Hubris. That's the word that comes to mind, both to loosely describe the plot and also the biggest flaw with the film itself. Story-wise, that arrogance belongs to Vortigern (Jude Law), supposed friend to King Uther (Eric Bana). When a vengeful mage attempts to destroy Uther's kingdom, Vortigern sees an opportunity to seize the throne, stealing away the mage's power for himself with a blood sacrifice, and murdering Uther when Uther catches onto his betrayal. Before he dies, however, Uther manages to slip his son to safety, off to Londinium, where he is raised in a whorehouse with a strong sense of right and wrong and fight training provided by his close friend George (Tom Wu). In an arrangement that isn't entirely explained, Vortigern has spent the intervening years building a tower that aligns with his power; upon its completion, Vortigern will become all-powerful. He has only one Achilles heel -- Uther's sword, buried in a stone, waiting to be freed from its resting place by a blood relative, who will then inherit Uther's magical abilities.
As the film stumbles awkwardly through this setup, it's hard not to view the rumors of a first cut which reportedly clocked in at three and a half hours and an incomprehensibly ambitious plan for five sequels as Warner Bros.' version of Vortigern's tower. The movie schizophrenically waffles between trying to shortcut the origin story it's stuck telling (Arthur pulls the sword from the stone maybe a half-hour into the movie) and extending it beyond its breaking point (contriving reasons to keep Vortigern and Arthur apart for another 90 minutes is clearly challenging, and turning Arthur into a contradictory combination of proactive leader and reluctant hero). Hints of a subplot about magic being banned or deemed immoral in the wake of Uther's death feels buried in reshoots and rewrites, resulting in a pointless scene where Vortigern silently, uselessly demonstrates his skills for a prominent lackey, only for that lackey to die in the next scene for unrelated reasons (after which a new character appears, to fulfill the same narrative function). This lack of vision is especially draining in the face of the movie's detailed production design and aggressive visual effects, as the viewer is faced with the palpable sensation that millions of dollars are being wasted right in front of their eyes.
After retrieving the sword from the stone, Arthur is primarily mentored by a woman played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey. Said "mentoring" mostly consists of standing around exchanging expository dialogue with Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) while Arthur is shown going through a magical training montage. Reports suggest that Berges-Frisbey's character was originally Guinevere, but that subplot was excised and the character was renamed "The Mage." This kind of frustrating change makes it easier to give Berges-Frisbey's atrocious, emotionless performance, but it's also indicative of King Arthur being particularly regressive when it comes to female characters. In a year where Wonder Woman was the biggest domestic hit of the summer, King Arthur contains an almost comical amount of women who have no purpose but to die, motivate Arthur, or both. His actual mother, at least one of his adopted mothers, The Mage, and even the Lady of the Lake -- practically a punchline on a recurring joke -- all pop up to give Arthur a push, while Vortigern kills multiple wives to keep his blood oath alive.
By the time the movie shifts into its final act, there's a sense that even Warner Bros. was seeing the writing on the wall, with the special effects taking a dip for a few sequences. The worst-looking features a rubber CGI Hunnam that recalls the digital doubles from The Matrix Reloaded 15 years ago, but the most disheartening is actually a massive climactic final battle between Vortigern, visualized as a hulking helmeted monster with burning ember eyes, battling Arthur on an island surrounded by ferocious waves. While the visuals in this sequence aren't half-assed, it's actually the effort that becomes depressing. Ritchie reportedly described the movie as "Lord of the Rings meets Snatch" at one point, and the sequence feels crafted with no deeper ambition than evoking that comparison, practically elbowing the viewer to pick up on the stylistic similarities. That cynicism pervades through the film's conclusion, in which Arthur actually describes how a table works. Considering the effort that went into crafting King Arthur as the origin story for an epic nobody wanted, it's all-too-easy to believe Ritchie included that explanation in earnest.
The Video and Audio
A trailer for Dunkirk and a promo for 4K UltraHD play before the main menu. No theatrical trailer for King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is included.