I’ve been a fan of Warhammer 40,000 for at least the last fifteen years, if not longer. I never quite managed to assemble an entire army, because every time I painted up a squad of Space Marines or Tyranids or Orks I got distracted and excited by another army, and ended up with a bunch of mismatched squads that would end up gathering dust on a shelf somewhere.
(One of these days I’ll get round to finishing my Hornblower-inspired Imperial Guard army…)
But more than the game itself, I loved the fluff and the bleak, depressing dystopia of the far future. A world where there are no good guys, only different shades of black and blood? A galaxy where space elves fight robot skeletons? A science fiction universe with its very own evil version of Batman? I can get lost for hours in the fantastic Lexicanum, just absorbing a thousand articles that rival the Black Library for their depth and breadth of knowledge.
Of course, there have been many books set in the 40k universe, of which the best are clearly Dan Abnett’s Gaunt’s Ghosts series. Lately, however, with the ongoing juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe redefining the face of popular culture as we know it, I began to wonder about what a series of movies set in the Imperium of Man would look like. Apart from the frankly terrible Ultramarines movie (basically the answer to the question “how boring can we make a movie about superhuman warriors versus demons from another universe?”), GW has never made any serious attempt to portray 40k in films.
Which I think is a missed trick, basically, so here are my elevator pitches for a hypothetical “Phase One” of the Games Workshop Cinematic Universe. Beware: there are some pretty major deviations from fluff in the final film, but I think it’d be worth it to sit in a cinema, with a bucket of popcorn and a jumbo-sized trough of Coke, and watch the grim darkness of the far future come to life on the silver screen…
It’s tempting to start off all bolters blazing with the Space Marines or Inquisitors, but this movie has to act as the general public’s entry point into the world of 40K, and the Adeptus Astartes or the Inquisitorial Ordos aren’t great audience identification figures. Yes we all want to see squads of Blood Angels firing plasma rounds into wave after wave of genestealers, or Eisenhorn fighting sword-to-rod with Necron Lords, or even an epic three-film adaptation of the Horus Heresy, but there’ll be plenty of time for that once the audience are immersed in the world of 40k.
Instead, we start off on an unremarkable world somewhere in the Segmentum Solar. Its people live in a vaguely feudal world, and our hero is the firstborn son of a farmer, or something like that. In fact, for the first ten minutes or so of the film it looks as though this is going to be a bog-standard medieval fantasy, with mentions of a distant Emperor.. and then the skies fill with the ships of the Imperial Navy, and shuttles land to take up the planet’s tithe for the Imperial Guard – including our hero.
We follow him through basic training, where we and the audience are introduced to the basics of 40k. Maybe we have a cameo from Yarrick or Tycho, maybe we don’t. After boot camp, it’s battle stations as his squad is despatched to the surface of a planet overrun by Orks. Our hero and his fellow Guardsmen are dropped behind enemy lines, with instructions to sabotage an Ork ammo dump or supply bridge or some other MacGuffin.
From there, the film plays out like a bog-standard war film, only with lasguns and huge green-skinned aliens instead of Nazis. There are skirmishes, there are battles, there are nail-biting and desperately exciting fights against the odds, and at the last minute when all hope is lost, our hero manages to set off the explosives and cripple the Orks’ base! He sends off a signal to the orbiting ships of the Imperial Fleet – and squads of Space Marines arrive in Drop Pods, to finish the job and hog all the glory. That’s the way of the world, his grizzled training sergeant tells him, as they take off on their way to another war.
“There are always more Orks,” he says, as their transport flies past a desert planet once known as Angelis…
Now you might think that the logical next step is to have a movie that focuses on the Space Marines, seeing as how we introduced them at the end of the last film. Au contraire, my young Neophyte, we will delay our gratification for a little while longer. Instead, we shift focus completely, to a film based on one of Games Workshop’s greatest and most underrated games of all time – GORKAMORKA!
Watching Mad Max: Fury Road, aka the greatest Warhammer 40,000 film there will never be, it became blindingly obvious that a film about rival mobs racing across a desert in search of fuel and gubbinz would be an incredible spectacle. Our hero is the best Biker Boy on the planet, who gets enlisted by a Nob as an escort during one of the inevitable battles for dominance across the desert.
There are explosions! There are races! There are Gretchins and Squigs going splat! By the end of the film, the Nob has been killed and our Biker Boy has risen to take control of the mob.
And then, in the post-credits sequence, as our Biker Boy sits atop the wreckage of his enemies’ vehicles, a shadow blots out the sun. There is the roar of something very heavy and very dangerous slamming into the ground at high speed, our Biker Boy looks up – and there is the greatest Warlord in the galaxy, resplendent in his Mega Armour, Ghazghkull Mag Uruk Thraka himself.
“You like to fight?” he asks our Biker Boy, who nods enthusiastically.
“Good. Den come wif me. We iz going to the biggest fight of ’em all.”
“Where we goin’?” asks our Biker Boy, and Gazghkull smiles.
Cut to black.
Momentum is building towards the inevitable Third War for Armageddon. Which is why we will take a breather, and play out a small-scale story of a Space Marine squad’s quest for glory.
But which Chapter? The Ultramarines are too stuffy and pompous to make entertaining heroes, the Dark Angels are too filled with self-loathing for anyone to want to spend any time with them, the Imperial Fists just aren’t cool enough… which means it’s a toss-up between the Space Wolves and the Blood Angels, and because I think Leman Russ is a big stupid jock I’m gonna go with Sanguinus’ finest on this one.
The plot could play out similarly to Gordon Rennie’s Bloodquest, with a disgraced Blood Angels Captain seeking to regain his honour by retrieving some ancient relic of Baal from the clutches of Chaos – and this is where we as an audience get our first glimpse of Mankind’s other great enemy. The villain could be a Blood Angel who has fallen to the Ruinous Powers, providing a counterpoint to our hero and turning this into a very personal story of former battle brothers fighting to death.
Inevitably, our Captain triumphs and returns the relic to Lord Commander Dante – and just in time! The Blood Angels have been asked to despatch several companies to a Sector in the Segmentum Solar, where an Ork fleet on a scale unlike any other has arrived and is heading for the Hive World of the system.
Our hero vows to lead his men to death or glory on the planet known as Armageddon…
This is it! All-out war as the beleagured Imperial forces are forced to defend the planet against the waves of Ork warriors. Roks and Space Hulks fall from the skies, destroying entire cities; Greenskins swarm over the ruins, hacking and slashing their way through the world; and Titans and Gargants battle each other across the horizon.
Now while this is an entertaining and very visually stimulating backdrop, it’s not a story. Instead, our hero from the first film and our Captain from the third film join forces with Commissar Yarrick to lead a strike against Gazghkull himself, knowing that with the Warlord dead the Waaagh! will fall apart. The Blood Angels and the Imperial Guard must learn to set aside their differences – our Guardsman hero is disgusted and appalled at the Space Marines’ lack of concern for ordinary humans, while our Captain hero thinks of the Imperial Guard as little more than cannon fodder.
But they develop a grudging respect for one another, and eventually Yarrick faces Gazghkull in a climactic battle in which both of them are killed. With the Warlord dead, the Orks become little more than a swarming, mindless mob, and the Imperium is able to regain Armageddon. Our two heroes make their farewells and head off to rejoin their respective armies.
But it has been a costly war, and Mankind has suffered heavy losses. In the post-credits sequence, a shadowy figure in black-and-gold power armour orders his monstrous troops to move out. The Imperium has been weakened, and the time has come for the Thirteenth Black Crusade…
And… that’s it for Phase One of the Games Workshop Cinematic Universe. What do you think? Would you have done it differently? Contact me on Twitter or comment below to discuss and debate the merits and failings of my ideas, and if this gets a big enough response I’ll publish my thoughts about Phase Two in the near future…
Patrick Magee is a particularly strong-willed Chaplain of the Blood Angels, the only Battle-brother to date who has managed to contain the Black Rage. He can be followed on Twitter or you can like his page on Facebook.