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The Legend of the Liberal Blockbuster

The latest ‘Tarzan’ movie tries to have it both ways (and fails)

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In The Legend of Tarzan, Jane Clayton (Margot Robbie) listens for the animal mating calls of her husband, John Clayton (Alexander Skarsgard), who stalks her through the moonlit rooms of their Hiltonesque Congo lodge like a predator. He John, she Jane. He calls out like a wild animal and she, ever a professor’s daughter, studiously guesses which. The chirp-like yip of the cheetah. The mandrill’s excited bark — booty calls, animal kingdom style, a “DTF?” delivered in every vertebrate pitch John can think of.

Granted, that’s nothing compared to their impromptu first date years earlier, when John, still a tree-climbing, gorilla-loving orphan known as Tarzan, sniffs between Jane’s legs like whichever animal does that on first dates (OK, humans). Despite — or, more likely, because of — Tarzan’s overlong hair, dirty feet, and tendency to treat grunts and sniffs like language, this otherwise cautious young woman takes an interest. That’s how the Congo works, at least according to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s 1912 book, Tarzan of the Apes, to say nothing of the history of history. The jungle has long been condemned and praised as the bane of civility, a boon to the unbuttoned horndog and the lusty, uncivilized animal.

We’re not exactly past that. But we’ve taken to making fun of it, having apparently learned to embrace the beast. That’s what makes The Legend of Tarzan such a curiosity: It’s an attempt to revive old material, with old-world values, for the 21st century — but with modern moviegoing’s love of violence and vengeance, rather than with levity or the cynical laser vision that’d see material for what it is. How do you make a politely liberal blockbuster in 2016? You nudge and you wink — you give 19th-century material a veneer of 21st-century social understanding. You make a movie about a man who, as Jane breathlessly reminds us, has power over the animals and conquers them “because his spirit came from them,” but who still has enough good sense to stave off other conquerors. You cast Samuel L. Jackson as George Washington Williams, a real-life black activist, Civil War vet, and explorer whose own story nevertheless gets grafted onto a Tarzan myth. You encourage Margot Robbie to play Jane Clayton like a 21st-century Grown Woman™, a proto-Beyoncé stan from the suburbs, so overtly contemporary in her downright sassiness you half expect her to call colonialism a Becky.

You also have to play the game. You choose a lead like Alexander Skarsgard, a tall, muscular actor in the Johnny Weissmuller tradition whose impressively lean, long-limbed body will glisten next to furry CGI. You pick a reliable director like David Yates, who directed four Harry Potter movies and knows how to shoot the sweeping scenic tours of landscape any movie set in Africa obviously needs. There’s a reason this movie isn’t Tarzan, but rather The Legend Of: It’s a movie about the legacy, released during the Fourth of July weekend because we, the public, were presumed to want to see a movie about that legacy.

If its heavy costs ($180 million) and comparatively light ($46 million) opening-weekend returns are any indication, that logic is flawed. But that may be neither here nor there — there may be plenty reasons The Legend of Tarzan is an unsuccessful movie. What’s clearer is why it’s a bad one: The movie is so devoted to offering a clever course-correction of the Tarzan myth, while still staying true to that myth, that it overlooks its own impossibility. It’s a liberal blockbuster about slavery. And it doesn’t realize it can’t have it both ways.

“It’s kind of a reversal of the novel or some of the other adaptations,” says the movie’s star, Skarsgard, “where you try to civilize the beast.” Fair enough. When John Clayton returns to the Congo in The Legend of Tarzan, he does so as the man who has become worthy of his cultural and financial inheritance since leaving 10 years prior. He’s learned English and walks upright, wears suits, drinks whiskey, and doesn’t climb things. But in the world of the movie, the Tarzan of the popular imagination lives on in the minds of schoolchildren who ask, “Is it true your mom was a monkey?” and in the rhetoric of know-nothing politicians who insist on calling him Tarzan despite his noble name — just as we do.

But does the Tarzan of our imagination, or for that matter theirs, care about freeing slaves? I’d sooner expect him to found PETA. In the Congo, he sees blacks getting enslaved by the Belgian military under the authority of King Leopold II, whose main henchman is Capt. Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a mean, clever cheerleader for European civilization. Tarzan goes after Capt. Rom ostensibly to thwart continentwide slavery. Or is it that he’s really in it to save his wife, whom Rom has captured? What, really, is Tarzan’s investment? Tarzan is still Tarzan. I was reminded more than once of the Superman envisioned by Zack Snyder, who, sure, could save the world whenever, yadda yadda, but whose first priority is always Lois Lane. Even if the price is an entire village.

In Tarzan, the price is something less tangible. Our patience, sure, but besides that. Everything of interest in the movie was drawn from history, specifically the history of one figure: George Washington Williams. He gets played here like any other perfunctory Samuel L. character, but Mr. Jackson at his blandest is still more fun than most actors on their best day. The real Mr. Williams made a career of exposing the slave practices of King Leopold II; here, he’s a sidekick to his own story.

Doesn’t that sum it up? The movie can’t decide what’s more important: being a Tarzan movie, thus a popcorn tentpole that swings and swerves high above our heads with no concern by man’s problems, or being a movie about what’s happening on terra firma — namely, slavery. The inclusion of Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Waltz, entangled in a plot about slavery and revenge, is enough to make you recall Django Unchained, which is enough to clarify this movie’s idea of a moral corrective. Revenge is enough. Feeling good is enough. If the individual gorillas Tarzan grew up with feel more distinct than any one of the black villagers, it’s no one’s fault. If Williams’s character is ultimately only memorable for supplying Tarzan his punchlines, at least he’s here.

You leave the movie with a greater feel for the contours of Skarsgard’s abs than for the nameless panoramas or George or Jane’s inner lives and needs. The liberal blockbuster wants to embody the values that it presumes we shouldn’t have to think about — so it doesn’t think about them. Hence, The Legend of Tarzan wrenches its own complications into a set of principles we can all agree on: slavery is bad, jungle vines are gnarly, and Alexander Skarsgard is hot. Yates has joked that George Washington Williams deserves his own movie. That should, of course, have been this movie. Per recent history, that movie would likely not have made money. Let that be the ultimate lesson: The liberal blockbuster cannot be what it wants to be.