“John Carter’s” eponymous hero spends a lot of time hopping around without a shirt, which is convenient, if only to facilitate the collective navel-gazing about what went wrong with Disney’s would-be blockbuster, and who deserves blame.
The answer, alas, is more complex than facile “Ishtar” comparisons would suggest. And quite frankly, the more pressing concern isn’t whether Disney takes a bath on another “Mars”-themed movie (see “Mars Needs Moms”), but Hollywood deriving all the wrong messages from a perceived failure, as it so often does.
Just for context, bear with me for a little personal back story. As a kid with a taste for fantasy, I consumed all of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan books. Hungry for more I moved on to the author’s “A Princess of Mars” series, featuring John Carter, an earthling whose teleportation to the Red Planet gave him extraordinary powers.
If the novels captured my juvenile imagination, I was hardly alone. “With ‘Avatar,’ I thought, Forget all these chick flicks and do a classic guys’ adventure movie, something in the Edgar Rice Burroughs mold, like John Carter of Mars — a soldier goes to Mars,” James Cameron told the New Yorker in 2009. And that seemed to pay off pretty well for all concerned.
Yet like so many sci-fi, fantasy and comicbook stories, the prospect of any filmmaker doing Burroughs’ Mars tales justice seemed near-impossible. The budget would have to be gargantuan, with bizarre creatures that could easily provoke giggles as opposed to awe.
It’s taken this long — a full century after the first book — for computer wizardry to make the translation from pulp novel to screen plausible. Even so, given past disappointments, I’ve watched with interest as clouds of doom began massing long before “John Carter” hit the screen.
The Daily Beast, for example, dubbed the project “Disney’s Quarter-Billion-Dollar Movie Fiasco” in mid-February, before anyone had even seen it. A $30 million domestic opening weekend has only fueled hand-wringing over the size of the studio’s write-off.
Critics weren’t uniformly unkind, though many felt compelled to judge the movie based on budget as much as merit — another unintended consequence of the studios’ tentpole strategy, where gigantism begets commensurate blowback.
Ultimately, “John Carter” never should have been the product it became. In an earlier era this sort of adventure would have been a “B” movie (though the letter grade is probably more a B- or C+) — the kind designed for afternoon matinees, starring the likes of Stewart Granger or Robert Taylor.
Alas, there’s no such thing on a $250 million budget, and the film is being pilloried as much for that as its narrative deficiencies. Director Andrew Stanton didn’t make a terrible movie. He made an OK one for a relatively small slice of the population — those who regularly attend Comic-Con and frequent AintItCoolNews.
New York Times critic A.O. Scott got it right calling the film fun but “a sign of the times, and a problem of scale.” Studios can’t eliminate the middle — producing only Oscar bait and franchises with enormous budgets — and avoid being beset with equally inflated expectations.
Disney also exacerbated “John Carter’s” challenge by foolishly dropping “Mars” from the marquee, ostensibly because research showed women would be turned off. (“Mars Need Moms'” spectacular crash landing doubtless didn’t help.)
The result? A movie with an utterly generic title — denoting Noah Wyle’s character on “ER,” and, as the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern observed, “with all the fizz of a low-rent fashion label.”
The real precedent for “John Carter” is another beloved property with narrow appeal, “Watchmen.”
To its credit, Warner Bros. marketed director Zack Snyder’s serious-minded adaptation of the grim graphic novel with gusto but still couldn’t bridge the fanboy-public divide. By contrast, Disney never looked to have its heart — or head — in selling “Carter.” (Full disclosure: My wife works for an unrelated unit of the studio.)
So what’s the primary lesson here? The dazzling ability to digitally create anything the imagination can conjure has become a double-edged sword, thanks to the whopping price tag.
Such sobriety, however, generally eludes Hollywood and media during the postmortem period on ostentatious misfires — with the cavernous gap between second-guessing and logic representing a chasm even Carter couldn’t clear.