Witcher: Blood Origin review: A Netflix spinoff that needs Henry Cavill

Around this time last year, Netflix’s Witcher universe was on a hot streak: Even with some missteps in Season 2, the series produced one of its best episodes ever, did smart work with even the franchise’s more twisted revelations, and picked up spinoffs in a lot. Then last month the news broke: Henry Cavill, the actual Superman who brought gravitas to the role of Geralt, would be replaced by Hunger Games actor Liam Hemsworth.

Still, like so many shows, it seemed possible The Witcher could live on – after all, what was a single actor to a multiverse, especially one with a highly regarded prequel just over a month away? But the intense scrutiny makes each new step in the Witcher universe feel heavier (even though there’s already been a first foray outside the original show with The Wolf’s Nightmare, the animated film about Geralt’s mentor). And unfortunately, The Witcher: Blood Origin is the worst-case scenario: a deeply muddled and unappealing series that casts doubt on the world of The Witcher’s potential in a post-Cavill era.

Set 1,200 years before Geralt and Ciri’s unorthodox father-daughter relationship, Origin of blood covers some of the universe’s most important events, such as the creation of the first Witcher and the Conjunction of the Spheres, “when the worlds of elves, men, and monsters merged into one.” For those less invested in Witcher lore, the trailers also promised Michelle Yeoh as a swordsman, which should drastically improve the potential of almost any property.

The actual driving force of Origin of bloodthe story lies elsewhere. Éile (Sophia Brown) is an elite elven warrior from the Raven clan who has turned her back on her life of fighting in favor of being a wandering bard. But trouble on the continent draws her back to the blade, throwing her together with Fjall (Laurence O’Fuarain), a warrior elf from the rival Dog clan. As the two unleash the larger war they’ve stumbled into, they pull together a band of merry adventurers, including Meldof (Francesca Mills), a dwarf with a hammer and a proverbial ax to grind; Brother Death (Huw Novelli), a warrior with a bloody past; and Yeoh’s Scían, an unrivaled fighter seeking to retrieve a sword sacred to her people. In the capital awaits the villainous chieftain Sage Balor (Lenny Henry), who seeks more powerful magic to conquer other worlds, and Princess Merwyn (Mirren Mack), an elven ruler desperate to leave the confines of the patriarchal monarchy.

Photo: Lilja Jonsdottir/Netflix

Empress Merwyn (Mirren Mack) watches the sky

Photo: Susie Allnutt/Netflix

Brother Death (Huw Novelli) and Meldof (Francesca Mills) stand and watch something in shock

Photo: Susie Allnutt/Netflix

In other words, Origin of blood has a lot going on, especially for only four episodes (an order cut down from the reportedly six that were planned and shot). And yet, Élie and Fjall are the heart of the story, and where the seams begin to show, if not completely fall apart: As we watch their relationship grow from uneasy allies to comrades-in-arms, it’s clear the series has no time or care for meaningful stakes or feelings. We don’t know anything about these characters at all, and when the backstory is filled in, it feels sloppy and late, so removed from their narrative that it reveals how little any of the details actually matter to the show. When someone close to Élie is threatened or Fjall thinks back to the woman he loves, the feeling is supposedly crucial to their story, but it’s also instantly forgotten, leaving no lasting impression on their arc or character at all.

Which is the most shocking thing about Origin of blood. The series is – perhaps more than anything else I’ve ever seen – deeply rooted in exposition. And yet nothing is explained or explored; little facts are tossed off and tossed out with equal clumsy care. Fjall and Éile’s warrior clans have no distinguishing features. There’s a class conflict that’s constantly hinted at through a song Élie is famous for, but there’s never much consideration of what that actually means, in-universe, beyond “lower class people are hungrier than their elite counterparts.”

The band of warriors the duo recruit to their cause also come with their own story, but often seem to exist solely to… tell the audience about, and that’s it. Magical twins Syndril and Zacaré (Zach Wyatt and Lizzie Annis) mourn a tragic event in their past, and that’s the extent of its impact. When Élie promises Scían the chance to reclaim the Holy Sword for her people, it is introduced into the conversation without any explanation of how Élie would even have known it was gone. Meldorf’s entire quest is satisfied in her first two introductory scenes (and it could have been done in just one).

In a stronger show, these could be fascinating implications of the larger world and stories we don’t see, or telling details about how inconsequential these conflicts really are, or even just a small mistake to wave away. Here, they all just feel like obvious mismanagement, a sign of how much was confusingly edited to bolster the story to its endpoint.

None of this needs to be a death sentence for a franchise. The Star Wars prequel series has its defenders, who appreciate the interesting ideas that can be uncovered in George Lucas’ messy execution. But Origin of blood does not offer the same pleasures, even from an advance perspective. It indulges in so much narrative that it forgets to show why the major events of the Witcher universe matter to the story. Most of the revelations are sidelined or edited to pieces, forcing the beats to be explained through a voice-over told to Jaskier (Joey Batey) in The Witcherits timeline. The result is that characters can’t make the case for themselves, and the larger prequel implications never add anything new or significant about the world we’re about to see the origin of.

Even worse, it highlights how little the audience needs any of this, and how damaging it can be to mine the franchise’s nooks and crannies too deeply – how thin the universe of The Witcher’s high fantasy can be felt when not anchored by any greater intensity. Sure, there are elves and dwarves and goblins and wizards. There are scary monsters that want to eat you, and magical prophecies. IN The Witcher we get a sense that our understanding of these things is limited and serves the parts of it that we need to know. They are a smaller part of a larger, more expansive world, and suggest a richer history if only we had the time to look that way.

Balor (Lenny Henry) talks to Syndril (Zach Wyatt) in a cell

Photo: Susie Allnutt/Netflix

But when Origin of bloodthe creators use elves interchangeably with humans, its corner of the universe loses any remaining distinction. What is the difference between an elf and a human in The Witcher – magic? Strength? Ears? Within Origin of blood it appears to be… nothing. And if there is nothing fundamentally different about these creatures, their world, or their problems, what does it mean that their sphere is connected to that of the main world?

There are perhaps deeper answers in the wider Witcher story, though Origin of blood is so interested in being a standalone story that it seems actively unable to sit alongside the other properties. While The Wolf’s Nightmare felt a little inconsequential when held against it The Witcherits assessment of monstrosity or Yennefer’s yearning for motherhood, it still consistently wrestles with the deeper mysteries of the Witcher story. And in the end, it at least manages to provide the window into an important chapter in the history of The Witcher.

Origin of blood, on the other hand, only seems capable of having that conversation poorly at best, loosening the rules of the universe to the point of incoherence. In a fantasy world like The Witchers, it is these boundaries that set it apart; we need to know that chaos magic has an extreme price. But nothing in the text Origin of blood illuminates what makes Balor’s invocation of it different than what he did before. While his larger ambitions to conquer other cultures are standard enough, the finer points of his perspective fall by the wayside, flattening his – and everyone else’s – struggles.

Balor (Lenny Henry) stands with his staff

Photo: Susie Allnutt/Netflix

Whatever there is to say about power and who wields it just can’t be considered that deeply because Origin of blood is so densely packed with pointless exposition and toothless backstory. There are clearly larger aspirations there – like the way Merwyn feels trapped in his role – but they can’t add up to much when every scene is tasked with introducing and delivering new motivations at once. Merwyn is ostensibly a power player, but she never feels like it, because her choices feel flighty at best. And this skittering, disjointed pace is the backbone of every story. There’s no time to indulge in the quieter, sappy moments that define the Witcher universe’s best scenes.

And then the conflicts Origin of blood become remarkably frictionless, moving dizzyingly and robotically along tracks simply because the story demands it. At best, they make the conflict in The Witcher looks silly, and at worst – well, it makes you doubt there’s much steam in expanding this universe on screen at all (a ridiculous thing to feel about a story that’s fueled decades of books, short stories and video games!).

Art is inherently experimental, and experiments can fail. But Origin of blood pounding resoundingly, with each echo of its impact more disturbing than the last. This program does not need to answer if The Witcher can exist without Henry Cavill — but it’s a disturbing look at what the universe might be without a steady presence like his. Cavill isn’t the only one making The Witcher; some of the most interesting things in the universe have nothing to do with him at all. But he’s a defining feature of it, a constantly engaged fanboy who finds such depth in a character that would so easily be made truly boring. As our perspective character, he (or the people who care about him) is the show’s tone, and the poignancy he establishes radiates into stories he’s not even in.

Origin of blood exists as its opposite: a world without defining fantasy properties, a multiverse even Michelle Yeoh cannot save. It’s a textureless world populated by generic archetypes struggling to get from point A to point B because the plot wants them to. The problems are deeper than not having a star to mess up the world. The Witcher: Blood Origin eventually falling victim to the risk any multiverse (and there are many) runs when it expands too greedily, losing what makes it special. Origin of blood doesn’t have time to consider what makes the Witcher universe unique or meaningful at all, leaving it as just a messy, reckless attempt to get more Witcher stuff out the door. If there is hope The Witcher to survive losing a star and embed itself into a larger universe, it has to make a better case than this.

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