Knights of the Zodiac opens in theaters on May 12, 2023
This year's manga-to-live-action adaptation of Knights of the Zodiac is as underwhelming a hopeful franchise-starter as you'll ever encounter. Japanese superstar performer Mackenyu will no doubt lure his fanbase into theaters, who will then be met with a long-winded fantasy adventure that isn't the dazzling visual feast they were probably hoping for thanks to such a cumbersome reliance on unspectacular digital effects. Everything about this modern tale of Olympic gods and supernatural powers teases an epic journey, but execution is quite the sluggish opposite.
For those unfamiliar with Masami Kurumada's Saint Seiya manga – which director Thomasz Baginski's film loosely picks and chooses from – Mackenyu's protagonist Seiya discovers his destiny as protector of Sienna (Madison Iseman), the reincarnation of goddess Athena. The screenplay seems to assume we know all of the manga’s background information when charting Seiya's rags-to-superhero arc, skipping over the details and following the most basic beginnings for young characters discovering extraordinary powers they need to harness.
There's a messiness to the collision of Greek mythology and samurai culture that reminds of something sloppily extravagant like Gods of Egypt, lost in world-building that never feels convincing. Instead, it's a smorgasbord of unimpressive digital effects as Baginski struggles to recreate the feel of anime in live action (think Netflix's Cowboy Bebop show), boiling down Kurumada's vivid source material into a bland, loud, voiceless gruel with no substance.
Kurumada's vivid source material is boiled down into a bland, loud, voiceless gruel with no substance.
Writers Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, and Kiel Murray introduce characters and concepts without laying sturdy foundations. What's clear is that Sienna is the second coming of Athena, and that Seiya must protect her against boilerplate doomsday threats. What's haphazard are the perils and supporting characters thrown in between, and especially what abilities new challengers possess.
There's a frustrating reliance on the blanket mysticism of internal energy, dubbed "Cosmo," that is the source of everyone's powers, which Baginski shows without telling when a little exposition might go a long way (without overdoing exposition dumps; balance is key). Scene by scene, characters will pull a new trick out of their hat only to remind us that there's no in-universe lore connecting them to anything beyond Seiya's dumbfounded looks when he attempts to understand his barebones representation of otherwise grand importance.
For a supporting cast that includes Sean Bean and Famke Janssen, Knights of the Zodiac leaves little impact.
For a supporting cast that includes Sean Bean doing his usual thing as Seiya's pseudo mentor Alman Kido and Famke Janssen as antagonist Guraad with her glowy purple energy gauntlets, Knights of the Zodiac leaves little impact. Mark Dacascos is unsurprisingly a standout as Alman's right-hand with the slickest swordplay Mylock; Nick Stahl, meanwhile, doesn't sell the brutish imposition of his fight club champion Cassios. Everyone's shoved to the side as Seiya trains with the silver-masked Marin (Caitlin Hutson), learning the same coming-of-self lessons in some weak Karate Kid riff with more levitation and hurled boulders. Then Seiya returns to the main plot for a finale, where it's like we've missed vital details that might explain why Guraad's henchman Nero (Diego Tinoco) suddenly becomes… well, what he becomes.
Knights of the Zodiac Review
Even the visual makeup of Knights of the Zodiac feels uninspired. Guraad's supersoldier army looks like rejected models of the 2014 Robocop remake's suit, while Seiya's battle costume armor loses its shine once the fight turns to computer-animated models from practical choreography. Everyone with Cosmo surging through their veins seems to harness a signature color that adds dashes of neon – Seiya's blue wings, Sienna's purple starburst – which sharply embraces an inherent fantastical appeal at times. There’s a shimmer of hope in these glimpses, but it’s overruled when Seiya's final battle becomes something out of a mid-2000s video game cutscene versus the much shorter and vastly more accomplished fights that Mylock carries. There's no comparison to something like American Gods, which rains down style like a thousand arrows shot by as many archers.
Knights of the Zodiac fails to inspire enough excitement to meet the prospect of future sequels with anything more than a shrug. It’s not particularly successful at welcoming newcomers into Masami Kurumada’s imagination because the film whiffs at echoing the manga creator’s vision. Director Tomasz Baginski falls victim to the choppy and unnatural feel of over-animated blockbusters and underwritten franchise starters that care more about future installments than making one successful beginning. Knights of the Zodiac may be about magical powers and almighty beings, but is an odyssey lost at sea without even a siren’s call of intrigue.