The soft opening to the summer blockbuster season has given way to stronger box office showings – namely Wonder Woman (2017) in June – leaving what were meant to be May’s huge draws in the dust. While the Alien and Pirates franchise entries have apparently both managed to hold their own in international markets, Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) flopped and flopped hard. This is a shame, because it seemed to have a much bigger ad campaign than both of those sequels and was the only “original” title released nationwide last month. Ritchie’s energy and style injected into the old-as-dirt medieval legend made for a decent trailer, and I’m sure studio executives were hoping for a little more than what they were given considering Game of Thrones is still a hot medieval fantasy title, but style over substance can only get you so far.
King Arthur, at its core, is another case of Hollywood trying to cash in on whatever remains of people’s interest in fantasy origin films (maintained by Hot Topic-frequenting Wicked and Twilight fans) and pre-European Renaissance period dramas (Game of Thrones, Vikings, etc.). I have no idea what statistics fueled this decision, because, correct me if I’m wrong, but did anyone actually give even a fraction of a quark of a shit about Dracula Untold (2014), I, Frankenstein (2014), The Legend of Hercules (2014), Pompeii (2014), or Jack The Giant Slayer (2013)? Okay, yes, these movies and the Twilight knock-offs I didn’t bother to list basically came out the same year, but the point is is that they all were financial failures. Average movie-goers, while contributing to the existence of five Transformers films, can also sniff out a lack of creativity in some shitty trend-tapping studio obligation and leave it forgotten. Maleficent (2014) only got attention because it was a Disney title and people wanted it to be good. It wasn’t. Hollywood studios are just businesses that will crank out anything that they think will make them money, but the writing’s on the wall as to why some films make the cut with audiences and others are dead on arrival: a good story and allowing visual effects to be a means to an end for said story, and not the other way around. King Arthur was the latter “other way around”.
Similar to what David discussed in his piece on Twin Peaks, King Arthur exists in a world populated by better successors that were in one way or another inspired by it. The legend is a major historical contribution to Joseph Campbell’s writings, and those influenced by Campbell in turn, like Lord of the Rings, were such well-executed ideas that they are an everyday influence in popular culture. No one is going to want to see another version of the King Arthur legend, a story that might as well be told in cliffsnotes (white guy pulls magic destiny sword from rock; becomes king because no one else could do it; assembles knights that sit at table; also Merlin the wizard), when I can get a much more complex and interesting story with the exact same beats by reading a Harry Potter book, watching Star Wars, or playing Skyrim. Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur is by no means an interesting one. Arthur in this version is a macho wannabe-charismatic alt-right jerk-off fantasy who you can tell will have no problem being king due to his top-notch physique and leadership abilities in his “not-a-street-gang” street gang that he runs with his friends (future round-table knights). However, this Arthur doesn’t want the awesome power and destiny thrust upon him, which is a fine enough conflict for this story. Granted we don’t really know anything about Arthur as a person, except for the visual whiplash of a backstory that was paced just slightly better than Taken 3 (2014) showing him growing up on the streets, but that’s ultimately the point of the Arthurian legend, right? A nobody with a regular-ass name rising to the occasion of the great role thrust upon him by pure circumstance. But that’s the problem. We fucking know this shit already forwards and backwards. It doesn’t help that the film complicates its antagonist, the Young Pope himself, with political and magical side plots while making Arthur’s internal struggle too not subtle by making it an external one as he deals with weird magical flashbacks whenever he tries to wield the power of Excalibur. The film’s story is too simple in some parts and too confusing and alienating in the rest.
I want to like Guy Ritchie’s films and see him do more good action films, but the guy (heh) is just not a writer. He has a good eye for action, but you can’t always keep track of where the characters are or what’s going on spatially (which is also an editing issue) and looking at the color grey too much does not make for an exciting action film. So much fucking grey. It’s like they took the already grey setting and gave it a few more layers of grey in color correction for extra measure because style I guess. I appreciate Ritchie trying to give his movies an honest shake, but at this point in his career he seems to be teetering on the edge of falling into the grey murky waters of obscurity with his bro-y characters. Maybe the movie could’ve benefited from being an actual four hour epic instead of just being advertised as such, but a good, albeit risky, idea like that is not one the studios would play around with in earnest anytime soon.