At the end of the new Guy Ritchie joint King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, our cocksure hero and his jolly mates, having dispatched the villainous Vortigern, construct a good ol' round table. You know, the one of Arthurian legend.
It's no mere sight gag, but rather a blunt bit of, ahem, table setting on behalf of Warner Bros., which once upon a time hoped the film would inspire upward of five sequels, a shared cinematic medieval universe to rival Marvel's blockbusters. Oh, to imagine the puckish and CGI-riffic adventures that Charlie Hunnam and his brothers-in-swords would enjoy around that piece of fabled furniture!
Alas, it wasn't meant to be. Ritchie's film, which cost $175-million to produce (all figures U.S.) before marketing, opened to an anemic $14.7-million in North America this past weekend, quashing any dreams of an endlessly profitable Camelot-verse. King Arthur's failure can be traced to multiple factors – Ritchie's ill-suited aesthetic, Hunnam's questionable star power, audiences who'd rather see a talking tree dancing to Electric Light Orchestra – but more than anything it portends an unmovable problem that the industry will repeatedly come up against this summer: a disastrous addiction to intellectual property.
A bit of background: Ever since the success of Disney's Marvel Cinematic Universe (which counts the various Iron Man and Avengers films among its chattel), Hollywood has been obsessed with digging up whatever IP is gathering dust in its vaults, and drafting up "shared universe" franchises to endlessly exploit whatever nostalgia those properties hold for an increasingly fickle and distracted audience. Disney made it look deceptively easy: sketch out a decade's worth of interconnected movies and watch the billions roll in. But while some competitors have succeeded – namely, Universal's Fast and Furious behemoth, which partly threw out the playbook by embracing diversity and focusing on original characters, so much as Dominic Toretto is an original – nearly everyone else is stumbling, or still finding their legs.
Sony tried to reboot its Ghostbusters brand last year, but only succeeded in uniting trolls across the world. Warner Bros. is still trying to piece together its DC Comics properties, weathering disastrous reviews and diminished expectations. Fox wanted a new, darker, sexier Fantastic Four before realizing it should just stick to maddeningly rearranging the continuity of its X-Men universe. Lionsgate thought it had a sure thing by making its Power Rangers millennial-friendly and crazy for Krispy Kreme. Disney's efforts to maximize Star Wars is working, but only because, well, it's Star Wars. Not even George Lucas could screw it up.
But if the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, and if that definition is itself a cliché, well, we've just discovered two of Hollywood's favourite things. Because it only takes a quick glance at this summer's movie lineup to reveal a wealth of potential King Arthur-esque hiccups.
Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is arriving fourteen long years after the first movie, and riding a tidal wive of bad press due to star Johnny Depp's antics. Transformers: The Last Knight is the fifth movie in that decade-old Paramount franchise, weighed down by an annoying title promising faux finality. There's a muted sense of hype for Fox's War for the Planet of the Apes, whose biggest non-simian star is Woody Harrelson, hardly a box-office titan. Universal hopes its Tom Cruise-ified Mummy will lead to a new series of "classic monster" movies (there's a reason why Russell Crowe pops up as a fellow named Dr. Henry Jekyll). And this week's Alien: Covenant might even exhaust the Xenomorph diehards, coming almost four decades after Ridley Scott's first film and carrying the stench of Prometheus.
In terms of sure things able to crack the $300-million domestic box-office threshold – now the gold standard for any franchise worth the trouble – there's only Disney's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and, possibly, Universal's Despicable Me 3, already a cash machine thanks to its ancillary Minions products. The rest of the calendar is filled with question marks, every studio in town praying that its own IP exploitation will be the one to crack the market.
Yet even if disaster strikes, and every single tent-pole effort delivers a King Arthur-sized flop, it will take years for the industry to offer a course correction. The major studios are in the IP game too deep now, far along in development on projects that range from cautiously hopeful (Disney's ongoing plan to turn its old animated films into "live-action" spectacles, a la Beauty and the Beast) to skeptical (Warner's giant-monsters universe, featuring Godzilla and King Kong) to no-really-this-is-happening (Paramount's Hasbro-verse, based on a rebooted G.I. Joe along with Micronauts, Visionaries and whatever M.A.S.K. stands for).
It may turn out that King Arthur is the exception – that audiences will flock to yet more iterations of Autobots and zombie pirates and talking apes and mummies and Spider-Men (we're up to three Peter Parkers over the past 15 years, guys). But there's a distinct sense of dissatisfaction in the air; an undeniable restlessness, especially as streaming services and premium cable up the ante.
King Arthur was the season's first bomb, but it will surely not be the last.