“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” is the year's surprise hit, proving you can make a fun blockbuster without relying on superheroes. Critics have praised the John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein-directed film, which grossed $38.5 million on opening weekend, earning a 90 percent Tomatometer score and a 94 percent audience score from Rotten Tomatoes. I don't disagree with critics; the film has a tight plot and great character development, and uses humor as a tool and not a crutch.
The filmmakers managed to do the impossible, appeasing both longtime D&D fans and newcomers whose understanding of the game stops at “Stranger Things.” Considering how popular the 40-year-old game has become in recent years, thanks to actual play series like Critical Role, the filmmakers needed to nail the essence of the game — and they did.
No, you don't need to be a D&D player to “get” the movie, though knowing your way around a stat block will enhance your enjoyment of the film. From Owlbears to Mimics, and even the titular dragons, “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” uses the Monster Manual well, showing audiences the depth of D&D's world. You'll also hear references to many locations along the Sword Coast, a popular D&D setting for several adventure books. For example, the adventure in the D&D Essentials Kit, called Icespire Peak, is set on the Sword Coast.
There are too many references to list, and some are so cleverly hidden that you'll probably want to read an easter egg compilation article. However, “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” goes a step further, using powerfully named items such as the Helmet of Disjunction, which plays a significant role in the film. Even named enemies, like the terrifyingly chonky Themberchaud and Szass Tam, make appearances, tying in the game's rich lore to make for a more believable fantasy world.
Strong Backstories and Character Development
One of the great things about playing D&D is the backstory, which is usually developed over time by the Dungeon Master (DM) and the players. In “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves,” the backstory doesn't take a backseat to combat. Shortly after the film starts, you get a flashback that explains how Edgin (Chris Pine) and Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) ended up in prison. As Edgin narrates, the audience gets a look into his past and all the bad decisions that led him to this point. This scene gives Edgin a motive for his actions later in the film, which feels earned and not contrived.
Because this is a heist film, a crew is eventually put together, people are double-crossed, and the plan goes awry — typical heist stuff. However, characters are allowed to develop naturally between fetch quests and flashback scenes. In one scene, Holga, whose divorce has been implied, visits her ex for closure. It's a scene that slows the pace and feels out of place, but it works because, by this point, the audience is invested in Holga as a character. Simon (Justice Smith), the anxious two-bit wizard, is another character whose story develops satisfyingly — no spoilers, though. Other major characters, such as Forge (Hugh Grant) and Xenk (Rege-Jean Page), have their moments, with the latter's story leaving the audience wanting more.
Unfortunately, Doric (Sophia Lillis), the Tiefling druid, gets the short end of the stick. Despite being arguably the strongest member of the team for most of the film and the most interesting, she lacks a complete backstory and isn’t given a chance to develop. It's a shame that the character's story is tucked away in the pages of “The Druid's Call,” a prequel tie-in novel focusing on Doric's path to becoming a druid. In any case, her existence did inspire D&D game designers to tweak the druid class to make it more fun, which is pretty cool.
Just the Right Amount of Humor
Audiences have come to expect humor in blockbuster movies, a symptom stemming from watching too many Marvel films. It worked for “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Thor: Ragnarok.” But “Marvel funny,” as the hosts of NPR's “Pop Culture Happy Hour” put it, is starting to overstay its welcome. Just take a look at Marvel's “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” a film that relied too heavily on jokes and flopped as a result. “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” doesn't make the same mistake. Yes, it's hilarious when it needs to be, but witty one-liners don't steal the significance of serious moments.
Edgin gets the lion's share of the jokes. The character's quick wit, laid-back demeanor, and earnestness make him come off like a mix between Tony Stark and Scott Lang. Simon is the opposite, a bumbling sorcerer with an inferiority complex and a knack for ending up in unfavorable situations. In the middle is Holga, a stoic barbarian who says little but still gets a few potato-related laughs. And Xenk, who takes everything literally, is a great comedic foil, with his knight in shining armor routine clashing with Edgin's affable misfit personality.
Movie adaptations are always a toss-up, especially when it comes to games. It's either too alienating for the general audience or too watered down for the fanbase. That's how you end up with bad video game-movie adaptations like “Assassin's Creed,” “World of Warcraft,” and “Super Mario Bros.” But “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” is nothing like those movies, knowing when to pull from the source material and when to simplify the mechanics of the game.
Much like a good D&D session, the film is at its best when characters develop, jokes are made, and the quest doesn't go according to plan. It's entertaining and keeps the audience engaged throughout its two-hour runtime. While the film's box office take was modest, its success among audiences was major.