This is the age of reboots, remakes, re-imaginings, and the dreaded extended cinematic universe. Scour the film and TV landscape for a few minutes and you’ll see what I mean. Everything with the vaguest hint of nostalgic fondness is suddenly back on the airwaves, or there are serious plans to do so. Once upon a time, film series stopped at trilogies if they didn’t want to rock the boat. Anything beyond that usually signalled cheap cash-ins, horror schlock or some sort of financial scam. Nowadays, if your massive studio buoying blockbuster isn’t part of a multi-film crossover saga, you’re failing. Never mind that so many attempts to replicate the immense success of Marvel Studios have backfired spectacularly: If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.
While Marvel dominates the field and Star Wars looks sturdy for the time being - all eyes are on Solo - other studios have struggled to keep up. Warner Bros. rushed out their DC Universe and made one of the most expensive follies in modern cinema. Universal’s Dark Universe stumbled at the first hurdle. Before it lost the studio over $175m, Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword was pitched as the starting point for a six-movie epic.
Next on the slate, coming September 2018, is yet another reboot of Robin Hood. Directed by first-time feature director Otto Bathurst, the drama will star Taron Egerton, Jamie Foxx, Jamie Dornan and Ben Mendelsohn. This ‘gritty’ take on the story is one of several Robin Hood movies in the pipeline: Disney are said to be working on one, while newly crowned Oscar nominee Margot Robbie has a Maid Marian focused take on the tale in the works. This one, which will of course be released in IMAX, is said to be Lionsgate’s attempt to establish a new franchise that can be mined for sequels, spin-offs and whatever else takes their fancy. When the first images of the film were shared online, the social media response was a resounding ‘meh’. It’s only been eight years since Ridley Scott made his own version of the story, with Russell Crowe in the lead, and the middling reception that received from audiences and critics should have been a big enough hint for the industry. Of course, Hollywood never learns, and you can’t say no to a public domain intellectual property.
Asking why we keep rebooting Robin Hood is probably a pointless endeavour. As with all questionable creative choices, it’s about the money. Even with several flops to the property’s name, it’s still a safer investment for a studio hoping to turn a quick buck than something totally new and untested. Even if you haven’t watched a Robin Hood story in years, you’re probably still tangentially aware of the characters and basic set-up. Your mind will fill with images of flying arrows, Bryan Adams, hammy villains and the occasional pair of green tights. With a premise as simple as ‘he robs from the rich to give to the poor’, the story is a ready-made elevator-pitch. The major problem with this easy to digest concept is that I’m not sure it’s one the general public were crying out for. The Dark Universe may have failed on every level with its starting point, The Mummy, but I at least understood the appeal of turning the old-school monsters of golden age cinema into a modern franchise. Who is Robin Hood for?
Back in that golden age, Robin Hood was a big deal for moviegoers. It helped to establish some of the major leading men of the day. The 1922 production, which took a whole year of work and a million dollar budget, was given the full copyrighted title of Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood, just to give you an idea of how that character established a true silent film icon. In 1938, the mantle fell to the roguish Errol Flynn, who became a major star in the process. Many followed in their footsteps, from David Warbeck to Sean Connery to Kevin Costner to the sexiest cartoon fox Disney ever drew. The decorations change and the intent shifts - go serious, go silly, go musical - but the basic structure remains the same. This is old school heroism, with literal swashbuckling.
Heroes like this can have their allure. There’s an undeniable appeal to a protagonist whose moral compass is as secure and simple as ‘give poor people money’. What left-winger doesn’t love a mainstream pop culture hero whose mantra is to redistribute the wealth? From a cinematic point of view, this can have its positives and negatives. I can already hear the Fox News outcry over a communist community organizer hero who steals flagrantly from the job creators and demonises the poor businessmen of Sherwood Forest. Unfortunately, I doubt that angle would even be played up in a multi-million dollar Fall release that’s aiming for international markets.
Nowadays, we tend to prefer more complex character motivations from our protagonists. We’re also still stuck in the dirge of thinking dark equals interesting. Optimism and sturdy moral compasses apparently don’t interest us anymore. Our heroes must be made more conflicted, grimmer and haunted by the demons of their past. They don’t do humour, they don’t do vibrant colours, and tights are out of the question. There’s been a quiet shift away from that posturing take on edginess - if nothing else good came out of Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, at least we have that - but that seems to be missing from the stills of this latest Robin Hood movie. The colour palate barely moves beyond muddy, there’s not a smile to be found, and you can practically hear the accompanying trailer music of some needlessly slowed down rock hit.
The gender politics of the stories could certainly use an update. Isn’t it a coincidence that all these reboots of established stories and properties conveniently have so few female characters? Even in the most ambitious versions of Hood, Maid Marian tends to be an afterthought, lumbered with the damsel role that insists it’s completely un-damsel-like. As a kid, the BBC show Maid Marian and her Merry Men was the ultimate story of heroes and villains, headlined by a woman, armed with a knowing sense of humour, and one that was willing to be silly. We’re afraid of silliness in our blockbusters, although if Thor: Ragnarok has taught us anything, it’s that our heroes are at their best when they kick back and allow themselves to be totally daft. How does anyone make Robin Hood so self-serious when our first thought is still green tights?
Robin Hood is at its most enjoyable when it goes back to basics: Social justice warrior with arrows and a quiver of quips, a band of genuinely merry men, a villain hammier than a block of pancetta, and some proper sword fights. Perhaps this new Robin Hood will surprise us all and offer something thrilling to the glut of blockbusters on our slate. I’m mostly just hoping for a super melodramatic Ben Mendelsohn performance. There’s certainly space for a socially conscious blockbuster that takes joy in standing up for the needy. If only it could guarantee some fun as well.