Is it better to be epic or funny?
VOX MACHINA is one of my favorite shows on television (or streaming at least) right now. Why? Because it captures that wonderful Dungeons and Dragons energy that puts me in mind of The Last Unicorn‘s King Haggard watching unicorns. “And just like that, I am young again!” But yes, what I love about The Legend of Vox Machina is the same thing I loved about the Slayers anime and the new D&D movie. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and is more Marvel Cinematic Universe versus attempting to be The Lord of the Rings.
Which is sort of the second season’s problem.
The premise for season two is Vox Machina, intrepid anti(?)heroes, have just finished up their mission to liberate the town of Whitestone from the vampire-necromancer duo of Lord and Lady Briarwood. Unfortunately, no sooner do they do so than a quartet of ancient dragons proceed to lay waste to the city of Tal’Dorei that they are based out of. Vox Machina, which is one of the toughest band of adventurers there is (or so they claim), is helpless against them.
What follows is Vox Machina going on a holy (ish) quest to recover the Vestiges of Creation that are basically magical weapons created by the gods. Vox Machina believes, correctly, that they are the only objects capable of piercing the hides of the near-godlike dragons. They also need to seek allies out and avoid being killed by the dragons themselves, who are not interested in just standing around waiting to be killed like Ganon in The Legend of Zelda.
This is pretty typical epic quest stuff and a sharp contrast to the more subdued business of dragonslaying and personal stakes of dealing with the Briarwoods. The first episode is an absolute slaughter and leaves a depressing sense of gloom throughout the rest of the season. Many times our unfortunate heroes are defeated, forced to retreat, or given horrifying setbacks. At one point, I won’t say who, there might even be a death. Not that the world of Exandria isn’t the sort of place you can cure that.
I’m aware this is an adaptation of the Critical Role campaign but I also can only judge it based on its own merits because I wasn’t a viewer of those. I get the impression they’re rushing through a lot of story in order to hit just the good bits but it also feels like they’re still stuck with the “fetch quest” portions of the story. The stakes are also so much higher and the various obstacles they encounter designed to harden them into “proper” heroes that we miss a lot of what I really liked about the first season–that Vox Machina is a terrible group of heroes.
There’s a lot of very interesting moments spread throughout the story. Vax realizing he’s almost completely dependent on his sister and discovering that he can be more through the power of religion. Grog dealing with what it is like to not be the strongest member of the party. Scanlan discovering his life as a freewheeling bard has had consequences he didn’t realize. Oh and the twins dealing with the fact their father is a racist asshole. However, I miss the humor and even some of the most ridiculous scenes like Grog talking to an evil sword on the toilet are treated more seriously than I think they should be.
There’s also the fact the enemy is a great deal less personal this time around. The immensely awesome (and taken from us far too soon) Lance Reddick does a great job as Thordak. However, he’s an impersonal sort of foe compared to the Briarwoods who drove Percy to the limits of his sanity and beyond. He doesn’t care about Vox Machina and they have no personal relationship with him. We do have a personal foe in Grog’s uncle but, well, he’s so one dimensionally nasty it’s hard to get invested in him.
Either way, I didn’t dislike it but it kind of made me think about all the arguments I’ve had over what I wanted from a Dungeons and Dragons movie after the release of the first one in 2000. It’s an argument that was repeated almost verbatim after Honor Among Thieves showed it was going to be a lighthearted whimsical Marvel-esque movie.
After seeing Dungeons and Dragons (2000) for the first time in theaters:
Friend: I absolutely hated that movie.
Me: I admit, it wasn’t to my taste.
Friend: Dungeons and Dragons should be an epic, serious movie with good writers. Something like The Lord of the Rings.
Me: Man, what?
Me: It was way too serious. I want my D&D movie to be closer to Knights of the Dinner Table or Monty Python. Show the wackiness and fun of twelve year olds at the table slinging dice and overacting.
Friend: [looks at me like I revealed I strangled people at truck stops]
I’ve already seen this exact argument playing out again in how people have responded to Season 2. Basically, some people love that it’s becoming more serious and moving away from the silliness while others feel like it’s losing what made it good. I don’t know what’s coming next, having not watched Critical Role, but I hope they find a way to avoid becoming too serious.