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A Primaris Leutenant takes aim and fires with a bolt pistol. He is clad in blue armor with gold trim, a skull-headed eagle on his breastplate. Image: Games Workshop

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What is Warhammer 40K, and why would Henry Cavill want to star in it?

A primer on what could become the next global entertainment phenomenon

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Actor Henry Cavill is no longer content with starring roles as Superman or Geralt of Rivia in The Witcher. He will now serve as the executive producer of the Warhammer cinematic universe, and perform as its first big star. But what is Warhammer? Why would one of Hollywood’s best and brightest want to put their time and treasure to work bringing it to life? And what characters might he choose to play?

What is Warhammer?

Born out of a gaming tradition that includes mass battles fought with Napoleonic and other historical miniatures, Warhammer is both a game where battles take place on large tables with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of hand-painted miniatures and scale model terrain, and a hobby where fans labor to make those playing pieces as intricate, unique, and dramatic as possible.

The Warhammer universe, created by British game manufacturer Games Workshop — which started its business in 1975, first manufacturing traditional games and then importing Dungeons & Dragons to Europe — has two main branches. The oldest is Warhammer Fantasy, a high-fantasy setting of swords and sorcery. The other, and arguably more popular, branch is called Warhammer 40,000 or 40K.

This science fiction universe was born in the 1980s as political satire, it’s the branch that Henry Cavill is most interested in, and it’s where his journey into creating a Warhammer cinematic universe will begin.

Warhammer 40,000 is set in the 41st millennium, and humanity is nominally the main focus of its lore. The setting paints a grim picture of a post-post-postapocalyptic society trapped in a literal dark age and ruled by an authoritarian warlord with powerful psychic abilities known as the God-Emperor of Mankind. It is a culture poisoned by its own ignorance, where innovation has come to a standstill and where millions of worlds and billions of people toil away to support war on an unimaginable scale.

Like I said: political satire.

What are the pillars of Warhammer 40K?

Above all else, the world of Warhammer 40,000 is grim and dark. That is true of its signature art style and of its fiction. That has made for fertile ground for storytellers of all stripes, who have adapted the 40K universe to comics, books, video games, and animated series. Games Workshop even has its own subscription television service called Warhammer TV.

Deeply corrupt, bureaucratic, and zealous, humanity in 40K marches on in a constant battle against a panoply of equally corrupt threats. Many a Warhammer storyline has built itself around clashes with chitinous insect hordes, powerful orks, unknowable alien intellects, and even space communists, but the biggest threat to the existence of mankind is Chaos, a magical force capable of corrupting entire planets and turning their denizens into violent cults bent on self-annihilation.

That said, there is a select number of human factions that serve as pillars of nearly every narrative.

Space Marines

Genetically engineered super-soldiers drawn from inhabited worlds all around the 40K galaxy, the Space Marines are 8-foot-tall brainwashed child soldiers clad in fantastical powered armor. There are hundreds of Space Marine chapters and tens of thousands of individual Marines, but the average human will live their entire life without ever seeing one.

The Imperial Guard

The line troops of the Empire, the Imperial Guard are normal humans who enlist or are conscripted into the Imperial army. Drawn from all across the Empire, its forces are representative of nations and nationalities that we can easily recognize today, including British, French, Russian, and Indian units, among others.

The Adeptus Mechanicus

The Adeptus Mechanicus is a sect of humanity that has fully embraced transhumanism. Headquartered on Mars, it is a highly religious group dedicated to the so-called Machine Spirit. It is responsible for the majority of humanity’s technological achievements over the last 10,000 years or more.

The Inquisition

A supremely powerful organization within the Empire of Mankind, the Inquisition is dedicated to rooting out heresy against the God-Emperor. Its servants, known as Inquisitors, work furtively around human-controlled space running down conspiracy. Often it finds itself at odds with the forces of Chaos, who work behind the scenes to undermine and destroy the Empire.

What are the classic storylines in Warhammer 40K?

Games Workshop’s own publishing imprint has more than 200 books covering all aspects of the Warhammer brand — including Warhammer Fantasy. Known as the Black Library, it is home to several story arcs that are representative of the 40K brand, any one of which could be blown out into a feature film or the beginning of a franchise.

The Horus Heresy

The Sons of Horus attack the walls of a city in the cover art of Horus Rising, the first book in the Horus Heresy series. Image: Neil Roberts/Games Workshop

With more than 60 books in all, The Horus Heresy tells the story of how the God-Emperor created the Space Marines, and of their fratricidal civil war that kicked off in the 31st millennium and brought about the state of affairs in the year 40,000.

The Inquisition Series

Gregor Eisenhorn, in art for the Black Library book trilogy starring him.
Gregor Eisenhorn and Alizabeth Bequin
Image: Black Library/Games Workshop

The Inquisition Series by author Dan Abnett tells the story of Inquisitors Gregor Eisenhorn, Gideon Ravenor, and Alizabeth Bequin working against a powerful Chaos plot to destroy the Imperium. Imagine a combination of Blade Runner, The Young Pope, and Sherlock Holmes — plus a smattering of Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke’s Training Day — and you’re more or less in the right wheelhouse.

Gaunt’s Ghosts

The Gaunt’s Ghosts series, inspired by Sharpe’s Rifles — a series of novels by Bernard Cornwell as well as a 1993 television series starring Sean Bean — is perhaps the most pulpy of the three main pillars mentioned here. The central character is Imperial commissar Ibram Gaunt, a political officer who is also a military leader, in the vein of the classic Russian commissars. He commands the Tanith First and Only, a regiment of Imperial guard men and women, against impossible odds.

Who would Henry Cavill play in a 40K movie or TV show?

Many fans have cast Cavill as the God-Emperor of Mankind, but as that character is literally a living corpse, it’s unlikely that will be his role — unless The Horus Heresy is the focus. But, even then, it would make more sense to cast Cavill as Horus Lupercal, the archtraitor of those novels, or even as Garviel Loken, a heroic Space Marine who works against his rebellious brothers.

But prudence dictates that Amazon is likely to tread carefully with this new venture, telling smaller stories before going all-in on an epic the size of Star Wars or Dune. Therefore, we could also see Cavill in the shoes of Inquisitor Eisenhorn, or perhaps as Commissar Gaunt. My money is on Eisenhorn, as those books would place the narrative closer to the centers of power in the 40K universe and allow for more follow-on stories and tie-ins — in the vein of how The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett were intimately connected.

Also, a live-action adaptation of the Eisenhorn books was announced in 2019. Little to no additional information has been released since that initial announcement.

So how big is this cinematic universe, anyway?

Recall, however, that 40K is not the sum total of the potential Warhammer cinematic universe. It’s something that Games Workshop certainly wants you to remember; that’s why it called it out in its own announcement on Friday. In fact, the pantheon of gods in Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy are intimately connected and could serve as a bridge to bring fans from a science fiction setting into a high fantasy one — and vice versa. There are also sub-brands, like Necromunda or Blood Bowl, that could also prove fertile ground for additional series of motion pictures.

The bottom line is that Games Workshop — already one of the most profitable companies in all of tabletop gaming — is sitting on a gold mine of intellectual property. Now that it has enshrined Cavill as its figurehead, there’s simply no telling how far things could go.


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