Now Shadow of War is Out, Where Should the Middle-Earth Series Go Next?

Pop-culture’s short attention-span can be exasperating; it’s always on a hunt for the ‘Next Big Thing’. The Middle-Earth series finds itself in this situation now that Shadow of War is on shelves. Where will the franchise go after its undead hero stays six feet under?

Luckily for us, there’s an embarrassment of rich settings to choose from in Tolkien’s fantasy epic. And because I’m unabashedly part of the problem – hooray for speculation! – here are some ideas of where we could end up next.

The Misty Mountains

Despite a quaint, charming title, this is not the sort of place you want to wind up. Crawling with a rash of goblins who’ve long-since colonised its abandoned dwarven mines, this mountain-range is a honeycomb of eerie ruins and pitch-black tunnels. Unsurprisingly, it’s where Fellowship of the Ring’s Moria can be found.

Moria Gates Battle
The Misty Mountains are heaving with orcs for us to fight – concept art by Weta Workshop

Greater danger lies below, though; both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings reference unspeakable nasties oozing somewhere beneath the earth. As such, this provides us with a fantastic setting in which we can go on an ill-advised adventure/spelunking session. It could also inform gameplay with a mess of hidey-holes and shortcuts that allow us to bypass enemies or spring an ambush.

The Misty Mountains are home to most of Tolkien’s races, too. The elves chill out at Rivendell or Cate Blanchett’s Lothlorien, little human hamlets dot the southern edge, and dwarves wander its roads in an effort to reclaim their homeland. Better still, eagles live in the eyries far above. Flying across Middle-Earth, anyone?

The North

This is your sensible-yet-fairly-pedestrian answer. The area has already seen some action via older games like War in the North or Battle for Middle-Earth II, but that doesn’t mean the setting has been played out yet. Littered with iconic settlements such as Bilbo’s Hobbiton, Bree, and the elven port of the Grey Havens, there’s a lot of fan-service to be had here alongside gameplay opportunity. Why not step into the shoes of a Dunedain ranger, Aragorn’s noble allies who protect the Shire unbeknownst to hobbits? It’s a set-up that lends itself to the style of both Shadow games whilst adding an opportunity for alchemical crafting, tracking a la The Witcher, and the hunting of wild beasts. It’s basically The Witcher 3 with a Lord of the Rings coat of paint. I’m down with that.

Elven Home
There are many mysteries to explore in the north of Middle-Earth – concept art by George Rushing

However, it’s the unexplored regions of this kingdom that seal the deal. Just north of the Shire are ghost-infested wastelands known as Angmar, a place ruled by Sauron’s top enforcer. He doesn’t just have orcs by the hundred; he has a barrel-full of barrow-wights, too. These monsters will try to bury you alive unless you happen to have a weirdo such as Tom Bombadil on call to help you out. A character from the books that was dropped in Jackson’s movie-adaptation, this could be the chance to finally get him on our screens.

The South

Alright, so this is the wild-card of my deck. While there might not seem to be a lot south of Gondor beyond inhospitable desert and giant killer elephants, that’s what makes it ideal for a series like Middle-Earth. As a largely unexplored landscape, it offers creative freedom few other settings can. Surely the angry, Sauron-worshipping tribesmen we saw in Return of the King aren’t all that’s down there? Are civilisations living amongst the dunes that don’t bow to the Dark Lord? Presumably. Could there even be a splinter-group of elves we’ve not encountered who call these sands home? The sky’s the limit. If we can get a human form for Shelob the spider in Shadow of War (*shudders*), this isn’t much of a stretch.

Battle for Middle-Earth II
‘Tis but a scratch – concept art for Battle for Middle-Earth II by Michael Zimmerman

Meanwhile, Shadow of Mordor refers to two ‘blue’ wizards who famously went missing after travelling south. Where did they go and what did they find? Are they still alive? There’s a story in there somewhere, and it’s one that can potentially lean into full-scale magic for the player, e.g. Gandalf wish-fulfilment (for fellow Tolkien-nerds, I’m aware that this isn’t how LotR magic worksbut hey, we already have a zombie ranger so why not?).

Oh, and one last thing. The Return of the King’s extended cut gave us southern pirate-raiders. Fancy a Lord of the Rings-themed Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag? I’d be more than up for that.


Do you have a better idea? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @thewordyben.

Check back each Friday for more as I go into the weeds on pop-culture story, lore, and settings.


Blade Runner 2049 & Alien Share a Universe – But I’m Totally Cool With That

Here’s a little something that blew my mind recently; Prometheus wasn’t Ridley Scott’s first Alien prequel. In fact, he’s been at it since 1984.

As it turns out, Scott’s Blade Runner has a number of sneaky connections to the world of acid-spitting xenomorphs. Although these clues are subtle (and many are buried in DVD extras or offhand comments from the director), they suggest that the two franchises share their universe.

Blade Runner 2049
Who wouldn’t want to escape a hell-hole like this? If only they knew what was waiting for them out there – concept art by George Hull

That involuntary shudder you felt going down your spine? I get it. It’s understandable. Here’s a Public-Service announcement everyone already knows; shared universes are now ‘cool’, and that means each studio with half a pulse is jumping on the bandwagon. Yet I’m very much aboard the hype train this time.

Please don’t hate me.

To begin with, the connection makes a whole ton of sense. Both are grimy and washed out worlds with an air of hopelessness. Big industry is Bad, they tell us, and it’s only the human connection we share – be it compassion or common decency – that makes life worth living. Scott himself said that he always imagined the two being linked; he saw Blade Runner’s Los Angeles as the kind of place the crew of Nostromo, the ill-fated ship in Alien, were trying to escape. As mentioned in a director’s commentary for Blade Runner, ‘this world could easily be the city that supports the crew that go out in Alien. So, in other words, when the crew of Alien come back in, they might go into this place and go into a bar off the street near where Deckard lives. That’s how I thought about it’.

Secondly, there’s a lot of shared technology between the two; the replicants we see throughout Blade Runner 2049 are just a step behind the likes of David in Prometheus, and that follows because the latter is set around fifty years later.

However, the most convincing evidence comes in the form of bonus material for the theatrical release of both Alien and Prometheus. The former includes data on the Nostromo’s captain, and it turns out that he served under Blade Runner’s Tyrell Corporation before working for Weyland-Yutani, the mega-corp. from Alien. As for Prometheus, extras contained in the steel-book contain a message from Weyland-Yutani founder (Guy Pierce’s character) wherein he implies that Tyrell was his mentor. Inspired/chilled by Tyrell’s failure – he’s murdered by his own creations, the poor sap – Weyland sets out to create something better.

Due to all this, I feel that the connection fleshes out both universes in a logical way. It fires up the imagination as well, because now we know why everyone’s so desperate to go colonise other worlds. Earth’s a real dump.

I don’t think the connection matters a huge deal, either. They’re unlikely to cross over due to the time-difference (Blade Runner takes place decades before Alien), and it’s more of a cool Easter-egg than anything else. Considering the unsubtle way many shared universes are created these days, there’s something elegant about that.

Something Alien: Covenant & Prometheus Got Very, Very Right

Prometheus attracts criticism like a magnet. A great deal of that is justified. Exposition-dumps and maddening characters make for a divisive film. Still, most can agree that Michael Fassbender’s David was a redeeming feature. Morally dubious but polite in the most frightfully British way, he puts us on edge because we’re never sure which side he’s on. As a result, it’s good to see the android creeping everyone out again in Alien: Covenant – especially considering the downward spiral he followed between those two movies.

Warning – SPOILERS for ALIEN: COVENANT follow.

‘I, uh, love what you’ve done with the place’ – concept art by Ev Shipard

David’s house of horror on the Engineer home-world is a great example. Littered with token mad-sketches, dissected corpses, and a spot of monster taxidermy, this nightmare puts his terrifying but fiercely intelligent personality on full display. It also plays up to the idea that one rotten apple spoils the batch to brilliant effect. A villain of the Frankenstein variety, David’s goals have been warped into lunacy by flawed logic. Yet he’s unable to recognise that. Therein lies the key to his appeal, at least in my opinion; his plan makes sense in a twisted sort of way, but – as his doppelgänger points out – a duff note has ruined the entire piece. That’s exemplified by his inappropriately chipper nature, not to mention the laissez-faire way he’s left the opened carcass of Dr. Shaw on his operating table. He’s terrifying because he’s so incredibly human… except something’s just a little ‘off’. His lie about Shaw’s death and her meaning to him sums this up nicely.

It’s yet to be seen how his story will end in the next couple of films, and there’s always the possibility of outstaying his welcome. However, the ride should be intriguing if nothing else. David’s too much of a vile son-of-a-b**** for it not to be.

So the Klingons Look Different in Star Trek: Discovery? Good

We prefer to forget that people aren’t 2D; it’s easier to generalise. A complex individual with redeeming qualities despite their flaws? Forget it. That’s too much like hard work. According to Michigan State University, the brain prefers to stereotype because it ‘satisfies the need to understand and predict the social world… it’s a way to feel better about yourself’.

It’s the same with culture – even fictional ones. Oversimplifying is less of a headache. Star Trek: Discovery ran head-first into that particularly controversy; many fans are disgruntled that the show’s Klingons are a far cry from those we’ve seen before. Gone are the mustachios and ridged foreheads of The Next Generation’s Worf. They’ve been replaced by dual-nostrils, a hairless head, clawed hands, and a ribbed scalp that extends down the back of their skull. It’s a distinctly more alien design.

Look at the bling on that Klingon ship. It’s like a pimped-out sea-shell (concept art for Star Trek: Discovery)

The reason for that change is understandable. The Discovery team wanted their version to stand out, and they certainly achieve their aim. Equally, it makes the Klingons feel otherworldly in a way they rarely have before (a goal that serves this war-story well). However, some think it’s too big a departure. Although I don’t agree, I understand the criticism. The old Klingons may as well be a different species in terms of their appearance. Comparing them to the ones we see in Star Trek Into Darkness isn’t a huge leap, but previous shows? It’s night and day.

That said, it’s still a sweeping statement to say that this isn’t how Klingons ‘should’ look. For starters, they’re fictional extra-terrestrials with pointy teeth and a love of wanton violence. Unusual markings are hardly the most outlandish thing about them. Secondly, all species play host to countless permutations of appearance based on environmental factors and genetics. Why should Klingons be any different? Maybe this is an older breed of Klingon or an offshoot that later dies out, much like Neanderthals. There’s even an in-universe explanation; Klingons attempt to replicate the super-soldier experiments that resulted in Khan (the Enterprise’s biggest adversary) following Discovery. This goes a bit pear-shaped and alters their DNA until they’re more human in appearance, handily justifying their rather… unambitious look in the original series. What’s the bet that this catastrophe wins the war for the Federation at the end of Discovery?

Either way, the change is a nice metaphor for this show as a whole. It shakes us free of any preconceptions we hold about Star Trek, allowing Discovery to truly take us where we’ve never been before.

And come on – it’s not like we won’t get tie-in media explaining the difference anyway…

Kingsman: The Golden Circle Reminds Us to Embrace ‘Weird’

There’s something refreshing about a film that embraces its own ridiculousness; it’s a shot of Apple Sourz straight to your grey-matter. Certain genres are unavoidably daft, so wrapping them in grounded seriousness sucks a lot of the joy away. Superheroes are a prime example. Movies such as Logan and The Dark Knight are fab, yes, but there’s a lot to be said for comic book weirdness as well. Villains like ‘Crazy Quilt’ or Batman’s ‘Bat Train’ are delightfully crap, for instance.

The villain’s daft secret lair is one the The Golden Circle’s greatest strengths – concept art for Kingsman: The Golden Circle

It’s the same for spy-flicks. Indeed, Kingsman: The Golden Circle threw its baseball cap into the ring this week. Matthew Vaughn’s ode to classic Bond reminds us what was so special about it in the first place; although the modern, Craig-led iteration is good for several reasons, you can’t beat 70s-era 007 for tongue-in-cheek absurdity. Accordingly, The Golden Circle is one Close Encounters of the Third Kind jingle away from Moonraker. It’s cheeky, self-aware, and completely off its rocker. I loved it precisely for that reason.

It also made me remember how much fun a daftly themed supervillain can be. Forget plots to uproot decedent Western society. This film’s baddie runs a 50s-themed diner in the South American jungle. She also has robot guard-dogs at her beck-and-call, not to mention a bowling alley. Oh, and a penchant for turning foes into hamburgers. It’s barking mad and completely delightful.

The only problem I had turned up mid-way through the film, actually; it’s an exaggerated mockery of elder Bond that I was uncomfortable revisiting. If you’ve seen the latest Kingsman, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

As Vaughn mentions in an interview with The Independent, scenes like this and its companion in the original were ‘supposed to be funny and a wink to “can you believe this is how they used to end movies?”’. And I get that; there’s a lot of humour to be mined in doing so. It also puts its hero in a bind that plays on guilt to great effect. However, when does humour end and good taste begin? Was there another, less fabricated way to achieve the same result? It felt unnecessary and left something of a bitter taste in my mouth.

I bring this up because it’d be a shame for people to shake their heads and remember that one moment when The Golden Circle is mentioned. It’s much more than that. In fact, the film is an object lesson in having fun. Grounded genre movies are excellent, but there’s no reason to brush over their daft history either.

Story & Voice Acting for Metroid: Samus Returns? No Thanks

Should Nintendo games have full voice acting? What about a greater focus on story? These questions are roughly the same age as Neolithic cave-paintings. It feels like that, anyway; we’ve been discussing the issue for decades and no-one’s able to agree. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild nudged us in one direction, but it’s yet to be seen if Metroid: Samus Returns will follow suit. I’m not sure how I feel about this.

What? Why, yes, I believe that’s the sound of hell freezing over.


For clarification, I’ve got no problem with a deeper narrative in Zelda or Metroid. Their settings are certainly rich enough. However, I’m not sure a traditional story is necessary. It’s a generalisation to say that gameplay is the main attraction for both, yet I think that’s a fair argument nonetheless. Do we get involved for character-arcs, cutscenes, and dialogue? That feels ill-fitting for either franchise. Their MO is one of lonely exploration and discovery through play, not a plot-driven experience. Similarly, there’s something wonderfully quirky about scrolling text and grunts from an NPC. Rather than being a sign of antiquated thinking, it’s become a Nintendo calling-card.

I’d prefer to see them take inspiration from Dark Souls instead. Considering their emphasis on player-led exploration, scattering narrative and lore throughout the environment is a much better match. Build up the world of Zelda and Metroid, by all means; just let us puzzle out the details ourselves.

Becoming the Heroes We’re Supposed To Be, Just in Time for Destiny 2

Destiny’s story wasn’t what you’d call a runaway success when it hit in 2014. If anything, it was a muddle of techno-babble that often forgot to explain itself. With no distinct characters and a tendency to side-line talent (Nathan Fillion was reduced to spouting one-liners), it also felt as if we were skimming over the surface of something deeper. Luckily, those problems are old news. The Taken King added a ‘quest’ system that strung missions together in a more logical fashion, and these steps give in-game blurbs that provide us with more background (not to mention an idea of what’s actually going on). It’s almost worth going back if you felt lost the first time around.

Destiny 2
Become legend, even if you don’t have the foggiest idea what’s going on – concept art by Jamie Jones

I’ve been polishing off leftover missions recently in prep for Destiny 2, and this renewed focus stayed with me. When I originally booted up Bungie’s shooter three years ago, I hadn’t the slightest clue why I was jetting around the galaxy punching aliens in the face. What’s more, Peter Dinklage never failed to spout unintelligible nonsense whenever I thought I was getting the hang of it. Because of this, I focused on finding loot and shooting bad men instead. And not being pushed off cliffs by my Fireteam. Damn it, Shaun.

However, Destiny’s story is miles better than it was back then. Despite sounding like a case of ‘too little too late’, the plot is now much easier to follow. Why are we on the moon, for example? Because a dead Ghost we found up there reveals the Hive’s plan for an invasion of Earth. Each level has been given this kind of exposition.

What’s more, certain missions have been shunted into more appropriate storylines. For instance, the quest that asks you to destroy Crota’s sword has been slotted into The Dark Below. Considering its focus on Crota, that makes a ton more sense. These small touches lift the narrative out of incomprehension.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s still flat and unambitious. Nevertheless, today’s Destiny can at least be followed without the help of a Wiki or doctorate in sci-fi jargon. Considering the fact that Bungie could happily have left it alone, this retcon is something worth applauding.

If you want to take a look at these old missions, check your ‘Abandoned Quests’ board. That’s where I found mine!

I Don’t Fancy Jon’s Chances in Game of Thrones Season 8

Folk are understandably concerned about who will make it through Game of Thrones’ next season. It’s the final series, for one thing; with six episodes to go and a White Walker invasion imminent, the action will come thick and fast. Equally, the actor who plays Jaime Lannister has suggested that a few main characters are bound to turn into blue-eyed zombies before we’re through.

However, I’m most worried about Jon.

Spoilers for Game of Thrones follow. Don’t look if you’re not caught up yet, you daftie!

Can anyone face this band of nasties and make it out alive? Concept art by Karakter Design Studio

Although that may seem odd considering the suit of story armour he’s been swaddled in for the last two seasons (even death couldn’t keep him down), I’m not sure we should assume his survival just yet. If anything, I’m worried that he’s got a bullseye stapled to his fur-clad back for precisely that reason. To begin with, his arc fits all too neatly into the ‘noble sacrifice’ mould. Jon was resurrected so he could complete some unknown purpose, and this is presumably battling the Night King. The pair have locked eyes on multiple occasions in a ‘we’re arch-nemeses now’ sort of way, so both going out in combat with one another would be a logical end for their arc. They’re too dangerous for either to survive a direct clash, especially if Jon is Azor Ahai (the prophesised saviour who’s destined to battle White Walkers) as many suspect.

Snow’s role as a reborn hero of myth would therefore suit the cliché well; dying in the process of saving the day is a classic trope. Countless genre-stories have mined this idea, and examples range from The Matrix to Mass Effect. Because of his Jon’s honourable, self-sacrificing personality, it’s hard not to see this happening to him as well. It’d be in keeping with Game of Thrones’ bittersweet air, too. The world is saved… but its greatest hero is gone.

I’d be happy if I was wrong, of course; it’d be nice to see someone we’re rooting for make it out alive. I just don’t see it being Jon.

The Defenders’ Biggest Problem? The Hand

I’d like to return the last 12 months, please; I think they’re faulty. Politics have been detonated in favour of unpredictable scandal, beloved stars were taken too soon, and – on a much less significant note – Netflix’s spotless Marvel run is blemished with misfires. Iron Fist wasn’t exactly flavour of the month, for instance. Although it’s a fun ride with many saving graces (including Jessica Henwick’s Colleen Wing), it didn’t live up to the standard Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage set. Similarly, pacing in The Defenders left many scratching their head. It found its feet before the finale, but there’s no escaping the fact that it took two or three episodes for the cast to even meet.

I’m not sure the Hand were the foes these heroes deserved – concept art by Joe Quesada

It also pivoted away from some of Daredevil’s more interesting ideas. Because of this, I hope we’ve not seen the last of the Hand; there’s so much more that can be done with them.

Spoilers for The Defenders follow, so don’t read any more if you haven’t seen it – you crazy person, you.

Back when the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen pranced around in a bandana, the Hand were an enigmatic force we barely understood. Horrific taskmasters who blinded their servants to ensure compliance, they dabbled in supernatural goings-on that were never explained. What on earth was that little boy in the shipping crate? The showrunners wisely kept this a secret.

As such, revealing their leaders to be embittered K’un-Lun students who just want to go home is underwhelming. The reveal makes perfect sense and creates synergy with Iron Fist, but it always felt as if there was something more than human about the creepy (yet strangely likeable) Madam Gao. Something demonic, perhaps; she can punch grown men across the room, disappear at will, and move things with her mind. Those aren’t tricks you learn from monks in a martial-arts dojo.

Accordingly, leaving Gao with such a pedestrian backstory reduces her mystique. She’s abruptly less scary.

Equally, we never saw a resolution for that carriage of sand Daredevil stumbled across in his second season. This sent goose-bumps up my arms; in the comics, the Hand’s soldiers are undead ninjas who collapse into ash when destroyed. How chilling would it be for our heroes to see dust coalescing into demon-kin around them? Except that element was promptly forgotten for The Defenders in favour of normal grunts who were bizarrely averse to guns, so I hope we see it again in his third outing.

Finally, can we please do something with the man Stick reported to after his first appearance (the scarred one who seemed to lead the Chaste)? He’s disappeared into a gaping plot-hole, much like any explanation as to what a Black Sky is. We’re still none the wiser on that latter point despite The Defenders showering us in bluster about how they’re prophesised to lead the Hand to victory. It initially seemed like they were powerful vessels for a supernatural presence, but then we learned that they were just great at kung-fu. Or something. Fingers crossed we get a solid and more satisfying answer before long.

You see, there’s still so much that can be done with the Hand; pushing them off the table after The Defenders finale would therefore be a waste. Seriously, ask anyone who’s read a comic featuring them. Here’s hoping we go back to their creepy, inexplicable air from the first season Daredevil.

Are the Sinister Six Out There in Spider-Man: Homecoming? Nah, Probs Not

Please excuse me – I’m still quietly screaming over Spider-Man: Homecoming. Funny, heartfelt, and true to the character in a way the other movies didn’t quite manage, it was both familiar and deeply novel. What a cracker of a film.

Naturally, the internet’s already getting over-excited about what its sequel might feature.

Watch out! Spoilers for Spider-Man: Homecoming follow. Duck and run for cover if you’ve not seen it yet.

Is Spidey’s rogue’s gallery about to get more… Sinister? Concept art by Ryan Meinerding

The most popular theory is based on a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quote from the mid-credits sting. After winding up in prison for his high-flying antics, the Vulture is approached by petty crook Mac Gargan (a small-timer that Spider-Man stopped in the ferry scene) and is pressured to reveal the webhead’s identity. According to Gargan, there are some ‘interested parties’ who’d like to get their revenge on the teen superhero. Cue an evil get-together for the next film.

Many have assumed that this refers to the Sinister Six, a classic team of villains who all want Spidey dead. It’d be an intimidating line-up for any cape-wearing do-gooder, never mind one who’s only 15; although their roster changes on a regular basis, the Sinister Six often count Doctor Octopus, Electro (last portrayed by Jamie Foxx), the Vulture, and Green Goblin amongst their number. The idea is clearly on rightsholder Sony’s mind, too. Prior to the current deal that allows Spider-Man to appear in MCU movies, it was a concept the Amazing Spider-Man series was setting up for a solo film. As such, some think that these baddies must have already crossed paths with the new version of Spidey.

I call bull on that one, however. Firstly, I’m not sure Marvel would want to repeat villains that have been handled before in other incarnations. We’ve seen three different Green Goblins in the last twelve years, for example.

It’s also implied in Captain America: Civil War that Peter’s never fought other superpowered people before – this is his first time. While that can be easily reversed, the period after his battle with Cap can’t; a big feature of Homecoming is Iron Man stopping him from fighting anything other than street muggings and theft. Because of this, the goons Mac Gargan is referring to are probably small-fry gang members or Spider-Man’s less powerful foes (Mysterio is just a bloke with clever gadgets, for instance). The theory is suddenly a bit less exciting. Look out, it’s the Big Wheel! Yes, they are exactly as stupid as they sound.

Not that this makes Gargan’s plan any less dangerous, of course; he’s well known in the comics as Scorpion, an insane killer with a suit designed specifically to take down the wallcrawler. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vulture’s tech expert (the Tinkerer) has something to do with that.

What’s more, he could always recruit some extra muscle if needed. Kraven the Hunter is another villain who wants the ultimate kill – Spider-Man – and Hugh Jackman was tweeting something about being ‘partners’ with Disney recently… Just sayin’.