The minute I heard about Knights of Badassdom, I was excited. Forget for a moment that this was going to be a movie about LARP. This movie had Peter Dinklege in it, in armor, fighting at a LARP! It had Ryan Kwanden of True Blood fame, one of the only reasons I still WATCH that show, as our hero. And Summer Glau, fresh off of being badass in fandoms everywhere, was going to play the female lead. Plus there was going to be LARP! (Okay, now we’re back to that point) This was going to be a movie that not only spoke to my interests but had a great cast! How could things go wrong?
Easily. Oh so very easily.
It’s no secret that Knights of Badassdom, directed by Joe Lynch, went through production hell. The film was shot and then disappeared for a long while. The creator lost control of it to someone else, a producer who supposedly recut the entire thing before it was finally released into the wild through limited engagement showings across the country. The movie cashed in on a new system of ‘sponsored’ movie screenings, hosted locally in communities to drum up attendance. KoB was marketed to LARP communities to come out and support, to make showings available so that this movie could come to their area with it’s awesomeness. I was one of those people who applied to host a showing. As someone who loves seeing LARPers come together at events, I thought this would be a perfect community event – we’d all get together and watch some big stars pretend to do what we do! But before I would do it, I went to see an earlier screening, just to see what I was getting.
I’m so very glad I did. The moment the movie was over, I walked out and emailed Tugg, the service that was hosting the events. I told my liaison at Tugg that, “Frankly, I attended this film this week just to see what I would be hosting, and it is so bad that I don’t think I want my name associated. Kindly cancel my application.”
Knights of Badassdom is everything that bothers me about LARP films.
Let’s not start with talking about Knights of Badassdom as a LARP film. Instead, how does it rank as a film? Well, in the land of comedies, it ranks just above Sharkanedo in making sense plot-wise. There is no coherence in the flow of the movie after the characters GET to the LARP, when it devolves into a messy pastiche of horror film tropes banged together to create some kind of narrative. Once you’re halfway into the movie, you wonder why the director bothered to get such impressive actors as Dinklage, Jimmi Simpson and Kevin Zahn when they’re going to underuse them or, in Dinklage’s case, murder them off before they can do anything cool. The dialogue is some of the worst I’d ever heard in a movie, and as the film went on, more jokes fell flat than actually landed. By the time the movie went into ‘save the day’ mode, I was scratching my head at he mess of silly horror movie references tossed in, the ridiculously out of place hill-billy cops plot line that was jammed onto the rest of the film, and the plan the heroes supposedly put together to rescue the game from the horrible demon.
And once you get to the ending and the climactic showdown, I was so busy shaking my head at the lack of cohesion of ideas and the obvious plot holes that I’d forgotten I was watching a movie set at a LARP. It seemed more like a badly staged theater production entitled “How Not To Save The Day By Make Ryan Kwanten Pretend To Sing Fake Metal At A Bad CG Demon.” By the time the credits rolled, I was looking for as many synonyms for ‘disappointing’ as I could come up with.
Not Just Disappointing…
I sat after the film and thought about what I’d heard about the film. About how it had been hacked up in editing by the producer that got their hands on the film. Surely that was what made this film so bad? Anyone watching could have seen however that the movie would probably have sucked no matter the editing (there is only so much editing can do to awful dialogue). Still, I realized something about this movie was making me aggravated, and it wasn’t just being poorly done.
And that’s when I finally got it- expectation. This movie had not been what I expected. The movie in its treatment of the characters was saying something about LARP that wasn’t what was advertised. This wasn’t a movie about a LARP where horrible supernatural things happened. This was a movie about a normal guy getting shanghaied to a land of weird folks who bring down something terrible on themselves and pay the price. In this case, they get killed for the transgression of being LARPers.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Horror movie villains from the big budget murder spree films always have underlying themes they feed into in society. The movie Scream went through them in great detail: don’t drink, don’t have sex, don’t do drugs, don’t go off on your own and be different. Those things will get you killed in a horror movie faster than you can say ‘I’ll be right back.’ And why? Because they reenforce the stereotypes of society. Teens having sex is bad, and bad things happen to kids who go off and get high and drink and wander outside of the safe zones. That’s Horror Movie 101, the basics of the social messages behind all those massacres in the Freddy or Jason movies. Horror movies are all about the dangers of the unknown, and how it’s safer to be normal.
All of those tropes exist within Knights of Badassdom. Except they slapped the label on that ‘it’s just a joke’ that comedy gets away with as an excuse. The fact is, real comedy also uses its power to reflect a message back at the audience. Even Sharkanedo was saying ‘guys, your fear of sharks is so ridiculous because YOU ARE ON LAND MOST OF THE TIME SO CHILL.’ It makes a person look at their own assumptions and fears and laugh because they see a reflection of the absurd in themselves. Real comedy, like horror, tells you a lot about the community and people it’s talking to with the movie.
Who Is The Audience Of This Film?
So who is Knights of Badassdom talking to? It promised to be a movie for LARPers in it’s promotion. But after watching it, my conclusion is that it really isn’t. This movie wasn’t for LARPers, the way that Big Bang Theory isn’t for nerds. Knights of Badassdom is written for folks on the outside of a community looking in to point their finger and laugh.
You can tell who the audience is aimed at by looking at how the movie is set up. KoB is full of same tired tropes about LARPers trotted out to represent LARP as a strange hobby full of maladjusted people. The main character is the Everyday Joe (that’s literally his name, Joe), an under-employed metal musician with girlfriend problems, who regards what his friends do as weird and usual. He only attends the LARP because he is kidnapped by his roommates, who represent the stereotypes of LARPers: the rich kid with too much time on his hands and a need to escape reality, and the druggy who is otherwise kind of cool but way into the nerdy stuff. (The second being Peter Dinklege’s character, who might have had a chance to shine if he hadn’t been wasted on bad writing). Then let’s not forget about the game master, the horribly overdramatic and snotty guy who abuses his power and treats everyone like something you scrape off your shoe. That is, when he’s not hitting on the hottest girl there to ‘be his assistant storyteller.’
Ah yes, Summer Glau’s character, Gwen. Gwen is beautiful, sweet, and a good fighter, a character we should be able to root for. When described by other characters, who get descriptions like ‘wily’ and ‘great fighter’, she is described as possessing a “+3 ass of awesome” or some such nonsense. She’s presented as the beautiful object of everyone’s attention (cue the closeup on her fishnet covered legs), including the game organizer, who skeeves on her in her very first scene. But fear not! She’s protected by her hulking cousin, who never breaks character – even in real life! Gwen is designated as her cousin’s babysitter at the LARP because he’s a danger to others due to his inability to separate fantasy from reality (ahem, LARPer trope ahoy!) Ah, now it all becomes clear! The beautiful female lead doesn’t even really want to be there, but she’s got to be there for family. Because why would a beautiful girl want to come to a LARP without an excuse? Heaven forbid she should actually want to participate in the game herself. In the LARP community I came up in, there was a derogatory term for girls who were brought by relatives/significant others who didn’t want to be there but just ‘played along’: a backpack. The movie backpacked Summer Glau and did it without so much as a cringe at their gender stereotyping.
But why should it cringe? Because that’s all this movie is – a load of stereotypes dumped on top of some not very funny jokes. LARPers watching might look at the absurdity of the over-the-top performance and say ‘Look, they’re making jokes with us about the silliness of parts of our community.’ But if that was the case, the framing of the film is all wrong. The movie isn’t about a LARPer poking fun at his own community – it’s about a man on the outside coming in, judging everything he sees as absurd, and then saving the day before wandering off to go be cool again away from all the weirdoes.
It was that ending that got me, the epilogue, that convinced me that the film wasn’t really for LARPers at all. The ‘this is what happened to the characters post-massacre’ that is the tried and true show of an amateur filmmaker who doesn’t know how to end their film. Ryan Kwanten’s character Joe and his new main squeeze Gwen ride off into the sunset together to form a metal band. And they never LARP again. Why would they? After all, they survived the night of terror in a place they never wanted to go to in the first place! They were the ‘normal ones’ who would go off to jam on guitars and be cool and happy together. And all those LARPers and hillbillies died in that field, weird and odd and killed off by a demon, paid for the transgression of being different, while the cool lead characters survive because, well, they just weren’t into the weirdness to begin with.
We Need Better LARP Movies
It’s then that I realized why this movie not only was awful, but it was insidious in its offering. It wasn’t presenting the movie as a collection of in-jokes told from a place of fun. It was holding up a mirror as comedy often does and saying, through Ryan Kwanten’s Normal Everyday Joe, “See what your weirdness brings? You and those hillbillies who died are just the same – backwards and weird and disconnected from reality.” He as much as says so in dialogue when they discover Peter Dinklage’s body. At the screening I attended, there was a notable hiss from the audience when Ryan Kwanten’s character goes off on a mini-tirade about how the murders must have been committed by someone who had taken LARP authenticity too far and used a real weapon in game. Because, of course, that is what LARPers are from the outside- people too wrapped up in their fantasy NOT to commit actual homicide. This is an idea carried in the earnest horror film The Wild Hunt too and perpetuates the same tropes – LARPers are escapists with a potentially unhinged connection to reality – that has dogged every media representation of LARP from big screen to small.
It’s that perception of LARP that has been a self-perpetuating cycle for years. The more LARP has been presented to those who don’t participate as an odd and weird hobby, the more the stereotype is called up again for movies like these. That then perpetuates the stereotypes further and the cycle goes on. Where Knights of Badassdom had a chance to break that trend, it doesn’t break so much as take that trend underground in a sly, backhanded, unsaid way. And for that, it seems like just ‘good ol’ fun.’
After seeing the movie, I pulled my support from the showing I was going to host for a number of reasons. One, I just didn’t want to have to sit through that mess one more time, nor was I going to work to bring a piece of bad filmmaking to other folks who would pay their money to see it. More than that however, I have this dream that there might be movies that represent LARPing in a positive light and not in that snide, backhanded, finger-pointing kind of way. Maybe that’s asking for a lot from Hollywood, a place that survives off the stereotyping shortcuts that populate many scripts. But it’s my choice not to support something that I feel represents a hobby I love poorly, especially a hobby that is much maligned already.
I won’t embrace a movie just because it shows SOME representation of LARP, even if it’s bad. I won’t forgive badly done movies about the hobby just because hey look, that looks like something I love on screen! I won’t default support a movie for having LARP in it if it just feeds the stereotype machine. Because folks, we in the LARP community deserve a better class of representation. And this movie just doesn’t do it.