After Netflix found it had a new hit on its hands with the grim fantasy of The Witcher in late 2019, work quickly began on plans to expand the series beyond the realm of simply getting another season of Henry Cavill fighting monsters. The first step into that wider world, Nightmare of the Wolf, hit the streamer today, and for the most part does a great job making that step worth taking.
Directed by Studio Mir’s Kwang-Il Han, and animated by the studio itself, Nightmare of the Wolf acts as both a prequel to the primary, Lauren Schmidt Hissrich-developed Witcher series, and a prelude to what to expect from one of the characters from Andrzej Sapkowski’s fantasy novels arriving in that series’ upcoming sophomore season. Vesemir—played here by Castlevania’s Theo James; the character’s older self will be portrayed in live action by Kim Bodnia—who we get to see grow from a young servant boy wanting more from his lot in life to a mighty, cocky monster slayer at the height of his power and swagger, provides our lens into a world that proves much larger and complicated than the one we first encountered through Geralt of Rivia’s in The Witcher’s first season. In part, this is simply because Nightmare of the Wolf’s status as a prequel means that there are simply more Witchers to go around. Vesemir is far from alone in his monster-hunting, and there being not just a larger group of Witchers for him to bounce off of, but the existence of Witchers as a tangible, relatively powerful faction in the world, means that society at large has to grapple with the imperfect position Witchers have in that society, beyond the hushed tones and ill looks Geralt often received in his own adventures.
It’s that skepticism among humanity and even the remnants of other races in Witchers world, like the Elves—who in The Witcher’s world were former allies to humans who taught their first mages the ability to control magic, only for them to be subjugated and persecuted by the ascendant human nations—that forms the basis of Nightmare of the Wolf’s most interesting worldbuilding. It’s a bleak and at times cynical tale, perhaps even moreso than its live-action sibling. But that cynical lens not only allows it to present a world that feels morally complex and interesting—where there are no inherently “good” or “bad” factions, where violence and fear inevitably and coldly wins out over peace and faith—but also put Vesemir through a trial of character across its 90-odd-minute runtime. It’s rewarding to see him grow as a person beyond the mask of confidence he has as a man just at home drowning in viscera as he is stark naked in a lavish bathtub, boasting of his triumphs (bathtubs are, of course, a necessary part of Witcher worldbuilding that thankfully remain in place here). As a set up to give us an idea of what to expect when a much older, and perhaps wiser Vesemir shows up in The Witcher season two, Nightmare of the Wolf provides a compelling journey that invites us to consider parallels between Vesemir and Geralt’s attitudes, and lays the groundwork for a potential-laden relationship between the younger Witcher and his old mentor when we get to see them again later this year.
All that moral complexity and character-building, of course, is also simply a canvas for Studio Mir’s animators to gush buckets and buckets of blood about the place, with some truly impressive animated action. Leveraging the strength of its medium beyond what we could see in The Witcher, Nightmare of the Wolf shows us what these monster killers look like at the peak of their power, giving Vesemir a razor-sharp, lighting-quick sense of kinetic energy as he soars through the air, swords and runic magics whirling. It’s sumptuous and grand, and over-the-top in the best kind of way. One thing that Vesemir has over Geralt, for example, is a Witcher-branded, waist-mounted chain grapple that lets him swing through the air; it’s very clear someone at Studio Mir had either been watching a lot of Attack on Titan or simply really missed animating Lin Beifong’s metal-bending cops from The Legend of Korra.
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But it’s also, like the legacy of made-for-Netflix “adult” animation before it, an infinitely more gory series than its live-action predecessor, with spurts of blood that thematically and often literally get in the way of the storytelling at hand. At times, it can be a little too much—between this, Studio Mir’s own DOTA series for Netflix, and Castlevania’s final season earlier this year, I think I’ve seen quite enough of intestines where they shouldn’t be and eyeballs dangling out of sockets on the streamer for a while. But while it threatens it, the slickly animated (and slick with gore) action never quite manages to overshadow the interesting layers Nightmare of the Wolf brings to The Witcher’s world and grim tone. If you’re missing the Continent ahead of its return this December, it’s well worth tossing a few coin’s worth of your time here.
The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf is now streaming on Netflix.
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