Knights of Badassdom

Back in 2011, Knights of Badassdom received a great deal of fan support when a trailer ran at Comic-Con. It was obvious that the film, about LARPers who accidentally get involved in a mystical horror scenario, was geek-friendly and even celebratory of geek culture. Now, after a storied and widely-publicized distribution fiasco, Joe Lynch’s movie is finally available through various video-on-demand services, much to our general delight.

[Spoiler Kitten below! If you don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read past the kitten.]

Low-budget and charming, Knights of Badassdom lives up to both its silly name and geek-cred reputation. With a cast that includes Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones), Ryan Kwanten (True Blood), Summer Glau (duh), Danny Pudi (Community), and Steven Zahn (nothing I’ve seen, in fact), the movie obviously knew its target audience even in the pre-production stages. All it’s missing is Felicia Day.

And while the plot is nothing special, it is no more pedestrian than the average horror comedy (is that a genre?). After a rough breakup with his girlfriend, Ryan Kwanten’s Joe is roped into LARPing with his friends Hung (Dinklage) and Eric (Zahn). At a massive game on the fields of the Battle of Evermore! (exclamation required), they team up with Gwen (Glau), Lando (Pudi), Gamemaster Ronnie, and a man named Gunther, who is always “in game” and has the restraining order from Medieval Times to prove it.

Perhaps the most interesting and (for some) inaccessible part of the film is the way it treats LARPing: Knights of Badassdom assumes we know enough about live-action role-playing of the Tolkienish/medieval variety that we will get the references to D&D, LARPing, being “in game” or “out of game,” and so on. However, I’m not a LARPer by any stretch of the imagination, but as far as I know, I got all the jokes just from knowing gamers and how tabletop games, collectable card games, and LARPing work generally.

And this is a generally positive portrayal of LARPers, although, as with any movie about a group of people with highly specialized knowledge, the specialization of that knowledge provides frequent opportunities for jokes. LARPers come in various genders, abilities, orientations, sizes, and ethnicities. They have lives and personalities as well as an unusual passion. So that’s all to the good.

What shocked me most about the film, however, was how badly awry things go after an eBayed spellbook turns out to be the real deal, and Eric summons a succubus that wreaks havoc on innumerable LARPers. Expecting a charming comedy with mock-horror elements, I was surprised to find myself in the middle of a slasher pic that, amid death and destruction, still forced its characters to make a few tone-deaf jokes. But if you know that’s coming, you might be less shocked than I was, especially if you’re more comfortable with the horror genre than I am.

All in all, this is a charming film: it is a delight to see familiar actors playing new geek-friendly characters, and fun to participate in the general sense of celebration that permeates the movie. If you’re looking for a fun 90 minutes, perhaps on a lonely Valentine’s Day Friday night, you could certainly do worse than checking out this movie.

Behold the Spoiler Kitten and despair!

That being said, I’ve got some issues with the film. In the comments to her very good review of the film, I09 reviewer Analee Newitz discussed the positive portrayal of female LARPers (that is, it’s not made into a big deal) and non-normative sexualities (also not a big deal). It would seem, at first blush, like this film is celebrating all aspects of inclusivity: a diverse cast, diverse portrayals of sexuality, and celebratory of geek culture.

However, Knights of Badassdom follow the tired horror trope of killing off everyone but the heteronormative white couple and a neutered white sidekick. The succubus’s first killing is an actor hired to play in the game, but after that the roster gets troubling: a gay male character, then a bisexual female character are the next to die. Then, the main cast gets hit: Dinklage’s character is the first to die, then Danny Pudi’s. If you’re keeping track of the cast list I posted above, the main cast has been reduced to the straight white people who are of average size.

After that, the carnage gets hard to keep track of, and almost everybody in the game dies. A few minor characters, who have lines and personality, are later given death scenes that take up substantial screen time, such as the LARPer who uses a wheelchair, and the gay couple, one of whom is Jewish. The first normative white person (who had any lines) that dies is Ronnie the Gamemaster, who was the butt of innumerable masturbation jokes that of course call his masculinity and sexuality into question; the next straight white average-sized people to die are a bunch of paintballing rednecks, and nobody likes those folks.

Peter Dinklage’s character Hung is given a mystical (and nonsensical) opportunity to resurrect momentarily and fight the ultimate Big Bad after the succubus transforms into a much bigger monster. But he’s not permanently resurrected. He's dead. The only characters to survive are Kwanten’s Joe and Summer Glau’s Gwen (who of course are now a couple), Gwen’s cousin Gunther (still always “in game”), and Steve Zahn’s Eric. The film’s coda tells us that Joe and Gwen decided to never LARP again, preferring heavy metal music to mystical roleplaying. Eric still LARPs, which I guess mean he never gets a love interest.

The result is odd: the film is marketed, and understood in most of the fandom, as geek-friendly. But this is a limited view of extreme geekdom, one that portrays LARPing as a bend in the road to maturity. Above all, the film doesn’t present itself as a tragedy, but a comedy: how is it either funny or happy to have all but the normative white people die brutal deaths?

With the increasing popularity of so-called “geek culture,” there has been a strong push-pull factor within various intrageek communities: some want to be inclusive and supportive of newbies, while others want to tighten the ranks and determine who qualifies as “geeky enough.” That’s not the only challenge, though: geekdom has its roots in ostracization, social isolation, and a studied rejection of more “acceptable” values of beauty and leisure. That means geekdom should be a place in which the little person, the wheelchair user, and the not-white people get to live out their happy endings and maybe even get laid. Knights of Badassdom may revel in some aspects of geek culture, but it misses the chance to portray—to truly celebrate—the way that geek culture can and should be both inclusive of everyone and dismissive of tired narratives about who gets a happy ending, and who winds up dead.

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