Tarzan: The Late King of the Jungle

In my previous piece on King Kong, I referenced how The Legend of Tarzan (2016) failed to divorce itself from the racial baggage of the original series and its predecessors in film. Well, to be fair and somewhat self-critical, Tarzan’s failure is a lot deeper than that. Starring Alexander Skarsgard as the titular King of the Jungle, The Legend of Tarzan was supposed to be a reimagining of Edgar Rice Burrough’s most popular literary character. Instead, what we got was a overly CGI’d mess of a movie with a poor plot structure, too many flashbacks, and nothing new to the mythology. Now the first three problems could be easily fixed with less (or better) CGI, very few flashbacks, and a reliable three or five act structure.

But the last problem, the limitations of its world and stagnation of its mythology, is ultimately why I’m writing this autopsy report. The mythology of Tarzan is dated, especially as a $180 million dollar movie. It cannot work within the 21st Century. Folks weren’t, and still aren’t, flocking in to see Tarzan, even with Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, and Christoph Waltz padding out the supporting cast.

So here’s my autopsy of Tarzan and how he died as a lucrative pop culture presence.

johnny-w-1
12 time Tarzan Actor Johnny Weissmuller.

Let’s start with an obvious point: women love movies. But Jane is still Jane, meaning she is the progenitor of the damsel-in-distress archetype. Yes, Lois Lane and Mary Jane-Watson have Jane to thank for constantly being in danger. In an era where women are attempting to claim greater agency in a patriarchal society, there is even less of an appetite to see a helpless woman constantly needing a big strong man to rescue them. Given the overly positive reaction to the recent Wonder Woman trailer as well as the announcement of Brie Larson as Captain Marvel, it’s fair to say that women, who make the majority of moviegoers, aren’t interested in Jane.   

Now, Black people love movies. This may seem like an obvious fact, but this may not be as evident to the late King of the Jungle. Black folks aren’t intrigued by the overused archetype of the primitive African tribe or the Black sidekick to the powerful good White man. Yes, we want greater representation in film, but not if you’re going to rehash old tropes. Given our overly positive reaction to the upcoming blackest blackity Black superhero film that will ever black, Black Panther (2018), it’s a fact that the 21st century King T’Challa completely trumps the 19th Century King of the vines (don’t do it for the vine).

As much as we don’t like the whole primitive African tribe trope, we are even less interested rehashing of Tarzan as a White savior! We’re not looking for them good White folk to save us poor Negroes from the White devil (i.e., the real life King Leopold [who’s in Hell]). Don’t believe me, look at the flop that was The Free State of Jones (2016). Now, compare that to the buzz that the upcoming The Birth of a Nation (2016) is attracting before it even hits theatres!   

And before I forget, the CGI and characterization for Caesar and his band of apes are far better than the Mangani.

So, Tarzan slept too long, got up in a hurry once he smelled the money, and swung and fell from his vine. He cracked his back in half and damaged his internal organs. His throat bubbled blood as he tried to make one last trademark roar. It fell on mostly deaf ears, who listened to talking fish instead.

The King is dead! All hail the future Rulers of the land thereafter!

margot-robbie-is-no-plain-jane-in-new-tarzan-film
Roar on, roar on. 

So why did they make a Tarzan movie if almost every aspect about it was outdated? Why spend $180 million to restart a franchise very few people showed interest to begin with?

Well, we can try and understand why Hollywood executive waste time on making and marketing shit projects with mostly White male leads. My immediate answer would be that they think they’ll end up being GREAT projects because they have White male leads. After all, given the popularity of superhero movies, Hollywood has been scrambling to build franchises around buffed up White guys doing shit. It works with Captain America, Batman, Superman, and all alike. Tarzan’s buff. I mean look at him!

Note to self: don’t click the link. It will kill my self-esteem.

But the reason Tarzan doesn’t work is because his character and the stories around him failed to evolve as the clock kept ticking. Hell! The fool’s had 50 other movies for God’s sake and they were all the same damn thing! Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan (1984) (the damn titles aren’t even original!) was the last movie to explore anything new! It’s been more or less the same ever since! It may not even be possible to evolve him beyond what he is, because his character is intrinsically limited, especially for $180 million flicks.   

So, let’s expand our imaginations for once as artists. Let’s leave behind dated tropes of people of color and women of all races as being subordinate characters to the all-important White guy. Let’s think about women in ways in which they aren’t overly sexualized, overly vulnerable, or contingent upon the strong male lead. Let’s think about Black people as anything other than savage tribes-people, Black sidekicks with comic value, or thugs. Let’s reimagine White guys…oh hell, we’re always reimagining White guys. But for God’s sake, let’s leave Tarzan in the past where he belongs!

Or we can reboot? That seems to be the style nowadays. It worked for fellow swinger Spider-Man…twice.

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