John Carter: Post-mortem on a disaster

You could see it coming. The big budget Disney Blockbuster John Carter was not going to work.  The reasons were myriad, some more critical than others, and taken in total it’s quickly clear why this movie is going to end up costing a fortune.


Start with the source material.  The character was introduced 100 years ago by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The public’s perception and understanding of life on Mars, where the action takes place, was very different then from what it is now. Who knew anything about Mars back then? The very notion of science fiction was still in its infancy. But today? Well, there is reason Avatar wasn’t set on Mars.

But on the other end of the spectrum, the source material is also very much geared to a certain audience: Mature adult males.  Look at the great artwork of Frank Frazetta and how he depicted John Carter:


It’s important to understand the impact that this artwork has on the John Carter legacy. If you grew up in the last 25 years, John Carter means nothing to you. But if you are between 35-55 John Carter is the artwork of Frank Frazetta. The two are inseparable. But there is no way Disney is going to make that movie. Listen to how Burroughs describes the lead female character, Dejah Thoris:

She was as destitute of clothes as the green Martians who accompanied her; indeed, save for her highly wrought ornaments she was entirely naked, nor could any apparel have enhanced the beauty of her perfect and symmetrical figure. 

That’s the picture above.  Here’s how she appears in the movie:

You can say it’s a small point, or that it doesn’t matter, but it does. When you mess with the source material, you lose the core audience that is going to champion your movie. And when the source material has absolutely no relevance or meaning to anyone under 30 (or female), well you’re headed for trouble.

Ok, but that is what it is. Sometimes you have to tweak the source material. It’s happened before and movies have still been successful. So, let’s jump to the trailer debacle, which has been well chronicled here, here and here. I won’t force you to sit through any of the three official trailers, nor the fan made one that was probably better than all of them.  The point is, they couldn’t articulate the story through a trailer, so nobody cared, or understood, what the Hell was going on.  Science fiction stories written 100 years ago don’t translate well to modern movies. The audience is too sophisticated.

But if you really want to know why John Carter bombed, this Los Angeles Times story lays it out, although not perhaps in the way they imagined. The article explains that the combination of director and executives in charge with this project were in over their heads.  That might be true, or maybe not. But here are the telling lines for me from this piece:

“The worst thing that can happen to a movie is the marketing team changes midstream,” said Peter Sealey, marketing strategist and former marketing president at Columbia Pictures. “It’s disheartening for the filmmakers, for the talent. They lose belief in the film.”

The worst thing is a change in marketing teams? That’s worse than hiring the wrong actors, director or writers?  Then there’s this:

…it’s not the “Star Wars” or “Star Trek” the studio was hoping, nor even the “Indiana Jones on Mars” that Stanton told Disney he hoped to make. The status of any “John Carter” sequels or theme park attractions is unclear.

Indiana Jones on Mars? Sequels and theme park attractions? That’s why movies like this (or just about any other ‘blockbuster’) suck. They are viewed as franchise vehicles or cross-promotional, money-spinning opportunities.  I’m not opposed to those things by the way, but when they are the raison d’etre, well all you’re going to get is a steaming turd.