At the beginning of Ender’s Game, Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) beats a bully with a seemingly unnecessary amount of savagery. When questioned as to why he fought his enemy so viciously, he replies that it was necessary in order to win not only this fight but to prevent possible future fights. It’s a strategy that impresses Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and he’s duly packed off to train as a possible saviour of mankind, which is in danger from an ant-like race of aliens. These aliens are never referred to in the film using Orson Scott Card's source novel's snigger-worthy slang “Buggers”, but as the “Formics”, the more formal word favoured from the fifth book in the Ender series onwards (formica being Latin for ants, fact fans).
No matter how much liberal lip service is paid to the value of teamwork and the power of the little guy, in most blockbusters, might is ultimately right. The final showdown will normally be won by the best physical fighter. They might employ a cunning plan, they might have an array of clever gadgets at their disposal, but ultimately, in the likes of - say - the recent Elysium and the James Bond movies, the day is won by those who most effectively deploy their brawn mano a mano. Ender’s Game, then, is refreshing for two reasons: firstly, it doesn’t pretend to be democratic – Harrison Ford says right up front that his military academy is looking to produce a general, someone who can command. Secondly, the reason that person will make an effective commander is less because they will be physically unstoppable, and more because they will have a lethal combination of Machiavellian cunning and the understanding born of the capacity for empathy.
That doesn’t necessarily make for a warm hero, and as Ender Wiggin, Butterfield doesn’t attempt to sugar-coat a frosty character. In consequence, we really do feel like we’re watching a plausible study of how a winner of wars might be developed, much more so than if the film focussed on him bonding with pals, Potter-style. This is entirely in keeping with the excellent but odd book by infamously homophobic author Orson Scott Card, which is not an obvious fit for a studio blockbuster. Whether this largely faithful screen rendering of the source will result in a viable franchise remains to be seen, but while some would respond with glee to a financial failure for the film due to the author’s bigotry, a success would also demonstrate an appetite on the part of audiences for original, un-formulaic storytelling. We don't want to say too much about the ending, but it grapples with moral dilemmas beyond the scope of most would-be tween franchises.