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Mars. The Red Planet. Barsoom. Edgar Rice Burroughs delivered a treasure trove of spectacle and sci-fi fantasy wonder with his John Carter series, beginning with 1912’s serialized story, Under the Moons of Mars, later collected as a novel and retitled A Princess of Mars. The subject of numerous works, by Burroughs and later others, the foundational sci-fi novel remained surprisingly untapped by Hollywood, despite numerous attempts, even as Burroughs’ other most famous character, Tarzan, became the subject of television serials and a glut of film adaptations.
Disney took on the task and released John Carter into theaters 10 years ago this week. In no small sense, the hopes and dreams of the studio rested on the broad shoulders of John Carter.
Even after the failure to launch new franchises akin to Pirates of the Caribbean with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) and Tron: Legacy (2010), John Carter made perfect sense for Disney at the time. After all, the studio had managed to turn centuries-old fairy tales into an enterprise. And John Carter, with its strange land, smart and feisty princess, loyal animal companion, noble group of underdogs, and its mysterious and villainous wizards, was another fairy tale. Director Andrew Stanton, the filmmaker behind Disney and Pixar’s masterpiece Wall-E (2008), had dreamed of seeing Burroughs’ world onscreen since childhood. He could not have been a better match. And so, it was set.
John Carter finalized its script and began preproduction in 2009, with a release date set for 2012, as part of a 100-year celebration of the character’s legacy and impact on the genre. The perfect success story had been written in the stars, only for those stars to all come crashing down.
Look away from Mars for a moment and consider the films that changed the course of the industry. Not necessarily the best films ever made, but the ones that served as watershed moments. There are certain movies throughout film history that drastically shifted the tide, that gave studios and audiences a glimpse of a future that could be theirs if they reached out to touch it. The Jazz Singer (1927), Gone With the Wind (1939), Ben-Hur (1959), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), Jurassic Park (1993), Titanic (1997), The Matrix (1999), Toy Story (1999), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Avengers (2012), just to name a few.
Whether it was major leaps forward in technology, spectacle, storytelling, box office success, audience engagement or some combination of these elements, these films changed the industry and our relationship with movies, cleared the way for a glut of imitators (some more successful than others), and popularized new tools of filmmaking. When we think about films that changed the industry, we typically think about success stories, and John Carter, at least financially, was anything but.
John Carter changed the film landscape, just not in the way anyone intended it to. For what it’s worth, I find Stanton’s film to be incredibly entertaining, far more than its 52 percent Rotten Tomatoes score would suggest. Stars Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins are compelling as John Carter and Dejah Thoris, respectively, employing the kind of classic movie-star charm that would have made them breakout performers only two decades earlier. And with a supporting cast of thespians, including Willem Dafoe, Ciarán Hinds, Thomas Haden Church, Mark Strong, Samantha Morton, Dominic West, James Purefoy and Bryan Cranston, John Carter spared no expense in giving the film a sheen of legitimacy.
While certain pundits love to look back in mockery of all the actors from the past decade that Hollywood tried to make into stars but couldn’t, Kitsch brought something to the role beyond just classic looks. Burroughs’ Carter is something of a blank slate, the strong heroic white man whom readers could project themselves onto. But Kitsch brings a certain slyness to the role, in which Carter’s seeming naivete hides a watchful intuition. Similarly, Collins, redefines Dejah Thoris from the nearly naked damsel in distress to Barsoom’s chief scientist and a warrior who frequently out-fights Carter. So many of the traits we now associate with Wonder Woman’s onscreen depiction — her curiosity, strength, resolve to save lives, all while refusing to shy away from romance — were present in Collins’ Thoris. There is no question that these two actors had the capability to lead a franchise and delve deeper into these characters.
Beyond John Carter managing to remain largely true to the source material while also modernizing the characters and story for new audiences, Stanton, alongside co-writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, brings a sense of warmth and humor to it. This is a film that revels in its pulp sensibilities and has no shame in the fact that science fiction has become exceedingly complicated since Burroughs’ stories first came to print. While we’ve reached a point where some of our most popular blockbusters wink and nudge the audience over the ridiculousness of the concepts and characters, Stanton’s approach is never anything less than genuine. From the four-armed Tharks to the speedy lizard-dog Woola and Carter’s jumping feats, Stanton manages to take the most implausible aspects of the book and give them believable weight and physicality, even in an age when more is known about Mars and the laws of physics than Burroughs could even fathom. Stanton applied the rules of animation to live-action, giving implausibility a kind of charm reminiscent of Max Fleischer’s Superman cartoons.
John Carter earned just $284.1 million on a $306.6 million budget. What makes the box office failure so frustrating is that I don’t believe this to be a case where anything could have been done differently. With the filmmaker, cast and technology at hand, John Carter was the best adaptation of A Princess of Mars that could have been made and seems will ever be made. Michael D. Sellers explores what went wrong following positive test screenings, and how the film became one of the biggest box office bombs of all time, in his book John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood. The fact that Stanton did not have the opportunity to make his two planned sequels, Gods of Mars and Warlord of Mars, remains, in my mind, one of Hollywood’s great missed opportunities. If John Carter had been a success, Disney’s film slate may look very different today.
When I think about the box office discussions surrounding John Carter, the first thing I think of is the “Legacy” featurette, released as a final marketing push for the film. In that featurette, the names of Star Wars and Avatar are invoked, as works inspired by Burroughs’ stories. (You could add Dune to that list as well.) James Cameron even cited A Princess of Mars as one of his central inspirations for Avatar (2009), and the similarities — a soldier coming to a new planet, being accepted among its native tribe, stirring unrest and ultimately saving the planet from an ecological nightmare — could not be clearer. It’s almost a cruel twist of fate that John Carter got going mere months before Avatar’s release shattered box office expectations.
This is not to suggest that Avatar does not have many of its own merits, or that if John Carter had beat it to the box office, it would have been anywhere near the same success story. But it does beg the question of what John Carter had to offer that was different for audiences, beyond science fiction nerds invested in the evolution of familiar narratives. If John Carter inspired Star Wars and Avatar, the attitude of some sci-fi audiences was that they’d rather just watch those stories instead.
Disney realized the same thing that audiences did. Why merely evoke Star Wars when we can have Stars Wars? Six months after the release of John Carter, Disney purchased Lucasfilm, giving the company the right to George Lucas’ kingdom, which was inspired by Flash Gordon, John Carter and all the pulp-stories that predated it. With Lucasfilm alongside Marvel, Disney no longer had to dig into the archives to find those untapped intellectual properties it could try to spin into gold.
The box office flop The Lone Ranger (2013) certainly didn’t help matters, but John Carter’s failure was the moment Disney became the servant of sure bets, and Hollywood realized star power was truly gone. That was when we entered the age of name recognition, where familiar characters and concepts — Jedi, superheroes — became worth more than any actor’s name. A lot of beloved films, series and filmmakers have emerged in that new age, and I’m certainly no one to wag my finger at it. But as we sit 10 years removed from John Carter, I can’t help but look at the landscape of 2022, a year that boasts the miniseries Obi-Wan Kenobi and the film Avatar 2, now also owned by Disney. I find myself thinking about the anticipation built on the sands of Barsoom and the bones of John Carter, and wondering if we lost something or simply surrendered to the passage of time, something that not even a 110-year-old story can withstand in the realm of Hollywood.
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