“No one ever started with less.” The only interesting detail about the phenomenally uninteresting hero of “The Legend of Tarzan” is a stray observation that “No one ever started with less.” On the contrary: The film completely glosses over its namesake’s evolution from poop-flinging jungle hunk to tea-stirring British Lord. Separately, that throwaway line is vaguely applicable to the film itself. Whereas upcoming tentpoles like “Suicide Squad” and “Jason Bourne” will enjoy the momentum afforded to them by their respective franchises, “The Legend of Tarzan” — despite centering on an Edgar Rice Burroughs character who’s almost as old as movies themselves — could hardly have less going for it. Most $180 million movies have running starts, but this one is a 747 trying to take off with only 50 feet of runway.
Tarzan is no stranger to the silver screen (the character was created during the rise of early cinema, and his name has appeared in the titles of more than 200 different movies during the last 100 years), but the idea of a mega-budget movie about him feels faintly ridiculous in 2016. It shouldn’t — the notion of a beefy guy raised by apes is no sillier than that of a billionaire who dresses like a bat in order to fight a clown — but there’s a world of difference between a universal icon and a marketable modern brand. There’s a whiff of desperation about pulling a literary figure like Tarzan down from the tree line and forcing him to live at our level — it’s why you’ve been laughing at the marketing of this film for months. And now the finished product is finally here, and it earns the worst of your preconceptions, reintroducing Edgar Rice Burroughs’ immortal character as just another overpriced commodity.
Attempting to split the difference between an origin story and a post-myth reinvention, “The Legend of Tarzan” begins in the twilight of the 19th Century, eight years after its hero emerged from the jungles of Africa and became one of London’s most famous young aristocrats (apparently it was a lot easier for someone without a passport to immigrate from the Congo before Brexit). Now a proper gentleman who goes by the name of John Clayton III, the Vine star formerly known as Tarzan (a shredded, vacuous Alexander Skarsgård) has assimilated into high society with the help of his feisty wife Jane (Margot Robbie, once again stealing a film away from its male lead), but the call of the wild still rings in his ears.
Needless to say, John is powerless to resist an invitation to return to Africa as a trade emissary of the House of Commons, even if he’s as confused about the purpose of the trip as we are. While the plot winds up being simple as can be — Tarzan has to rescue Jane from evil Belgian Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz, per usual) who’s using slave labor to mine a shit-ton of rare diamonds — it’s convoluted beyond coherence by unclear stakes and the hot mess of needless flashbacks that rob the film of any discernible flow.
Director David Yates (who took over the Harry Potter franchise after the fourth movie and steered it to completion) certainly knows a thing or two about how to make the most of a hero he meets in media res, but his Tarzan is a monumental bore. The script, written by Adam Cozad and “Hustle & Flow” mastermind Craig Brewer, denies its subject anything that could be mistaken for a character arc — John is itching to revisit the jungle, and then he does. Skarsgård is saddled with maybe 50 lines of dialogue, and none of them match the depth of the trenches around his abs. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps was supposedly in talks to play Tarzan at one point, and the role feels as though it were written to accommodate his talents.
There’s some somber talk early on about how he and Jane have recently lost a child, but that tragic footnote never takes root in the story, or expresses itself through any of the action. Jane, meanwhile, doesn’t even need saving. Smart and spunky and brimming with the can-do charisma that has helped launch Robbie into the stratosphere, this Jane is no damsel (“I’m no damsel,” she tells Rom, succinctly exhausting her nuances). But as nice as it is that the character has been updated for the 21st Century, the way this film uses her is decidedly archaic.
Still, Jane is a virtuosic revelation compared to Rom, as Waltz’s shit-eating shtick is so tired that his performance dissolves in front of your eyes. Only Jackson, whose George Washington Williams is loosely based on a historical figure of the same name, manages to stir any interest; there’s real weight to the notion of a late 19th Century black man traversing the world in order to weed out slavery wherever it rears its head, but Yates reduces him to a limp sliver of comic relief (it would be wrong to describe the film as humorless, but so few of the jokes land that it soon starts to seem that way).
Colonialist overtones aside, “The Legend of Tarzan” could easily be mistaken for any of the generic, entry-level superhero movies that have been made in the last 10 years. And make no mistake, this Tarzan is most definitely a superhero — he has extraordinary abilities (he dragged his knuckles around as a kid, altering their bone structure in a way that naturally allows him to move through the trees like an ape), he engages in weightless and chaotic fight sequences with hordes of faceless henchmen, and he fights a villain who has no hope of being taken seriously amidst such a clamor of bad CG. Whatever magic brought “The Jungle Book” to life just a few months ago is missing here, as a third act stampede featuring hundreds of rampaging animals feels like a cheap copy-and-paste job.
It’s maddening to see this degree of sameness plague a movie about a character as singular and iconic as Tarzan — there isn’t even that much vine-swinging! Yates, who showed so much promise with his Potter films (and returns to that cinematic universe with this fall’s spin-off “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”), fails to put his stamp on this one, though a plethora of gorgeous aerial shots indicate a sincere attempt to capture the splendor of the Congo.
Don’t be fooled by the lack of spandex: “The Legend of Tarzan” turns the Lord of the Apes into just another superhero, the newest movie about fiction’s greatest wild man memorable only for the dull irony of how housebroken it feels.
“The Legend of Tarzan” opens in theaters on Friday.