Film Reviews

Film Review: Is King Arthur: Legend of the Sword Really That Bad?

Yesterday, I wrote about King Arthur’s legendarily terrible box office performance. Today, I take a look at whether or not the movie is as bad as its box office would lead you to believe.


That’s how many percentage points currently separate King Arthur: Legend of the Sword’s RottenTomatoes critics’ rating and its audience score. Approximately 26% of critics gave the film a bad review while 80% of RT’s readers indicated they actually liked it.

You know what this means, right? We have another Batman v Superman/Suicide Squad situation on our hands except both of those movies made money despite a considerable divide between critical and fan reaction. Arthur, on the other hand, is well on its way to becoming one of the biggest box office bombs of all time. So, this isn’t a case of the wide masses supporting mindless fluff which stuffy critics can’t stand. No, most people are skipping this film entirely. Those few who are going to see it, however, seem to like it.

Insert mandatory reference to response bias.

Also insert a mandatory reference to the inherent folly of putting too much stock in RottenTomatoes.

Point out King Arthur’s average 2.9/5 star rating on Letterboxd and 7.4/10 rating on IMDB.

Stop stalling with numbers and actually get to the film itself.

Right, so the question is whether or not King Arthur is truly as bad as you might think. That depends: Are you a 12-year-old boy who doesn’t know anything about Arthurian legend? If so, you’ll probably love this live action video game posing as a movie. If not, well you might have a lot of fun coming up with clever ways to tear it apart online, such as Tasha Robinson opening her Verge review as follows:

If you had a really bad migraine during Return Of The King and passed out, and then went home and watched 10 random minutes of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, this is EXACTLY what it would look like. Okay, it would help if you were a little bit high, and you were watching Lock, Stock in your man-cave filled with furs draped over leather couches, and plastered in Frank Frazetta paintings, while the scent of Axe Body Spray hangs heavy in the air. Who did your decor, bro?

She’s absolutely right: Arthur is a supremely weird mishmash of fantasy storytelling and director Guy Ritchie being Guy Ritchie, coming off as a testosterone-fueled, generic blockbuster destined to play well with Axe Body Spray enthusiasts and the 12-and-under crowd. It’s all style, no substance, getting by with a bare bones Lion King plot in which a usurping uncle (Law) gets his comeuppance years later when his nephew (Hunnam) finally comes of age.

And that would be okay if King Arthur was actually fun or nice to look at or included some standout special effects and inventive action sequences. Instead, it’s a colossal bore which alternates between camp and confused sincerity and features a muted, depressingly drab color palette, sub-par special effects and few memorable action beats. Often, the only thing holding your attention or keeping you awake is Ritchie’s hyperkinetic editing, crafting his trademark monologue montages with the annoying energy of someone who can’t believe he’s been given a $175 million budget to play with. He simply can’t stop himself from doing all the things he normally does just times ten this time. So, you’re damn right he strapped some Go-Pros on his actors, and tossed in monstrous CGI elephants at the beginning and a giant CGI snake at the end for no real reason other than the fact that he could.

In fact, there is arguably no bigger character in this film than Guy Ritchie. His signature style repeatedly overshadows the plot and the actual performances of the actors, though apart from Law’s broadly enjoyable deviousness in the film’s first two-thirds none of the actors do much to stand out anyway. Hunnam is a charisma void as Arthur, desperately reaching for Heath-Ledger-in-A-Knight’s-Tale energy but producing none of the corresponding charm. Astrid Bergès-Frisbey as Arthur’s magical ally The Mage reads her lines with all of the confidence of an actress who just learned how to pronounce them in English minutes before filming. Djimon Hounsou and Eric Bana are also around, though they leave less of an impression than Aidan Gillen and Michael McElhatton who at least get points for “hey, I remember you from Game of Thrones.” And the first time you’ll actually notice the other allies who survive and end up being knighted is when Arthur finally reveals their name while appointing them to his Roundtable.

It’s not surprising, then, that [spoiler alert] the final shot of the film is a close-up of Excalibur, hoisted into the air by Arthur at his coronation ceremony. That magical sword is actually the breakout character of the film, the thing for which you’ll likely feel the most emotion because at least its presence usually signals something cool is about to happen. The scenes of Hunnam’s Arthur wielding Excalibur like Kratos from God of War will have you reaching for the invisible video game controller in front of you to try to direct his deadly blade, and you’ll be reaching for that imaginary controller again during the final boss battle when Jude Law’s baddie Vortigern morphs into a CGI, Sauron-like monster with a predictable pattern of attack and obvious weak spot to exploit.

But, obviously, there’s no controller. This isn’t a video game; it’s just a movie, one which just seriously robbed us of its promised face-to-face Charlie Hunnam-Jude Law final fight in favor of some video game, magicky nonsense.

But 80% of RottenTomatoes readers are cool with all of that. To them, King Arthur is the latest dividing line between those who still remember how to enjoy movies and those who simply overthink everything. It’s a big, dumb action movie with CGI monsters, a hot leading man, a name actor camping it up as the bad guy, video game visuals and a director unafraid to put his stamp on the material. What’s not to love?

Oh, so many things. But we’ll have to agree to disagree.


King Arthur: Legend of the Sword isn’t so bad that it deserves to be one of the biggest box office bombs of all time, but let’s not kid ourselves here – it’s still really, really bad.



  1. It makes sense. True fans of the genre and/or world of Arthur went to the movie in spite of the bad press. There weren’t many of them, but those who chose to go, anyway, are much more likely to praise the film.

    OTOH, it bodes well for the film that hard core fans didn’t hate it. That suggests the movie maybe didn’t tell a bad story. Fans can be pretty harsh when a movie messes up a beloved story.

  2. I made the mistake of writing my comment before reading the entirety of your review.

    So, it sounds like Arthur FANS don’t like it because it messes too much with canon. But people who just like to see swinging swords and big battles and tough heros liked it even though it wasn’t very Arthurian?

    That’s kind of what Abram’s Star Trek Movies were like for me. If I stopped thinking of it as Star Trek, they were pretty good. But he messed with ST canon so much, I hated it as a ST film.

    1. I’d guess that the majority of the people who dig King Arthur came to the movie with limited to no familiarity with Arthurian legend. The film works best, really, if your level of awareness is such that when Merlin is mentioned in passing you might think, “Isn’t he a legendary wizard or something? I think he was in Lord of the Rings.” If you do come to it with an appreciation for Arthurian legend you’ll find none of the romance or wonder and instead a lot of “Old London, Fuck Yeah!” and Guy Ritchie at his over-caffeinated worst.

      Your Star Trek analogy is apt except you can appreciate the Abrams Star Trek movies as movies if you divorce yourself from fandom but it’s harder to do that with King Arthur because when simply taken as a movie it’s not as defendable as Abrams’ Star Trek.

  3. In this case, only people who really wanted to like the movie saw and reviewed it. So…yeah, I don’t think that the audience score means much. Just look at every single Christian movies. They tend to have the same gabs in score.

    1. Yeah, response bias is an obvious factor here. It just gave me a convenient opening for the article. Plus, there were several bloggers and film nuts who I follow on Twitter raving about this movie over the weekend. So, I at least kind of, sort of, maybe, not really know some people who genuinely like King Arthur.

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