When I finally decided to swallow my pride, take the plunge and try the Call of Duty games out, I found myself surprised. Not by the explosions, gunplay, or general Hollywood-style pizzazz, but how ambitious and connected the games are. As the series moves further and further away from true events, starting around World at War, Call of Duty becomes a universe of its own. It's a little pocket of lore and continuity used by Activision to take casual shooter players by surprise and sell them extra merchandise. Even through the clumsy storytelling, there were little bits and pieces of self-awareness and, in some cases, strong anti-war, anti-military, and even anti-American sentiment. I was fascinated and taken aback, although not blown away entirely.
Now, news is breaking that Activision Blizzard is working on bringing Call of Duty to real Hollywood instead of pretend, video game Hollywood. Not only is Call of Duty going to be a movie, it’s going to be a series of movies, all woven together in a “universe,” meaning the producers are throwing the m-word around a lot. Yep, I’m talking about Marvel. Activision Blizzard is trying to sell us its vision of the Call of Duty cinematic universe, under the pretense that Marvel-style, interconnected narrative tomfoolery will be at play in this franchise as well.
Will it work? I doubt it. None of these post-Marvel attempts to create a “cinematic universe” will be successful on the same level, if at all. Marvel Studios did something more or less brand new, but there’s really only enough bandwidth in Hollywood for this to work, and Marvel doing it in-house was able to catch lightning in a bottle before it struck. Companies like Warner Bros. and Universal are trying to jump in with DC Comics and “Universal Monsters” respectively, and efforts have been clumsy at best. There's too much studio mangling, talent swapping, and gold-rushing to pull it off.
Call of Duty is being produced in-house by Activision Blizzard Studios. This is a move in direct response to the Warcraft movie being a critical failure, despite making decent box office dollars. The money is good, but the reputation damage is no good for a company that rebuilt its image with AAA mega powers. So it has that going for it, but underneath that, you have to consider the source material. Marvel has decades and decades of IP built up, plenty of different interpretations and already-told-by-better-creators storylines to draw from and adapt. Call of Duty has a few years of video games to it, and calling much of it “storytelling” is generous.
I opened this piece with some tentative praise for the way the modern Call of Duty games have attempted to bridge storylines and build some connective narrative tissue between the games, as well as for some of its subversive-for-AAA themes. That said, that doesn’t mean all of that is volumous narrative goodness deserving a spot on a pedestal. It’s still fluff, more or less. To the extent of holding up a multi-movie franchise, in which millions of dollars are tied up and everything hangs on to different aspects of a story in such a different medium, it doesn’t feel like enough.
Call of Duty is primarily a multiplayer shooter known for its tight mechanics and community-driven features. That is not something that will translate into a movie. There are large portions of the Call of Duty audience who don’t even bother with the single-player campaigns. They’re not invested in the story, the characters, or the visual craft of shooting Russian terrorists. They’re just having fun with their friends. The controller and headset are vital components of this experience.
Sure, maybe Activision Blizzard hires a slick director, manufactures a competent script, and pulls off a fun blockbuster. Except this blockbuster will demand to be taken seriously and years more of your time as the company attempts to build a universe. Based on the reception, perception and core concepts of Call of Duty as a series with the identity it has, I don’t see this working out long-term.