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Weird World: Tarzan in 2016 – the red, white and blue

The Legend of Tarzan
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The Legend of Tarzan in 2016

Welcome to “Weird World,” a new Nerdvana column where we’ll discuss the strange and unusual ways in which the fictional films, books, comics and television shows in popular culture connect to the real world, and how the actual and the imaginative affect each other.

It’s not easy to be a fan of Tarzan in 2016. With the release of the new film, The Legend of Tarzan, it is an exciting time that fills Ape Man aficionados’ hearts with hope that their century-old hero will kill it at the box office and that we’ll soon hear an announcement from Warner Bros. that a sequel has been greenlit. It’s a battle to be sure, and one that no other fictional hero in memory has ever had to face.

When you’re big, it seems that everyone wants to take you down, and you have to be ultra-careful not to give them the ammunition they need to do it. It’s the same whether you are a giant corporation like Apple or Facebook, or a popular fictional franchise like Superman or Tarzan. In the latter’s case it seems one of the greatest obstacles to be overcome is the simple fact that the character is white, and that sort of politically correct reverse-racism makes me angry and sad at the same time.


As a Tarzan fan I’ve paid closer attention to the critical response of The Legend of Tarzan than I do most films. As one who dabbles in movie criticism myself I try to steer clear of others’ opinions – and in the end that is all film reviews are – lest someone else’s thoughts sway my own. But in this case I strongly desire The Legend of Tarzan to be successful for the selfish reason that I want to enjoy a few more Ape Man films before I check out of man’s crazy-ass world.

Tarzan #246It doesn’t take but a few minutes on Rotten Tomatoes to realize that the bulk of negativity surrounding the new film comes from critics who are more concerned that Tarzan is a “white savior” in Africa than they are with objectively criticizing this very fun and entertaining fantasy movie. It’s an age-old issue and in many cases it’s obvious that they knew they were going to bring it up as the focus of their criticism long before they ever saw the film.

In addition to a multitude of misguided and politically motivated movie reviews, the new Tarzan film has also had to endure a spate of commentary regarding his significance (or lack of it) in the modern world. This handful of malicious malcontents remind me of a cackle of hyenas that were just waiting for the right moment to pounce; and who said that they get to decide which of our heroes are relevant.

To be certain, the new film does have some issues, as does the best of big screen entertainment (name a movie and I’ll nitpick it to death), but to devalue it simply because it depicts a white man doing good things in Africa is ridiculous. And to be clear, even though I’m an admitted old, fat, self-loathing white-guy, I’m still about as liberal as they come; but, despite centuries of atrocities and blood spilled by ignorant white hands, even I can buy the concept that it is still possible for a white guy to do some good in the world – especially in a fantasy film.

Should a movie be judged on its social and educational merit? Absolutely, but by far the most important attribute of any film should be its entertainment value; and I argue that The Legend of Tarzan has all three of the aforementioned aspects covered many times over. So when you are looking at those Tomatometer numbers, ask yourself how many of those moviegoers made their decision before they ever even saw the film.

‘Tarzan grew up hating the fact that he was white, and that he was human for that matter. You would think that this, at least, is something that the politically correct film critics would get behind…’


Tarzan is a white guy. He was created in 1911, an era not particularly well known for celebrating ethnic diversity, by a white author, Edgar Rice Burroughs. The fictional character of Tarzan was raised by a fictional tribe of apes, called the Mangani. In the apes’ language Tarzan means “white-skin” and Tarzan grew up hating the fact that he was white, and that he was human for that matter. You would think that this, at least, is something that the politically correct film critics would get behind, but obviously not. In fact, all that one critic knew of the character’s literary background was the meaning of Tarzan, which led to his full on accusation that the name was proof, in itself, of the story’s inherent racism – and he couldn’t be more wrong.

The Legend of Tarzan in 2016Tarzan, or John Clayton III, was born of white parents who were shipwrecked on the coast of Africa during the Victorian Era. After his parents die he is adopted by a female ape and raised by her and her troop. He grows into manhood as an ape, learning to hate and fear all men; and he is unlike any of them or his ape brethren. As the new film makes perfectly clear, he is the ultimate outcast and loner.

Critics are upset because Tarzan is white; but isn’t it possible that he could have actually been white? After all, this is a fictional, fantasy character, right? If Burroughs’ had made Tarzan an indigenous black man, logic says his parents would have likely not been killed and he would not have been put in a position to be raised by apes and there would have been very little story to tell – at least of the fantasy-adventure variety.

It’s called a “fish out of water” story and its one of the oldest tropes in the book, and it is the inherent drama that comes with this storytelling standard that makes it so popular in books and films. Most film critics should know and understand this, but the concept is instead being used as a tool to bludgeon this beloved and renowned character.

For better or worse, white people do exist, and some stories do have white protagonists in them, sometimes doing heroic things, and sometimes even among people of color. We don’t all have to be evil, and we don’t have to make Superman (or Doc Savage) an Inuit just because his Fortress of Solitude is on the North Pole.


I’m saddened that Tarzan, a fictional hero whom I love, and who has truly brought so much happiness to people of all color and creeds throughout the world, routinely becomes a rallying point for people to get on a soapbox about colonialism and white supremacy. You can bet that most of these critics have never bothered to actually read a Tarzan novel, let alone think about one.

Sure, there is some unsavory wording in some of Burroughs’ work, not completely unlike the way your great-grandfather might have looked at the world; but, like your great-grandfather, he could still tell a great story, despite some of the backward thinking that existed during his era.

The new Tarzan picture does a great job in moving beyond all that and shows that, yes, as most of us knew anyway, there were black heroes in Africa; and it brings to light some horrific African history that you most likely never knew about before you saw the film – and that you might even research and learn more about. And yet, the film is still being slammed for its progressive efforts.

‘What disturbs me the most is that many who have unjustly slammed The Legend of Tarzan have been much less harsh on the likes of The Purge: Election Year, a film that celebrates Americans simply killing each other for fun…’

Using the anti-Tarzan critics’ logic, historical period dramas should never be made, be they based in fact or fiction. Every film should have equal balance when it comes to race, gender, religion and sexual orientation; and any source material, no matter when it originated, should meet today’s standards of political correctness.

Making the heroic character of Tarzan out to be the bad guy and disparaging what is a very fun and entertaining film, where you might actually learn something as well, is taking political correctness to an absurd degree. I cannot think of any other film that has been so unjustly chastised.

What disturbs me the most is that many who have unjustly slammed The Legend of Tarzan have been much less harsh on the likes of The Purge: Election Year, a film that celebrates Americans simply killing each other for fun – and apparently that’s a good thing. Where is the vitriolic commentary about that film? It is, indeed, a very weird world.

Are you ‘through being cool?’ Ready to show those evil Tarzan haters what’s what? The good folks over at have started a grassroots effort to help show the decision-makers at Warner Bros. that there are plenty of people out here who still love the Ape Man and are ready for the sequel. To get involved, sign into Facebook and join the Legend of Tarzan Sequel People group!


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About the author


Bob Leeper

Bob Leeper is the co-owner and manager of "Arizona’s Pop Culture and Alternative Art Network," Evermore Nevermore. He is the co-creator of the pop culture events Steampunk Street and ENCREDICON, and is a member of the Phoenix Film Critics Society. He also curates the Facebook fan site The Arizona Cave – AZ Fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and is one of the few brave and bold fans of Jar Jar Binks.

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