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I’ve been saying for a couple years now that the fantasy genre is unmoored. It’s basically a slogan of these articles because it lets me talk about form and style and genre history, the stuff I know the most about. However, I’m starting to wonder how true that actually is anymore. After a decade at the top of the blockbuster fantasy has definitely receded in the 2010s, producing fewer Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings level sagas in comparison to the success of superheroes and sci-fi properties.
That translated to a thoroughly unsure nature for the first few years of the decade, especially when it turned out The Hobbit wasn’t as successful as everyone was gearing up for it to be. However, as we pass the midpoint of the decade and begin the slow trickle towards its twilight years it’s starting to seem more and more like the new defining affect of fantasy is what I call Number Zero stories. I’ll get into what that means in a little bit but there’s no greater example of it than the fact WB is giving Guy Ritchie the reigns of a new big budget King Arthur movie.
There’s a lot to unpack here but let’s start with that term I threw out just now: Number Zero stories. This is a pretty broad reaching term I came up with in 2013 to explain the very large genre of seminal story from childhood that we all know without distinctly remembering where we first encountered it. This extends from fairy tales like Snow White or Jack and the Bean Stalk to children’s literature like Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan to mythology like the story of Hercules or the Minotaur to the bible stories of Noah and Moses to even well known monster narratives like Frankenstein or Dracula.
Like I said, it’s a purposefully broad term meant to be all inclusive of the massive amount of fantasy blockbusters we’ve had this decade that seem to be riding this particular wave. Pretty much since 2010 we’ve had a slew of these movies filling up the box office and while I, and many like me, initially wrote them off as a meandering fad that would die off that doesn’t seem to be the case.
The biggest name in this sub-genre so far has been Disney, though they only recently figured out how to leverage monetary success into culture capital. It was Disney’s Alice in Wonderland that kicked-off this craze in 2010 and it was their Oz the Great and Powerful that cemented its broad appeal in 2013. Both of those films are good examples of number zero movies that made money but didn’t make impact, as I’m pretty sure nobody has thought about them since they happened.
So far, a lot of these movies have been that way like Jack the Giant Slayer, Dracula Untold, Clash of the Titans, Pan, and Mirror, Mirror. However, in 2014 Disney managed to find a winning combination with Maleficent, a bizarre fantasy rape revenge film driven almost entirely by the politics and vision of Angelina Jolie. That movie proved that it was possible to turn Number Zero material into cultural capital through a driven and unique directorial aesthetic, a trick they pulled off again with Cinderella in 2015 and The Jungle Book this year.
Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword seems to be the first major attempt by an outsider to follow up on Disney’s lead. We’ve seen components of the Disney outlook this year, like Warcraft gave Duncan Jones massive freedom for his vision but he wasn’t re-imagining some massively notable classic, meanwhile Huntsman: Winter’s War lacked a unique creative vision to drive its identity, emphasizing the visual aesthetics above all else. In that respect it has something in common with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword as both films are really pushing their unique visual language and how different it is from the standard fantasy palette.
That seems to be a more and more common affect of high fantasy films in the 2010s, that is to say movies that revolve around kings, wizards, knights etc. They aesthetic niche that’s emerged is a weird blend of Miyazaki-esc vistas populated with monsters pulled from across RPG, card, and video games then painted over in Game of Thrones’ unique dirty spectrum color design.
That’s thoroughly the niche King Arthur: Legend of the Sword inhabits, emphasizing bizarre and ornate armor designs, giant animal monsters, and a series of demonic knights that look straight out of the Dark Souls or Witcher playbook. It even manages to bring in some actual actors from Game of Thrones to spice things up.
All of that is, honestly, secondary to what I think actually looks impressive about the film, which is how much it embraces Ritchie’s own unique sensibilities. I’ve been a fan of Ritchie since he first popper up in the early 2000s with a pair of gritty, violent crime comedies in Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. He seemed like a genuinely interesting talent at the time whose hyper-editing style wasn’t as obnoxious as some of his contemporaries like Michael Bay or Baz Luhrmann.
Unfortunately, Ricthie’s career didn’t really pick up till 2008 after his divorce when he finally returned to form with RocknRolla, another violet British crime comedy. He followed that up with the Sherlock Holmes films, which served as Ricthie’s reintroduction to the mainstream. They also proved Ritchie was a viable blockbuster producer despite his decade languishing in mediocrity, even if he did follow them up with Man from U.N.C.L.E., which was a pretty major disappointment.
That kind of eclectic career ends up making Ritchie a paradoxically mercurial talent to pin down despite being a filmmaker who clearly values style over real substance. His films don’t really feature much in the way of restraint or subtext and the times where does try to inject some kind of meaning like Revolver end up laughably bizarre or just plain uncomfortable like Swept Away. Ritchie’s best films always feature the same aspects and commitments but that rarely sinks bellow the surface levels of the film.
So far, King Arthur seems to be showing a lot of good signs for a Guy Ritchie movie. The high speed editing and non-linear storytelling of this trailer is a classic trick he loves to use and definitely highlights how much Ritchie likes to use editing and construction to enhance his films rather than subtext or meaning.
Additionally, the central re-imagining of King Arthur becoming a street rat in the same vein as Aladdin seems like a very Guy Ritchie thing to do. Like I said, Ritchie’s most comfortable when he’s making comedic movies about violent street level crooks so it makes sense that would seep into his King Arthur adaptation.
At the same time, his lack of interest in plot (most of his stories are a meandering series of scenes showcasing the characters playing off each other) is why the film is already trying to sell itself on his editing flourishes and the visual aesthetic of the fantasy elements on hand.
I’m not really sure I have a real point to be made here about all these elements. It feels like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has all the pieces assembled to produce an impactful fantasy blockbuster but that I think Ritchie might end up the weak link in his own endeavor. Ritchie’s a competent director with a lot of style but his movies have a bad habit of washing over folks and not leaving a ton of impact.
I mean, we as a culture pretty much forgot his Sherlock Holmes films rather quickly and it’s starting to look more and more like he peaked with Snatch. This gets even truer if you compare his work to that of contemporary Matthew Vaughn. Vaughn also started with elaborate British crime stories in Layer Cake but quickly moved on to major success by revitalizing the X-Men films and giving us Kick-Ass and Kingsman. But then again, WB is hoping for King Arthur to launch a whole shared universe of Arthurian blockbusters so even if it becomes just another good but forgettable Guy Ritchie joint it could at least launch some more interesting installments down the line.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is scheduled for release March 24, 2017
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