Pop culture’s habitual repurposing of Robin Hood’s legend is a legacy: The practice dates back to 1908, with Percy Stow’s Robin Hood and His Merry Men. The story was later Hollywood-ized in 1938 with Errol Flynn, then achieved ubiquity with Disney’s 1973 animated film. Kevin Costner had his turn in 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, just before Mel Brooks parodied the legend two years later. Ridley Scott made his own version and sucked all the air fun of the narrative, but ... we don’t talk about that.
So we now how the story goes: Robin of Loxley returns from the Crusades to find his land seized by the Sheriff of Nottingham, then embarks on a quest to avenge his family name as an outlaw, fomenting rebellion among commoners.
What this new Robin Hood movie, directed by Otto Bathurst (Peaky Blinders), presupposes is that we only think we know the story; this major motion picture is telling the truth. “I’d bore you with the history,” the opening voiceover says chidingly, “but you wouldn’t listen.”
In retrospect this feels like fair warning. Turns out every previous adaptation of the legend failed to note that Robin, more than a thief, was actually Batman, eras before Bruce Wayne’s parents died in an alleyway.
That the details of Robin of Loxley’s origin story differ from the classic Batman origin matters little — anyone who can fight crime can be The Dark Knight in 2018. Or since our hero is returning from religious war, maybe he’s more of the Caped Crusader. In this version, Robin (Taron Egerton), during his tour in battle, spares the life of an enemy Moor, Yahya, (Jamie Foxx), whose name translates to “John,” which is good because in a not-hilarious recurring joke, none of the film’s white characters can pronounce it.
John is a composite of Azeem (Morgan Freeman’s character in Prince of Thieves), Little John, and surprise surprise, most of The League of Shadows. John, shown mercy by Robin while prisoner to the king’s army, hitches a ride to England and persuades him to hit the evil Sheriff (Ben Mendelsohn), and thus the crown, where it hurts most: his coffers.
John serves both as Robin’s archery instructor and his Crossfit trainer, whipping the young man into his fightingest shape, instructing him in stealth and subterfuge, joining him on his crime sprees and fashioning him a costume for disguise (though as Robin tends not to leave survivors, the mask and hood feel superfluous). He’s at once Robin’s loyal staff-wielding ally, a man obsessed by revenge, and Henri Ducard, showing Robin the ropes of proto-superheroism, transforming Robin of Loxley from folkloric figure to modern day comic book character.
This Robin is a well-heeled man fallen from grace, transformed by his ruin into a symbol that strikes fear into the hearts of evildoers. His crumbling manse is his Batcave. His bow is his utility belt. His disguise inspires his pseudonym. The likeness between Robin and Bruce Wayne is uncanny.
The similarity crystallizes when Marian (Eve Hewson) encourages Robin’s rebellion by supplying the final piece of the profile: Loxley an an alter ego. See, Robin Hood is his real identity. And so his superherofication is complete.
Gone is the swashbuckling rogue, replaced by a familiar combination: Robin Hood makes a brooding attempt at grounding the story in the real world, while Robin’s superhuman feats of martial as well as athletic prowess undermine the gritty realism. This isn’t history, it’s his story — a literal line from the introductory monologue, assuring us that this take on Robin Hood is the genuine article and not the hokem we’ve been spoon fed in the past.
As straightforwardly dimwitted as this approach is, there’s an element of honesty at play in its macho aggrandizement. Bathurst may be given the wrong angle for Robin Hood, but he does have the right idea about how non-superhero characters can feel increasingly superheroic with the help of audacious set pieces.
Whereas actual comic book hero Aquaman can communicate with sea creatures, Jason Statham’s Jonas Taylor from this August’s The Meg doesn’t don’t need to speak shark to summon a veritable wall of sharks in the movie’s climax. He just needs to cut the really big shark he’s been hunting deep enough that the blood scent attracts every shark in (and outside of) the South China Sea for a CGI feeding frenzy.
Or have a look at The Girl in the Spider’s Web, stripping away the particulars of Lisbeth Salander, the girl on the page, and molding her as a tragic avenging antihero: Garbed in black with a superhero lair of her own, an array of gadgets that’d make Batman himself blush, a heartbreaking origin story of her own, a mask of a sort, even an archnemesis.
Non-super things made super isn’t a new aesthetic, but it’s at its most shameless in Robin Hood, superimposing raw essential parts stolen from Batman’s background upon its source material. All that’s missing is Egerton soberly declaring that “I am the Hood.”
Bathurst even sets up another character as an obvious Two-Face analogue for a potential sequel to the film, assuming audiences buy into an updated and contemporary Robin Hood franchise. If they do, maybe it’ll only be because they want another Batman franchise with the DCEU in flux. The film happily obliges, but its use of the Dark Knight’s iconography is troubling. The Incredibles warned us: If every hero is super, none of them are.
Andy Crump is a contributor for Paste magazine, The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. Follow him on Twitter @agracru.