I watched John Carter for the first time (on Disney+) and had some thoughts.
Film buffs like to talk about John Carter. The movie was supposed to be a big new franchise for Disney, but it became a famous bomb.
I don’t think it was poor marketing. Good word of mouth can outdo mediocre advertising and reach. That’s what happened with War Horse and The Greatest Showman and The Blind Side and the new Jumanji and especially Iron Man — no one expected much out of superhero movies after the Incredible Hulk and Fantastic Four duds.
I don’t think it was a lack of star power. I don’t go to see movies to see actors. In fact, I’m more likely to avoid a movie because it stars an actor I hate (e.g. Brad Pitt, Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Cera, Shia LaBoeuf). I prefer no-name actors because that makes it easier to lose myself in the story. Little harder when Tom Cruise is playing Tom Cruise and not the character he’s supposed to. Well-known crew names might pique my interest, but more often than not, it’s a stamp of unoriginality. A James Cameron film’s gonna James Cameron.
I don’t think it was that the budget got overblown with reshoots. Creative accounting makes it so no movie gains a profit anyway, so budget is a nebulous thing. And Andrew Stanton isn’t a first-time director, just a first-time director for live-action. He made Finding Nemo and WALL-E. Talent like that can’t be squelched by a slightly different medium.
I think it failed because it’s story that’s a hundred years old.
Since the John Carter books were written we’ve had Star Trek, Star Wars, The Black Hole, WALL-E, District 9, Dune, Guardians of the Galaxy, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, E.T., The Martian. Even Plan 9 From Outer Space has had some influence on “off-Earth” science fiction stories.
Don’t Blame Mars
I know I said before that I didn’t believe it was marketing, but I think there is some truth that movies based around Mars do poorly (e.g. Mission to Mars, Mars Needs Moms). That’s why they left the “of Mars” off and we got just a guy’s name (more like a phonebook entry than a movie title).
But Mars is not necessarily a black spot. Total Recall, The Martian, and even Doom (the video game) take place on Mars.
The problem comes from treating Mars the same way H.G. Wells treated it in War of the Worlds a hundred and twenty-three years ago. Back then people weren’t 100% sure there wasn’t life on Mars. Astronomers thought the canals on the planet were water-filled (but this turned out to be false). The whole point of War of the Worlds is Great Britain going “what if someone tried to colonize us?” The queen had taken a dump on nearly every country’s coast at this point, so there was storytelling to mine with the fear of invasion by a bigger bully. And the best candidate for that invader was a species off-planet.
But now, Mars doesn’t hold the same sway. It’s like a neighbor house you thought was haunted, but then you sent in someone during the day and they said it’s just a boring house. Truth is like toothpaste–you can’t squeeze it back in the tube.
It’s easier to say that movies set in a desert do poorly. I know it’s an automatic turn-off for me that few movies pull me back from (Mad Max: Fury Road succeeded in that). Deserts have nothing. You wouldn’t want to be there, you wouldn’t want to explore them. Even applies to non-science fiction movies, like Hidalgo and Sahara.
Just Because Tarzan Worked…
Time is not kind to intellectual property, especially adventure and science fiction stories. This is because A) what thrills and excites one culture or era may not do the same for another. For example, compare our movies to India’s or China’s or France’s. Stories are reflections of the time and culture they live in.
According to Wikipedia, John Carter was in development hell since the 1930s, so Hollywood recognized the cinematic-ness of the Barsoom stories and/or the success of the Tarzan franchise. Too expensive, too unfilmmable, too fantastic. But they still wanted something epic to be the next Star Wars or Last of the Mohicans. Here’s the thing: if you’re in a relationship and you keep breaking up and getting back together and breaking up and getting back together and breaking up and getting back together, maybe it’s just not going to work out. Maybe you should turn your eyes to something that will work and focus on that.
Some stories seem to be timeless, like A Christmas Carol, Les Miserables, Romeo and Juliet, Alice in Wonderland. The earliest book I’ve read is Aesop’s Fables (590 BC). Simple children’s stories with clear themes and interesting characters (usually animals). Even Edgar Rice Burroughs’s other book series, Tarzan, remains an often-recreated movie and story. So why shouldn’t we try to movie-fy the other wildly popular book Burroughs wrote?
Well, a few reasons. One, Tarzan didn’t go right from one-hundred-year-old book to tentpole movie. Tarzan’s been reimagined and reinterpreted since its inception, like Batman or Robin Hood or King Arthur. From silent movies, stage productions, radio programs, to the “Weissmüller era” (where Tarzan became the pop culture character he is now), then television series, cheesy movies that starred Bo Derek or Christopher Lambert or Margot Robbie. And then there’s the Disney film. It’s never left the public consciousness. Meanwhile, no one’s thought about John Carter.
Two, remember I just said “reimagined and reinterpreted”? Tarzan’s source material has… some issues. It was written by a white American male. In 1912. Taking place in Africa. Starring a white male. Often set against indigenous African tribes. Who is secretly a British lord. Learns superpowers from apes. Then becomes their king. So to get from a guy who proudly declares he’s a “killer of cannibals & black men” to a Disney film, there has to be some steps in-between.
The same goes for John Carter, a story rooted in a world brimming with “white man’s burden” and colonialism and women who still couldn’t vote yet.
And Now… A Lesson From Indiana Jones
Indiana Jones succeeded because it was based on the movie serials of the 30s and 40s where intrepid heroes race around the world after some maguffin (e.g. Doc Savage, Gunga Din, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Secret of the Incas, Allan Quatermain). In 1981, the people who saw those serials as 10-year-olds were in their sixties now. And nostalgia bites hard. But this time, they boiled out everything that was stupid or boring–the long waits between episodes, the cheesy sets, the lack of a sense of real danger, the poor acting–and maximized entertainment and humor. It’s like the Mario sports games: they remove the boring stuff and leave the fun and craziness.
Then in 2008, they made Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. No one told Hollywood that the world had moved on from Indiana Jones. Everyone who remembered the old serials was dead. All that was left were the ten-year-olds who had seen the original in the theaters, and on VHS, and video games, and played it in the backyard, over and over and over, were the adults. We never stopped being exposed to Indiana Jones. But what did Hollywood deliver?
The same ol’ same ol’. They weren’t piggybacking on old serials anymore. They were piggybacking on Indiana Jones. Trying to make us nostalgic for the cold war with Russians and the nuclear scare. Marion (who Jones had a questionable relationship with) comes back from the first movie, and now he Indiana Jones is a deadbeat dad. And his son’s an obnoxious thief who seems like he’s just out of the diner in Back to the Future. Also aliens.
Instead of compensating for the march of time, they gave us the same thing, forgetting twenty years had passed. That tastes had evolved. That stories had evolved. But they gave us the old junk repackaged with CGI.
What does any of that have to do with John Carter? I bring it up because there’s very little new here. Some cities at war, alien tribes, a coliseum, a few flying vehicles. Even while watching I said to myself “oh, another action scene”. I literally cannot tell you who John Carter is. Whereas the Avengers all have their own unique personalities and philosophies. Everyone is distinct.
John Carter is just a basic Superman. He’s doing right because he believes it’s right, which is another thing that rubs me the wrong way, in that colonialism “I’m coming into your yard and fix all your problems because I’m ‘more advanced’ than you.” That would be like me going to Detroit in a mech suit and yelling “We going to war, my bitches!”
Todays good adventure stories are The Fast and the Furious, King Kong, Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, Toy Story, Pirates of the Caribbean, and lots of superhero stories like Harry Potter and Batman and anything Marvel. Some take place in fantastic worlds, some are down-to-earth, but they’re never about wanting a crown or conquering a world. They’re about stopping bad people in power from doing bad things.
The best way to describe John Carter is Conan the Barbarian crossed with Avatar (in fact, Disney+ even recommended Avatar after I was finished). And I didn’t like either of those movies. Both of them have stories that have either static characters or a story that’s tedious, overused, and cliched, even in our time.
Conan led the way to a lot of cheesy clones like The Beastmaster and He-Man. Avatar was overhyped and over-marketed with the promise of being the next Star Wars with four more movies inbound. Where are those other movies, James?
The best these movies have now is a cult following. And that’s who John Carter is for–a cult audience. One with niche interests (like old stories, desert warriors saving princesses, old-style aliens, etc.). A movie seen fifty times by as many people.
The movie ended up getting a final grade of “mixed reviews”. Which seems about right to me. There is an audience for this movie, but it’s not a majority audience.