With their orphaned protagonists, revenge quests, and powerful swords and sorceresses (one good, one bad), King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Conan the Barbarian bear striking surface similarity to one another. But they have something else in common, too: both were monumental franchise flops at the box office, and for the same reasons. Join me on a post-mortem to discover why.
The curse of history
King Arthur and Conan have both been the subject of legendary productions and cult favorites alike. Because of this, their title characters lug a lot of heavy cinematic baggage onto the screen with them, meaning audiences will bring their own expectations along to the theater. The cinematic lineage of these iconic characters makes judging reboots on their own merits difficult for most viewers.
Take Conan as an example. First to play the warrior from Cimmeria was a little-known actor with a strange accent and many, many muscles. This was the perfect job for a young Arnold Schwarzenegger: with few lines to deliver, it suited his yet-to-be-perfected accent and meant that playing Conan was as much stunt-work as anything else. It showcased his strengths (literally) in such a way that his weaknesses had little impact on the film’s success.
His Conan made real cultural waves, too: along with Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo in First Blood (also of the same year), it made this type of character – a big, burly, fearless warrior – inextricably linked with the type of actor who played them. With Conan, Arnie helped set down a brand that is arguably still visible today; who knows if Daniel Craig’s brute-in-a-suit Bond would exist were it not for the likes of Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Jean-Claude Van Damme?
Conan the Barbarian catapulted Schwarzenegger into stardom, making him forever synonymous with the role. For entire generations of film-goers, Conan is Arnie. When Jason Momoa took on the character in 2011’s reboot, he had two things on his side: he was a better actor than Arnie was in 1982, and he was a closer physical match to (Conan creator) Robert E. Howard’s original description of the warrior than Schwarzenegger was. But ultimately, even being more faithful to the much-loved source material couldn’t save him; by taking over Arnie’s iconic character in this reboot of a cult classic, Momoa was treading on hallowed ground in boots much too big to fill. For those uninitiated with the 1982 version, Momoa might have done just fine, but for everyone else, the nostalgic memories of hearing the Cimmerian Conan solve the metaphysical quandary “What is best in life?” with a dead stare and a thick Austrian accent eclipsed anything Momoa might have brought to the role, consigning his Conan to movie oblivion.
While Momoa’s Conan was overshadowed by a single direct character ancestor in Schwarzenegger’s version, Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was beleaguered instead by the well-storied legend of its title.
The glittering romanticism of lost courts, written-in-the-stars destiny, and codes of chivalry have enjoyed a singular hold over audiences’ imagination for centuries, making the (mostly fictional) Arthurian legend one of the most enduring and loved tales of the last 1000 years. Movies like 1981’s Excalibur and the stage-to-screen adaptation of Camelot perhaps best exemplify the classic Arthur tradition on film that we’re most familiar with, born of myth-making literary works like Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte D’Arthur” and T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King” (which also inspired most people’s first introduction to the legend of Arthur, Disney’s The Sword in the Stone). With their swooning, “lush romanticism” and instantly evocative chivalric imagery, these productions helped to fortify the already well-tempered legend of Arthur that Monty Python so lovingly skewered.
This brings us to Guy Ritchie’s re-imagining which saw the director casting Arthur as a kind of laddish superhero in the vein of currently popular franchises. You can see why he took this approach; the last feature that attempted to tell King Arthur’s story in the traditional fashion was the Antoine Fuqua flop King Arthur (hardly encouraging). But in deviating so fundamentally from the finely-matured, 1000-year old flavor of Arthur’s tale, Ritchie ended up scouring Arthur’s story clean of everything remotely interesting – a romance with Guinevere, Lancelot’s betrayal, and literally any sentiment – instead slathering on the CGI and replacing dialogue with cheeky banter and female characters with even more men. With the movie intended to be the first of a six-part franchise, it’s possible that the more iconic elements of the King’s story would have gotten the Ritchie treatment in later installments. Given its bombing at the box office, though, it’s unlikely we’ll ever get to see a laddified version of the legend again.
The star power of TV faces, or lack thereof
Even if their cinematic predecessors didn’t cast such long shadows over King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Conan the Barbarian, neither movie’s lead had the resurrective star power required to steer their films to success.
There is no hard and fast rule here: films led by A-listers can bomb (see Assassin’s Creed and Magnificent Seven), while those helmed by newcomers can emerge triumphant at the box office (take the pre-franchise darling Chris Hemsworth in 2011’s Thor).
But coupled with the fact that the previously-confined-to-TV-success Momoa was reprising a role inextricably linked with one of Hollywood’s most iconic faces, the risk in casting him was big. Visually, Momoa was ideal as Conan, but his star power was still relegated to being that “dude from Game of Thrones“ (GoT), where he played a kind of Dothraki Conan on horseback. Given the show’s massive audience (even in its 2011-aired first season), he was recognizable enough, but the role had seen him limited to playing a famously reticent character – I know, not a huge jump from there to Conan – who was killed off in the season finale. So while it may have earned him a healthy amount of recognition on the street, it was hardly enough to inspire audiences into the theater (with the exception of die-hard Conan nostalgists and Drogo fanatics, if they exist).
Charlie Hunnam as Arthur looked a better lead on paper, having been a strong, reliable mainstay of Sons of Anarchy, in which he featured in a full-hand of 92 episodes. But as Simran Hans has argued, the fact that the fabled Arthur has resisted being made synonymous with any one actor – neither Richard Burton nor Richard Harris could tie the role down – means that any attempts at franchising the legendary King requires an actor with the charisma to conjoin the role to himself. While perfectly functional as Arthur, Hunnam lacks a certain je ne sais quoi required to make the character his, even if Ritchie’s imagining did give him the advantage of playing an Arthur so singularly different from other cinematic versions.
While Momoa was barely challenged for star power in Conan the Barbarian (except, maybe, by Morgan Freeman’s voice-over and Ron Perlman’s short-lived stint), Hunnam found himself royally upstaged by members of his supporting cast. Despite being a central pillar of SoA (by all accounts a major TV hit) it’s hard to put him on a par with names like Jude Law, who plays the pretender king Vortigern with camp aplomb. In fact, it’s impossible. Even the film’s David Beckham cameo (which should be illegal in the future; take note, Hollywood) upstages Hunnam in the star power stakes, despite the footballer not having much by way of acting ability to intimidate with. And given GoT’s status as “consensus TV”, even minor role-playing Aiden Gillen (as Goosefat Bill) is arguably more recognizable to audiences than Hunnam, despite not being as regular a feature of GoT as Hunnam was in SoA. Ultimately, it’s hard for audiences to be commanded by a lead when he’s surrounded by so many (more) famous faces – especially when celebrated sportsmen turn up to steal Hunnam’s limelight in his shining sword-in-the-stone moment.
The Game of Thrones curse
Lastly, since it took off in 2011, the legacy of TV’s favorite show has been killing off every sword-and-sorcery epic like a Lannister at a family picnic.
As WIRED’s Charlie Jane Anders has pointed out, GoT’s mounting cemetery of “chosen one” characters has subverted our expectations of the fate of these characters. No longer do we expect scripts to take them down the unimaginative, banal route of actually succeeding; instead, we anticipate grisly ends, Machiavellian betrayals, and destinies gone wrong in the most viscerally brutal of ways. Reviewers of the show’s first season, which premiered 4 months before Conan the Barbarian’s release, were already praising the unpredictability of its plot lines (“The good guys don’t automatically prevail, as they might in other fantasy tales”).
In a post-GoT world, rehashing the old narratives of natural winners and born kings simply doesn’t fly. When we’ve seen young Bran (whom author George R.R. Martin intentionally set up as a “young Arthur” figure) be cruelly maimed with such godless indifference, we stop taking for granted the happy fate of heroes, and the “once and future king” begins to sound like immature naivety.
Similarly, when we’re used to a show that strings out the avengement of a key character’s parent’s death for nigh-on three 10-hour seasons, a movie like Ritchie’s, that delivers the same in under 130 minutes, is emptily satisfying at best and anti-climactic at worst. We’re in the habit of being starved of the gratification of righteous revenge, so when it’s served up so quickly, it’s almost a disappointment.
And in terms of character development, season 1 of GoT achieved “a superior complexity“, blurring the lines between goodies and baddies alike. In the dichotomy between Arthur and Vortigern, and Conan and Zym, however, we were served psychological austerity; a lack of nuance that couldn’t be distracted from even with those magical masks and gargantuan elephants.
So, what lessons can belearnedt from spectacular flops like King Arthur? Cinematic history matters, for starters. Subverting narratives isn’t a sure-fire way of refreshing the appeal of a millennium-old bedtime story, and acting ability and faithfulness to source material aren’t enough to make a new face stick. Leads matter, too – especially when they’re up against big names and bigger expectations. And lastly, the legacy of GoT is not to be reckoned with. Not only has the wildly popular show sated every desire we could possibly have for a visually sumptuous sword-and-sorcery epic, it has also spoiled any remaining appeal of “chosen one” stories like Conan’s and Arthur’s. Maybe it’s time we retired any attempts to revive these formulaic franchises – well, at least until GoT‘s off-air.