Why Can't We Have a Good King Arthur Movie? Blame Game of Thrones
In case you haven't heard—which you probably haven’t, because nobody cares—there's a new King Arthur movie. Directed by gangster-flick auteur Guy Ritchie, it's got the oddly generic title King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and is limping into theaters this weekend with horrendous reviews and virtually no buzz. It's another reimagining of the Camelot legend that this time, thanks to bad CGI, shaky-cam filming, and choppily edited action, is a ponderous snoozefest that comes in at just more than two hours but feels like three. In other words, despite the fact that it has Ritchie at the helm and cost 175 million dollars, it's as vital as another Dracula reboot. Why is it so hard to tell this classic story of a humble boy who turns out to be a long-lost king? Blame Game of Thrones.
King Arthur may or may not have been a real person, but by the Middle Ages his Round Table and sword-from-a-stone maneuver were the stuff of legend. And now, centuries later, his myth is probably the most classic of the "chosen one" stories—the original hero's journey. Whenever a young protagonist rises from humble obscurity to claim their destined greatness—like Luke Skywalker, Buffy Summers, or Harry Potter—they owe a debt to Arthur and to pop culture retellings like The Sword in the Stone, The Once and Future King, and Excalibur. But after decades of Arthur and his narrative progeny, and especially after watching the twisted and sadistic progress of "chosen" characters like Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, going back to the original vanilla version seems, well, pointless.
George R. R. Martin deliberately set out to subvert the tales of Camelot, which he grew up reading. In A Game of Thrones, he presents Bran Stark as a "young King Arthur" archetype, and then has something unspeakable happen to him. Throughout his Westeros books, characters who seem destined for greatness either die, suffer, or make terrible mistakes. Or all three. By now, we're conditioned to seeing the Chosen One meet a bad end. And at this point, after Martin's painstaking deconstruction of statecraft and relentless demonstration that the road to bad government is often paved with good intentions, the notion of King Arthur rising to the throne and becoming a good king who makes mistakes but also rules justly with Merlin by his side feels particularly naïve.
Throwing this whole shift into, uh, stark contrast is King Arthur, which telegraphs from the beginning how desperately it wants to be Game of Thrones. Ritchie, who reinvented Sherlock Holmes as a rakish badass, tries to do the same with Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), but instead of resurrecting him as a hero worthy of Westeros just bogs his story down with overused fantasy tropes, endless vision quests, and magician babble. This Arthur may be a man who made his bones running the brothel where he was raised (edgy!), but from the Battle of Castle Black-wannabe opening skirmish to the inclusion of two Thrones stalwarts—Aidan Gillen (Petyr Baelish on Thrones) and Michael McElhatton (Roose Bolton)—his movie is a two-hour reminder of the show you wish you were watching instead.
Meanwhile, the story of Arthur's rise from peasant boy to King of England is, more than anything, an origin story. And after 20 years of endless superhero films, we've seen too many of those to accept a straight retelling. Marvel movies, taking the second act blueprint of the monomyth to heart, have trained us to believe that heroes must be arrogant and narcissistic, and then learn a lesson, before they can pull the metaphorical swords from their stones. At the same time, *King Arthur'*s dullest parts seem to have come right out of the Zack Snyder playbook, particularly his retelling of Superman's origin. There's angst, and slow-motion, and grimacing—all the Snyder staples. And, despite a few signature Ritchie jokey scenes, it also shares Snyder's distaste for a good time.
In fact, Ritchie's King Arthur made me wonder if we can even appreciate a fun, good-hearted version of the original heroic narrative anymore. Maybe these tropes have been subverted and deconstructed so often, particularly when it comes to epic fantasy, that no one wants to buy into the archetypes now. Maybe in this post-Game world, everything in this genre looks like a knockoff—even movies based on the hero's journey that helped inspire it. Or maybe the once and future king is just waiting for someone who can pull him out of the darkness and help him reclaim his throne.