There is a moment in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, when Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), taken prisoner by his usurper uncle King Vortigern (Jude Law), is led to the chopping block for a public execution. Something similar happened this weekend at the box office as King Arthur became the first major flop of 2017. Taking in just $14.7 million at over 3000 screens in North America (with an extra $29.1 million overseas for a worldwide tally of only $43.8 million), director Guy Ritchie’s $175 million radical reinvention of the classic King Arthur legend opened even lower than its $25-million early estimates. With a 27% Rotten Tomatoes rating, King Arthur is undeniably a bomb of epic proportions.
The failure of King Arthur must have taken Warner Bros. Pictures by surprise. In late April, the studio held a series of early screenings for King Arthur with an accompanying #KingforaDay hashtag. These screenings were sellouts, with over 30,000 attendees across 200 participating AMC Theaters. AMC originally only planned screenings at 150 theaters, but added another 50 after RSVPs grew beyond expectations. Fans attending the #KingforaDay screenings were treated to free limited-edition baseball caps and posters, and advance buzz for King Arthur seemed to be positive. That general audiences did not turn out for King Arthur, despite a massive marketing campaign, no doubt leaves the brain trust at Warner Bros. scrambling for an explanation for this embarrassing rout at the box office.
Some blame will certainly be placed at the feet of Guy Ritchie. King Arthur is a Guy Ritchie film through and through; instead of a grand and lusty medieval jaunt of sword, sorcery, and chivalry, Legend of the Sword is told from the point of view of the British commoners – among whom Arthur, who was raised in a brothel in Londinium, identifies himself as much more than the royalty that is his true birthright. Under Ritchie’s auspices, this King Arthur doesn’t command the noble Knights of the Round Table. Instead Arthur heads a band of back alley ruffians in spurring the common folk towards a revolution against the Crown. Ritchie’s King Arthur hews much more closely to his hyperkinetic early hits like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch than Excalibur.
Ritchie has had difficulty finding a new franchise to match the success he found in 2009 with Sherlock Holmes and its sequel, 2011’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. The two Holmes films together grossed nearly a billion dollars globally at the box office. Ritchie’s subsequent attempt to launch another franchise, 2015’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. starring Henry Cavill, grossed only $108 million. Of course, with Sherlock Holmes, Ritchie had the benefit of Robert Downey, Jr. starring as the Great Detective. Downey was coming off 2008’s mega blockbuster Iron Man, which launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe and minted Downey as one of the biggest movie stars in the world.
By contrast, King Arthur stars Charlie Hunnam, best known for headlining the FX cult television series Sons of Anarchy. Hunnam’s biggest box office claim to fame is 2013’s Pacific Rim, but it can be argued the success of Pacific Rim is due to director Guillermo Del Toro and the appeal of knock-em, sock-em giant robots vs. kaiju monsters. Hunnam was replaced by Star Wars‘ John Boyega in Pacific Rim‘s sequel. Though a fine actor who has garnered strong notices for his concurrent movie in theaters, the critically acclaimed The Lost City of Z, Hunnam simply isn’t an established draw as a movie star.