You need to watch the most popular medieval superhero movie on Netflix ASAP
Guy Ritchie’s revisionist medieval fantasy is trending on Netflix. Here’s why it’s an underrated adaptation of Arthurian lore.
What do we want from our legends? Hollywood often sets itself to the task of retelling classic tales, though innovating in realms as enduring as those of high fantasy naturally calls into question what matters most about such stories.
David Lowery’s The Green Knight recently reimagined Sir Gawain’s chivalric quest as an apocalyptic fugue. Casting Dev Patel as a young noble whose daily conduct and deeper cowardice were at odds with those much-vaunted traits needed in a knight — bravery, courtesy, chastity, honor — the film subverted its source material while offering profound meditations on the nature of fate and human frailty. By no means a straightforward adaptation of the classic poem, it nonetheless captured something essential and elemental about it.
Released four years ago, Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword similarly situates audiences amid the men and mages of medieval England. Ritchie delivers a vivid revisionist take on Arthurian figures so shrouded in myth that “faithfully” telling their stories becomes more a matter of deciding which apocryphal scripture to believe than following the historical record.
Now that Ritchie’s film, a critically panned box-office bomb upon release, is streaming on Netflix, it’s high time to reappraise the director’s brazen, clever, and thrillingly imaginative reinterpretation of medieval lore.
Legend of the Sword opens as giant battle elephants, commanded by the warlock Mordred, lay siege to Camelot. King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) plunges into battle and manages to infiltrate his opponent’s lair, slaying him as villainous brother Vortigern (Jude Law) schemes back at the castle. It’s a frenetic, visually invigorating start to the film — and a prologue, we learn, as Vortigern orchestrates a bloody coup and baby Arthur is floated Moses-style down the river to safety.
Over in Londonium, brothel workers adopt Arthur, at which point a full-throttle montage kicks in to chart his growth, reminding us that Guy Ritchie is at the helm of this particular retelling. The English director (who debuted with tongue-in-cheek crime caper Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) is better known for cavorting with local lowlife than sitting at high tables. Between Snatch, Revolver, and RocknRolla, he previously developed a reputation as one of the most gregarious directors of gangster pictures, before sharpening up Sherlock Holmes into a quick-witted action hero played by Robert Downey Jr. As such, it’s unsurprising that his King Arthur is a bawdier, more adrenalized take than we’ve seen before.
Soon, his adult Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is revealed as a full-blown lad, running amok in Londonium with a motley crew of street toughs who sport names like Goosefat Bill (Aidan Gillen), Wet Stick (Kingsley Ben-Adir), and Back Lack (Neil Maskell). Nimbly working their way around Ritchie’s breakneck banter, all delivered in a Cockney patois as thick as the stench wafting off the film’s medieval Thames, these characters reveal a street-smart sensibility that’s heightened by Daniel Pemberton’s brawnily percussive score and editing techniques that keep King Arthur moving at a caffeinated blur.
This is all by design, though it at times feels intentionally alienating. Ritchie’s irreverent, bare-knuckle theatrics don’t faithfully adapt Arthurian lore so much as rub its regal face in the dirt and give its ribs a good kicking. Much of that comes down to Ritchie’s decision to take his cues equally from fantasy video games and his tosser-auteur crime capers as from the existent lore and other high-fantasy prestige projects (Game of Thrones and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies are sampled, shall we say, liberally).
Sliced-and-diced, chopped-and-screwed, and tongue firmly in cheek, his King Arthur is a rather magnificently absurd hunk of postmodern pastiche. The film employs all the high fantasy Ritchie can conjure and barrels through it with little of the staid grandeur that would more typically accompany such stories. Here, Ritchie is retelling an iconic piece of British literature in his own dizzyingly charged-up style, using all that excess energy to shake the source material off its foundations.
So uninterested in a conventional restaging of Arthur’s ascension to power is Ritchie that he dispenses with the palace intrigue and royal lineage backstory via mile-a-minute voiceover. Elsewhere, he relegates story beats to giddy montages, in which time slows down and speeds up as required to elevate Ritchie’s favored moments into iconographic tableaux — without surrounding them with table-setting that concerns him far less.
In this way, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword parallels Zack Snyder’s similarly symbolic, visually resplendent superhero sagas — though Snyder’s in the business of aesthetic mythmaking, casting his superheroes in classical poses that reify their immortality, whereas Ritchie’s more subversive vibrations pry his characters loose from such poses and crack their mythological mold wide open.
This will work like a charm for a particular audience, especially given the touches of wry, overt comedy Ritchie interjects. Everyone seems to know the role they’re meant to play in Ritchie’s revisionist history, and they have a blast with it, down to the helmeted guards who, following a breakneck chase, feint pushing each other off a cliff after their absconded quarry.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword often feels less like a medieval epic than a superhero origin story. One should note that the film was eyed as a franchise starter for Warner Bros., which had aimed to use Ritchie’s stylish, express-train approach as the springboard for five additional films. As leading men go, Hunnam’s Arthur is an amiable-enough underdog, though, in this telling, he’s a scrapper with an overpowered sword rather than a secret royal seizing his birthright.
The movie exaggerates the magical qualities of Excalibur so that Arthur’s ascension to power after unsheathing it from the stone feels like a level-up advancement, not the realization of an ancient prophecy. As a result, Ritchie’s King Arthur eventually becomes enough of a lark, albeit a breathless one, to undercut what the studio envisioned as a grandiose saga. (And that’s not even to mention the CGI snakes, wolves, rats, and sea witches.)
Arthur’s eventual standoff with Vortigern, who can transform into a demon knight, has all the weight of a boss battle in Dark Souls. It allows the game-level progression of Ritchie’s film to climax with a maelstrom of clanging swords and swirling magical energies, prioritizing the bodies involved — twisting and turning in exhilarating slow-motion — above the settings around them.
While King Arthur: Legend of the Sword failed to spawn a franchise, Ritchie’s take on Arthurian lore is high-impact. His style, jarring though it can be, is a surprisingly productive fit for a story usually told with more solemnity. That it’s now finding an appreciative audience on Netflix speaks to the integrity of Ritchie’s directorial instinct: By sending his auteurist electricity coursing through an ancient legend, the filmmaker’s succeeded in delivering a truly modern take.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is now streaming on Netflix.