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I saw the D&D movie yesterday. I didn’t like it as much as my average social media contact did, but it was fun and worth watching, and I’ll watch it again when it hits Paramount+. This post is loaded with spoilers, but I’m keeping them relatively mild. Still, proceed at your own risk. TL;DR: I give it a solid B grade.
Up front, I want to say that this represents a major step forward for the franchise. In fact, can we just pretend that the other movies don’t exist? I own the second one on DVD and have seen it only once. I can watch it any time I want, and I do exactly that. I watch it every time I want, which is never. But moving on, there are a couple of things I wanted to mention, but I saw the movie by myself, so I didn’t get a chance to talk to anyone about it.
My Favorite Character: The Paladin
For someone like me, this is less a movie and more a homage to the game of D&D, so my favorite character was the paladin. Why? Because the movie made the archetypical paladin, which is a class best summed up by Louis C.K.’s “of course, but maybe” bit. If you don’t already know the bit and don’t click through, this may not make sense.
Of course, paladins are great. Of course, they are. They’re so concerned for everyone else’s well-being and will sacrifice their own.
But maaaaaybe they’re all really annoying to be around.
But no. Of course, we all love paladins. These people are champions of good, justice, honesty, and virtually everything good in this world.
But maaaaaybe if they have such high charismas, they should be expected to learn social skills.
Zenk was the archetypical paladin. You should and will love him, but god dammit he’s annoying.
Legacy v. Modern Gamers
I’m on a real 1st Edition (“1e”) kick, and one of the things that bugs me about modern gaming is the aversion to PC death. This movie had a brilliant opportunity to show modern gamers the value to PC deaths, and when I thought they were going that way, my heart skipped. (Perhaps I should have a cardiogram just in case.) Unfortunately, in typical 5th Edition fashion, they pissed that opportunity away on a cheat. In the process, the cheat mirrored elements of our real-world society that have attention spans too short to remember what’s most important, even if it’s their primary goal in life. This was a major point of failure as far as I was concerned. It wasn’t merely a bad decision, but one that by itself keeps this movie out of the A grade range. It reminded me of my greatest pet peeve with respect to modern gaming.
A Funny Joke with the Same Problem
There’s a joke used in the movie that made it on one of the social media/television spots. It’s where they use a spell to speak with the dead. It was a remarkable failure, and hilariously so. However, they cheated their way out of it. Why? Because modern gamers can’t take a loss. It’s not just death, but some gamers get angry when their character takes a single point of damage (or even no damage!) or miss a puzzle. Modern dungeon masters are expected to avoid character failure of any sort, even when it’s the players’ own damn fault. Sure, the game/movie must continue, but the characters should have to admit they screwed up and find another way forward.
Speaking of Pet Peeves
My largest pet peeve about the prior movies was their overt discussion of game mechanics. That was the one thing I didn’t want in this movie. It’s a fourth wall break, and one that’s completely unnecessary. As a long-time gamer, I don’t need to be told that the character just used Misty Step, and for non-gamers watching the movie, naming the spell won’t add anything to the movie. So in the third movie, Book of Vile Darkness, when the main character asked to purchase a sword, and the shopkeeper asked him whether he wanted one at heroic tier or paragon tier, that was really stupid. That is, even in a world of monsters and magic, no one would talk that way.
This movie avoided such stupidity. In the rare instance where they discussed mechanics (for example, the aforementioned Speak with Dead scene), it served a purpose both to the audience and to the other characters. In fact, the only time language was used that was superfluous to the characters was the discussion of the history of Thay. However, that’s something every movie does because the audience needs the exposition. The characters say, “Yeah, yeah; we knew all that” so that they don’t look stupid, and the audience goes along with the fiction because, in the end, it’s a movie, and audiences know that they need the education. This was definitely something important that this movie got right.
Again, they pissed away something that could have improved the movie. You can certainly play the game with four PCs, but you really should have five: a healer, a soldier, an arcane caster, a rogue, and a fifth that doesn’t exactly fit neatly into one of those categories. This is especially true of a movie meant as a love letter to the game. Well, they had a barbarian and a druid that focused on melee, a sorcerer, and a bard that almost never touched a weapon. In fact, all the bard was to the group was a guy who made plans. Don’t get me wrong; he was a fine character, but as someone who likes bards more than any other class in most editions, he didn’t display most of the characteristics of a D&D bard. Moreover, there was no healer in the bunch, not even the druid or underused paladin. For fuck’s sake, they asked the sorcerer to heal someone, and his explanation for why he couldn’t was because of the nature of the injury, not because, you know, he’s not a cleric. But if the producers want to house rule sorcerers as healers, fine. It cuts against everything we’ve seen in every edition, but that kind of flexibility is what RPGs are all about. So why didn’t the sorcerer heal anyone? Because he wasn’t house ruled. He was just a standard sorcerer. There were no healers.
But my main concern here, as small as it is, is that I would have preferred to see a party of five with one of them using healing magic at some point. Instead, they went on one of their minor quests with the paladin. To give him his moment to shine, he did most of the heavy lifting on that quest but then left the group. He wouldn’t have made the story too complex by sticking around.
This movie is loaded with references to the game and tons of Easter eggs. Like I said, it’s more that than it is an actual movie. You can make a game out of spotting them.
EDIT: A Note on Faithfulness to the Game
Some have nitpicked the movie for not living up to game mechanics, and others have responded by saying “it’s a movie, not a game.” But it’s a movie that’s not only based on a game, but it has the name of the game in its title. If this is billed as a Dungeons & Dragons movie, then it should be based on the game. Otherwise, this might as well be a Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings movie. Maybe it’s just overstatement typical among the way Americans (everyone?) argues, but the counterarguments don’t seem to appreciate that fact. In fact, someone well known in the industry was taken to task (by someone else I’ll say is well-known) for criticizing the movie. “Are you a cinematographer?” she asked. What difference does that make? Are we not permitted to criticize a movie because we aren’t professional filmmakers ourselves? And if so, wouldn’t that mean that you have no right to complement it unless you’re a professional filmmaker? Are we not allowed to voice our opinions without filmmaking experience? That seems ridiculous.
Still, even acknowledging all that, the first question you should ask is, “What edition of D&D?” The various editions of D&D are very different from one another. Which edition should the film emulate? The classic OD&D or 1e for reasons of appreciation of where we all come from? The current 5e for reasons of marketability? A combination of them all? How should that combination be weighted? Also of note, dungeon masters have always house-ruled their games, meaning my 1e may be very different from your 1e. And besides, there always has to be some license given to filmmakers adapting source material to another medium. So, lighten up, Francis. This isn’t going to be exactly the game you play, but it’s faithful enough to the source material that everyone recognizes it. If you don’t like it, fine. I’m clearly no Wizards of the Coast apologist. But if you don’t like it because you have an axe to grind, then you’re robbing yourself of fun. Don’t ruin ours.
It was fun. It was worth my time and money, but it could have been better. I’m sure we’ll get a sequel or two, so maybe those will be.
As always, YMMV.
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