We can sit and yammer until the sun burns out about the many ways the Marvel Cinematic Universe has affected film on a business level, but one of the more obvious ripples on a pure storytelling level has been the way every other studio has been desperate, dare I say thirsty to build a billion dollar multi-movie franchise to call their own. Lionsgate’s Robin Hood—the latest of many takes on the legendary steal-from-the-rich rapscallion out of Sherwood Forest—is possibly the most obvious example since Universal’s Dark Universe blinked into nothingness with the sound of Tom Cruise‘s weird inhuman scream. For two hours, director Otto Bathurst (Black Mirror) can only keep one of the mythic archer’s eyes on the target, so focused is the other one on potential sequels and possibly a leather hood deal with J.C. Penney. The result is big, loud, and lifeless, with one hell of a charismatic cast—led by Kingsman breakout Taron Egerton—doing their best with a Ben Chandler and David James Kelly script that doesn’t care much for the characters it moves from setpiece to setpiece. “This is no bedtime story,” Tim Minchin, as Friar Tuck, says in voiceover at the start of the film, a funny thing considering what follows is probably going to put a few people to sleep.
Robin Hood exists in one of those very Game of Thrones-like aesthetics that is supposed to be medieval but everyone also buys their clothes at Zumiez. One of these castle-dwelling leather lords is Robin of Loxley (Egerton), a nobleman who strikes up a whirlwind romance with a thief named Marian (Eve Hewson) he catches trying to pillage his stables. The couple’s bliss is interrupted when Robin is drafted into the Crusades, a war that sends him to far-off Arabia for years only to return injured and disgraced when he tries to save the son of an imprisoned enemy soldier named John (Jamie Foxx). Robin arrives home to find his estate is in shambles, Marian believes he is dead and has moved on to a taller, far more wooden man named Will Scarlet (Jamie Dornan), and the nefarious Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn) is taxing people into poverty. With the help of John, who stowed away on the boat back to England, Robin adopts the mantle of The Hood—yes, the same name used for years on The CW’s Arrow—a vigilante who plays the part of suave aristocrat by day and takes coin out of the corrupt church’s pockets by night.
If that all sounds like the beats of a Batman movie, it’s because they are the beats of a Batman movie, complete with someone eventually telling Robin “The Hood is not a disguise, Loxley is the disguise.” Which might have been fine—no story is truly original, etc etc—but Robin Hood is like a two-hour Batman story that is 95% dedicated to Bruce Wayne coming up with the name Batman. Everything else, like the story, or character interplay, or stakes, are parchment thin. Things like Robin returning to town ostensibly from the dead are met with a mild “oh.” John speaks many, many times of the “war” he and Robin are about to declare on the establishment without ever defining it, opting instead for endless bow-and-arrow training montages. Rather than build an organic story, the script introduces names like they are, in fact, beloved comic book characters finally being brought to life, as if hordes of English majors are going to pack the theaters screaming “Oh shit that’s THE Marian, from the well-known folk-tale!” Just going absolutely buck wild in the cinema aisles over the real, not-a-joke line “I thought you were a friar, Tuck.”
It’s insane for a movie to be this dull with a cast this charismatic. Where the Kingsman films weaponized Egerton’s charm, Robin Hood actively works to cover it up. His Robin is the type of masked, muted badass that exists mostly to frame cool trailer shots, emerging from the shadows to horrifically maim castle guards who are quite frankly just doing their job half the time. The film occasionally lets Egerton take the wrap off his face and play around with Foxx or Hewson, tantalizing hints of a hero you might want to side with for reasons other than the fact you like the actor playing him.
And Ben Mendelsohn, man, I truly wish this wonderful actor wasn’t so good at playing the type of cookie-cutter mustache-twirler that studio action films need. Truly, Mendelsohn devouring the scenery whole and coming back for thirds is the highlight of this film—really, any film he’s in—but it’s basically the same performance he gave in Rogue One and Ready Player One. The dude is giving monologues about feeding people’s entrails to dogs in his sleep by now. There’s a scene in Robin Hood where Mendelsohn and Foxx are viciously hamming it up at each other from across an interrogation table that is so deliciously enjoyable that I’ve never wished harder for a pair of actors to apparate into a better movie.
The action cooked up by stunt coordinator Domonkos Pardanyi (Edge of Tomorrow) and fight director Balazs Lengyel (The Spy Who Dumped Me) is best when it’s contained; there’s a frantic flight from a robbery gone wrong that sticks mostly to hallways and staircases that is genuinely thrilling because cinematographer George Steel‘s earthquake-shake camera feels desperate in a character-driven way. But the bigger the set-pieces become the more Bathurst and Co. lose any emotional center, a flaw not helped by the fact they seem to underestimate how many horses their heroes can casually kill and still remain likable.
It’s no surprise that Robin Hood‘s third act is more fun than what comes first, because the tedium of getting Robin Hood and his Merry Men together will never, ever be as enjoyable as the Merry Men just being together. If you can slog it through the first hour-and-a-half, Robin Hood eventually morphs into a breezy heist film. But you gotta’ do the origin story first, because how else would you get the sequel, and then the sequel’s sequel? You might even be able to ignore the underlying franchise-building if this film—without giving away The Twist—didn’t end on such a blatant, thudding request for a follow-up.
But hey, this is the year of the critic-proof movie, after all. Maybe Robin Hood will make a bajillion dollars and spawn a franchise, an ironic case of giving to the rich and taking from the poor audiences who deserve bullseyes instead of book chapters.