In a post-Whedon world, the latest D&D movie doesn’t look very original. The trailers for Dungeons and Dragons: Honour Among Thieves are filled with enough quips and snark to take the Firefly crew down a peg or two. Directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s tabletop RPG adaptation focuses on a jaded group of thieves and outcasts, whose frequent one-liners and eventual good deeds (presumably) turn them into beloved heroes.
The latest DnD movie trailer released on January 23, and many in the RPG community (looking at you, Dicebreaker) have voiced displeasure at Honour Among Thieves’ MCU-style “self-aware cringe”. I feel differently: the tongue-in-cheek tone is good, and it’s also necessary.
Honour Among Thieves may not break cinema, but it works, and it’s the only way a successful D&D movie can work. For me, it’s not enough for an adaptation to simply recreate famous DnD cities, DnD settings, and lore; the movie needs to feel the way Dungeons and Dragons plays.
Every D&D campaign I have ever been a part of runs exactly like the Benny Hill theme song sounds. Yes, the DM might have crafted a terrifying and morally complex boss, but during the big fight, one of the party members rolled four failures in a row and is unable to stand up in two feet of water. Someone always forms an emotional bond with a random NPC, now hastily named Boblin the Goblin, and he’s got to be worked into the plot as a crucial character.
D&D is a catalyst for humour, perhaps more than any system I’ve played. I think part of this is because the rules of its world are so familiar. Even people who’ve never played before vaguely understand how a fantasy world largely based on mediaeval Europe works. Elves, dwarves, and DnD Wizards are all ingrained in our cultural consciousness – which is why the real fun comes from twisting these well-worn tropes until they break.
Cultural consciousness is also the reason we can’t have a sincere Dungeons and Dragons movie. The Sword Coast has a rich and interesting history, but if you explained it to someone who hasn’t touched D&D, it probably wouldn’t sound too distinct from Middle-earth.
Granted, D&D as a tabletop RPG is still finding ways to innovate: the 2022 anthology Journeys Through the Radiant Citadel very recently presented settings and themes never really explored in 5e before (and if we were doing a serious D&D movie, this is the setting I’d want to see). However, if the movie is going to be recognisably D&D, it still needs its trademark iconography: Beholders, Mimics, sassy DnD Bards, and Wizards. This means it needs a plotline that, to today’s players, will seem stuck in the 1970s.
And so, the D&D movie reaches its natural conclusion. Yes, this is a world of traditional fantasy that looks like a lot of things that came before. But the movie knows it – that’s why it’s winking so hard. And as long as the final film can make me laugh, I’m more than fine with this formula.