Activision wants a "Marvel-esque" Call of Duty cinematic universe - here's how they can do it right

Two years ago, Activision announced the formation of an in-house studio dedicated to turning company-owned properties into movies and television shows. One of the biggest fish to fry: Call of Duty. Activision announced plans to turn the popular shooter into a series of interconnecting films, not unlike what Marvel and DC are doing with superheroes. This week, we got more insight on how the company will achieve that lofty goal.

In an interview with The Guardian, Activision Blizzard Studios co-presidents Stacey Sher and Nick van Dyk shared some of their plans. "We have plotted out many years," Sher said. "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."

Van Dyk, who was a senior executive at Disney when the company acquired the rights to Marvel and Star Wars, says he plans to follow a "Marvel-esque" construction. He wants to create "these individual universes that interconnect and a timeline that makes sense with consistent themes and Easter eggs."
And while these sound like a good starting place, I have a few suggestions for Sher and van Dyk to consider as they move forward:

Pick a tone and stick with it

The Call of Duty games are made by three studios on a rotating schedule. While that means we generally get a polished, well-made game every year like clockwork, it also means a wild variety in terms of story tone. There are the ultra-grim Modern Warfare games, and the more action movie-esque, let's-not-take-this-too-seriously Black Ops series. And then there's Ghosts. Ugh, God, there's Ghosts.

If Activision really wants to follow Marvel's lead on this, there needs to be a single tone running through the movies. I don't know what that tone should be, but it should be consistent. Otherwise you're going to end up with fans divided into camps over which is better - kinda like they are now about the video games these films will be based on.

If Activision really feels the need to branch out, follow the examples set by DC and Marvel and find homes for different stories on television. That way there's a clean separation while still fulfilling your audience's desires.

Give the story some serious consideration

Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare begins with you murdering dozens of rebels on Europa. In a surprised twist, it turns out that was all pre-recorded footage from your helmet, as you have already been executed by the game's villain by the time the story actually starts. Your death inspires a gasping "how could they" moment, and a promise of swift retribution from the actual protagonist of the game. But again: you just cut down whole platoons full of insurgents - so it feels weird to be shocked at just a couple of your own team's deaths. Our hero's oath of vengeance likewise feels forced and half-baked, like we're really just kind of going through the motions.

This can't happen with a Call of Duty movie. There is no multiplayer, no Zombies mode to flee to if the campaign is bad. Once people have sat down in their theater seats, they're in it for the story. And that means a story has to be good, or at least committed to the cause. Again, this comes back to tone: if Activision is gonna do serious movies, there can be no more forgettable villains, no more half-assed justifications for invading sovereign countries. If it wants something just balls to the wall ridiculous like Fast & Furious that's fine too, but there's still gotta be a hook for people to sink their teeth into.

Wink and nod to the fans, but don't rely on them

If there's one thing Activision could learn from the commercial bomb that was the Warcraft movie, it's that these films need to extend beyond the current fanbase to be successful. This is the same lesson one could learn from Scott Pilgrim and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, by the way. It's fine for a filmmaker to want to stay true to the source material, but gamers are their own unique culture, and that culture hasn't historically translated that well to the big screen and first-time viewers.

Keep the essence of what makes CoD fun (big setpieces, bigger explosions, guys with magnificent facial hair), but don't rely on previous knowledge for people to understand what's happening. Keep easter eggs small and unobtrusive. Don't have someone say, "Why yes, the situation in Central America is deteriorating quickly. Perhaps we should send in that squad of undead we genetically enhanced," just have a small picture of a zombie flash onscreen for a second as someone flips through a folder of secret government projects.

Give it some star power

Robert Downey Jr. changed Iron Man from a B-list superhero to a household name, and practically defined every version of the character since. Go on, watch any Disney cartoon with an Iron Man appearance or pick up an issue of Invincible Iron Man and you'll see everyone's basically just doing their best RDJ impression. Call of Duty needs that: a definitive, charismatic actor to latch onto and drive the series.

The obvious character for this - in my humble opinion - is Captain Price. The dude is a verified hero, he's got the expertise and perspective to justify his existence in multiple films, and, again, dat facial hair. As for who to cast, I hear Hugh Jackman is looking for work now that his time being Wolverine is up...

Images: Activision

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