The Problem With Resurrecting Dated 'Tarzan' Characters

In the case of 'Legend of Tarzan,' there's more issues than just that the original source material is troublesome.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
'Legend of Tarzan'

In a way, the very existence of The Legend of Tarzan is a triumph of executive optimism over common sense.

After all, on paper, Tarzan seems like something that should be a success: a pulp hero that has existed for even longer than Captain America or Batman, has found an audience in multiple media across more than a century, and offers something that isn't already available in modern cinema. The only problem is … well, the very Tarzan mythology itself.

There is so much that's problematic about the Tarzan story that it's hard to find somewhere to start. It speaks to a particularly troubling racism and colonial superiority subtext, for one thing — that an upper-class English boy will not only be orphaned by the scary, dangerous jungle, but will then rise to conquer it for seemingly no other reason than the quasi-manifest destiny of "because he's white and upper class."

Simultaneously, there's the notion that civilization has somehow failed Tarzan's standards, and that the jungle — where, remember, he has risen to dominance because of the circumstances of his birth — is a more honorable, superior world. One in which he is the benevolent ruler and alpha male, of course, because — well, how else would it be the better society?

(And then there's Jane Porter, a love interest who practically defines the Damsel in Distress trope, at least in the earliest source material; the less said about her in an era where her particular brand of helplessness is rightfully regarded as at best embarrassing, at worst offensive, the better.)

Does that make Tarzan a permanently tainted property, then, too dated to be acceptable in the modern age? Not necessarily — new versions can lampshade and address the more difficult elements, or even excise them if necessary. But doing so runs the risk of a secondary problem when dealing with a long-lasting property: the fans who complain that too much has been changed and go from core audience to protest voter in one fell swoop. Is making a concept more palatable to a modern mass audience worth the risk of upsetting the few who are already interested in your project?

This isn't the first time such a problem has arisen in recent years: The Green Hornet addressed the understated racism of the Asian valet head-on with humor and martial arts cliches, and Shane Black's upcoming Doc Savage reboot looks to address the incongruity of its source material by turning the hero into a figure of fun, which seems almost guaranteed to upset the longterm fans of the material. The Legend of Tarzan is trying something more subtle, however, in both respecting what Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote and quietly, almost imperceptibly, updating it for today's audiences.

The problem for Tarzan, perhaps, isn't just that the original source material is dated and troublesome, but that it hasn't been in constant publication across the years, allowing for more gradual and subtle reinventions and re-creations along the way to differentiate itself from its starting point.

Compare the modern-day Doctor Who with some of the original episodes from the 1960s and '70s, for example, or look at the way that the contemporary Iron Man differs from the arms dealer who appeared in those first comic books, fighting communists with aplomb and quiet racism. The distance between the first incarnations of these characters and their current versions is vast, but because the changes took place slowly enough to seem minor to those paying attention, they were quietly accepted by the fan base at large. (See also Batman originally killing people with guns; imagine him doing that now!)

Tarzan doesn't have that luxury, however; he's not been a mainstream character in years — his last major success was, what, the 1999 animated Disney movie? — leaving him trapped in the space between being unfaithful to the original works, or just subtly racist and dated to all but the existing faithful.

The Legend of Tarzan, ultimately, exists in this uncomfortable space where it tries to satisfy both audiences simultaneously; its success (or lack thereof) is likely to act as a warning for others seeking to resurrect similarly underused properties in the future.

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