Paying the Price
Dungeons & Dragons
Justin Whalin, Marlon Wayans, Zoe McLellan, Thora Birch, Jeremy Irons
(New Line Cinema)
What a year it’s been for Marlon Wayans. While his star has most definitely been rising on the Hollywood A-ish List and his prominent, career-changing roles have come in three very different films, the fact is that in each role he has been asked to suffer a terrible fate. Perhaps this is the price of fame that we hear so much about.
Certainly, Wayans’ most impressive movie moment to date came as one of the creative brainiacs behind and stars of Scary Movie (directed by brother Keenen and also starring brother Shawn), a mega-blockbuster that unexpectedly lit up screens this summer and paved the way to no-doubt lucrative Sequel City. Marlon’s pursuit by a particularly nasty and inept psycho-killer is treated as comedy, but man, the part’s physicality looks difficult. Then came Darren Aronofsky’s stunning cinematic thrill-and-chill ride, Requiem for a Dream, in which Wayans plays junkie-partner to Jared Leto, complete with a debilitating mama-complex and brutal descent into addiction and, arguably worse, the Southern U.S. prison system. It is not a pretty picture, to be sure, and Wayans won well-deserved critics’ kudos for his searing performance.
Too bad, then, that Dungeons & Dragons, the last Marlon Wayans film to be released this year, is such an out-and-out dog. Its badness might mean two things for Wayans, who has little to do with the primary action—mostly because he is (and here comes the spoiler, though it’s hardly a surprise) the easily identifiable deadmeat character, the Black Sidekick whose death ensures that the white characters will get their moral priorities straight. One, Wayans might be considered a guiltless casualty who has relatively little to do in and with the disaster that the film is. And two, he might actually be praised for bringing some much-needed occasional wit to the proceedings. Neither is a particularly grand reason to have done the film, and so you’re left hoping that he signed on to this sorry project back in the olden days, before the highly visible successes of Scary Movie and Requiem made him a Hot New Talent. (The fact that he’s not really so new to anyone who’s been paying attention might be attributed to the Hollywood mystique, akin to prejudice.)
This isn’t to say that it was necessarily an entirely stupid idea to sign up for Dungeons & Dragons. After all, Jeremy Irons did too, as did another exceedingly wonderful Hot New Talent, Thora Birch (American Beauty). Neither of these performers comes close to needing this movie on his/her resume, so you might imagine that at some point the thing looked good, on some now long-lost piece of paper. The product now on screens has some nifty CGI flying dragons and a fairly lame plot, stemming from D&D machinations (D&D being the famous role-playing game [RPG] that has appealed mostly to boys throughout its 25-year existence). In a nutshell, then: Profion (Irons) is a terribly wicked and more or less elder Mage (magic-user) in the kingdom of Izmer, which society is divided into Mages and commoners. Call him a Conservative. He’s upset that the young and willful Empress Savina (Birch) wants to decimate the class system, and grant something resembling “equality” to the commoners. Call her a Liberal. Sort of—she is an Empress after all, well-trained in fighting arts and uptight etiquette, and attended by minions no matter what radical-seeming civil rights she’s promulgating.
While Savina and Profion duke it out verbally during deadly-dull Council meetings (which are peopled with old white men in robes who look like they did similar duty in Phantom Menace Council meetings), there’s another plot going on. This one involves two spunky commoners—namely, thieves—a white boy hero, the odiously named Ridley Freeborn (Justin Whalin, a.k.a. perky Jimmy Olson on Lois & Clark), and his shaky-kneed, comic-reliefy sidekick Snails (Wayans, who describes his character as a “punk,” apparently commending his resourcefulness, but I’m afraid this is a stretch). Somehow or other—it hardly matters how—this duo ends up with the map to a Very Special Rod. That’s right, a Rod. This magical, much-desired, long-and-hard Rod will enable its holder to command the most special of the flying dragons, the Red Dragon.
The search for the Rod leads Ridley and Snails on something resembling an adventure, but it’s distressingly dull and predictable and ripped-off of any number of previous films and TV shows (Star Trek, Star Wars, Indiana Jones and old Hercules movies). Along the way, they enlist the help of several hangers-on: the first recruit is a white girl Mage, Marina (Zoe McLellan), who serves mainly as love interest for Ridley (to ensure his heterosexuality of course, lest you think he’s a bit too tight with his buddy Snails). That Marina is less than adept with her magical skills seems to fly in the face of Savina’s equal rights doctrine, but makes sense in the context of the broader D&D universe. After all, the film’s director-producer, Courtney Solomon, is on record as an avid D&D player-fan who spent some nine years on a quest to secure rights and then to make this film, which suggests he has a stake in maintaining the game’s fundamental tenets, which would include a gendered bias.
That said, as I understand it, the game has long been invested in a vague racial equality, though in the film this translates mostly to elves and dwarves taking sides with the boy-humans against those tiresome, self-aggrandizing Mages. To this end of equality, Snails also gets a girl to flirt with, an elf named Norda (Kristen Wilson, who starred in Doctor Doolittle, as Eddie Murphy’s infinitely patient wife). She happens to be a loyal servant to the Empress, which means that the two black characters in the film are sidekick and servant to primary white characters: enough said about that. Like Marina, Norda appears at first to be competent, wearing pointy-breasted body armor, but when push comes to shove with Profion’s strong-arming minions, she’s also at a bit of a loss, in need of rescuing by a martial-arts-trained, muscled-up boy.
All this leads basically nowhere. Or more precisely, it leads to the Rod, and then a return of the kingdom to the Empress’ rule and a brief, mostly incomprehensible ritual at Snails’ gravesite, where his fellow adventurers have gathered. I think there’s some symbolism here suggesting that Snails’ martyrdom leads the group to a deeper understanding of their own freedom and equality. How nice for them.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article