Maybe You Shouldn’t Get Excited About a ‘Call of Duty’ Cinematic Universe

The history of video game movie and television adaptations is a history of punishing failure, in which even the best examples of the medium – films like WarcraftMortal Kombat and Silent Hill – are merely decent genre flicks (and even that’s pretty debatable). But video game companies and movie studios keep trying anyway. So we’re hardly surprised to learn that Activision Blizzard is finally making plans to convert their mega-successful Call of Duty video game franchise into feature films and television.

We are, however, a little surprised that Activision Blizzard is currently planning a huge cinematic universe, comprising movie and television, spanning multiple eras of warfare and multiple perspectives on the wars themselves. Sure, fans of the Call of Duty games may be stoked about the prospect, but isn’t that counting a whole farm full of eggs before they’re hatched?

Stacey Sher and Nick van Dyk are the co-presidents of Activision Blizzard Studios. In a recent interview with The Guardian they laid out their ambitious new plans.

“We have plotted out many years, Stacey Sher said. “We put together this group of writers to talk about where we were going. There’ll be a film that feels more like Black Ops, the story behind the story. The Modern Warfare series looks at what it’s like to fight a war with the eyes of the world on you. And then maybe something that is more of a hybrid, where you are looking at private, covert operations, while a public operation is going on.”

Stacey Sher and Nick van Dyk claim that the films and TV shows won’t adapt existing stories. Instead, van Dyk says, “It’s going to have the same sort of high-adrenaline, high-energy aesthetic as the game, but it’s not a literal adaptation. It’s a much more broad and inclusive, global in scope … a big, tentpole Marvel-esque movie.”

Activision Blizzard

The Call of Duty cinematic universe is relatively far along. Research has been conducted and scripts have reportedly already been written. Stacey Sher and Nick van Dyk say they are looking at the models that Disney is using for their Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars franchises to determine what does and doesn’t work.

“If you look at Marvel, they started working when you had Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man, and real film-makers on board as well,” Sher added. “What I think made The Avengers so great was the writing and directing. You cared about those characters.”

Stacey Sher makes an excellent point. Without great characters a “cinematic universe” of Call of Duty movies would be indistinguishable from just a bunch of war movies. If you think about it, any war movie based on real events is technically in the same “cinematic universe.” Both Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line both take place during World War II, after all. One could argue that American Sniper and The Hurt Locker take place in the same cinematic universe as well.

Activision Blizzard

In other words, the connective tissue between these films needs to be very strong if Activision Blizzard is going to justify calling their output a “cinematic universe.” If there isn’t a unique approach to the storytelling, and if there aren’t exciting characters that connect the films and shows, then Activision Blizzard is just slapping their name on real-life wars.

And that might not seem so bad but imagine if it had already happened. Would it have really been respectful to Black Hawk Down if they had called it Call of Duty: Black Hawk Down? Would you even be able to call it a video game adaptation?

Sure, the video games often tackle disparate events and characters but the connective tissue between the games goes beyond their content. The gameplay mechanics are a huge part of why the Call of Duty games sell so well. The plot doesn’t have to work terribly well, and the characters don’t have to be particularly fascinating. The gamer is shelling out money for the immediacy of the gameplay, the experience of the action.

Activision Blizzard

That system works great for games, but movies don’t have the same versatility. Nobody ever said “Monster Trucks had a laughable plot and ridiculous characters, but that doesn’t matter because the multiplayer is so good.” There’s no functionality beyond subjective engagement. So the plots have to be interesting. The characters have to be great.

So until we know whether the plots are interesting and the characters are great, the plan to start a Call of Duty cinematic universe isn’t terribly interesting, unless you are blindly loyal to the brand and assume everything that comes out of it must by definition be good. And we’ve seen time and time again that blind faith that video game adaptations will be good rarely (if ever) pays off.

Activision Blizzard

It’s actually hard, when you really stop and think about it, to get terribly excited about a movie studio announcing they’re going to make a bunch of war movies with plots and characters you know nothing about. Just imagine if that was the approach that was taken here. Imagine if Paramount had announced an ambitious cinematic universe set during various wars, based on no characters the audience was familiar with, without any filmmakers attached. Would that set social media on fire?

No? Then why would it mean anything that the words “Call of Duty” are getting slapped on them, especially from a studio with hardly any track record to speak of?

Obviously – OBVIOUSLY – we don’t know how these Call of Duty movies will turn out. They could be fantastic. (Heck, they might not even come out at all.) But it’s important to keep our expectations tempered. If they turn out great, that’s great. If not, we won’t have that stinging disappointment that comes from getting our hopes run through the shredder by a video game adaptation. AGAIN.

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Top Photo: Activision Blizzard

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.


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