Let us be blunt: everybody knows who Tarzan is. You don't have to have read a single one of Edgar Rice Burroughs's books or seen any of the Christ knows how many movies released in the last eight decades and more to know who Tarzan is. Maybe you only know that he's the white guy raised by gorillas in Africa who swings on vines in the jungle and has that yodel, but it's not like anybody is completely unfamiliar with Tarzan - he's like Superman or Batman a generation early.

So with that in mind, my profound thanks to The Legend of Tarzan for not choosing to force-feed an origin story down our throats when we already know what happens - so he's not like Superman or Batman at all! - and instead just cuts to the chase. Tarzan left the jungle eight years ago and has been living on his inheritance as John Clayton III, Fifth Earl of Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgård). He married the American-born Jane Porter (Margot Robbie), and she now spends her days delighting in the company that accrues to a large English manor, particularly one with a celebrity owner. Her husband, meanwhile, is content to try to live quietly and disappear from the world, but this he cannot do: the Prime Minister himself (Jim Broadbent in a hilarious, wheedling cameo) would like Clayton to accept an invitation from King Leopold II of Belgium, who has lately sunk a fortune into making the Congo Free State into a major producer of various natural resources, and who wants Clayton to visit to share with the world the litany of marvels to be found in the Congo these days. This will help normalise relations between the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Belgium, but it takes a better reason to convince Clayton: visiting American envoy George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) believes that Leopold has illegally assembled a massive slave labor force, and for obvious reasons that the film thankfully doesn't spell out, Williams has a really strong investment in making the world aware of the king's transgressions. Eager to return to Africa, where she was always happier than anyplace else, Jane forces her way along.

See? You can just jump right in and have an adventure with Tarzan, no need to spend a whole movie introducing characters we already know, and what we don't know, we can figure out pretty much on the fly. A lesson that I'd like to tattoo on the eyelids of everybody responsible for producing superhero movies these days. It's unfortunate that The Legend of Tarzan, having made this wonderful choice, is crap. It would maybe have been an even stronger lesson if that wasn't the case.

It's clear we're off to a rocky start when the film's very first gesture is to introduce the political situation of Africa under colonial European rule and Belgium's particular relationship to the Congo of the course of no fewer than five title cards. It's an explosion of text that rivals The Phantom Menace's breathless exposition on taxation disputes for immediately killing of any excitement we have for the assumed pulpy adventure to follow. To be fair, it's not misleading in the least: The Legend of Tarzan is considerably invested in the mechanics of Belgium's colonial machine and the exact strategies used to exploit the Congo's resources and people, rather than just positing them as the Evil Guys. That's certainly a choice, and potentially a rewarding one, but it needed a different screenplay, director, and cast if it it was going to be the movie to actually critically analyse 19th Century European colonialism in the guise of a 2010s popcorn movie. Mostly, The Legend of Tarzan only manages to fall into a valley: it's not nearly smart enough to justify how much it allows real-world politics to pull focus from the business of being dumb summer spectacle.

For spectacle it just barely is: there's a miserable paucity of action across 109 minutes that feel longer, with only a couple of moments that register for much of anything: a swing through the jungle chasing a train full of chained slaves; then, all the way at the end an animal stampede that practically levels the port town where the villains are doing their foul deeds. It's as an action film where the film is at its best, by an extraordinary margin: David Yates, who has spent a full decade now doing virtually nothing other than making films in the Harry Potter universe, has picked up a few skills about how to bind together small moments with human actors and big CGI effects, and when it shuts up and lets Tarzan be Tarzan, The Legend of Tarzan is all-too-briefly the effectively brash adventure film it fancies itself. For the most part, it is a solemn slog through scenes of people speaking a great deal to forward not much information, or having indistinguishable fights that have a poor tendency to incorporate slow-motion, circular tracking shots that go two-thirds of the way around the characters (sometimes Yates loses track, and films conversation scenes with the same circular shots), and lots of mist and rain to obscure, as much as possible, how criminally bad the CGI gorillas look most of the time.

Even the worst action sequences are still a blessed relief from the actual plot of the thing. Basically, we have a two-part situation: the man in charge of the plan for the Congo, Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz, a flawless choice to play a venal Belgian colonial bureaucrat) - based on a real man, whose fate did not remotely match movie character's - needs lots of money to pay for his mercenaries and engineers. He knows where a huge quantity of diamonds are to be, found, in the ruined city of Opar, but to get at them, he needs to bribe the chief of the local tribe, Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou). There's only one thing Mbonga wants: Tarzan, alive, in order to wreak his revenge. And that is why Clayton received that invitation in the first place. It's terribly messy, especially given that the entire Mbonga plot thread ends up resolving with no impact on the rest of the action. It's as though the film is trying to justify one conflict by setting up a spurious second conflict, when the first conflict is in fact much stronger to begin with. Also, there's something powerfully wrong about a movie whose plot hinges on the wretchedness of the European colonial exercise including not a single black character other than Williams who isn't some kind of booga-booga stereotype. It is more than a little baffling to me than in the Year of Our Lord 2016, filmmakers would try to get away with the ghostly, pelt-wearing spear-wielding tribal warriors bit that opens the movie (then again, we're only eleven years removed from Peter Jackson's King Kong, which hit the same stereotypes even worse). And the obvious fact that they did get away with it doesn't make me any less perplexed that they thought they could.

I think the thing that harms the movie most, however, is how brutally uninteresting the humans are, especially given that the low focus on pulp action requires us to spend a great deal of time with them. Rom is a sufficiently slimy villain, with Waltz's typical "doing a Waltz" serving the part well; Jackson's Williams is a relatively effective sidekick, amusing without being buffoonish and possessed of a prickly self-defensiveness that's a good fit of character and actor. Tarzan and Jane are dull as dishwater, though. In her short but intensely packed big-screen career, I can't think of a single time that Robbie has been close to this bad: she's a zippy, peppy Jane who feels more like the highest point of a three-day cocaine binge than any kind of human being who might have possibly been alive in 1890, and who bares her teeth like a wildcat when she's trying to exude friendliness. Skarsgård makes for a completely impassive Tarzan, looking vaguely distressed in his scenes as the prim Clayton and palpably bored in his shirtless jungle treks. He delivers his lines in a soft burble that almost works in the early scenes but never after; he radiates so little energy that it's even detrimental to those around him: Jackson's best efforts aren't nearly enough to spark any camaraderie with his scene partner, and he comes off looking foolish. And at a certain point, one starts to wonder if Robbie's jazzed-up vim and vigor are an attempt to compensate for an allegedly passionate marriage where she's the only living partner.

It's certainly not a complete wash: beyond the aforementioned action sequences, the film's depiction of the African jungle has a rich, moody gloom about it, and it feels like the kind of place where splendid comic book adventures might be happening, just someplace where we aren't. And given the least rewarding role conceivable for a black actor, Hounsou nonetheless manages to sell his one big scene, crying with impotent rage for the memory of his son, with something like real emotions peaking through the dismalness of everything around him. And... nope, that's it. The rest is garbage, all of it.