Thursday, July 6, 2017

Personal Reflections on King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

In the Golden Age of Hollywood, the studios managed to make around 50 films per year.  No surprise given that many of the studios were essentially factories, and the actors/stars were products.

Movie stars and actors (not the same thing) were controlled by the studios.  Their image, their publicity, even their private lives.  How many so-called 'lavender marriages' formed because a star's true sexual orientation had to be kept hidden?  In exchange, the studio invested heavily in said star if they thought that star had earning potential.

They were given singing lessons, acting lessons, dancing lessons, elocution lessons, wardrobe, and most importantly, they were kept working.  Yes, they didn't have much choice in their roles and could be suspended if they refused a part.  Sometimes they were cast in the same types to where they were almost never able to break free.  However, they did keep working and learning, and they had a chance to move up from small parts to perhaps larger roles, and even if they didn't 'break out', at least they managed to get a career that might not have had if not for people like Mayer, Warner, and Zanuck.

Now, what does all this have to do with the spectacular failure of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword? Why am I giving this little history lesson to go over why the film bombed, and bombed hard?

Well, for starters we have the issue of Charlie Hunnam.  Now, I don't know what kind of person Hunnam is, and I haven't seen enough of his work to judge whether or not he is a good actor, let alone a great one.  I can say that Hunnam isn't a big star.  I'd argue he's not even a star, let alone one that audiences want to see.

Tom Cruise is a big star, perhaps the biggest one we have, and he costarred with Russell Crowe, no slouch in that department; yet their names alone weren't enough to draw crowds to The Mummy (another flop).  If Tom Cruise of all people couldn't spin a hit with a recognized title, what made studio executives think Charlie Hunnam could?

As such, we have our first issue: casting.  King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has virtually no names that have a solid fanbase or recognition to lure audiences to the film.  The biggest name in the film was Jude Law, and let us remember how Chris Rock ridiculed Law's ubiquitousness when Rock hosted the Oscars.  You had respected actors in Legend of the Sword (Law, Eric Bana), but no one that one could point to and say, 'yes, I have to make that a must-see'.

Going back to when the studios ruled with an iron fist, they would not have cast Hunnam in the title role for a potential franchise (as a side note, they wouldn't have thought of a franchise: very few major Golden Age films have sequels or follow-ups.  Those were usually saved for B-films).  They would have started him small, in a supporting role, essentially an audition to the public to measure how they responded to him.

This is how Donna Reed for example, went from an Andy Hardy girlfriend to larger parts culminating in an Oscar and her own television series.  MGM saw that she had a positive response from audiences, so they opted to give her bigger parts.  Once she had that clout, then she could fight for better parts, even ones that went against her 'girl-next-door' image, like in From Here to Eternity.

Instead, Warner Brothers decided to throw a relative unknown at us and declare him a star, without wondering whether we would accept him as such.  It's no slam on Hunnam, who can't be blamed for the fiasco of Legend of the Sword outside of his performance (the only part of the production he had control over).

Now, with the casting of Hunnam in the lead, we have our second issue: franchising.  Warner Brothers and director Guy Ritchie and everyone involved with Legend of the Sword were aiming to make this a franchise.  Whatever the merits of Hunnam's acting abilities, the idea that this unknown with limited name recognition was going to carry a six-series franchise on his muscular shoulders seems bizarre. If you can't sell a franchise with its star alone (like with The Mummy), you sell it with the property.  The Arthurian legends, however, might not have been the right property with which to spin more gold.

It's one thing to give a franchise starter to someone like Cruise, who has done it with the Mission: Impossible films.  Cruise also had the benefit of a known property like The Mummy, the first in a highly ambitious 'Dark Universe' series.  While King Arthur is also a known property, a film about our noble monarch hasn't been successful since Monty Python & The Holy Grail, and that was a spoof.

The question of franchise is one that has to be addressed.  What studios are making now are not movies, but trailers for movies that may never come.  A horrendous example is Independence Day: Resurgence.  Ostensibly a sequel for a twenty-year-old film, ID:R ends with a naked announcement that there will be another film or worse, a whole series of films based on this.  However, in this case 20th Century Fox didn't seem concerned if ID:R was actually good.  They apparently thought that the end product would wow audiences so much that they'd clamor for more.

They didn't.  Independence Day: Resurgence was almost universally panned and audiences rejected it.  I do not foresee more Independence Day films, yet the film ends with the suggestion that our heroes will travel to other worlds to do more battle.

In a sense, it leaves ID:R unfinished, unresolved, and yet another in a long line of extensive trailers that audiences are given.

There's an irrational mania that has overtaken Hollywood: the Franchise Frenzy.  Studios, desperate for a steady stream of income, decide to latch onto properties that may open up new series, ones with hopefully high yields and low risks.  This is why we have the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Extended Universe, the X-Men series, a more expansive Star Wars series, the Fast & Furious franchise, the Planet of the Apes franchise, the King Kong/Godzilla franchise and now the Dark Universe from Universal.

Raiding old properties and recent films, we've had failed franchise starters with the aforementioned Independence Day, along with other corpses in the Franchise Frenzy: Tarzan, The Huntsman, Ghostbusters, Pan, Warcraft, John Carter, Percy Jackson, Priest, Green Lantern, Jupiter Ascending, Seventh Son, The Green Hornet, Beautiful Creatures, Van Helsing, The Chronicles of Narnia, Prince of Persia, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (which was also directed by Guy Ritchie), The Mortal Instruments, Kick-Ass, R.I.P.D., I Am Number Four, Power Rangers, Abduction, TRON, Robin Hood (with a reported sight on still spinning a franchise out of that property), The Lone Ranger, Divergent, The Three Musketeers, Ender's Game, The Last Airbender, and most painful/egocentric of all, After Earth.

We also have sputtering franchises, among others Jack Reacher, the new Aliens/Prometheus series, Pirates of the Caribbean, Diary of a Wimpy Kid,  Jason Bourne, Avatar, Transformers, Mission: Impossible, and Star Trek: franchises that aren't dead but are showing diminishing returns to where justifying another round gets harder and harder.

We'll also have more films if not whole franchises based on such films as Kingsman, Jurassic World, as well as upcoming films based on Vince Flynn's Mitch Rapp novels starting with American Assassin, and most curiously, Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them

No Newt Is Good Newt, I Say.

Does J.K. Rowling need the money?
Are people that desperate for five more merry adventures with Newt Scamander?

And that's not even getting into the nearly endless remakes we're going to be treated to or have been treated to.  Disney alone is blowing up its vaunted Vault to give us live-action versions of their animated films, right down to a live-action Dumbo.  I should note that the live-action version of Aladdin is being directed by Guy Ritchie, who brought us King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.

What could go wrong?

This Franchise Frenzy is what studios are rushing and falling all over themselves (and falling in general) to keep the coffers flowing.  It's considered safer to build on an already established film or title rather than run the risk of having a flop with something new or original.

Ironically, the more studios push franchises and sequels on audiences, the more they stubbornly refuse them.  People rejected The Mummy, but somehow, in some way, Universal will push on to bring us a remake of Bride of Frankenstein (I guess the first one wasn't good enough) and films on the Creature From the Black Lagoon, and on The Wolf Man (not to be confused with Benicio Del Toro's The Wolfman). Frankenstein (not to be confused with Kenneth Branagh's version, perhaps libelously named Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) and Dracula (not to be confused with Dracula Untold).

Now, one might wonder why despite these string of flops and fiascos, studios keep pushing on into the Deep Muddy (to misquote a Pete Seeger song).  Quite simple: The Red Middle Kingdom.

China now is a larger and more lucrative market for films than the U.S. and Europe, and the studios will go pay homage to Chairman Mao if it makes them a buck.  If a film strikes it big in China, we might get a sequel or a franchise regardless of how awful it is or how spectacularly it fails in the States or Britain.

The studios now are discovering the charms of the East, tailoring their films not for a domestic audience but an international one.

If one takes a brief look at recent films, we can see that as far as today's studio executives are concerned, they should Go East, Young Man.

Pacific Rim had Hong Kong as a major part of the story and had Chinese characters and stars in major roles.

Doctor Strange had its climatic battle in Hong Kong.  It also altered the character of The Ancient One to be Celtic rather than Tibetan since the Chinese don't want any mention of Tibet, a country they invaded, still occupy and won't acknowledge as independent.

The remake of Red Dawn had to have the villains changed from the Chinese to the North Koreans, again to placate the Communist regime in Beijing.

Independence Day: Resurgence had Chinese characters and stars in major roles.

Transformers: Age of Extinction has Hong Kong as a major part of the story.

Now You See Me 2 has Hong Kong as a major part of the story.

The Great Wall was essentially a Chinese film masquerading as an American one; the setting was Chinese, a number of the cast are stars in China, and parts of the dialogue were in Chinese.

All these films had either Chinese stars, Chinese characters in major roles, a Chinese setting, or a combination thereof because that is where the U.S. studios think real power lies.  They, I figure, want to still cull favor with American audiences, but they also know that so long as China has their back and can prop up a big-budget horror like Transformers, they can keep churning them out.

The studios aren't interested in that the Chinese film industry is still tightly controlled by the government.  They are more than willing to change settings, plot points, or anything else to please the Chinese leadership, while simultaneously dismissing objections from middle American audiences and certainly opposing any government interference from Washington.

I would not be surprised if within ten to fifteen years, we had a major Hollywood biopic on Chairman Mao, or a major Hollywood war film where the Chinese are portrayed as heroic.

I doubt that the Rape of Nanking will ever be made by any major studio no matter the star, the script or the director.

I think it has less to do with Hollywood agreeing with Communism and more seeing that Chinese audiences are a better source of income.

Now, what does the Chinese market have to do with the failure of King Arthur?  Well, China is the last recourse for a floundering film, especially a big-budget one.  Had King Arthur miraculously been a hit in China, we more than likely would have had another King Arthur film, if not the six originally envisioned.  The Mummy, for example, was a smash in China, taking in $52 million on its opening weekend there versus a mere $32 million in the States. 

As it stands, this time our favorite Reds won't be kowtowing to monarchy anytime soon, as there doesn't appear to be a rush in Shanghai to see Jude Law usurp a mythical throne.

From my vantage point, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword failed for a wide variety of reasons.  The cast is not big enough to pull in audiences.  It put too many eggs in one basket by forcing a franchise instead of concentrating on one film and taking it from there.  It also relied perhaps too optimistically on foreign markets to act as a cushion should it fail in the West.  It all was poorly thought out and executed.

Oh, and one more thing.  It was just a bad movie.

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