Well, it’s official, JOHN CARTER is being labeled a disaster, a flop, an “ISHTAR“, and anything else that signifies profit-and-loss ratio infamy. The media decided a while ago that this movie was going to be a disaster for Disney, and after finishing #2 for the weekend with barely $30 million—despite making over $100 million worldwide—every ill omen has been seen as sagacious.
And the hate is baffling. Although it has only 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, if you read the reviews, the good ones read about the same as the bad ones. Critics weren’t wildly enthusiastic about the movie, but it didn’t suck.
In fact, the word of mouth is good. People who went in with an open mind seem to have been entertained.
I saw JOHN CARTER Thursday at an IMAX 3D and I loved it. It was no THE DESCENDANTS, but it was a well-made yarn, filled with wonder. Yeah, I said it. WONDER. The John Carter books are hardly The Lord of the Rings—I didn’t need every klunky archaic line used. And screenwriter Michael Chabon and Andrew Stanton knew that. So they weren’t afraid to tinker and modernize many things.
What they did keep intact was the unbridled imagination of the original, a vision unencumbered by anything that reeks of marketing or focus groups. Here is a passage from the second book, The Gods of Mars, that sums up everything I like about Barsoom:
Its hairless body was a strange and ghoulish blue, except for a broad band of white which encircled its protruding, single eye: an eye that was all dead white–pupil, iris, and ball.
Its nose was a ragged, inflamed, circular hole in the centre of its blank face; a hole that resembled more closely nothing that I could think of other than a fresh bullet wound which has not yet commenced to bleed.
Below this repulsive orifice the face was quite blank to the chin, for the thing had no mouth that I could discover.
The head, with the exception of the face, was covered by a tangled mass of jet-black hair some eight or ten inches in length. Each hair was about the bigness of a large angleworm, and as the thing moved the muscles of its scalp this awful head-covering seemed to writhe and wriggle and crawl about the fearsome face as though indeed each separate hair was endowed with independent life.
I mean COME ON, how can you not want to see that brought to life? The Carter books were so original when written…now, having been ripped off for a hundred years, they seem like pale imitations.
But then, this has been a story that people have been trying—and failing—to bring to the screen since at least 1936. Nearly 80 years. In that year, animator Bob Clampett worked on a proposed animated version for…Walt Disney.
As others have written here, had this film actually been made—instead of SNOW WHITE—what a different world we would live in. John Carter would have had to be an animated movie. What has stymied people for years was the technology to make it.
The more recent attempts at making a movie—from Robert Rodriguez, to Kerry Conlan, to Jon Favreau and so on—all faltered for probably the same reasons the movie that did get made has been vilified: too weird and yet too familiar at the same time.
But let’s piece together a bit of what is being said as the handfuls of dirt hit the coffin. If you’re a veteran of Hollywood backstabbing, it’s interesting to see who is aiming what knives at whom.
Nikki Finke has some brutal fingerpointing aimed at director Andrew Stanton:
To summarize: this flop is the result of a studio trying to indulge Pixar… Of an arrogant director who ignored everybody’s warnings that he was making a film too faithful to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s first novel in the Barsoom series “A Princess of Mars”… Of the failure of Dick Cook, and Rich Ross, and Bob Iger to rein in Stanton’s excessive ego or pull the plug on the movie’s bloated budget … Of really rotten marketing that failed to explain the significant or scope of the film’s Civil War-to-Mars story and character arcs and instead made the 3D movie look way as generic as its eventual title… Disagree all you want, but Hollywood is telling me that competent marketing could have drawn in women with the love story, or attracted younger males who weren’t fanboys of the source material. Instead the campaign was as rigid and confusing as the movie itself, not to mention that ’Before Star Wars, Before Avatar‘ tag line should have come at the start and not at the finish. But even more I think John Carter is a product of mogul wuss-ism as much as it is misplaced talent worship. More detail to come.
Andrew Stanton’s ego, eh? God forbid that the director of FINDING NEMO and WALL*E have confidence in his filmmaking skills. In the Hollywood glossary “ego” is the brush to tar both runaway executives headed for disaster and filmmakers who think they actually know what they are doing. While it seems that as a first-time live-action director Stanton needed a stronger producing partner, based on his track record his thinking he could make a good movie is a rather forgivable sin.
The New York Times has yet more anonymous insider candor, including Disney head Bob Iger’s call to say the serenity prayer over and over again as the money flows out and out:
In recent weeks, as a weak marketing campaign failed to generate audience excitement for “John Carter,” Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive, made it clear in conversations with senior managers that he would not tolerate finger-pointing; this may be a colossal miss, he told them, according to people who were present, but it’s the company’s miss and no individuals would be blamed — including Mr. Stanton. Learn from it, was Mr. Iger’s message. On Sunday, Rich Ross, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, said in a statement, “Moviemaking does not come without risk. It’s still an art, not a science, and there is no proven formula for success. Andrew Stanton is an incredibly talented and successful filmmaker who with his team put their hard work and vision into the making of ‘John Carter.’ Unfortunately, it failed to connect with audiences as much as we had all hoped.”
The Times piece does lay the blame for the weak marketing on Stanton’s door, not the departed MT Carney—he had final say over all of it. And he is definitely NOT a marketer: using Led Zeppelin for the first trailer, and generally not making the movie look very exciting. IF this is all true, then he does have some humble pie to eat.
Other culprits, from the Times, include the turnover from former studio head Dick Cook, ousted by Iger, to new guy Rich Ross, which led to the lack of strong oversight—or support—for Stanton.
The LA Times reveals that it was the old farts who liked the movie, a sure recipe for disaster:
Based on a century-old character created by author Edgar Rice Burroughs, “John Carter” was meant to appeal to young males. But a surprisingly older crowd turned up to see the movie this weekend, as 59% of the audience was over age 25. Those who saw the film — a 64% male contingent — assigned it an average grade of B+, according to market research firm CinemaScore.
In this, its outline kind of resembles GREEN LANTERN, a film that no one remembers or has compared it to, even though they are very similar—a cult chaacter that intrigues enough filmmakers for it to finally get made. But a Variety preview mentions a different film that had a cult audience but should perhaps never be filmed:
Having dealt with rumors of cost overruns on a tentpole with no major stars, marketing stumbles (including a controversial title change and DayGlo materials) and 100-year-old source material unknown to most moviegoers, Disney and a team of Pixar vets are either about to launch a new franchise or write off the next failed labor of love, like "Watchmen."
It’s left to Mark Hughes at Forbes to actually defend the movie, based on its merits:
While most media reports are focusing on the pre-established narrative that the film is a flop and critical failure, audiences are rating the film with a very healthy B+, some key film reviewers have enthusiastically embraced the movie, and the strong foreign receipt numbers indicate it will have a much better total box office run than many of the detractors seem to be giddily hoping for.
And there’s the rub: this movie is actually likable. Here’s my distillation of what went wrong, aside from whatever filmmaking stumbles Stanton had in going over budget: this was Cook’s movie, and when he got booted, it got orphaned. It had to keep going, but no one at the studio wanted to take responsibility for it. Disney’s lack of enthusiasm for the project was more and more obvious. All the backstory and backstabbing didn’t allow people to see that this was actually a pretty good movie. Believe me, plenty of worse pieces of shit have made $500 million worldwide.
But it was all so obvious. For instance, it’s a real shame that Disney’s fear of alienating male viewers didn’t allow for some marketing of Dejah Thoris to the female geek audience. Lynn Collins was spot on in the role, Dejah was both smart—she discovered the ninth ray!—and an ass kicker. And almost alone of major studio pictures, there were female characters EVERYwhere in the film, from the green sidekick Sola, to various random foot soldiers of Zodanga(!), to the goddess Issus. Unlike the dismal STAR TREK remake which jettisoned all the original’s ideas about sexual diversity in the universe, JOHN CARTER stuck with the idea of priestesses and an integrated society. (The books were so egalitarian, but Burroughs also knew that the more girls who were around, the more that could potentially be kidnapped and rescued to kick off a plot.) In a time when female genre fans are demanding more engaged and proactive roles for women, JOHN CARTER is a standout. Too bad no one thought to tell that story.
I predict that on home viewing, little kids will adore it. And maybe even Disney will come around. Dejah Thoris is a Disney Princess now! Woola plush toys! John Carter sword and loincloth play set! It could all happen.
A surprisingly wide variety of cartoonists liked it, too, as shown by a few random tweets (Not shown, Renee French.):
John Carter is better than the last 4 Star Wars movies #controversial
— Cameron Stewart (@cameronMstewart) March 12, 2012
Count me among the group that enjoyed the hell out of John Carter. It’s pretty great–and the CGI was amazing.
— Erik Larsen (@ErikJLarsen) March 11, 2012
John Carter was maybe the best silly space-Conan movie from a cg-enabled 80’s that I’ve ever seen. I bet Woola and Fizzgig would be friends.
— Jhonen Vasquez (@JhonenV) March 11, 2012
So that’s it then. If JOHN CARTER is a huge huge hit worldwide, we may see the already-written sequel. But that’s kind of a long shot. More likely: 20 years from now, an originality-bereft Hollywood exec looks around and says, “Hey if they could remake Starsky and Hutch maybe we should remake John Carter!”
Just you watch. In Carter’s own catchphrase from the books: “I still live.”
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.