How do you make a colonial Africa blockbuster in think piece–tizzied 2016? Very, very carefully. In David Yates's The Legend of Tarzan, the ape-raised athlete no longer represents innate Caucasian dominance, the cavalier supremacy that had him introduce himself to Jane as “the killer of beasts and many black men.” Swipe left on any Tinder charmer who uses that in his profile.
Here, Tarzan, a.k.a. Lord Greystoke, returns home from London with his wife (Margot Robbie) to fight the diamond-hunting Belgian conquistadors who are enslaving his friends in the Congo, leashing every local from tribesmen to crocodiles. Yates (who directed the last four Harry Potter films) is cautious about racial politics. To champion freedom, he tames the story's original author. (Which, coincidentally, Steven Spielberg's The BFG also did this week to Roald Dahl.) Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan mostly fought dark-skinned cannibals and priests. Today's main villain is Christoph Waltz's Flemish captain Leon Rom, who wears a bone-colored suit with matching hat. Against the misty forest, he's so white he glows. And Alexander Skarsgård's blond Tarzan is less a one-man army than a symbol. His biggest act of heroism is inspiring the native Congolese to rise up against the invaders. And I mean all the natives — the climax belongs to a herd of wildebeest.
The screenwriters have also stitched in real-life black activist George Washington Williams, an American who sailed to Africa to condemn King Leopold II. Since Williams is not in the books, they've pumped him up as a sharpshooting badass played by, of course, Samuel L. Jackson. There's an itch to make this Tarzan a corrective, a vengeful Congo Unchained that reteams Jackson and Waltz. Yates mines Zirconium Tarantino, even letting Jackson cackle while blasting an antique machine gun. He can't go much further with a PG-13 family flick. The studio certainly wouldn't approve of showing kiddies how the actual Leon Rom fenced off his flower garden with severed heads. So Yates shades the color dynamics by having Williams admit that back in the States, his military brigade massacred the Native Americans. Concedes Williams, "I'm no better than the Belgians." And Yates keeps smudging the line, leaving us wondering how much to unpack visuals like a white-painted, ape-killing Congolese tribe facing off against grieving black gorillas. At this point, the Europeans have fled the scene as if to say, "Hey, man, don't blame us for everything."
Skarsgård swings quietly through the center of chaos. His Tarzan has somehow acquired a posh British accent, but prefers to communicate with fists and flashbacks. He's all mute eyes and swollen deltoids. (The film can't wait to get Skarsgård out of his shirt.) The charming Robbie handles most of the chatter, and spits when Rom expects her to scream like a girl. "Like a damsel?" she sneers. That cheek can't erase the "me savior, you babe" action-flick tropes that 48 earlier Tarzan movies scribbled on our culture. But it's fascinating to watch Yates try to honor the character while liberating him from his own nonsense. Yes, we still hear that infamous Tarzan yodel — the song of a choking opera soprano — but Skarsgård never has to unlock his jaw and let it rip. Instead, we're standing miles away with the scoundrels as it echoes from the trees.
If we're honest, maybe the world is still by their side. Our spirits soar when Tarzan bests the vile Rom. But the Belgians dominated the Congo for another 70 years, and left scars. As much as I enjoyed this bizarre, ambitious adventure and its careful popcorn kitsch, Tarzan's story will always leave our ears ringing with something we hate, whether you choose Burroughs's white-savior syndrome or Christoph Waltz's shivery final speech: "The future belongs to me."