The title Robin Hood: Origins by itself is enough to raise eyebrows, but nevertheless it’s a real project and not a nature-themed cosmetics line, or a piece of young adult fan fiction. Jamie Foxx has signed on to the film in the role of Little John, joining the Kingsman star Taron Egerton as Robin and The Knick’s Eve Hewson as Maid Marian. In my years covering entertainment, I haven’t noticed much clamoring for an explanation of Robin Hood’s origins. But this era of Hollywood is rooted in the familiar: If it’s a name audiences have heard before, it’s a safer bet for investment.
That’s also why there’s a young Han Solo movie on the horizon, because Disney wants to hold on to an iconic character as Harrison Ford ages out of the role. That’s why there are endless reboots planned for mythic characters in the public domain, from Frankenstein (in 2014 and 2015) to Hercules (twice in 2014) to Tarzan (who returns to the big screen this year). Robin Hood: Origins is being described as a “gritty” take on the character, which would be laughable if it hadn’t already been done in 2010, when Ridley Scott made his own grim Robin Hood with Russell Crowe. But the mistake that film made was casting an actor in his mid-40s. Every studio is after a franchise-starter, so every film has to begin with an “origin story” and star some young, cheap talent to keep the sequels from being too expensive. The strangest thing about this strategy is that Hollywood keeps trying it, even though there isn’t much evidence that it works.
A “grim and gritty” Robin Hood feels reminiscent of Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 attempt to demystify King Arthur, which starred Clive Owen as a battle-worn Arthur and Keira Knightley as a bow-wielding Guinevere. That film, like most of the aforementioned prequels, wasn’t a big hit, but Hollywood is nonetheless trying the exact same thing again in 2017 with Knights of the Roundtable: King Arthur, this time starring Charlie Hunnam. If it works, as so few of these things do, then audiences just may be lucky enough to get even more sequels (according to Variety, it’s the first in a planned six-part series). No word on Robin Hood: Origins’ future, but any time a colon is in the title, it means studios are already thinking about possible sequels.
So what, really, would an “origin story” of Robin Hood have to offer? Do audiences need an explanation for why he robs from the rich and gives to the poor, beyond the business about the nasty Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham that everyone’s already familiar with? Will they learn who taught him to shoot arrows? Where he acquired his hood? Will the director Otto Bathurst, who previously helmed the BBC series Peaky Blinders, attempt to draw parallels to contemporary issues as his bandit hero loots from the one percent?
The big problem with the “origin” story for an established character is that it handcuffs a film’s ability to remotely surprise an audience. In 2015’s Pan, many convoluted story threads were spun to explain just how Peter Pan got to Neverland and how he met a young Tiger Lily, Tinkerbell, and Captain Hook. Since the audience knows exactly where every one of those characters is going to end up, the film has to subsist on winking references to the future in lieu of any original storytelling. Hook has a run-in with a crocodile! Peter doesn’t know how to fly yet! In echoing the beloved property, Pan (like so many others), hoped to cash in on a familiar name and imagery, and perhaps even spin a few sequels out of it. But the film bombed at the box office, and that was that.
Sure, Robin Hood: Origins could buck this trend. Perhaps the upcoming Tarzan movie will be the revival audiences have been waiting for. Young Han Solo could even eclipse the storied work of Harrison Ford. But while these reboots and prequels are being embraced for their supposedly inherent safety, they still feel like a gamble. As Hollywood clogs release schedules with the overly familiar, moviegoers might instead flock to whatever hasn’t been done a thousand times before. Making those kinds of films would be a risk worth taking.