By all accounts, The Lord of the Rings films represent the apex of fantasy epics. Filled with intricate, yet visceral battles, handsome men, swashbuckling adventure, and direction from the legendary Peter Jackson, the franchise became a benchmark for fans and critics alike. Expanding on near perfection can be ill-advised, but that's exactly what Amazon Studios did with The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, a prequel series that saw the first two episodes of its first season released on Sept. 2.
Set thousands of years before the events of The Lord of the Rings and also before its previous prequel stories in The Hobbit films, the new series chronicles Middle-earth politics, the rise of a great evil, and the formation of the titular rings of power. It's fertile ground for a rich story, but Metacritic partners say it's been a mixed bag, and The Rings of Power's Metascore sits at 71 based on 37 reviews. While some praise the show for stunning visuals and spurts of dynamic action, just as many have bashed it for drab dialogue and a plot they deemed to be convoluted. These reviews are based on only the first two episodes of the 50-hour series overall (10-episode first season, plus a second season that has already been ordered), and early episodes always have to be world-building. When the world is as expansive as this one, that can take a long time, though the films had to set the scene similarly and did not have the luxury of as much time to do so. The Rings of Power has some things going for it, but critics notice deficiencies the original The Lord of the Rings trilogy — which holds an average Metascore of 91 based on more than 100 reviews — simply didn't have. Yet, it is the highest-regarded prequel for The Lord of the Rings by far.
In the eyes of critics, The Lord of The Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (Metascore: 92), The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (87), and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (94) merged grand spectacle and elaborate action with acting that could be as nuanced as it was heartfelt. The plots for the films are straightforward, but always enthralling.
Regarding The Fellowship of the Ring, The New York Post's Lou Lemnick wrote, "[The film is] so consistently involving because the excellent cast delivers their lines with the kind of utter conviction not seen in this kind of movie since the first Star Wars." Meanwhile, then-Salon writer Stephanie Zacharek credited Jackson for allowing actors to shine even in a movie with outsized battles, writing, "[Fellowship of The Ring] is a big movie in its scope and vision. But Jackson makes it work on a much more intimate level as well, by allowing the faces of the characters to tell the story in its most emotional terms."
The two Lord of the Rings sequels earned similar acclaim for their blend of pristine direction and morality battles rendered to biblical proportions. The Washington Post's Stephen Hunter called The Two Towers the best fantasy in theaters during a time when Harry Potter and Star Trek flicks were regularly being released. Reviewing Return of The King, Chicago Tribune writer Michael Wilmington spotlighted the film's ability to leave viewers "with the sense that its wonders are real, its dreams are palpable."
While no one has suggested that The Rings of Power is the literal equal of The Lord of the Rings, such critics as The Daily Beast's Nick Schager echoed the sentiments Zacharek had for Fellowship of The Ring, praising the first two episodes of the show for "its balance between the glorious and the vile, the romantic and the brutal, the euphoric and the despairing, and the grand and the intimate." Paste Magazine's Lacy Baugher Milas was also largely positive in her review. Like many writers, she found the first two episodes to be slow, but she praised the visuals and storyline for the series, writing that The Rings of Power is "massive in scope, easily dwarfing any expectations most viewers had for it, and boasting the sort of visuals that go a long way to justifying that hefty billion-dollar price tag."
Entertainment Weekly's Darren Franich didn't find the first two episodes of The Rings of Power so captivating, calling it a "catastrophe of ruined potential" and bashing it for its plot, highlighting "pointless" detours and boring characters as the primary culprits. The Washington Post's Inkoo Kang let loose similar criticism, calling the characters "phyllo-dough thin" and saying that the plot itself doesn't fare much better.
Even with only two episodes, compared to The Hobbit films' critical response, though, The Rings of Power is already considered a much greater success. The first film in that prequel franchise, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, only has a Metascore of 58), while the second, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, only scored a little higher with a 66, and the final installment, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies has a 59. (The average Metascore for those three films is 61.)
Indeed, The Rings of Power doesn't approach the critical acclaim of the film franchise, but since debuting more than 65 years ago, works in J.R.R. Tolkien's Rings universe have helped define fiction as we know it today. Such video games as Zelda and role playing games including Dungeons & Dragons have all been, at least to some extent, influenced by Tolkien's works, which might well be considered the rubric for high fantasy. Basically, coming up short against the heights of The Lord of the Rings isn't so bad, as it reached a tall enough summit on its own already — and if the writers can further refine the series' plot line, there's no reason to believe it's reached its final plateau.