“We have plotted out many years,” Sher tells the Guardian. “We put together this group of writers to talk about where we were going. There’ll be a film that feels more like Black Ops, the story behind the story. The Modern Warfare series looks at what it’s like to fight a war with the eyes of the world on you. And then maybe something that is more of a hybrid, where you are looking at private, covert operations, while a public operation is going on.”
There are some big challenges ahead for the team behind these movies, not the least of which is that Call of Duty (Deserved or not) is the poster child franchise for every terrible gamer stereotype. You want chest pounding dudebros with names like BLAZELORD420 and FLIGHTCOMMANDERDEEZNUTZ? The perception is you want Call of Duty. As a result it would be very, very easy to phone in a Call of Duty series of movies. Our hope, and what that interview seems to suggest, is that is not the case. Especially as the good news for the franchise is that their fan base is far, far wider than that as the recent and surprisingly charming ‘Let’s Go To Space’ adverts for Infinite Warfare showed.
Nonetheless, this is the first massive challenge the movies face. Appealing to hard-core fans of every stripe, welcoming newcomers and telling coherent stories that don’t fundamentally boil down to ‘Then You Stab That Guy And Throw Him Off The Monorail Onto Some Explosions’. You can, just, appeal to every group but to do so you also have to face down the bane of every video game adaptation other than Resident Evil’s existence;
Call of Duty games are violent. That’s the point. Sometimes they’re gleefully violent and sometimes that violence is a function of a terrible, messed up world. Or to put it another way, sometimes you get Ghosts and sometimes you get Black Ops III. The common factor is the violence though and the moment you pull its teeth, weirdly, you glamorise it even more. These are games that have to be red in tooth and claw. The action sequences have to be massive, costly and utterly brutal. The second you pull a punch to get a lower certificate you’re robbing these movies of what, despite appearances, is their moral core.
Even once you avoid that, there’s still a vast amount of work to do. The Call of Duty games exist in a series of distinct pocket universes. Some of them are one game wide, some are three or more and all of them involve fundamental, globe changing events. Black Ops III alone involves the creation of Artificial Intelligence, a digital Valhalla where dead soldiers memories briefly live on and a globe spanning conspiracy that culminates in a battle that levels a good chunk of Zurich. None of these games are small and the sheer amount of action needed, even if you tell original stories in the same universe as is being discussed, is enough to make studio accountants weep.
But the good news is it also makes scriptwriters crack their knuckles and get ready to have some fun. Yes, the Call of Duty games take place in discrete universes but even from the outside it’s possible to see how those universes could be woven together on the big screen.
The series’ origins, in World War 2 and Vietnam, are perfect for a TV version (As Sher discusses) and also to establish the guiding principles of the universe. Done right, this could be heavy calibre Le Carre, the sort of spy or soldier fiction that captures the exact moment the world changes and catapults its characters forward to something approaching the Black Ops universe. In fact, the Black Ops games may be a blueprint the movies need to follow. Blacks Ops II in particular unfolds across 40 years and two generations of the Mason family. What starts as a game set during the Cold War ends as one in the first age of drone warfare. It’s ambitious stuff that, like its successor, plays with surprisingly deep moral choices.
A series of stories working up through Vietnam and World War 2, exploring the rise of the intelligence community and deniable operations would be fascinating. A series of movies following that through the ‘80s up to the ‘00s would be even better. The Americans has proved you can work in that kind of timeline, as has Spooks. There’s lots to work with in both time frames there and it’s easy to imagine a Call of Duty series covering a group of Delta Force style Special Operators in this time period being massively successful. Even more so if it had the ethical core we discuss above.
But the problem is, that isn’t a shared universe, at least not strictly. As Polygon points out that’s a franchise. It’s one that maps the traditional three arc structure onto three separate time periods but it’s undeniably one story not a constellation of them. That in turn means these are an inherently finite series and that, more so even than the certification and mass appeal issues, may be what sinks this idea.
But if, somehow, it doesn’t, then you end up with something close to this.
Imagine being able to trace a line from a series set in Vietnam through to the middle future. Imagine being able to tell a story about the moral grey areas a soldier lives and dies on, which begins with a period of history whose scar still hasn’t healed and ends with something close to the beginnings of transhumanist interplanetary culture. That would be Starship Troopers meets Babylon 5. It would be Alastair Reynolds novels meets The Expanse. It would be unlike anything else anyone has achieved before in scope, depth, ambition and action.
It would be, and is, almost impossible.
But it would be worth it.
Here’s hoping Activision is up for the fight of its life. And that it’s working on an Overwatch movie too. Just in case.