Who needs evil when you have chaotic neutral?
Be honest: you’re probably not going to see King Arthur: Legend of the Sword this weekend. You know how I know this? Math. Yesterday, The Hollywood Reporter offered a bleak vision of the film’s prospects in its opening weekend, suggesting that King Arthur: Legend of the Sword would gross a whopping (sarcasm tags) $25 million against its $175 million budget. That’s not exactly a Ghost in the Shell-level disaster ($19 million), but it’s not that far off, either. Any way you slice it, a lot of people are going to stay home, and in doing so, they’ll miss one of the best summer movie villains of the past few years.
We’re gonna talk all things Vortigern from here on out, so only continue if you’ve already seen King Arthur or could care less about having it spoiled.
Hyperbole? Many words have been written over the past few years about the Marvel Cinematic Universe – still the gold standard of summer blockbusters – and its issues with terrible villains. Back in 2015, for example, ScreenRant published an article suggesting that Marvel’s villains boiled down to one of two problems: either they’re “not explored enough or given enough depth” or they are “killed off too early to develop into something bigger in future MCU properties.” Last year, Digital Spy offered some ground rules for future Marvel movies, including not burying your actor under makeup or CGI, spending time explaining their motivations, and ensuring that their logic and aims are relatable. Marvel boss Kevin Feige even addressed this issue earlier this year in the interview equivalent of a shrug; according to Feige, Marvel’s films will always choose to “focus on the heroes.”
All of which leads me to Jude Law’s Vortigern. I’m more positive than most on Ritchie’s Britpop retelling of the Arthurian legend; we’ll dive into that in greater detail in Monday’s episode of the After the Credits podcast. What really holds the movie together, however, is Law’s delightfully on-key performance as King Arthur’s Claudius wannabe. Vortigern is a villain with interesting motivations; unlike many summer movies – who cast their antagonists as unfeeling monsters from the first moment they step on the screen – King Arthur spends a great deal of screen time being conflicted about Vortigern’s complex power grab. He seems to bear no ill-will towards his brother other than his desire to possess the sword; he anguishes – twice! – over the price he must pay in his family’s blood to achieve the bursts of power needed to confront Uther and his son.
In fact, Vortigern stands out as pretty much the antidote to a lot of Marvel villains. Let’s use this Collider piece from 2015 as the framework for a better Marvel villain and see how Vortigern scores:
But even if Marvel sticks to one-and-done villains, they need more character development. They need to want more than power or revenge. They should stop being dark versions of the heroes, and should take a more active role instead of relying on glorified henchmen. If they want to wipe out the world, it should come from a unique place rather than the need to subjugate others.
So, let’s see how he does. Wanting more than power or revenge? There’s a delightfully sinister monologue delivered about halfway through King Arthur where Law’s character explains the intoxicating sensation of being feared by men. Power as an abstract concept has become a cliché in superhero films, but this film uses that fear – religious fear of the commoners, political fear of England’s enemies, and primal fear as the demonic knight that Vortigern transforms into – as a perversion of the typical blockbuster power grab. Power can be taken; fear must be given, and Law finds a thread of cowardice in his character that he knows better than to locate in the foreground. Vortigern’s subtle cowardice makes his character so much more interesting than a CGI monster with an Achilles heel.
Dark versions of heroes? Despite a dungeon monologue where Vortigern tells Arthur that they have more in common than he’d think, there’s a nice imbalance between the two characters. Arthur’s arc is that of the typical hero’s journey; through the film, he learns that only he possesses a special power, and, by learning to accept himself, he blah blah blah. Vortigern’s path to power is decidedly more interesting. Despite repeated assertions that Vortigern is growing in power as he completes his McGuffin Tower, the truth is that Vortigern isn’t a particularly gifted mage; to my recollection, he casts a grand total of two spells during the film (once lighting a candle, another time curling a fireball) and is forced to borrow powers from the witches through the sacrifice of his family members to get the job done.
And then there’s Law’s performance itself. Studio pictures can often be made by how carefully the actors walk the line between pulp and poetry; introduce too much camp and you risk not being taken seriously by audiences, but act too solemn and you lose any semblance of self-awareness in your project. Law’s performance here finds the perfect balance between the two. He treats the moments of self-sacrifice with utmost sincerity and spends the rest of the movie as a sort of petulant biker king, slumping in his chair and angrily snapping at those around him. He’s intelligent, sure, but also paranoid and arrogant in equal amounts. There’s a lot more going on here than any number of godlike supervillains, and Law sells it all with a bit of that Young Pope panache we’ve all come to love.
So yeah, skip King Arthur: Legend of the Sword if Guy Ritchie and historical action movies aren’t your things, but if you’re tired of paint-by-numbers evil villains in the months of May, June, and July, you could do a lot worse than Jude Law’s endearing performance. To put it into terms any roleplayer might understand: in a mode of cinema marked by the most obviously evil characters, it’s amazing how much fun a simple chaotic neutral villain can be. Vortigern is selfish, conflicted, swaggering, and a coward, and, as a result, might just be one of the better blockbuster movie villains (non-Mad Max: Fury Road category) we’ve seen in quite some time.