fantasy franchises

Netflix’s Expanded Witcher Universe Is Upon Us

Centered on Vesemir, a witcher who was slaying monsters when Geralt of Rivia was still in short pants, the new Nightmare of the Wolf is a fascinating snapshot of how much Hollywood’s approach to fantasy has changed. Photo: Netflix

Spoilers for The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf to follow.

The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf, the new spinoff prequel movie to the Netflix series The Witcher, contains much of what fans of the series have come to expect: bloody fight scenes, weird monsters, a hunky witcher taking a hot bath in a wooden tub.

What it doesn’t have is Henry Cavill.

Instead, Nightmare of the Wolf is centered on Vesemir, a witcher who was slaying monsters when Geralt of Rivia was still in short pants. It’s set almost 100 years before the TV series, and does nothing to resolve any of the lingering cliffhangers from the season-one finale.

If you’re looking for connections to the TV series, Nightmare of the White Wolf has two real functions. It’s an early introduction to Vesemir, who will show up — older, and played in live action by Killing Eve’s Kim Bodnia — in The Witcher’s second season, which premieres later this year. It also fills in the backstory of an event that Geralt mentioned, in a single tossed-off line of dialogue, back in season one: a standoff at the stronghold Kaer Morhen that led to regular people hating witchers so much.

But you’ll only really know that stuff if you actually watch Nightmare of the Wolf (or, you know, read an article like this one). The movie’s actual selling point is a simpler one: Here’s more Witcher, as fast as we could get it to you. (Among other things, Nightmare of the Wolf is animated, which makes it faster and cheaper to produce than any live-action fantasy show, and especially in a pandemic.)

This mad sprint to build out the Netflix Witcher Universe marks a notable shift from October 31, 2018, when the beachhead of Netflix’s big promotional push for The Witcher was essentially “Henry Cavill with a wig”:

Entertainment journalists covered the show accordingly, and usually under the assumption that readers would have no idea what The Witcher was. “Superman, is that you?” asked E! News. This very website remarked on his “intense Legolas hair.” Though Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher books were popular in Poland, where the series originated, the franchise was probably best known to gamers who had embraced 2015’s open-world action-RPG The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. For anyone else, The Witcher must have looked like one of the dozen or so wannabe-fantasy smashes that cropped up around the time Game of Thrones was winding down.

What a difference a couple of years makes. If there is an ongoing competition to be “the next Game of Thrones,” The Witcher is currently winning it in a walk. The question isn’t whether The Witcher has been big for Netflix. The question is how big, and the answer is probably “even bigger than you think.” A month after season one premiered, Netflix claimed 76 million subscriber households had at least sampled The Witcher, making it the service’s biggest debut series ever. (Obligatory disclaimer: Netflix is not transparent about its viewership numbers, and its metric for what counts as a “viewer” are notoriously questionable.)

But if 76 million is probably a bit inflated, there are other signifiers that reveal just how big The Witcher really was when it arrived in December of 2019. Shortly after the first season premiered, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt suddenly racked up more consecutive players on the PC gaming platform Steam than it had ever had — an astonishing feat for a game that had come out nearly five years earlier. The game’s developers have since revealed they’ll be adding new content inspired by the TV series — which was announced at Witchercon, a lengthy livestream co-sponsored by Netflix that was devoted solely to all things Witcher.

While all this was happening, Henry Cavill reportedly signed for as many as five more seasons, and showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich just inked a new multiyear deal with Netflix. In a statement, she said her heart belongs to the Witcher franchise, and she clearly means it; in addition to season two of the TV series, she’s also executive producer on both Nightmare of the Wolf and the upcoming The Witcher: Blood Origin. Blood Origin, a wholly original limited series that takes place 1,200 years before Geralt’s adventures, recently made news just by announcing which actors will play characters with names like Brother Death and Uthrok One-Nut. The fact that these characters don’t appear in any previous Witcher media, and pretty much every entertainment site bothered to write about it anyway, is another useful clue for the appetite for anything Witcher right now.

Nightmare of the Wolf is set much closer to the central Witcher timeline, but its function as both a stand-alone story and a teaser for future, Vesemir-centric stories is a proof of concept for what the Witcher franchise might eventually become for Netflix. It’s the perfect time for it — because if there’s one big lesson from The Witcher’s first season, it’s that audiences really don’t need their hands held. This is a series that told its story over three separate chronologies and trusted audiences to figure it out solely via context clues. It dropped references to territories with fantasy names like Skellige and Nilfgaard and Kaedwen, and never gave audiences a map to figure out how they all fit together. It parceled out crazy twists — to name one unforgettable instance, students getting turned into eels to power a magic school — without ever acknowledging that, even for a fantasy series, this was absolutely bonkers.

The Witcher’s big bet was that audiences weaned on a steady diet of dense fantasy franchises and increasingly interconnected Cinematic Universes would follow and care about this anyway, and they were clearly right. So why not make a prequel movie about a witcher who audiences haven’t even met yet? Why not make a separate prequel series about a “sword elf” and the Conjunction of the Spheres? Why not burrow into any random corner of this universe that feels interesting, and trust that audiences will agree?

All this Witcher is a fascinating snapshot of how much Hollywood’s approach to fantasy has changed. It’s been nearly 20 years since the release of Peter Jackson’s first Lord of the Rings movie. Jackson had originally pitched Lord of the Rings as two movies, out of fear that no studio would green-light a full trilogy. Even that proved optimistic; the Weinstein brothers repeatedly pressured Jackson to cut even more from his treatment and make a single Lord of the Rings movie, believing that audiences wouldn’t care enough about Middle-Earth to bother with scenes like the Battle of Helm’s Deep.

Now, of course, Amazon is set to debut a Lord of the Rings prequel spinoff series, which can cover the history of Middle-Earth in the truly granular detail audiences have come to desire. It’ll be joined by who-knows-how-many Game of Thrones spinoffs — at least half a dozen have been announced at one point or another — which will devote hours to stories that were teased in a few stray lines of dialogue in the original show’s eight-season run. In modern fantasy, audiences don’t just want a story; they want an entire universe where the stories are essentially limitless.

It’s a principle that, to Netflix’s evident delight, could hardly dovetail better with the lightning-in-a-bottle success of The Witcher and the greater Witcher Netflix Universe that begins with Nightmare of the Wolf. As long as audiences keep streaming, The Witcher can continue its story in any and every direction. As Geralt might say, there’s always another monster to slay.

Netflix’s Expanded Witcher Universe Is Upon Us