You Have to See This! Conan the Barbarian (2011)

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2011 seems like such a long time ago when you consider the career that Jason Momoa has had since then. He’s been in one of the biggest fantasy series of all time, was in a hit comic book movie as an iconic aquatic superhero, has led acclaimed dramas and crime thrillers, and seems to release a new movie or two every single year. Back in 2011 he was simply just a newcomer who was replacing Arnold Schwarzenneger in the reboot of “Conan the Barbarian.”

He was greeted with immense prejudice especially considering Schwarzenneger’s original films have been continuously celebrated since the eighties. And considering that fans have also been asking for a final film in his series for decades, it felt like a slight to cast Momoa in the role. Truth be told, looking back at “Conan the Barbarian” it is hardly the disaster that it was initially considered. It falls right in line with the comic series and the original eighties movies. It falls right in line almost to a fault. Director Marcus Nispel doesn’t even try for a more grounded realistic approach to the dark fantasy series. Instead he charges in head first with what is basically an edgy adaptation, a dark fantasy and a pretty damn good reboot, all things considered.

A powerful Cimmerian warrior, Conan carves a bloody path across the land of Hyboria on a personal vendetta. That soon turns into an epic battle against evil, for Conan’s mortal enemy, Khalar Zym who seeks the legendary Mask of Acheron. The artifact will enable Khalar Zym to raise his wife from the dead and achieve immortality for himself, but it will also unleash a malevolent force upon the land, and only Conan and his companions can stop it.

What “Conan the Barbarian” has against it is the lack of nostalgia. Schwarzenneger’s predecessors had decades to build a loyal cult fan base, while Nispel’s movie doesn’t have much of a fighting chance. The fact is that deep down all the “Conan” films feel exactly the same. They’re all the same sword and sorcery movies with action, gore, and the slightest hint of the supernatural. Conan is one side of a coin for good, a heroic man who from a young age was filled with heart and had a lot to prove to his tribe and his dad Corin (Ron Perlman).

Rose McGowan is the other side of the coin, playing the deliciously evil sorceress Marique, a literal pet project of the devious Khalar Sym (Stephen Lang, as good as always). As Marique, she maintains a ton of the same sexual allure, even when shedding a lot of her traditional traits. She (I doubt by accident) presents much of the traits of a serpent woman with a full body outfit, a lack of eyebrows and a bit of a slithery presence, every time she’s on screen. Both characters present a unique dichotomy in a world filled with injustice. If anything, Nispel doesn’t nearly focus enough on the juxtaposition between Marique and Conan, and their duty to their own fathers.

I think with so much more emphases, Nispel and writing team could have offered up something more complex that the original films didn’t. In fact Sym’s quest to resurrect his wife is a great parallel with Corin’s own grief toward the death of his wife on the battle field. It’s such a missed opportunity. Despite running in at two hours in length, “Conan the Barbarian” runs at a swift pace, with Conan setting his sights on avenging the gruesome death of his father. He spends a large amount of time looking for ways to Khalar Sym, even imprisoning himself, beginning a revolution, and doing whatever he can to overcome Sym’s forces.

Momoa for the most part is very good in the role of Conan the Barbarian, and had he been allowed the opportunity, may even have become the quintessential Conan the Barbarian. In Nispel’s film he’s a huge brawler who is deceptively clever, and he works well off of the entire cast, including the gorgeous Rachel Nichols, as Tamara. I think had “Conan” been made in 2021, fans probably would have been asking for a sequel or two, especially since Momoa has proven himself a strong actor and action star. As he’s shown over and over with his turn as Khal Drogo in “Game of Thrones” and as Arthur Curry in “Aquaman,” he could have truly carved out a new Conan for modern movie audiences.

Sadly it came way too early in Momoa’s career trajectory, prompting another longer existence in limbo for Robert E. Howard’s fantasy epic and iconic hero.