Upon reading that Cate Blanchett is being considered for the upcoming film adaptation of Borderlands, a few questions hit me; among them were, “who?” and, “there’s a Borderlands movie on the way? Is nothing sacred anymore?”
Mostly, however, I started to seriously wonder about whether or not we’re at the beginning of seeing more video game movies on the screen (assuming movies are still a thing with what’s going on in the world) in the form of a pop-culture craze that would essentially lift the “genre,” as-it-were, of video game adaptations out of the rut they’ve been stuck in virtually forever–at least commercially (yes, the Resident Evil movies made a lot of money–somehow–but those are an odd anomaly more than anything else and are certainly not celebrated by most fans of the games.)
Borderlands, I feel, is uniquely positioned to make this happen–perhaps more so than any other “intellectual property” before it; it also seems clear that based on the success of other adapted film works in the last two decades, assembling such a product might be much easier than it was before, given that Hollywood has found patented ways of producing commercially viable adaptations and now has been bathing in the runaway success of a particular kind of narrative that is well-suited for, at the very least, Borderlands: That of superheroes.
I’d argue that Blanchett’s possible upcoming role and the success of the most recent video game movies indicates that the big-budget film industry may have finally cracked the code to gamers’ wallets and undivided attention–and is ready to pounce on that opportunity.
In the 2000s, two films disproved the notion that film adaptations of otherwise niche cultural products couldn’t be either financially successful or just genuinely well made and entertaining–and that they couldn’t penetrate the otherwise discerning and jaded attitudes of hardcore fans, that they could instead be celebrated to the point of potentially erasing or at least making irrelevant the source material. These, of course, are The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. While I’m a bit sympathetic toward Christopher Tolkien’s issues with the Peter Jackson adaptations of his father’s work, I think it’s undeniable that the vista-rich cinematography and excellent cast create a product worthy of its own praise despite an arguably more diluted, popcorn-compatible version of what J. R. R. Tolkien may have been dreaming.
The other film, Harry Potter, while certainly different in scope and affect, involved much of the same elements, but was able to do things Rings couldn’t; it was a significantly more lengthy series of films (eight entries over the course of a decade) and of course had a greater ability to appeal to children, with enough toys of talking hats, wands, and brooms to cover every child’s birthday and holiday gift. If The Lord of the Rings proved that successful adaptation was possible, Harry Potter proved that an “intellectual property” could ascend to massive cultural saturation without losing much excitement or, more importantly, money.
It must’ve become more clear than ever to the industry that, after these films, taking works like these seriously and dedicating significant time and resources to adapting the material and producing movies that were of high technical quality (in a way that at least gives the impression of respect to the source material) could be incredibly successful. One could leave the question of whether these should be “artistically serious” to the critics, because if a production company takes it seriously they’re in for some serious cash.
Enter the 2010s and the growing presence of endless superhero films largely adapted from Marvel comics. Coming off of the success of 2008’s Iron Man, it became clear that there was a demonstrable way to make these films entertaining to their fan base. But there was more going on here; this wasn’t just a matter of quality film making and adaptation. The source material itself provided something that other works couldn’t; I would contend that the way superheroes function in a narrative presented a perfect opportunity for Hollywood’s most essential product and endless resource: identifiable and likable celebrities. With the wild success of celebrity “panels” at comic book conventions, there was no denying that this appetite for couldn’t be easily exploited.
Nothing is more compatible with celebrity “stardom” than that of a superhero story–as everything quite literally revolves around a singular identity (that of the hero). These films present a perfect opportunity to cast attractive, well-spoken celebrities of the kind we see in these movies–and the often humble origin story of many superheroes combine well with Western mythic ideas of economic success, freedom, and wealth to further the illusion that anyone can be a hero or a wealthy celebrity.
The superhero is also a self-generating hype machine for the actor and the production company, one that doesn’t require much effort to summon interest from an audience; they just needed to stand in front of the camera and look good–the excitement and pandemonium that follow a post-credits reveal of a character demonstrates that short appearances can generate just as much enthusiasm as an hour-and-a-half of character development; stick around after the end of a superhero movie and you can observe this happen in real time. The state of the superhero on the screen is in many ways the fantastical representation of the celebrity status enjoyed in reality–such is demonstrated well in The Boys, with its multilayered cynical skewering of nationalism, celebrities, Hollywood entertainment, and more.
For better or worse, the superhero narrative has become one of the most dominant forms of mainstream film in the last decade. These are stories about morally infallible, endlessly lovable, singularly invincible people whose very identity represents absolute, justified power; they need nothing more than a special name to be identified and understood; they only need to parrot the tritest of philosophical concepts such as “with great power comes great responsibility” to be given any sense of sincerity or gravitas. Celebrities are made for this and these are made for celebrities.
This is the blueprint which a Borderlands movie can be shaped from and the perpetual motion machine of the celebrity/hero will easily do its magic here as Borderlands contains a story revolving largely around colorful, superhero-like characters just waiting for photogenic celebrities to fill the screen; combined with the fact that two recent productions seem to have broken the curse of the video game movie, Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog (financially successful and largely unscathed from any fan distaste and criticism), one might argue that this moment of box office success will leave production companies wanting more, now with the proof that one can profit substantially from a video game movie–even ones where the initial reveal of a character was poorly received. Indeed, Hollywood is gearing up to get the ball rolling on this; they can escape the redundant nature of endless superhero films while sticking to the same process that birthed them.
Borderlands is also uniquely positioned to enjoy this success precisely because it never takes itself too seriously. Its particular brand of humor and overall outrageous presentation means that it can slip away from any serious scrutiny; it’s all just a big joke–a big wild joke to mindlessly munch popcorn away to. This could easily dismiss some of the criticism superhero movies face for being taken too “seriously” as “cinema.” A Borderlands move wouldn’t have to care about being “cinema” because it represents the exact opposite of self-important posturing that such a word often entails. It is a giant middle finger to the notion of “serious,” and it’s supposed to be a giant “theme park.”
There’s another twist to consider when it comes to any possible success of future video game movies: That video games in recent years have become more of a passive form of entertainment than they once used to be.
The rise of streaming and the popularity of people-watching-people-play-video-games as a form of entertainment has created a new dimension for gaming, namely that there is a sizeable chunk of the audience now that is perfectly okay with consuming this cultural product without needing to feel as if they are directly engaging with it; no longer is it the case that everyone who enjoys video games solely for their interactive nature; they are okay with video “games” as passive media to be watched just like anything else–and any of the engagement that comes with interaction on platforms like Twitch or Discord is generally substituted by social media anyway–the reaction to Sonic’s original design in the recent movie, in fact, would seem to indicate that the sense of interaction with a medium that one gets out of interacting with a streamer on a Twitch channel can be at least simulated for big-budget films.
With an easy-to-follow model for film adaptations of other kinds of media (comic books, fantasy novels), recent box office and cultural of video game films, and a film on the horizon that can easily fit into an audience’s seemingly endless and uncritical appetite for superhero films (along with a role filled by an actress who already comes from that world), we might very well see video game movies replace comic book movies in this decade, and Borderlands is well suited to kick this off.