‘The Last Duel’ Postmortem — Why Did the Medieval #MeToo Epic Crash and Burn?
Sturgeon’s Law, a maxim coined by Theodore Sturgeon, a science-fiction author and critic, specifies that “90 percent of everything is bad.”
To extrapolate the adage with regards to box-office performance of movies, we arrive at a straightforward conclusion — a lot of movies bomb every year.
In most instances, however, the reason for a movie bombing is clear as day — it probably wasn’t that good.
Admittedly, it’s a simplistic rhetoric, and there are doubtless additional variables at play, but it is one that has demonstrated itself to be accurate time and again.
‘The Last Duel’ Meets a Grim Fate
The Last Duel was released with little pomp in October and was summarily declared dead on arrival. It only managed to recoup $29 million of its gargantuan $100 million budget.
Movies bomb all the time, but here’s the rub — The Last Duel was seemingly a remarkable motion picture in every conceivable way.
The film, which stars Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, and Ben Affleck, follows a married woman in 14th century France, Marguerite (Comer), as she charges a squire, Jacques LeGris (Driver), of raping her.
LeGris denies the allegation. In return, LeGris and Marguerite’s husband Jean de Carrouges (Damon) engage in a duel to the death.
A Song of Systemic Misogyny and Perspective
Directed by Sir Ridley Scott, the medieval epic was the type of movie many within Hollywood, and a million voices outside of it lament isn’t produced anymore — an original drama for adults.
The film utilizes its Rashomon-esque narrative — the events are told from the perspective of its three principal characters — to weave together a story that is as engaging as it is thought-provoking; and one that presents a scathing critique of systemic misogyny.
Following the first two chapters, which are told from the male perspective, we witness the fascinating nuances that Marguerite’s vantage point brings to the narrative.
This is a medieval epic, but it is as relevant as ever in a post #MeToo world.
Critics attested to the film’s obvious merits. On Rotten Tomatoes, 85% of 255 reviews are positive, with an average rating of 7.3/10.
While scores on the platform are to be consumed with a generous pinch of salt, the consensus is inescapable — most critics appreciated the movie.
And if IMDb scores are any suggestion, a 7.5/10 rating indicates that the audiences that saw it took something meaningful away from the film.
So why does a film starring Batman, Jason Bourne, and Kylo Ren, a film directed by a man who puts the ‘living’ in ‘legend,’ a film that was met warmly by both critics and audiences, fail so spectacularly at the box office?
Capsized by the Perfect Storm
Essentially, everything that could go wrong, went wrong. For starters, there’s the trivial matter of a global pandemic. One that, among other things, has wreaked havoc on the worldwide box-office.
Only a peculiar breed of film has managed to survive in the tumultuous atmosphere of the post-pandemic box-office — large-scale comic book movies and franchises with a built-in cultural cachet. The Last Duel meets neither criterion.
Further, the fact that the film’s target demographic skews older compounded its suffering, as that is a demographic warier of covid and less likely to venture into theaters. The R-rating then wrenched the blade deeper.
And then there’s the competition. Sandwiched between Daniel Craig’s Bond swansong No Time To Die and the intensely anticipated Dune, The Last Duel’s precarious placement on the release calendar almost set it up to fail.
There’s another reason, albeit a somewhat tertiary one. When Warner Bros. announced that its entire roster of 2021 movies would be released on HBO Max at the same time as they’re dropped in theaters, it overturned the status quo.
That decision allowed the audience the luxury of choice, in a manner that was never afforded to them before. While other studios didn’t follow suit, the deed was done.
The bulk of the populace seemingly communicated telepathically to arrive at a unanimous decision — theaters were now exclusively the realm of franchise films.
Everything else would be made available to view in the comfort and safety of the living room.
Unfortunately for The Last Duel, Disney executives deemed it best not to release the film on demand on Disney+. Hindsight is 20/20, and in this case, it cost the studio at least $70 million.
The Fallout of the Box-Office Disaster
Hollywood doesn’t make many films of the ilk of The Last Duel anymore, and assuredly not in the frequency that the genre once boasted.
For the film to be produced, it required the collective might of Ridley Scott, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck.
Its appalling showing at the box-office is bound to have substantial repercussions.
Producers and executives, who were undoubtedly already wary of investing $100 million in a somber adult drama, are unlikely to green-light similar projects on such a scale in the future.
They will resort to their default setting — chasing yet another franchise dragon. And cinema will be worse off for it.
While the proliferation of franchise films has long since sounded the death knell for mid-budget films, The Last Duel’s bombing is likely to do something similar for big-budget adult movies.
Posterity will examine The Last Duel favorably. It will almost unequivocally be looked upon as an artistic achievement if not an economic one.
And with the Oscars to come, the film may salvage some pride yet — Comer’s phenomenal performance demands hyperbole and is sure to be nominated.
But in the here and now, in the cold light of day, The Last Duel is a box-office bomb; that is its calling card.
Movies bomb all the time, but some movies don’t deserve to; some movies shouldn’t.
The Last Duel didn’t deserve to bomb; it shouldn’t have bombed. But, that it did is both a sign of the times and a harbinger of what is to come.