The Witcher’s new spin-off: Netflix’s answer to the Game of Thrones cinematic universe?

On Christmas Day, families around the world came together to spread festive joy. Many will have watched the Harry Potter series, or perhaps Love Actually, or maybe Elf. However, it doesn’t seem like many of them watched the new instalment of Netflix’s TV adaptation of the popular book series The Witcher.

The Witcher: Blood Origin’s landing on Netflix has not been gentle, with scathing critical reviews and poor reception from fans. Many negatively compared it to the other major spin-offs of prominent fantasy series released in 2022; namely, House of the Dragon on HBO and The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power on Amazon Prime Video. Is a precedent being set for every streaming giant having its own mediaeval MCU?

The Witcher saga began as a series of novels and short stories written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. The first short story was published in 1986, with a novel on its heels in 1994. A video game series developed by CD Projekt Red soon followed, with the first instalment releasing in 2007. Both the games and books have achieved major commercial and critical success; the books have sold over 15 million copies worldwide, and the game series’ third instalment has been hailed as one of the greatest video games of all time, selling over 40 million copies. 

The first foray into visual media based on the series came in 2001 with the release of the Polish film The Hexer. However, it was only when Netflix ordered a TV adaptation that Sapkowski’s world saw major success in a visual medium. Starring Henry Cavill of Superman fame as protagonist Geralt of Rivia, the first season of The Witcher premiered on Netflix in December 2019 and soon became the most-watched original series launch in Netflix’s history at the time. Season three of The Witcher is due for release in mid-2023, and the upcoming fourth season will see Liam Hemsworth replace Cavill in the lead role.

In July 2020, Netflix announced plans for a limited series spin-off of The Witcher, a prequel set 1200 years before Geralt’s time. This was Netflix’s second spin-off announcement following the success of the original show, with an animated film titled The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf being announced in January 2020 and premiering in August 2021.

Critics and fans alike could not help but compare Netflix’s eagerness to commission more Witcher content to the many planned spinoff series for HBO’s Game of Thrones. In May 2017, HBO commissioned the development of five successor shows, with screenwriters collaborating with George R. R. Martin, the author of the A Song of Ice and Fire book series on which the show was based, to come up with ideas. However, despite announcements about the progress of these various series over the last five years, only one Game of Thrones spin-off has surfaced to date. 

House of the Dragon is a prequel series set nearly 200 years before the main show based on Martin’s novel Fire & Blood, which depicts a brutal civil war between the members of House Targaryen known as the Dance of the Dragons. The show’s first season received mostly positive reviews, with special attention being given to the standout performances of the show’s cast, which included Paddy Considine, Matt Smith, Emma D’Arcy and Olivia Cooke. The series premiere was the biggest launch event in HBO history and a second season was ordered five days afterwards. Safe to say, it was a major success which is sure to inspire more Game of Thrones successors in the future.

Amazon Prime Video’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is a more unique case, given that it is an adaptation from film to TV rather than a direct continuation of an existing TV universe. However, it too was heaped with praise for its visual grandeur in spite of the ever-looming shadow of Peter Jackson’s acclaimed film trilogies based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s books. Critics did take issue with the series’ pacing and the characterisation of figures like Galadriel and the Harfoots, but these criticisms did not prevent the show from breaking Amazon Prime Video viewership records.

Some have questioned if the premiere of The Witcher: Blood Origin is Netflix’s attempt to create its own blockbuster fantasy franchise à la Westeros or Middle-Earth. It is notable that The Witcher is one of the few series to have its own unique version of the Netflix intro graphic alongside the likes of streaming juggernaut Stranger Things. But is it too early to buy into a so-called Witcher Cinematic Universe? With only two seasons of the main show, an animated film and a short-lived prequel to its name, can it really be compared to the titan of TV that is the Thrones universe?

The Witcher: Blood Origin had a few heavy-hitters among its cast, such as Michelle Yeoh who recently starred in the acclaimed Everything Everywhere All at Once and Lenny Henry who coincidentally also appeared in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Despite this, it was criticised for its confusing storylines, weak villains and general mundanity. Critics especially noted that the series lacked a strong lead to hold the show together in lieu of Henry Cavill. It’s not the best way to begin a cinematic universe, especially when the show’s competition was so strong and much more well-established. Fans have been calling for sequels to the TV and film adaptations of Martin and Tolkien’s books since Game of Thrones and Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy ended, and those strong expectations were showcased in the massive budgets of House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power. By comparison, the four episodes of Blood Origin cannot stand against a Targaryen civil war and the rise of Sauron.

When it comes to these exciting plans for their Witcher adaptation, Netflix has done what it does to most things and jumped the gun. The streaming service is known by now for renewing and cancelling shows at the drop of a hat, and it’s clear that executives noted the viewership of the first season of the original show and saw dollar signs. But when the story of the spin-off is so disconnected from the original series, when the writing lacks the vigour of Sapkowski’s original stories, and when the production value cannot hope to stand against the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in its competitors, The Witcher: Blood Origin was always bound to be something of a disappointment. 

Fans definitely perceived these issues and, unsurprisingly, viewing figures for the series were not particularly impressive. The Witcher: Blood Origin raked in 15.9 million hours of watch time on launch day, while its fellow supernatural series Wednesday earned 118 million hours despite being released five weeks earlier. Even the first season of Emily in Paris, which came out over two years ago, earned a similar viewership to the new Witcher spin-off. The show also didn’t make it into the top ten most viewed shows of any of Netflix’s three biggest markets – the UK, the USA or Australia.

Netflix’s rush to expand its adaptation of The Witcher will probably lead to a rethink in strategy in the future; they cannot hope to build a successful cinematic universe in such little time. Producers need to build up long-term fan retention, so that the viewer base of the original series can easily spill over into spin-offs and generate enough acclaim from the initial product to justify those fans watching the show. The second season of The Witcher was noted for improving on the first in a variety of ways, but fans can’t be sure if that increase in quality will continue until season three premieres later this year. Many viewers likely tuned in to the Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings successor shows because they knew the kind of high-quality fantasy experience that those worlds had delivered in the past. The Witcher does not yet have the advantage of that nostalgia, and it likely never will if it continues pumping out middling spin-offs for the next few years. If Netflix truly intended The Witcher and its spin-offs to rival the gargantuan cultural impact of Game of Thrones or The Lord of the Rings, their hopes have surely been dashed now.