The Paradox of the New 'Robin Hood'

When it comes to issues of race and class, this anachronistic retelling is problematically old-fashioned.

[This story contains spoilers for Lionsgate/Summit's Robin Hood.]

As a countercultural man of the people who steals from the rich and gives to the poor, the figure of Robin Hood presents an interesting conundrum, considering he isn’t one of the “common people” at all, but their lord. In context — that history which Otto Bathurst’s new Robin Hood’s opening voiceover makes explicitly clear it cares nothing about — this is incredibly clever because it makes for a mythic figure who is radical, but not too radical.

The concept of someone of noble birth rising up to become champion of the people does not abandon the idea of divine right which systems of monarchy and nobility were historically built — the idea that these men deserve the power and privilege into which they are born because it was God who put them there. A lord forced from his comfortable life by a scheming villain who then rises like a phoenix from the ashes and leads a crusade against his former cohorts is a harmless romantic notion in comparison to the alternative: an actual common person rising up and doing the same thing. That’s a dangerous idea.

In order to try to sell his street cred as man of the people, recent takes on Robin Hood have generally emphasized this through his black mentor. The newest Robin Hood follows this trend, and also makes love interest Marian (Eve Hewson) a commoner for good measure. In its conscious efforts to address the paradox posed by proposing a nobleman as the voice of common people, Robin Hood is one of many, but in its poor execution of these efforts, it is arguably without peer.

The central characters of the latest version on the Robin Hood myth constantly speak of “the people” and “the commoners,” but whether or not they include themselves in these masses varies depending on the scene. Ultimately, this means that none of them are actually “common people” — if you can choose to not be “common” when it suits your ends, it means you are not common ever, at all. In this rendition of Robin Hood, Robin (Taron Egerton), or Rob, as this film prefers, isn’t just heroically slumming it with the less fortunate, but is an especially offensive rendition of the white savior.

He protests the killing of a young black man by his military superiors and fails, but he tried, and the pic does not waste any opportunity to congratulate him on the attempt in its remaining hour and a half — even though, as the film itself explicitly addresses, the stakes for Rob are significantly lower. Rob repeatedly suffers less severe consequences than others by nature of his noble birth — while off fighting the Crusades, he is told that he would be hung for treason if not for his privileged background, and instead is sent back home — the thing he actually wanted all along. Even Rob’s body is depicted as being singularly impervious to lasting damage. John (Jamie Foxx) loses a hand and Will Scarlet (Jamie Dornan) ends up scarred a la Two-Face, but a later shirtless scene indicates that neither arrows to the torso nor stab wounds to the chest left so much as the faintest scar on Rob.

Men who seek to rise above their born station — Will and even, based off of his largely unprompted but graphic description of his own upbringing, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn) — are consistently depicted as unwelcome, greedy and ultimately downright evil. When Will tries to bring up issues like the practicality and long-term feasibility of Rob’s rebellion against the Sheriff of Nottingham — How will this huge party of renegades survive? Where will they live? What will they eat? — he is accused of weakness and even malice, even though these concerns are totally valid. No matter how much gold they take with them, there aren’t exactly farmer’s markets in the depths of the wilderness into which they all plan on heading.

Meanwhile, the superiority of born, blooded noble Robin Loxley in all things is constantly validated and reaffirmed by those around him — specifically, women and people of color. Tackling corruption and evil isn’t easy, but it’s the white man’s burden, the rich white man’s burden specifically. After all, who else could do it?

With truly astounding ignorance, the film stumbles into doubling down on this “white man’s burden” subtext, with Rob admitting at the end of the film, when he is supposed to have completed his transformational arc into hero and people’s champion, that all he ever really wanted was to retire to a life of leisure in his mansion with his lady love. And there’s no “but” in sight — no “but I realize now that was wrong,” no “but this is more important,” no “but my eyes have been opened.” Just an “I never expected this” and a begrudging well-I-suppose-if-I-must. Marian, whose flatter-than-a-pancake characterization conflates kohl-rimmed eyes with depth, takes this statement in stride and once again validates him, saying that she always knew he would become the savior of the people in her Irish lilt. All of these commoners unable to actually do anything for themselves are people of color or speak with Irish accents, in case there were not already enough throwbacks to racist 19th century ideologies.

If there was any doubting the taste level of the pic, Robin Hood jokes about white people renaming a black man because they cannot be bothered to pronounce his actual name not once but twice, first early in the film, and then again in the last few minutes on the off-chance you managed to forget about the first time.

Even Rob’s more “heroic” lines smack of a man who sees common folk as more of a mindless herd than anything. At one point, he insists on going back for someone even though Marian protests that such an action equates to suicide, claiming “either we all make it or none of us do,” even though scores of his supporters have already died fighting the sheriff’s men. Clearly, the hero of the common people doesn’t think the average common person warrants inclusion in “all.”

The new Robin Hood seems to understand that there’s a paradox at the heart of positing a nobleman as the hero and spokesperson of the common people, but its clumsy attempts to address this concern aren’t akin to rubbing salt in a wound so much as dirt — the result is not merely irritation, but putrefaction.

It’s 2018. Maybe it’s time for the heroes of the people to actually be of the people instead of the one rich white guy who can be strong-armed into doing the right thing.