Why Dungeons & Dragons is exactly what today's blockbusters need
Dungeons & Dragons spoilers won't be found here.
While the term "superhero fatigue" is a little on the dramatic side, the recent slump in Marvel and DC’s box office numbers does suggest that audiences might finally be demanding a little more variety in their multiplex diet.
Enter Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves, based on the role-playing game that’s been knocking around since the 1970s – and a generous slice of rollicking high fantasy.
Having premiered to strong reviews at Texas' South by Southwest Festival, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein's deep dive into the world of paladins, spellcasters and owlbears plays up familiar tropes with fresh enthusiasm. It's really, really fun. And exactly the sort of thing today's blockbuster landscape could really benefit from.
Dungeons & Dragons' cinematic ascent isn't, of course, without precedent. While the brand took some inevitable damage from the critical and box-office failure of its very first cinematic venture – released in 2000, and inexplicably supplemented by two sequels – its popularity has steadily risen over the past decade or so.
Some of that, surely, has to do with Netflix's Stranger Things. The 1980s-set series not only firmly acquainted audiences with the ins and outs of dice rolls and Demogorgons, but it presented the ultimate D&D superfan as an erratic, guitar-shredding metalhead with enviable curls and the know-how to save the world (Joseph Quinn's Eddie Munson).
That interest was boosted by podcasts and web shows like Critical Role, featuring The Last of Us' own Ashley Johnson. In short, D&D is no longer the sort of thing you have to play in secret, in basements, to avoid getting bullied. It's fully gone mainstream.
And that, surely, makes it an ideal answer to the question that's been haunting Hollywood execs for a good while now – high fantasy is currently dominating television, so why can't it do the same for film?
Willow, His Dark Materials, The Witcher, Shadow and Bone and The Wheel of Time were all produced on fairly substantial budgets, with HBO happily forking out $20m per episode on House of the Dragon, and Prime Video purchasing the rights to JRR Tolkien's books for a formidable $250m in 2017. At $58m per episode, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is currently the most expensive TV series ever made.
The world of film hasn't really invested in the genre to that degree since, well, the original Lord of the Rings trilogy scooped up a record-setting 11 Academy Awards – though Warner Bros recently announced its intention to dive back into Middle Earth in the near future.
The subsequent Hobbit films proved less popular, and a 2016 attempt to launch a series based around the video game World of Warcraft failed to break even. Of course, the sci-fi twist on the genre, Star Wars, has maintained its grip on the cultural imagination, but it's not quite been the same.
A part of that will have to do with the total domination of superhero cinema, which comes with its own, empowering brand of escapism. But isn't it funny how frequently Marvel and DC have found themselves dipping into the worlds of myth and magic as of late? Think of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Thor: Love and Thunder, Shazam! Fury of the Gods and Eternals. All of these films have increasingly leant on traditional imagery of swords, shields and arcane magic. Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves could build perfectly off those tonal shifts – offering a return to the kind of open-hearted, adventure-seeking days of The Princess Bride, Labyrinth and The Neverending Story.
Honor Among Thieves has only a morsel of the self-seriousness of Lord of the Rings. But it also isn't dragged down by aggressive, winking cynicism. It's a CGI-heavy spectacle that still makes room for practical tricks and complex puppets, a nod to the '80s era of filmmaking it so clearly draws from. It feels different, but certainly not too different. And that could be just the little shakeup Hollywood needs right now.
Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves premieres in cinemas on Friday, March 31.
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