Considering Guy Ritchie is known for crafting machismo crime capers, it’s little surprise he’s not much for creating complex female characters. Movies that deal in underground crime tend to focus on men, skirting women to the sides as nagging wives or sultry molls. (Or in this case silent stoner girlfriends and snarky twins.) Admittedly, with Sherlock and Man from U.N.C.L.E. he dared to have female leads, yet made sure to keep them nonthreatening to male egos by making them sassy love interests. (The only female-fronted movie he has to date was Swept Away, which starred his then-wife Madonna.) But Ritchie takes his general disinterest in female characters to disturbing new depths with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, where women in fridges nearly outnumber men with swords.
Spoilers for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword below.
Inspired by the tales of the Knights of the Round Table, the fantasy/action flick follows a burly, street-smart Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) on a quest to topple the evil king Vortigern (Jude Law) who stole his throne. In a lengthy and plot-heavy opening, Ritchie manages to kill off not one but two adoring wives—and in the film’s first ten minutes! This is some Christopher Nolan territory, where a female character’s main function is to be the fulcrum to give a man feels through her undeserved demise. It’s a sexist device that predates both filmmakers. Thanks to its prevalence in comics, it’s called “fridging.” Fitting then that Arthur’s mom bites it in a scene probably pitched as “like Batman but with swords!”
Dashing down Camelot’s version of Crime Alley, Arthur’s parents are slain before his eyes by the vicious villain, whose actions here accidentally gives rise to the hero destined to defeat him. But there’s an important distinction between the parents’ deaths. His mother is killed first, and her final moments will haunt her son in nightmares and visions throughout the rest of the film. She is his loss personified. And that is all she is, because no sooner did we meet her in the throne room, where she nuzzled her son and husband, than we saw her murdered in front of both.
Arthur’s father Uther (Eric Bana) is also slain, but notably after we’ve seen him established as a brave ruler who valiantly and single-handedly saved his kingdom from a maniacal army of mammoths and mages. He actually gets some story and screentime. His death is painted as sad and noble, as he sacrifices himself, not only so his son may live, but also in a way that prevents his greedy brother from gaining the super-powered sword Excalibur. His Queen doesn’t get a moment of glory. She’s just killed so that Arthur can have a tragic backstory. And she’s not alone.
In a dark magic ritual, the vicious Vortigern also slaughters his own wife moments after her first appearance on screen. He cries as he stabs her to death, showing us that he wants power so much he’d sacrifice his lady property to get it. He’ll repeat this move in the third act, killing his only child (a girl of course) in the same ritual. Like her mother, his daughter has no purpose in the film but to be slain for the furthering of a man’s story. She’s introduced as a child, reprimanded as a teen, then disappears for most of the second act before being pulled back in to be murdered. She follows in the “women in fridges” footsteps of her mother, and her aunt. And that’s not all!
Ritchie can’t get enough of killing ladies to give dudes sad feels. To push Arthur to do his evil bidding, Vortigern gathers up the sex workers from the brothel where the true king was raised, and then slits the throat of Arthur’s friend Lucy. Now, don’t dare think her actually having a name means Lucy is a character of any kind. She is more than just a tool to make Arthur feel. She also exists to make him look
good heroic caring. Introduced battered (and presumably raped) by Vikings, Lucy and her bruises shows us Arthur is a “good guy” because he beat up her attackers and mugged them, giving her the stolen gold. He doesn’t care for her by tending to her wounds, or talking to her about her trauma. He gives her a buck-up speech and money, then we won’t see her again until it’s time to get her throat slit. What a hero.
To Ritchie’s credit, he does manage to work some women into this story who are more than murder victims. There’s the Lady in the Lake, who has a scene or two, swimming and sword chucking. There’s resistance spy Maggie, who actually has a plot point of delivering important intelligence to the Resistance. There’s some slimy, tentacled sirens, who almost show their tits and hiss ominous things. That’s literally all they do, but hey at least they’re not murdered for man feels!
The only major female character is played by Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, and she—I kid you not—doesn’t have a name! They call her only “the Mage,” and she was my favorite mainly because she had no patience for Arthur’s insistence that he’s charming. To be honest, I actually thought she was Vortigern’s daughter for most of the movie, because why not name her otherwise, and why else spend so little time on the only other known royal in the line of succession? But poor movie making was the answer. Still, the Mage actually gets to impact the plot as a major, magical force in the Resistance. She boasts the power to mind control animals and monsters, and she doesn’t even have to fall in love with Arthur or die! This is the level at which King Arthur: Legend of the Sword operates. I was genuinely pleased that one single woman got to have an actual role without having to fawn over the macho doofball hero or be murdered to get his attention.
With moviegoers flocking to female-fronted action films like The Heat, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Rogue One and every Hunger Games movie, you can understand why Warner Bros would want to wedge a woman into their aspiring King Arthur franchise. And if they needed a roadmap on how to do it, they had solid fantasy productions to look to, from Lord of the Rings to
the sensational Merlin mini-series. Yet, they got Guy Ritchie and the tired fridging trope. Which not only makes this period-adventure feel woefully dated, but also has us hoping this franchise will die as swiftly and brutally as—um—that first wife who dies. I don’t think they ever said her name.
Kristy Puchko can be yelled at on Twitter.