Film Feature | Just Why Did King Arthur: Legend of the Sword Flop So Bad?

There’s been an unusual amount of digital ink spilled trying to figure out why Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword performed just as badly as it did. The fantasy epic made 14 million on opening weekend Stateside against a budget that was reportedly close to 200 million. In short, it bombed badly and there’s been no shortage of pundits telling us just why. For the most part they read like ancient oracles trying to explain an earthquake by looking at animal entrails. If only there was some way of figuring this out.

Indiewire claimed a lack of strong female characters and hardcore violence were to blame. While it would be great if more Hollywood output had better roles for actresses, this is a movie with a botched screenplay. For example, at one point Jude Law must sacrifice a loved one to a sea monster to gain evil wizard powers (just accept it and move on). I don’t think his apparent love has one line before this occurs and so we feel nothing. However, rather than point to script problems Indiewire seem to think all the story needed was more gore and more women. The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies did just fine while also being bloodless sausage fests so it’s hard to believe that all audiences wanted was for Lady Guinevere to turn up and curb stomp someone.

Whatculture partially blamed competition from sword n’ sandals TV like Game Of Thrones and Vikings. Even ignoring that, this King Arthur bears as much resemblance to Game of Thrones as Tammy and the T Rex does to Jurassic Park, the argument runs like this: if people can watch something similar at home they will. This, too, is hard to buy in a world where World War Z makes bank and The Walking Dead draws in millions of viewers simultaneously. Marvel’s forays into TV don’t seem to have dampened their movies’ hauls either.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword -
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword tanked spectacularly at the box office. Source
Jezebel had an article titled ‘Maybe Stop Making King Arthur Movies for a Little While,’ as if people can even remember the last time they saw a take on this story. The last attempt was Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 flop. Before that, what, First Knight? Excalibur? These films came out literally generations ago. There is no constant barrage of Camelot-set cinema. Furthermore, the age of endless, extended universes, reboots and franchises is a weird time to say that audiences are sick of new takes on the familiar.
Charlie Hunnam’s been blamed for not being charismatic enough to draw viewers in. While he’s not memorable in the role of wide boy, cockney king-in-waiting, this is still unfair. This attempted franchise launcher was re-written, re-shot and re-cut so badly that Astrid Bergés-Frisby’s character allegedly changed half way through production. Similarly, Hunnam just doesn’t have great material to work with. The criticism of Hunnam feels particularly unearned given how even Michael Fassbender, one of the most charming male stars around, couldn’t hold the weight of an Assassin’s Creed movie on his shoulders. The lovechild of Elvis and Lucifer himself wouldn’t have been charismatic enough to sell this.
All these explanations ignore one thing: The film is very, very bad.
Would this simple reasoning account for it tanking? It’s probably true that even though audiences may be vaguely aware of Arthurian legend they don’t really care about it. There are no King Arthur stalls at Comic Con, and no real fanbase. Still, if the film was coherent, if the tone was constant, it might have stood a chance. Instead we have a film that introduces characters and subplots before forgetting about them, that turns an action scene into an overly-stylised montage, and that is too concerned with setting up future adventures to tell us a solid story now.
Ritchie has tried to put a fresh spin on an old tale but the simple truth is that this commercial failure was, ultimately, caused by a creative one.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is in cinemas now, and is reviewed for HeadStuff by Adam Duke here.