About halfway through the new Warcraft film adaptation, a small band of the main characters camp in the mountains overnight. Shy spell-caster Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer) steals a glance at the beautiful, tusk-bearing, green-skinned Garona (Paula Patton) as she lies under her blanket next to the fire. Garona, catching the wordless, longing gaze, plainly declares to her all-male companions that Khadgar wishes to “lay” with her. She then launches into a thoughtful monologue, speaking ambiguously of the horrors she previously endured as a slave and a “half-breed” half-human living among orcs. “Broken bones heal stronger. Mine are very strong,” she deadpans.
The “You Can’t Handle This" speech — as Patton described it to BuzzFeed News in a phone interview — is one that marries the typical “girl in a boys' club” adventure scenario with a female character’s perspective about sex, power, and violence. It’s a surprising and low-key subversive moment, particularly for a fantasy film based on the lore of a 22-year-old video game series.
“What’s interesting is that she by no means is trying to be sexy. You see that the girl is never trying to lure anyone sexually at all,” Patton said of the sexy-orc framing. And it’s true: While she and co-lead Lothar (Travis Fimmel) share an attraction, the “broken bones” scene is the only overt mention of sexuality in this PG-13 tale. (Warcraft also lacks a lot of typical macho posturing, save for a brazen and bizarre shirtless scene with Ben Foster, who plays the mystical, emo Guardian Medivh).
The movie overall could’ve run up against a variety of difficult parameters when it came to female representation. The origin story of the war between the humans and the orcs in the original Warcraft games, for example, was based around the actions of mostly male characters; a quick gander at the female characters from World of Warcraft will reveal a mixed history of what “feminine” means in terms of model and character design throughout the game’s various iterations. And yet Warcraft director and co-writer Duncan Jones found several ways to incorporate female characters, perspectives, and narratives into his film, sometimes with astounding complexity and others with pure simplicity.
“We have some strong women characters in the film,” said Mike Morhaime, the president and CEO of Blizzard Entertainment, which develops and publishes World of Warcraft. He told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview that his video game empire is also adjusting to include wider racial and gender representation in its games. While there are many types of people who play WoW, Overwatch, and Blizzard’s other games, when it comes to diversity and inclusivity, Morhaime said, “I won't say that we’re there yet. We’re definitely not. But we’re on a good path.”
With its mature female representation and relationships, Warcraft, the movie, exhibits several ways the franchise is getting “there”: Once thrust into the human world, the first kindness Garona is shown is through a woman-to-woman interaction; male and female soldiers nonchalantly intermix as the human army suits up for battle; one female fights to the death for her child’s life; and Glenn Close makes a cameo as arguably the most powerful character in the film.
Warcraft opens not with scenes of conflict, but with a focus on the companionship that’s at stake during a time of war: A couple playfully flirts and razzes each other inside their orc home, talking warmly of their future. Draka (Anna Galvin), the female orc, is more diminutive a creature than her male counterpart Durotan (Toby Kebbell), though her belly bulges with their first child, and both of their CG bodies boast of thick muscles, towering height, and heavy mass. In the human world, there’s King Llane (Dominic Cooper) and his wife Lady Taria (Ruth Negga), the latter of whom is literally given a place at the table of other noblemen and women (and noble creatures) to advise on matters of diplomacy and war.
Both “sides” of the world of Warcraft intentionally feature what Jones designed to be “healthy marriages.” “We got to show some familial relationships and make it more than just pretty people fighting with pretty people. I wanted to show families,” he told BuzzFeed News on the Universal Pictures lot in Los Angeles. The filmmaker, who has worked on the project for the last three and a half years, is expecting his first child with his wife this summer.
“I couldn’t feel better about the representation of women in this film, without question,” Patton said eagerly. “I know the heart and mind of Duncan Jones. He loves women. You can tell the difference between a man who has a wife and who does not love women.”
Both Jones and Blizzard Entertainment also wanted to be sure the film appealed to more than just people who are familiar with the franchise in order for it to be a success, and that meant attracting more mainstream moviegoers, male and female. “You go back to the game itself and try to take a look at how they have portrayed men and women in particular, and try to find a balancing act between what is more cartoonish and what works in a live-action environment,” Jones said of his non-CG characters.
One caricatural element that critics have observed is the overall look of Garona. Though she is half orc, she looks mostly human. Aside from her body paint, wild hair, and small tusks, she subscribes to a normative standard of (human) beauty. Garona spends much of the film in armor, but she is sparsely clothed and in chains when we first meet her, exuding a certain Slave Leia vibe, which is highlighted among some of the film’s cheesecakier marketing imagery.
Patton noted that most members of Garona's orc clan in the film — male and female alike — don’t wear a lot of clothes, and asserted that, as a slave, her character would be forced to forage when it came to jerry-rigging together her own coverings, with bits of spare fur, metal, cloth, and skins. “I felt like the compromise where we got to on the looks was acceptable,” said Jones, who did not expand on whom he needed to compromise with. He also willingly conceded to “vestigial pressures in moviemaking” making their way into his production. “We start with the skimpier outfit, but fairly [early] on, we get her in armor and then we settled into a look that feels appropriate.”
In other recent big-budget blockbusters like Guardians of the Galaxy and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, women of color have been "exoticized" by not been seen in their own skin (in the case of Galaxy's Zoe Saldana) or at all (as with Force's Lupita Nyong'o), which becomes especially problematic when they're paired with traditional white heroes and love interests. Patton's race being literally disguised under green body paint in Warcraft, much like Saldana's, complicates the conversation surrounding Garona even further. But, then again, Warcraft also features Ruth Negga, who is Ethiopian-Irish; as the stately Lady Taria, she's also sister to Lothar (Fimmel), who might as well be the whitest man on the planet. À la Kate Mara and Michael B. Jordan in the most recent iteration of Fantastic Four, color lines in a respectful set of siblings are casually erased and, in Warcraft, furthermore rendered unimportant in the context of the interspecies race war developing between human and orc.
That detail is just one among many transpositions, evolutions, and sly nuances of Warcraft’s women. The majority of the other leads are male, and mostly white, though the CG character Gul’dan is played by Daniel Wu (“who is a very popular actor, especially in China,” as Morhaime noted, which may also help explain massive box office earnings in China, a major market for WoW).
Jones admitted that the “less plot-driven” scenes with Lady Taria were the first to hit the cutting room floor as Warcraft was whittled down to its final 123-minute form. And after she rushes into battle fully pregnant, Draka gives birth in front of the Horde; her offspring is immediately folded into a male’s scheme. At the end of the film, one warring group gains a matriarch while the other steadfastly holds tight to its patriarchy, with the newly crowned ruler seeming to ceremonially adopt the slain leader’s family.
While making Warcraft, Patton said she never experienced feeling torn between empowerment and objectification. She was inspired by the “feminine” zeal Garona had. “It’s subjective. You can never please everyone,” she said. “I’m not afraid of sexuality. I think it’s a beautiful thing.”
“We need to praise femininity and what it is to be a woman,” Patton continued. “I really find that as I’ve gotten older, the way that we’ve been made to feel when we use our femininity is vulgar. It’s so powerful, quite frankly, to be that feminine. [Women have] been told that we cannot use it. … But I encourage young people and ourselves to think about what 'feminine' means. … If you’re born with gifts, with things that are powerful, why would you want to hide them and not use them and be made to feel you are less than?”