I do feel there has been a kind of concentration of pop culture in recent years: everything blurs together now. I don’t know if video game makers were original in the past but, I believe, the fact that a given game was an artisanal to semi-pro effort, more or less isolated, meant that titles often had a rather distinctive character (e.g. Civilization II, Starcraft). Now it’s all a bit of a mush.
Case in point: the new film Warcraft: The Beginning, the first based on the venerable RTS/MMORPG series by Blizzard. I distinctly remember, watching the original Warcraft III in-game cinematics in the early 2000s (which really started to be quite photo-realistic), thinking: “They could make a whole movie like this.”
Well, they have. And the result is: meh. To be sure, the film delivers everything I wanted: rich, ridiculously over-the-top knights-in-shining armor, wizard elves with huge ears, monstrous orcs, all bashing each others’ brains out cartoonishly. The plot, such as it is, is muddled and predictable. The characters are clichéd. This is cultural junk food. And I’m not complaining! (I got a Big Mac meal deal with the ticket, si, si.) This comic book come to life gives you very fine renditions of ride-able griffins and life-sucking necromancy.
Sometimes you don’t particularly want to think.
I’m not going to bother with a narrative critique. The convoluted story and contrived scenes clearly would make more sense in a video game than crammed in a two-hour film. The orcs are not just evil bad guys, but have some good and are seeking redemption. But the bad-to-good conversion shouldn’t be done in the very first episode (see: Vegeta, Klingons). There are a lot of pointless cliffhangers at the end of the film — which I should have expected given the uninspired subtitle — and the lot was rather anticlimactic.
Of interest to us is the film’s racial angle, which fits into the “all pop culture is mushing together” Zeitgeist I mentioned above.
The “humans” in the world of Azeroth are a kind of Dysneyfied medieval Europe, allied with dwarfs, elves, etc. All the human lead and most supporting characters are white. But the producers rather incongruously put in a few minorities in the background, especially the occasional unspeaking token Black in shining European armor. One of the elf wizards is Asian. The racial composition of the humans is then almost that of a certain misrememberd 1950s America rather than the country’s current demographics.
As in Star Trek, the world of Warcraft eliminates race as a factor among humans, displacing those archetypes and themes onto divisions between that particular world’s races. The physical differences of our real-world human races also exist within Azeroth’s races, but has no bearing on the story or world whatsoever and is mysteriously unexplained (just like Worf).
The human queen, a secondary character, is played by the racially-ambiguous Ruth Negga. (Some kind of Latina? No, Ethiopian-Irish.) The amateur wizard Khadgar, randomly stumbled upon and equally randomly proving a genius, also looks vaguely Latin, and is played by the Jewish Ben Schnetzer. Unlike in Avatar, the C.G.I. Characters in Warcraft (mainly orcs) are not played by Blacks.
In terms of culture and behavior, the orcs of Warcraft are basically a mix of Amerindian and Sub-Saharan, oscillating between noble savagery and plain ol’ savagery. The elves are clearly Finns (or vice versa). The humans have grown soft and weak, and really are hapless on the whole. The knight Lothar, the main character, played by the ever-intense Travis Fimmel (Vikings), at one point falls into being a kind of washed up, drunken cowboy (rather like Jim Raynor in Starcraft II).
Grand Theft Auto (contemporary gangster), Starcraft (interstellar sci fi), Red Dead Redemption (cowboys & injuns): the same tropes come back again and again. The flawed/wounded “tough guy” one is invited to identify with, the cantina also filled with assorted toughs (especially slurring Hispanics, hombre), ethnic-racial diversity reduced to physique or folklore (Irish & Scottish accents . . .), heck even zombies in all these shows/video games are basically the same. Also Star Wars VII and Game of Thrones.
ho do we blame: the remediable mediocrity of our (often hostile) cultural elites or the inevitable mediocrity of the masses?
Why not both?
The orcs, invading from another world, are still-savage triumphant invading barbarians, in the Khaldunian mode. They have also been corrupted by some kind of dark force/black magic known as the “Fel,” which both empowers and destroys them. Clearly the Fel is a metaphor for Nazism and/or Jewry. (Consider the fate of both Germany and America/England after World War II.)
Khadgar dropped out of wizard academy and failed to fit in, we are told, because he could see something was already wrong with the System (being corrupted by the Fel).
Lothar’s love interest is the “tragic half-orcess” Garona, played appropriately enough by the attractive mulattress Paula Patton. She wears prosthetic tusks, green make-up, and dreadlocks, rather than C.G.I. Garona is lost and alienated between two worlds, orcish and human, and says so. Not much else done with that theme, though Warcraft does illustrate the conflicted identities of the mixed-race  and tensions/suspicions in any multiracial alliance.
The only really redeeming feature in this otherwise highly forgettable film: the young orcish chieftain Durotan, who opposes the Fel, showcases the virtues of honor, sacrifice and respect for Tradition necessary to save one’s people from a corrupting, alien force . . .