You may be wondering what a Greatest Living Author watches when he’s not writing. Well, how about one of the biggest box office bombs of all time?
Not exactly a good start, but let me reassure you that the movie I’m going to be talking about deserved better and it, in fact, a pretty decent movie.
Bear with me for a bit here, as I want to provide a bit of background. With that in mind, I don’t think anyone would object to the assertion that Tarzan is one of the most famous Pop Culture figures of the mid-to-late 20th century, if not the whole century, if not ever — Disney probably helped a little with that.
But, all in all — as is often the case with a lot of classic Pop Culture and Actual Culture figures — I think that people are more familiar with the idea of Tarzan more so than the reality of Tarzan. Or at least, you know, the fictional reality of Tarzan. He’s a character after all, not a real person…
Quick show of hands: how many of you have read any of the Tarzan pulp stories? How many of you even knew before now that Tarzan was originally a pulp magazine character? How many of you know that he was created by Edgar Rice Burroughs?
Who is, incidentally, easily one om y top two notable early 20th-century Edgars.
If you don’t know that, I don’t blame you. I’m not exactly shocked that 1910s pulp magazines no longer loom large in the popular consciousness.
Which, to bring this to the matter at hand, is essentially the very same problem facing John Carter of Mars and the 2012 Disney adaptation John Carter (not “of Mars”; more on that later), which isn’t a great movie, but definitely deserved better than it got.
Much like Tarzan, John Carter of Mars (think Conan in Space), is a majorly influential Pop Culture figure, though a hundred years after the fact, it’s more like John Carter influenced the characters who influenced the characters who influenced the characters who directly influenced current writers and the stories themselves having largely faded from the Pop Consciousness.
Tying this briefly back to Conan, our favourite brooding barbarian has faced largely the same problem. The 1982 movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger is far and away the most famous version of the character and looms large over the popular notion of what Conan is.
It’s not a very faithful adaptation of the source material and the 2011 Conan starring Jason Momoa tried to better capture the spirit of the Conan stories. And promptly foundered at the box office.
The lesson here is that while classic pulp characters like Conan and John Carter have influenced generations of authors, there isn’t enough of a fanbase of the original stories to succeed on their own merits simply as famous characters.
And it’s not exactly shocking that a character first appearing in 1912 might be a bit of a hard sell for 21st century audiences. For example, John Carter is not only a Civil War veteran, but a Confederate veteran. The film doesn’t draw a lot of attention to this beyond establishing that he’s from Virginia, but I expect it’s going to make him inherently unsympathetic to a not insubstantial part of the audience.
It was probably less of an issue even ten years ago, but it’s also not such a crucial part of either his character or the overall story that it didn’t really need to be included in the first place.
Also worth noting is the film’s fairly turbulent production history. There were unsuccessful attempts at an adaptation going back to 30s and Disney’s own designs on the property go back to at least the 90s.
A fuller story is here. It’s a long read, but a good one and the website may require a subscription. You can also get a better sense of some of the issues simply by perusing the Wikipedia article.
Notably, the studio decided to drop “of Mars” from the title, apparently because movies with “Mars” in the title have a less-than-impressive track record at the box office.
Now, that strikes me as burying the lede about eight miles deep. “John Carter of Mars” makes it pretty obvious that it’s a SciFi movie, and perhaps raises the question of “Who’s John Carter? Why’s he on Mars?”.
“John Carter”, on the other hand, sounds like a movie about some dude.
Again, there isn’t necessarily an audience clamouring for a John Carter of Mars movie. But actually marketing the thing as John Carter of Mars might have at least made some of the general public go “Ooh, Space” and entice them into seeing what ended up being a pretty decent Sci Fi movie.
Finally turning to the movie itself, at the very least, it’s a good way to pass an afternoon. Especially with how little effort is required to queue it up on Disney Plus.
Again, it’s not a great movie and the most glaring issue is that it’s at least half and hour too long. The end and the beginning are intended to explain the movie (and the stories’) framing device of a fictionalised version of Edgar Rice Burroughs reading his uncle John Carter’s memoirs on Mars and Carter’s plan to return to Mars after being sent back to Earth by the bad guys. The whole thing works better in print than on screen and honestly doesn’t add much to the movie.
Also, it takes him about twenty minutes to even get to Mars in the first place. Now, a certain level of backstory is necessary, but I don’t think it needed that much. On the one hand, they probably couldn’t have just dropped him onto Mars at the very beginning of the movie. On the other hand, maybe they could have. It would have at least added an air of mystery and the unknown to the movie.
The film’s biggest success is probably in its visuals and art design. Burroughs’ Mars is a weird place and the film does a great job of capturing that weirdness in a visual medium. The aliens, weapons, and spaceships are all really, really cool. The costumes are ridiculous in the way that most pulp Fantasy and Sci Fi outfits are (loincloths, bandoliers and metal bikinis all around! Which is, incidentally, 100% faithful to the source material), but manage to work on-screen.
Similarly, most of the cast is no worse than adequate: Carter himself is Taylor Kitsch, which means he’s CanCon. Lyn Collins is Dejah Thoris, Carter’s love interest with whom he has a sort of Han Solo/Princess Leia dynamic going on. Willem Dafoe is a fairly hammy big, green alien and one of Carter’s allies. Mark Strong is essentially every villainous character that Mark Strong has ever played (that’s not a criticism, he’s a great bad guy). Ciarán Hinds and James Purefoy have fairly minor but enjoyable roles as Dejah Thoris’ father and one of his major military commanders, respectively.
Also, Bryan Cranston is there, wasted, not for the first time in his career, as a minor character in the prologue who doesn’t do much more than bring about the events that lead Carter to the portal to Mars and then die.
The movie’s too long, the plot’s kind of a mess, introducing too many elements of life on Mars or bits of lore to fully explain them all satisfactorily or let them breathe. It’s not quite so bad that the movie isn’t worth watching, but it’s not really much more than resoundingly adequate. The movie is, however, largely saved by its visuals and setpieces.
It’s not a great movie, but it’s at least good enough to see once and it’s a sold way to spend an afternoon. I don’t think it’s quite become a cult classic in the intervening ten years, but I think it is getting at least a bit of vindication and reassessment and the general consensus does appear to be that it probably didn’t deserve to go down as one of the largest box office bombs of all time.
The rest of my recommendations are here.
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