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As the 2010s dwindle down to their twilight years, the battles of culture and trend within the blockbuster landscape have all been pretty much decisively won. Superheroes are here to stay, horror is a viable blockbuster source and also good again, ‘90s nostalgia wasn’t as big as we all thought it would be, Kaiju films are surprisingly popular, fantasy is now a succession of up-jumped Disney fairy tales, and shared universes are a bad idea that people just can’t get enough of.
Now, as we enter the last three years of the decade, we prepare for the period where the culture of the 2020s will emerge, much the same way Facebook, Twitter, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe have defined the 2010s even though they started 3 years before the decade did.
One of the emerging trends is a renewed interest in mining the world of video games for lucrative franchises in a Hollywood that’s still very much defined by pre-existing brands. Now I could comment on how Hollywood always makes the same mistake of adapting video games that draw from movies for inspiration, so they end up the third part of an idea human centipede.
Or I could talk about how the AAA games industry is so committed to crashing that they’ve more or less given up on pioneering new, lasting intellectual property, but both of those are arguments for another day. Instead, we’re going to focus on how this new trend is hoping to blend with an old one thanks to the recent announcement that a Call of Duty cinematic universe is in the works.
For the uninitiated, Call of Duty is a first-person shooter video game series originating in 2003 and focused mainly on the military thriller and war genre. It’s also an excellent example of a problem Hollywood has with adapting video games that I didn’t already mention in that it peaked in popularity about 6 years ago. The franchise started out in 2003 with a trilogy of World War 2 era games but found new life in 2007 with its 4th installment Modern Warfare.
After 10 years of the brand, Modern Warfare’s actual quality tends to get understated now, but it was a serious breath of fresh air at the time and still stands up nicely as a blend of story and gameplay for its generation. It also jumpstarted the franchise, both in terms of sales and dropping the series into the modern day with a story about American and British forces fighting terrorists in an unnamed Middle Eastern country.
Modern Warfare was really where Call of Duty found its modern identity in terms of aesthetics but it wasn’t until the sequel that the franchise cemented its place as a gaming staple. Modern Warfare 2, released in 2009, was arguably the height of the franchise’s notoriety outside of gaming circles, thanks mainly to a bit of controversy generated by an early mission where the player is asked to kill civilians.
Two years later the franchise would reach its peak of gaming influence with Modern Warfare 3, which completed the trilogy but by this point, the series was so popular the producers had already started working on spin-offs and follow up series. There was the one-off installment Ghosts from 2013 as well as the Black Ops trilogy that began in 2010 and heralded the franchise’s move into the sci-fi genre.
That’s probably the most bizarre element of this proposed Call of Duty shared universe- if it had happened in the early 2010s, the genre would’ve been clear. However, at this point, the franchise’s last 3 installments have featured killer robots, doomsday satellites, power armor, and a Mars colony. This first started thanks to the franchise’s dedication to showing off the fanciest and flashiest new military technology, in particular, drone tech, but eventually, they switched from the real life murder machines to more fictional ones.
Considering all this- the mostly unconnected nature of the various sub-series of the franchise, the fact this year’s Call of Duty game is a return to the World War 2 setting, and the uncomfortable truth that general audiences are more likely to be AWARE of Call of Duty rather than familiar with it, you might be wondering why they’re doing this. However, get ready for a shock, I actually think a Call of Duty shared movie-verse could be a really good idea.
Before I dive into why I’m onboard with this pitch, understand that I don’t really like Call of Duty. The series’ success was mostly the result of advances in streaming technology making online multiplayer more viable than ever before during the late 2000s, and I’ve never really had access to multiplayer. However, I do hold the franchise in a kind of grudging respect, as I do most incredibly successful media franchises, so I am fairly familiar with the series various narratives, and I do think there’s potential in them.
The big thing that jumps out at me is that even though Call of Duty has always wanted for characters, it doesn’t want for brands- Modern Warfare, Black Ops, Advanced Warfare, and Ghosts are all perfectly viable branding options with a lot of weight behind each name. See, something that a lot of producers and executives miss about the concept of a shared universe is that they work because they let you bring together several unique experiences under one franchise. That’s why Marvel has been able to consistently make highly successful superhero films for 10 years without people getting tired of them- they don’t feel like the same movie over and over again.
Mastering this strategy would be a little harder for Call of Duty as its confined to only a few genres but there’s still a lot of versatility to be found in them. For instance, the first Black Ops game was made up of a series of vignettes from throughout the Cold War and while a film couldn’t lean as heavily on action set pieces a military thriller told in flashback through some of America’s darkest hours could be an engaging movie.
Likewise, Ghosts was about a scrappy guerrilla unit operating within a weakened and invaded America, which would be a very different style of action and story than the Cold War greatest hits tour of Black Ops or the more grandiose war story of the Modern Warfare series.
Speaking of, the central plot of the Modern Warfare trilogy swirls around a war between Russia and America, which really couldn’t be more topical these days. I mean, to slip briefly onto the uncomfortable topic of real world politics for a brief moment, the past 3 years of global politics could easily pass as a Modern Warfare plot. After all “ex-KGB thug takes over Russia and uses cyber-war and a trumped up Middle Eastern dictator to force a refugee crisis to fuel a rise of xenophobic fascism so he can get rich off an oil deal” would sound exactly like the kind of over-complicated and ludicrous plot you’d find in Call of Duty, if only it hadn’t happened in real life.
Even with all of that said I still wouldn’t say I’m exactly hopeful for the Call of Duty movie-verse. After all, we had 3 video game movies last year and they were each a different flavor of bad, boring, and forgettable, so it’s not as if there’s really a great track record here. What’s more, it’s hard to shake the sense a Call of Duty film wouldn’t end up another slick, empty, modern military thriller in the vein of American Sniper, Hurt Locker, or Lone Survivor.
That genre mash-up would be the most fitting as, much like Call of Duty’s public notoriety, it’s already out of date as last year’s obligatory military thriller 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi was a flop. Maybe there is an audience for an unapologetically ultra-jingoistic modern military film full of the most cutting edge tech and most uncomplicated villains, I’m just not sure it’s the audience lasting blockbuster franchises are built on going forward into the 2020s, at least I’d like to hope so.
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