‘Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves’ and the curse of franchise art

(Image: Paramount Pictures)

Before we begin, a little story about why this review is so late. I typically watch the films I review in the afternoon on Wednesdays, which is when movies open in the country where I live, and write until my overhead light starts flickering or I need to shower and sleep for classes at my day job the next day in order to have the piece ready while interest in that film is high. Recently this schedule changed to Friday viewings as Wednesdays are now occupied by a heavily homebrewed online Dungeons & Dragons campaign where my celebrity adventurer Warlock/Ranger hunts prey between press interviews and sponsorship deals and I need Thursday nights for my fiction writing projects, currently a short book adapting a D&D one shot I created a couple years back. However, with the opening of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, two friends from my new Sunday in-person campaign planned to watch the film Saturday evening, pushing this review to Sunday morning before our session. And this was the plan until that Thursday when, instead of writing, I tested positive for Covid for a second time in five months (not nearly as bad as the first but still a frustrating experience. Not recommended. 1 out of 5 stars) putting me into isolation for a week. So finally, after plans A, B, and C failed, here I am able to review this movie.

Trouble is, in the week since opening, the audience most interested in seeing Honor Among Thieves has already seen it. There are dozens of reviews, discussions about where the film franchise can go in the future, breakdowns of what the film does and doesn’t capture about the game, and long lists of Easter Eggs and game references written by people more closely tied to the game, its lore, and its world than I ever will be. The speed of social media and the brevity of popular attention span assure that by the time this review goes up the film itself will have all but vanished from the cultural zeitgeist. Worse yet, as an independent site with no affiliation to any existing properties or media figures, Pop Mythology has always had trouble breaking through to the wider audience more accustomed to getting their reviews from established and familiar sources. If I may be completely honest, fun as it is to write these reviews, it’s also exhausting to spend several hours researching, analyzing, drafting, editing, and re-writing, (not to mention the fact it’s almost impossible for me to just watch a movie for fun anymore) and infuriating to have my efforts ignored while poorly written, shallow “reviews” that spend half their word count summarizing the trailer are quoted on commercials and review aggregators. Sad fact is that in our modern social and media climates it is almost impossible for a product – be it a website, a film, a book, or any other piece of creative expression – to succeed without attaching that product to a brand with an established following: Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Disney, Marvel, Star Wars, Star Trek, Super Mario, DC, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or, in this case, Dungeons and Dragons.

High charisma checks all around in ‘Honor Among Thieves.’ (Image: Paramount Pictures)

The flip side to creating a product within an existing IP is that for every fan predisposed to being interested there is a fan predisposed to criticizing that new product for not lacking authenticity, being too mainstream, or not giving exactly what they envision for the franchise (see Star Wars fans). Clearly aware of this, Honor Among Thieves does an excellent job in paying reverence to its source material. This isn’t just in the various locations, spell names, and creatures featured in the film, but in the approach of the film itself. The characters in Honor Among Thieves feel like those created by players in the game, which is to say archetypes with enough individuality to not come across as archetypes. Chris Pine‘s Edgin is very much a bard, with the twist of having a wife and daughter, while Michelle Rodriguez is the most barbarian possible, tribal outcast and great axe and all, with the twist of having an ex-husband. Others have traits, bonds, and flaws straight out of the Player’s Handbook. Screenwriters Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley (who also co-direct) and Michael Gilio clearly understand the best parts of a D&D game come from the characters – their personalities, how they relate to each other, how they interact with the environment, their various fails and successes – and have crafted characters that while not necessarily complex or memorable are fun to spend some time with. As any D&D player knows, the villains, the story, the world is all just there for shenanigans, and Honor Among Thieves handles its shenanigans exceedingly well resulting in a film that isn’t deep or even as memorable as a good gaming session but is about as fun as any fantasy film of the last several years.

Another way in which Honor Among Thieves succeeds is through not attempting to replicate the game. This isn’t a group of players pretending to be adventurers, which would have completely undercut the stakes of the narrative, but of an actual group of adventurers existing in their world. The film goes out of its way to have Justice Smith’s Simon, an archetypical wild magic sorcerer with the twist of lacking confidence, plainly state “This is the real world.” Between Stranger Things, the Jumanji films, the brilliant Community episodes (which Netflix needs to reinstate), and actual plays including Critical Role, Dimension 20, and literally hundreds of others, a straight-forward narrative in the fictional world is actually less cliché than some self-aware characters-playing-characters film would have been. However, this also works to the detriment of the film as some of the contrivances and conveniences of the story, particularly the group just happening to have the exact item they need, come off in the narrative as complete deus ex machina.  In a gaming session these events could be attributed to an exceptionally lucky roll. In the film, they come off as lazy, a necessity for the next story beat. Worse yet, these “lucky” moments rob the characters of a chance to plan, improvise, or show off what they can do. As much fun as it is to see an intricate plan fail because one party member touches the wrong thing (a moment every player can relate to) it would have been even more fun to see how the characters overcome this obstacle rather than just-so-happening to have the perfect magical item.

‘Honor Among Thieves’ clearly takes as much inspiration from the game as it does from ‘Guardians of the Galaxy.’ (Image: Paramount Pictures)

However, while Honor Among Thieves is a very good movie with fun characters, a breezy script, and spectacular effects (the tabaxi, owlbear, and arrakoa are especially striking in their textures and movements) there is little to separate it from other big budget fantasy fare. Well, little other than the branding of Dungeons & Dragons. Good as the film is, there’s no doubt that it benefits from being the Dungeons & Dragons movie. In fact, Honor Among Thieves not only benefits from being the D&D movie but from being the D&D movie at a time when D&D itself is more popular than it’s ever been with more players and more cultural awareness (and acceptance) than it’s ever had before. One need only look at 2000’s Dungeons & Dragons to see just how much Honor Among Thieves gains from the source material’s current popularity. Of course, it could be debated that the 2000 film suffered from being, well, awful, while the 2023 film succeeds by being good, but this in itself is a result of the IP’s current status. To put it plainly, the strength of Dungeons & Dragons now allowed Honor Among Thieves to receive the resources needed to succeed. To put it even more plainly, it’s doubtful that Honor Among Thieves would be the commercial success it’s been without the D&D branding.

And here we see all the films that weren’t connected to a previously known franchise. (Image: Paramount Pictures)

Imagine having the exact same film: same cast, including the delightfully awful Hugh Grant and awfully delightful Regé-Jean Page, the same script, same effects, the same film in every way, but without the Dungeons & Dragons copyright. The film wouldn’t lose any quality if it couldn’t name drop Elminster Aumar, Faerun, or Mordenkainen’s Arcane Seal. Yet without those specific elements, the copyrighted material, the name in the title, it’s doubtful that a movie just named Honor Among Thieves would receive even half the audience. Regardless of quality, fantasy films are notoriously difficult to market, expensive, niche, and prone to failure. Unless, of course, they are attached to Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, or some other known property with a built-in fanbase and hundreds of millions in marketing, in which case that name alone, that property, all but assures success for even the worst entry in that franchise (looking at you The Hobbit trilogy and Crimes of Grendelwhatever). It’s doubtful that I, let alone almost every person I know who plays this game, would have gone to the theater to see Honor Among Thieves without the words Dungeons & Dragons in the title. The counter to this would be something like Critical Role‘s Legend of Vox Machina series which actually strips out all D&D material and still succeeds, but in that case you have a franchise which used the known brand to become popular, then removed all references after establishing itself, and only for its show on Amazon, the biggest brand in the world. Don’t get me wrong, Critical Role and Vox Machina are excellent, but they’ve benefitting by receiving corporate sponsorship and being known actors with industry connections.

Now, obviously this isn’t a fault of the film. Instead, it’s a fault of the audience. The old cliché goes that audiences complain that there are no fresh properties, but when there is a fresh property – be it a film, a book, a TV show, or even just a website – the audience ignores it and the property fails. I’m as guilty of this as anyone with my Marvel fandom. The result is that artists of all types, whether filmmakers, writers, actors, or anything else – and yes, I mean artists, because anyone who calls themselves “a creative” is not – has to work within an existing franchise, has to create for a brand, has to attach to a known IP, if they want to work at all. In a time when it’s easier than ever for people to express themselves and to get their expression out to the audience, the audience isn’t there. Part of this is that a low barrier of entry allows a glut of horrible, horrible material—just look at the Netflix top ten or Amazon bestseller list for example—but another big part is that very few people are willing put their time or their money into the unknown, the challenging, the new. And this, as an independent artist, is… fatal. It kills the desire to create.

How it feels to be an independent artist. (Image: Paramount Pictures)

The brilliance of Dungeons & Dragons isn’t in the game or the lore or the world. It’s in the way that anyone, absolutely anyone, can take this material and make something amazing. Great stories are told around a table every day among a DM and three, four, five, six players. I’ve read most of history’s greatest authors, spent my entire life studying the craft of writing, become pretty damn good at it, and some of the best descriptions I’ve ever heard came from DMs detailing the path up to a cathedral at the heart of a floating city or players explaining why their character has a five-petal flower stitched into the palm of their glove. Yet, wonderful as these ideas are, or that any number of unknown, unappreciated, unaffiliated books, films, albums, paintings, comics, sculptures, poems, and any other form of art can be, none of them will receive even a sliver of the attention given to those attached to a known property. Thousands of brilliant literary and visual artists will spend their lives in obscurity while social media fawns over “art” created by a goddamn computer program. Honor Among Thieves is a good movie. It shouldn’t need Dungeons & Dragons to find an audience.

Anyway, I need to go. I’ve spent four hours writing this “review,” it’s 500 words too long, only five people will read it, and my peace cleric in the unwilling service of Loviatar who heals through cauterizing wounds, reveres life as the only cause of suffering, and loves puns because they are the most painful form of humor, needs to meet up with a plasmoid found in a bucket that it now wears as a helmet/home and an aspiring bard whose exaggerated exploits caused him to be recruited by an otherworldly patron.

Rating; 3.5 / 5

About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll is a novelist and university professor born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and based in Daegu, South Korea. He has been writing film reviews since 2004 and has been exclusive to Pop Mythology since 2012. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press.