John Carter: Analysis of A So-Called Flop

A look at the box office and critical reaction to Disney's early tentpole release John Carter.

I feel bad for John Carter, really I do, I was bullied at school, I know what it's like to be trying your darndest to just be who you are, and then everyone calls you names like 'turkey', 'flop' or 'disaster'. However, for poor ol' John Carter the bullying began even before school started. It began around about the release of Disney's Mars Needs Moms back in early 2011. The motion capture family adventure grossed a dismal $38 million worldwide from a production budget of $150 million. Disney had a panic and seemed to blame the film's terrible performance on the word 'Mars', which didn't really bode well for next year's tentpole, also set for a March release; John Carter Of Mars. Disney hastily changed the name to plain old John Carter, with co-writer/director Andrew Stanton stepping up to defend the decision as being relevant to the character's journey; when the film begins he is just John Carter and he earns the 'of Mars' title come the film's close. Whilst this is indeed reflected in the film it still doesn't quite excuse the fearful back-pedalling that was suggested by the name change, especially considering Disney had already released teaser posters emblazoned with a JCM logo. So, critics took this as the first whiff of uncertainity and began predicting the film's inevitable failure at the box office come March 2012. Jump cut to present day and John Carter is facing its greatest test, the second weekend on release. The film has met with mixed reviews from critics, a 51% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, though users (aka the paying public) seem a bit more forgiving, earning it 71% and 7.1/10 on IMDB. However, whether the film was any good or not didn't really seem to matter, and in terms of its franchise potentiality it definitely doesn't matter, what is important is whether it does the business at the box office. John Carter's opening weekend was about $30 million domestic, which was enough for critics to drub the film a flop, but I think that's unfair for a number of reasons. Despite the marketing heave from Disney I don't think they ever managed to find a tone with which to sell the film, the trailers were a mangled mess of trying to marry the film's classical sci-fi imagery to hip music, it was part Clash Of The Titans remake, part Transformers, part Gladiator, it flipped between styles and genres and had no consistency. Audiences would undoubtedly be a little befuddled as to what the film was supposed to be. But, beyond that the film doesn't really have any 'hook' for the audience beyond the fact that it cost a lot of money and is being billed as an 'event' picture. The cast is largely unknown, Taylor Kitsch is a familiar face on Friday Night Lights, but that doesn't make him a marquee name, likewise there's Lynn Collins (supporting roles in Wolverine and The Number 23), Dominic West (The Wire) and Mark Strong (he crops up in a lot, but doesn't really draw a crowd). Meanwhile the most recognisable actors have been replaced by - albeit impressive - CG creatures, such as Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton and Thomas Haden Church, but even those names aren't going to pull in an audience. What's most frustrating though is that the film's performance has been compared to the likes of Prince of Persia and Tron: Legacy, which also wound up underperforming for Disney, however those films had more of a cache than Carter; Prince of Persia was based on a current video-game franchise and Tron: Legacy had a proven existing cult-audience and alongside its fresh-faced stars featured the ever reliable Jeff Bridges, whilst the 3D craze was still young enough to lure in punters looking for a visual assault. That John Carter's opening take was even close to either of those films was mightily impressive, and I don't think it's the Disney marketing department who should be thanked for that. In just under two weeks John Carter has made $123 million worldwide, which is a third of Prince Of Persia's lifetime gross, and they could slap straplines all over that proudly exclaiming 'From the producer of Pirates of the Caribbean' and post shots of Jake Gyllenhall looking buff in every tabloid. If you look at the breakdown for Sci-Fi/Adventure films over the years John Carter currently sits at 38, with most of the chart space above him littered with Star Trek (9 movies), Star Wars (6 movies) and Spielberg-related releases (8 movies), all these films had more of an in-built audience than John Carter, which, whilst adapted from a reasonably well-known novel, it's not really the equivalent of Harry Potter or Twilight - and neither of those films required budgets as mammoth as Carter's, each primarily dealing with humans on Earth. But, such is the cruel nature of Hollywood at times that they can't wait to swoop like vultures and start picking at the bones even before the body has had a chance to die! It must come with a side order of relish to them to watch a Pixar-alumnus reach for the stars and 'fail' like this, especially after Brad Bird managed to confound people by making a thoroughly entertaining and successful fourth Mission: Impossible movie. However, the flip side of the coin, for me, is when it came to watching John Carter. I went in with all the pity in the world, hoping to see a film that was utterly undeserving of the critical lambasting it received, and whilst the movie's heart is in the right place and the film does not feel mangled and manipulated by studio hands, it is unfortunately a bit of a poor film, one that will undoubtedly have enduring cult appeal, but it's ultimately a curious failure rather than the sweeping catalyst that ignites a franchise. There are reasons for this and they may be the same ones that haven't helped the box office, the casting is a little off, Dominic West and Mark Strong are very dry as the film's villains, and perhaps some re-casting could have created both stronger antagonists and better audience-appeal. Kitsch is a tad one-note, but this does tie into the narrative, and there are moments in the film where the audience is allowed to warm to him - bizarrely the darkest scene in the film (intercut between Carter fighting hordes of Tharks and a past tragedy) is the one where we begin to understand and empathise with the character the most, but with the limp villains and unclear goals it's hard to continue to root for him. Similarly, some poor editing choices - beginning the film with a Mars-based teaser - keep the audience at arm's length and don't let us into the world as richly and deeply as we should. Which is a shame, because there are certain towering achievements here, for example, that we instantly feel for an enjoy the company of Willem Dafoe's Tars Tarkas, this, alongside Andy Serkis' motion-capture work, is a calling card for the evolution of computer generated characters in modern cinema, it is stunning to think that the audience can relate more to a four-armed, eight-foot, green-skinned computer graphic than Taylor Kitsch, but that's the case here. Ultimately though, it's not really the quality of the film that matters when it comes to the kicking John Carter is getting from the press. Indeed, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides can skip in and out of cinemas relatively unscathed taking over $1 billion worldwide. John Carter is, though flawed, a far better movie than either of those pictures and it represents the rather sad topsy-turvy state of Hollywood when these soulless money machines can readily hoover up cash and warrant further insipid installments whilst a rather brave and, at least, creatively-driven endeavour like John Carter finds itself doing well despite its uphill struggle but getting its fingers stamped on as it tries to at least reach a safe perch only a small way up the mountain.
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