrity eventually subsumes the tribulations of the Orcs and turns them into something equally as puzzling to watch for both Warcraft fans and non-Warcraft fans alike.

And that ending. Oh boy, is that ending going to make diehard Hordies mad.

I think I’ll close the night by re-watching the Warcraft 3 opening cinematic. It’s briefly referenced at the beginning of Jones’ Warcraft, and it’ll give me the nostalgic high I need after watching Medivh mumble his way through one of Azeroth’s most catastrophic events.