REVIEW: Dungeons & Dragons – Honor among Thieves

When I started this blog, I decided not to do straight film reviews. I have spent a long time writing film reviews and when I took an extended break from blogging, I decided to start afresh with something new. That methodological firewall has held strong for a number of years now but then a film comes along and you need to write about it but it simply does not fit into any of your existing pigeon-holes.

In this case, that film is Dungeons & Dragons: Honor among Thieves, a hyper-commercial, hyper-saturated Hollywood blockbuster built around corporate IP that I should (by all accounts) loathe but somehow wound up absolutely adoring.

How do you even make a film about D&D? Despite being at the heart of a huge cultural phenomenon that has seen nearly five decades of sustained creative work, Dungeons & Dragons is not a brand with a whole lot of bankable IP.

I mean… when they decided to use Marvel comics as the basis for a billion-dollar movie franchise the suits were able to draw on literally hundreds of iconic characters and thousands of revered story-lines for inspiration. I hate the films and was never that interested in the comics but the raw material was undeniably there.

The problem facing the producers of any potential D&D movie is that despite decades of sustained creativity by thousands of individuals both amateur and professional, you would struggle to associate the D&D brand with any of the usual entities around which intellectual property and fandom tend to cohere. Even those of us who have spent a long time playing D&D, reading about D&D, and reading D&D spin-off novels would struggle to name a single character, storyline, or setting that is both fondly remembered and intimately associated with the D&D brand.

The obvious choice would be Dragonlance but while those books were a huge hit at the time, they have not aged well and all past attempts to resurrect either the setting or the product line have ended in abject failure. Similarly underwhelming are R.A. Salvatore’s Drow ranger stories from the 1990s Forgotten Realms spin-off novels and the 1980s Saturday-morning cartoon: They were fine at the time, but they were disposable fluff that has since been allowed to go stale and now nobody is going to pay to go and see their big screen adventures. Personally, the only D&D characters I can imagine wanting to watch a film about are Minsc and Boo from the 1990s Baldur’s Gate games and even then, I suspect the charm would start to wear thin after the second time Dave Bautista screams ‘Go for the eyes Boo!’

The charitable spin on this would be to say that this proves that the owners of D&D have been doing their job as D&D is not a product to be consumed but a product designed to spark creativity in others. The lack of recognisable NPCs simply proves that the PCs were always the stars. Smarm aside, this does at least approach the truth and regardless of why this situation might have arisen, the facts are that you’re not going to build a cinematic universe out of NPCs from old D&D books. To be blunt, the only really bankable IP that D&D has to offer are a load of monsters designed in the early years of the hobby and while those can definitely shift T-shirts and miniatures; they’re not going to sell a film franchise.

This problem is only compounded by the fact that numerous attempts to produce a D&D film have all ended badly on both a creative and commercial level. So it’s not just that it’s hard to build a film around D&D, it’s also that the brand has become tarnished by decades of really awful tie-in media designed to cash in on a brand that is already a challenge when it comes to cinematic adaptation.

This being said, Hasbro were always going to try their hand at making a film about Dungeons & Dragons. Aside from the fact that board game companies now have quite a lengthy track record when it comes to turning board games like Battleship and toys like Barbie into films, D&D is a huge brand that is currently nearing the end of a decade-long commercial golden age in a medium that is very prone to boom-and-bust economic cycles.

Having sensed that D&D5 might be reaching the point of market saturation, Hasbro have started to gear up for a new edition and so far it’s not going well. Every time the suits open their mouths, the fans reach for their pitchforks and Hasbro’s recent attempt to alter licensing agreements resulted in a plume of anger so tall that Hasbro were forced into a humiliating U-turn. A year ago, Hasbro would have wanted this film to do well because they were struggling to create new players and the existing consumer-base was starting to get a little spent-out. Now, Hasbro need this film to succeed. They need a big D&D-related story to bury their disastrous attempt at a legal land-grab and they need to refill the reserves of good-will in advance of the new edition. Hasbro need this: They need it to work, and they need it to work now. The desperation of the IP owners also goes some way towards explaining why this attempt at making a D&D film has been so lavishly supported. This is not a cheap sword and sorcery film shot in Eastern Europe with a cast of relative unknowns garnished with a fading star with alimony payments to make. This is a film with recognisable stars, huge amounts of CGI, and some iconic location shots. This is a film that radiates quality and prestige to the point where it feels… well… expensive.

But is it any good? Surprisingly… yes. This is one of the most visually inventive films to come out of mainstream Hollywood in a long time. It is also a really good introduction to what D&D represents in 2023.

Honor among Thieves opens with a shot of icy tundra as a black iron horse-drawn sleigh is pulled across the ice by a team of horses towards a towering fantasy supermax prison. Dozens of guards lock their crossbows on the sleigh as it disgorges its occupant: A huge, scarred, demi-human monster who is locked in chains and dragged through the prison to his cell. A cell he is going to be sharing with a man who is knitting some mittens, and a woman who is eating a potato. The monster cracks his neck and wanders over to the woman, growling as he demands both her body and her potato. The woman calmly breaks both of his legs and returns to her potato. This opening scene must have cost a packet and it serves no purpose other than to establish the film’s main protagonists: a cynical fast-talking bard named Edgin (Chris Pine) and an overly literal Barbarian named Holga (Michelle Rodriguez).

The casting here is an interesting choice as both Rodriguez and Pine are well within their comfort zones: Pine is a charismatic boob, while Rodriguez is a tough-girl of very few words. Neither performance is revelatory or all that interesting but both absolutely radiate competence. Both characters have their own little arcs and neither works all that well for reasons that will become clear but Pine and Rodriguez are so solid that they can sell the characters despite the janky script. That’s pure cinematic charisma and it’s expensive to procure.

Ed and Holga are in prison for grand larceny but they are due for a parole hearing. Both of them want to get out but Ed is desperate as he has a little girl to get home to. So despite preparing a lengthy speech about how he was betrayed by and how he used to be a good guy but fell to thieving in order to support his family, Ed has a plan to break out of prison.

Once the pair escapes, we learn a lot more about the state of their lives prior to capture: Ed was a Harper and his involvement with the Harpers resulted in his wife being killed by the sinister Red Wizards of Thay. At this point, I could feel my good will starting to ebb away as murdering a man’s wife in order to provide him with back-story is an aged sexist saw and the film then leans into the sexism by suggesting that Ed was too drunk and angry to look after his own daughter, forcing his Barbarian colleague to step up and help raise the little girl. Despite the sexism of the set-up and the fact that Ed not only neglected his daughter but neglected her to the point where a female friend had to become an impromptu parent, Pine manages to keep the character likeable. I suspect that there exists a version of the script that leans much further into Ed’s grief and establishes that grief and guilt are making him an unbearable prick but while that kind of character-work might pass muster in a novel, this is a high-budget Hollywood film aimed partly at kids and nobody wants to watch Dungeons & Dragons: Wrath of the Terrible Drunken Dad. Hence relying on Pine to keep the character likeable and not getting overly bogged down in character psychology.

Ed and Holga decide to re-connect with Ed’s daughter only to find that she has been adopted by the one member of the gang to escape the heist that sent Ed and Holga to prison: Hugh Grant’s Forge Fitzwilliam. Grant is an interesting choice for this role as he has spent the last few years playing against type in an effort to re-invent himself as a serious actor rather than the handsome posh bloke who appeared in a load of romantic comedies back in the 90s and 00s. Grant’s Forge is not only the best performance in the film; it is arguably Grant’s greatest performance ever as Forge Fitzwilliam is basically an extended Boris Johnson impression: A corpulent, bumbling posh-o who just about manages to hide his corrupt nature beneath a thin layer of charm and a torrent of oleaginous bluster. He even has the stuttering and the jawing down pat. It is both hilarious and insanely accurate as Forge Fitzwilliam owes his position entirely to a group of ancient, malign, undead wizards who use him as a front for their sinister long-term plans.

Forge is the face of a conspiracy and he has used his money and superficial charm to establish himself as a local lord. His desire to be liked and accepted as a good guy has also pushed him to bond with Ed’s daughter to the point where she is thoroughly poisoned against her father. When Ed and Holga walk in, the daughter runs to Holga but remains icy towards her own father. Ed protests that everything that he has ever done has been about trying to find a magical object that will re-unite his daughter with her mother but the daughter was soured by Forge’s honeyed words and Ed’s years of neglect and so finds it easy to believe Forge’s self-serving lies.

Angry and hurt, the protagonists decide that the only way to get revenge and win over Ed’s daughter is to break into his vault and steal a McGuffin that will allow them to resurrect Ed’s dead wife. In order to do so, they assemble a team comprising Simon the self-doubting sorcerer (Justice Smith), a shape-shifting Tiefling druid turned environmental activist named Doric (Sophia Lillis), and an intense Thayan Paladin (Rege-Jean Page). Simon announces that the only way to get into the town vault is to use a special helmet and in order to discover the location of the helmet; they have to jump through a number of hoops.

Honor among Thieves does not have a complex plot: In the grand tradition of Fantasy narratives, it runs on plot coupons and each plot coupon is attached to a set-piece. What saves the film is the brilliance of these set-pieces.

One of the most interesting things about this film is its relationship with the modern game of D&D. While D&D might have started out telling stories about normal people slowly rising to the level of heroes, the last two editions of the game have seen even low-level PCs become quite powerful. While Honor among Thieves may flirt with the idea of the characters being incompetent, they are much closer to super-heroes than they are low-level sword and sorcery scumbags. Holga doesn’t just break the legs of the huge hulking monster at the beginning of the film; she handles pretty much every single fight with relative ease. Holga doesn’t just defeat people, she takes on a dozen guards at a time and absolutely wipes the floor with them. The fights are also really well realised by Hollywood standards and they often feature the kinds of comedic beats and situational awareness that recall the films of Jackie Chan.

Another interesting facet of the film’s relationship with the game is that there’s not actually a huge amount of combat in this film. There are a few fight scenes (particularly the climactic battle) but there’s a real desire to display the full breadth of the D&D experience so we have scenes in which the characters draw up plans, we have characters trying to solve puzzles, and we have characters using their weird skills and magical objects to try and finesse their way through the plot. This becomes particularly evident in the film’s stand-out set piece in which the group use the fantasy equivalent of a portal gun and an old oil painting to sneak into a moving carriage and the scene is rendered with a level of rigour that recalls great heist films whilst also showing a degree of visual imagination that is absolutely stunning. You really do have to see it in order to believe it.

This astonishing visual imagination is also carried through in the film’s numerous chases including a terrifying underground game of cat and mouse featuring a chunky dragon and a sequence in which the shape-shifting druid tries to escape from a castle by turning into a series of different animals. All of these sequences are well-directed but really brilliantly imagined with sensational art direction. Given how many superhero films end with people punching each other in what appear to be pub car-parks, it is super-refreshing to watch a film where the directors and designers have taken the time to not only properly story-board action sequences but also to put real thought into how magic might alter both the dynamics of the action and the environment around it.

The same level of visual imagination is evident in the sections dealing with the Red Wizards of Thay who apparently turned all of their countrymen into undead slaves using a red mist. The sequences involving the mist are nothing short of jaw-dropping. Beautifully shot, beautifully designed, and beautifully lit; like a gothic woodcut brought to live and slathered in blood.

Another thing that is really striking about the film is the way that it picks up on the implied visuals of the Forgotten Realms where the film is set. While the Forgotten Realms takes a lot of its visual and cultural cues from medieval Europe but it isn’t exactly what you’d call gritty or ‘realistic’. There are no serfs or peasants caked in dung: The Forgotten Realms is pretty, its buildings are clean, and the costumes are all attractive. There’s a late-medieval grandeur and decadence to the Forgotten Realms that is reflected not only in the gorgeous (mostly CGI) set-design, but also in the costuming as the tailoring in this film is absolutely sensational. As someone who first engaged with D&D and the Forgotten Realms before he started reading Fantasy, it’s fascinating to note that D&D has always steered well-clear of grimdark aesthetics and it seems perfectly natural for this film to sit somewhere between the Dragon Age games and the light-and-airy vision of fantasy that you get in Miyazaki movies. One of the great (deliberate) ironies of the film’s plot is that while Ed spent years wishing for riches, the home he had with his wife and kid looked like something straight out of My Neighbour Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service.

For the last decade or so, the market for Fantasy literature has undergone something of sea-change as corporate ownership has demanded more of publishing companies and these companies have responded by doubling down on their core demographics. Demographics defined by the fact that while comparable numbers of men and women read for fun, women read and purchase a lot more fiction. This sense of demographic re-orientation has been amplified by the (now fading) popularity of Young Adult fiction, which had a similarly skewed marketplace but did not engage in the weird pantomime of marketing stuff at men because they’re hard to reach and being resistant to anything with feminine branding whilst understanding that your market is overwhelmingly female. One of the results of this aesthetic recalibration has been an attempt to lean into the ethos of third-wave feminism and other consumer-focused popular political movements. While moving SFF closer to the worlds of YA and Romance has somewhat steadied the economic ship after decades of commercial decline, the oyster has contained some grit most notably in the form of older white male writers like George R.R. Martin who comfortably outsell pretty much anyone else in the world of SFF. The fact that there is still a huge market for grimdark fantasy novels that do not fit with the aesthetics of Romance and YA has put a lot of Fantasy authors on an oppositional footing in so far as they love to denounce the supposedly awful politics of grimdark fantasy

While these denunciations are largely phatic and are primarily a means of signalling to your audience that your books are ‘nice’ and do not contain any rapes, they do sometimes acquire a degree of substance in the form of manifestos championing a ‘nice’ approach to writing Fantasy. Typically bourgeois and resistant to the idea that it might be a sub-genre or a cohesive movement, devotees of this aesthetic sometimes manages to cobble together enough self-awareness to recognise the fact that it constitutes a unit of cultural consumption. Sometimes the unit is referred to as ‘hopepunk’, sometimes it refers to itself as ‘noblebright’ and other times it refers to itself as ‘sweetweird’. The names change, the underlying ethos and aesthetic do not. Sometimes, when people do not enjoy the aesthetic, they refer to is as ‘squeecore’.

While angry authors and fans responded that the Squeecore podcast failed to provide either a list of exemplars or a clear articulation of the aesthetic that the term ‘Squeecore’ referred to, the pro-squeecore pieces are not exactly forensic either. There’s a lot of gesturing towards cartoons, calls for people to be nice, rote rejection of grimdark, and passing references to political sentiments that owe more to the Trump-era liberal Resistance than socialist activism. If I had to give an example of what a hopepunk novel might look like, I would ask you to imagine the world of Howl’s Moving Castle and remove every last vestige of narrative weirdness and mystery. I would then ask you to imagine a by-the-numbers epic fantasy featuring a diverse cast of characters who spend the entire book bantering back in forth in a kind of humourless drawl that apes the formal characteristics of humour whilst not containing any actual jokes. There are dozens of novels that fit the bill and more than a few TV series but the hopepunk aesthetic does not really exist at cinematic level… until now because if you asked me to describe what a hopepunk film might look like, I would point you squarely at Dungeons & Dragons: Honor among Thieves: It is humorous, it is upbeat, it deals with trauma and found families, it has a diverse cast of characters, and its visual palate is warm, clean, aggressively saturated, and entirely devoid of shadow.

The only bum note in this analysis is the fact that the film revolves around a grumpy old white man but the come-to-Jesus moment that sets up the final act of the film is all about Ed acknowledging his trauma and mistakes made in the past while rejecting toxic masculinity and vowing to do better. It is also a film about turning your back on dreams of bourgeois heteronormativity and embracing the family you happened to find along the way. It is also completely and utterly sexless. These are values and ideas that are 100% consistent with the values of ‘hopepunk’ and ‘noblebright’ and they undoubtedly work, because the film works and quality matters more than supposed politics.

I say supposed politics as the discourse surrounding genre media has really suffered for the ever-broadening taboo regarding aesthetic judgements made in public and the broader cultural degradation of language through which we might express personal feelings such as boredom, disgust, or simple distaste. While I would argue that the source of this taboo lies in the careerism of professional reviewers and the reluctance of academic critics to make value judgements, the taboo spreads by virtue of the fact that saying that something sucks can cause social friction and social friction often results in drama when it manifests itself online. Combine this with the fact that social media operates by push-notification and you have a weird situation where people are a) continuously annoyed when confronted with stuff they dislike and b) unable to simply say that this stuff sucks. The only way out of this Catch-22 has been to cloak one’s aesthetic judgements in the language of politics and morality. So, when your friend keeps re-tweeting Superhero memes, they’re not just spraying you with tedious infantile shit… they’re actually amplifying fascism, or defending sexism and erasing bisexuality. With morality and politics firmly entrenched as the lingua franca of haterdom, advertisers are only too happy to pick up the ball and run with it: Funny how the only possible reason for disliking the output of billion-dollar franchises backed by sinister multinational corporations is that you’re a bad person for refusing to eat your cultural slop.

Given that our politics have now reached the stage where political parties have straight up abandoned promising to make our lives any better, is it any surprise that we have politicised our patterns of consumption? We might not be able to elect a politician who will not strip trans-people of their basic human rights, but we can read fantasy novels that end with a chaste kiss between two traumatised trans people. That’s basically the same thing as politics, right? It follows from this that defending your preferred ‘ship against people who happen to prefer another is a form of political activism.

The thing about this type of rhetoric is not just that it is all a load of self-aggrandising consumerist bullshit, it’s a load of self-aggrandising consumerist bullshit that has been comprehensibly suborned by the marketplace. Multinational corporations routinely drape themselves in the language of representation as a means of halting negative word of mouth by associating negative attitudes towards shitty art with shitty attitudes towards real people. If you read a tweet-storm about how The Hardy Boys erase asexuality then you can be 100% sure that those tweets came from an author who has written a series of novels about asexual teenaged detectives.

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor among Thieves may be plastered with soy banter and feature loads of little jokes and cosy stories about found family but it works. It does not work because it is somehow morally superior to a seven hour Hungarian film set in the aftermath of a collapsed attempt at collective farming, it works because it is pretty, and fun, and well-acted and the action sequences are really well imagined and executed. This is a well-made film and its aesthetics absolutely ring out. There’s no politics here… there’s only joy in a really well-made piece of Hollywood fluff.

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