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Anatomy Of A Flop: 10 Things That Went Wrong With Disney & Andrew Stanton’s ‘John Carter’

Anatomy Of A Flop: 10 Things That Went Wrong With Disney & Andrew Stanton's 'John Carter'

The first mega-tentpole of the year arrived on Friday, with the release of Disney‘s “John Carter,” the adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ classic sci-fi pulp hero. The film was the live-action debut of the Oscar-winning director Andrew Stanton, the Pixar veteran who brought the world “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E,” which are among the top rank of Pixar’s accomplishments both creatively and financially. But in the weeks and months leading up to release, the talks wasn’t of a sure-fire hit, it was of a hugely expensive film that wasn’t connecting with prospective audiences. The vultures circled, and as expected, “John Carter” opened to hugely disappointing numbers at the North American box office this weekend — $30 million in three days, less than the $1 million budgeted “The Devil Inside” managed back in January. Overseas, the numbers were a bit sunnier with $70 million coming in, but all told, the studio is far cry from the widely reported $600 million break even point for the film.

But numbers aside, for us, this is a story of creative disappointment. Stanton is an enormously talented filmmaker, and he had a top-notch creative team, including Pulitzer Prize-winning literary darling Michael Chabon as screenwriter, and, according to most sources, total creative freedom. And the film isn’t a disaster — it’s rather likeable, has some neat moments, and unlike the majority of blockbusters, feels like a true work of passion. But it’s also a mess. Which is curious, as Stanton comes from Pixar, a studio which has gained fame, and billions of dollars, by placing story first. Indeed, Stanton gave a TED talk on the importance of storytelling, waxing lyrical on how the form should lead towards a singular goal, a truth, with the ultimate aim of making an audience member care. However, none of that is easily evident in the final product of “John Carter.” It’s as though when he went into the live-action world, Stanton forgot most of what he’d learned about telling a story on screen.

Perhaps it was closeness to the material — according to some, Stanton had dreamed of making the film for thirty years, and had a skewed perspective of the character’s value, convinced that kids would come flocking at the mere mention of a “Princess of Mars” movie. Or perhaps it’s simply that making a good movie is really, really fucking hard. But if you think this piece is bad, damn, you need to read this Brooke Barnes post-mortem/anatomy of a failure on “John Carter” that ran this Sunday in the New York Times when the corpse was barely cold (called tellingly “Ishtar Lands On Mars”).  It’s a pretty brutal and damning article that spends a good deal of time throwing Stanton under the bus for being recalcitrant, not listening to Disney execs and generally dismissing any creative feedback/constructive criticism from anyone other than Pixar folks. It’s a fascinating read.

The exact details of what exactly went down between Stanton and Disney we may not ever completely know, but here’s 10 things we felt went completely wrong with “John Carter.” SPOILERS AHEAD.

1. It’s A Charisma-Free Zone
This is what we call The Law of “The Adventures of Tintin“: When your faithful animal sidekick — in this case dog/frog thing Woola — is the most compelling character in the film, you might have a problem. It’s not like Stanton didn’t assemble a strong cast, at least in places. Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins can act, clearly. But they’re not exactly scintillating screen presences — they’re fairly bland, and Kitsch seems too contemporary for the post-Civil War setting: Tim Riggins in a hat and beard. And the rest of the cast aren’t given much to play with either. Mark Strong, Dominic West, Willem Dafoe, Ciaran Hinds, Thomas Haden Church, Samantha Morton, are all wonderful scene-stealing actors, all of whom never really get any material worth sinking their teeth into. Strong, for instance, has played bad-guys far more compelling than this one. Perhaps the only actor to truly make an impression is (of all people) James Purefoy, who is charismatic and funny in his couple of scenes. However, he is the rare exception because for the most part, the characters of “John Carter” are largely indistinguishable with little to set them apart. Instead, the only joy and true entertainment one really finds in “John Carter” is the charming and cuddly Woola acting like a silly old dog that just wants to play and be around his master. That’s great and all, but not so hot when we’re missing that level of energy and engagement from the hero of the movie.

2. The Characters Don’t Have Much Backstory, Or Much Depth
In part, the problem with not caring about the characters comes down to not knowing an awful lot about them, or indeed the world. Despite the gratuitous (but frequently necessary) expository dialogue, almost no one is fleshed out in any consistent or compelling way. It’s a reasonable expectation for the film to provide, if not backstory, then at least some insight into the behavior of major characters, but all we get are scraps, and often in the wrong places: Samantha Morton’s Sola, for instance, a side-character of little significance, gets a whole arc to herself, whereas we never really learn why Dominic West’s bent on conquering Barsoom, or why Mark Strong is manipulating him, beyond them both being dicks. Any motivation they’re given you could plug them into any film and the shadowy alliance of evil at the heart of it could justify their means. With Carter himself, it’s not like the writers had a lot to work with — Rice Burroughs deliberately keeps Carter’s background oblique. But in a way, that would have been preferable to the thin, and generic, backstory we get: a dead wife and child, something that essentially turns the character into Jonah Hex.

3. It’s Woefully Over-Complicated
That we don’t get much to care about in terms of the characters is mainly due to there being so much damn plot to get through. Stanton, Andrews and Chabon combined aspects of the first two Burroughs novels, “The Princess of Mars” and “The Gods Of Mars,” but the plot is essentially their own invention, and it’s curiously uninvolving from the very first scene of Mark Strong appearing to Dominic West. Why are the red Martians fighting the other red Martians? What’s the relationship between the red Martians and the Tharks? What’s the geography of the planet? (Look at “Game of Thrones” for a way to demonstrate this stuff relatively easily?) Where do that second band of Tharks, that Carter slaughters single-handedly, figure in? And for newcomers to the property, there’s an intimidating amount of terminology: we know we thought that half of the characters were called “Jeddark” before we worked out that it meant “king.” Assuming that’s what it means. Say what you like about George Lucas, but at least the early “Star Wars” films had a relatively simple good vs. evil tale, and managed to drip-feed the weird terms and concepts, rather than throwing it all at you in the first five minutes.

4) The Cutting, Particularly In Action Sequences, Is Confounding
Think of the sequence where John Carter comes up with against a race of bloodthirsty Thark monsters (even though this same race was his ally – as we said, we’re still a little confused on this). We see Carter hack and slash his way through piles of multi-limbed alien beasts and at one point Stanton makes the decision to drop the sound effects, pump up Michael Giacchino‘s appropriately overwrought score, and cuts in between the Martian slaughter to a flashback sequence of Carter finding his wife and child dead. This is one of the only let-loose action sequences in the film, and we’re already cutting away. Unlike his former Pixar colleague Brad Bird in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” Stanton seems incapable of building action sequences that build on top of one another, compounding tension and stakes. Instead, John Carter jumps around a lot. So to have this moment, which actually has the possibility of soaring aloft holy-shit-this-is-cool action, to be threaded with such morose material, well, it ends up being something of a buzz kill. Imagine a triumphant scene in “Avatar” undercut by the tragic back story of how Worthington lost the use of his legs, and you’ll get the idea. Plus, you have no idea what is going on in this melee. You would think, coming from animation, Stanton would place an emphasis on geographic and motivational transparency. We need to know what he’s doing and what he’s up against. Instead, Stanton cuts around the action, either to the flashback or to slow motion shots of Carter swinging a sword around or howling wildly. It may seem cool, but it doesn’t do anything for the audience. We can’t be let in if we can’t make out what’s happening. And it’s true of most of the other action sequences as well, which tend to be both brief and confusing.

5. The Framing Sequences Are Entirely Redundant
Speaking of editing, what in god’s name was up with the framing structure? Stanton was doggedly opposed, from the beginning, to simplifying or streamlining the source material, up to the point of paying homage to Rice Burroughs’ appearances in his own novels, but what do these scenes actually lend to the finished movie? The integrity of the structure is undermined by starting things off on Barsoom anyway, but soon we’re treated to scenes of a miscast Spy Kid reading things. In his TED talk, Stanton points to this scene “as making a promise to you that this story will lead somewhere that’s worth your time.” In other words, it’s there to pay off the ending, where Carter turns out to have faked his death, in order to throw off the Therns, and to return to Mars. But all this stuff is only loosely connected to the events on Barsoom, and that ending is hugely frustrating anyway: Carter’s returned to Earth, goes through a half-assed fake-out, and then goes back to Mars. Either leave him victorious on Barsoom with Dejah, or have him tragically plucked from triumph and separated from his lady-love, stranded far from her (as “Thor” did with some success, and by Odin’s raven, we never thought we’d be holding that movie up as a paridigm of successful storytelling). Don’t try and do both in the last ten minutes of the film.

6. The Film, And Its Villain, Is One Big Setup For A Sequel
But then, much of that ending is setting up for a sequel, something that’s plagued Hollywood tentpoles of late — think of “Robin Hood” or “Iron Man 2,” films that seem to exist only in order to set up future installments. And “John Carter” suffers from the same problem, particularly when it comes to its villain. For all the many antagonists thrown at him in the first 90 minutes, John Carter finds out in the last third of the movie, it’s actually Matai Shang (played by Mark Strong) who’s the villain. Pulling the strings behind Sab Than’s quest for power, he spends most of the movie keeping an eye on John Carter before they finally meet head to head late in the game, although he doesn’t simply kill Carter, because he’s a cliched movie bad guy. So with this stakes-raising element now in play, what do the screenwriters do? They let Matai Shang escape, and even worse, he pops up in the film’s coda to ensure that a setup to a sequel is in place. In the context of a movie, it’s a suckerpunch to the audience. Allowing Matai Shang to survive for the sequel that will probably never get made allows for two things: 1) it essentially reduces “John Carter” to the status of a prologue, rendering much of what happens in the movie as meaningless 2) it fundamentally changes what “John Carter” is actually about. Is this about a Civil War hero turned Martian hero? Nope. It’s essentially “Wedding Crashers: Mars Edition” turning John Carter not into someone who changed the course of Barsoom’s history forever by removing the man behind the curtain, but as a guy who momentarily brings peace by stopping a wedding and breaking a goblet full of water. Enthralling.

7. The Tone Is All Over The Place
Just as defences of the “Star Wars” prequels of “It’s a kid movie!” were nullified by plot elements involving senatorial elections and trade embargoes, “John Carter” can’t really be excused by its Disney label and tween-targeting. That first twenty minutes or so are aggressively humorless, with little of the playfulness of Stanton’s earlier work (the escape jump-cuts as Bryan Cranston interrogates Carter are a nice idea, but only half-work in execution). From then on, we get some humor aimed at the kids (Woola for instance), but the palace politics of the Barsoomians is dry and dull. The broad adventuring is the stuff of pulp fiction, but the violence is surprisingly brutal — from that grim action sequence against the Tharks, intersposed with flashbacks of the murder of Carter’s family, to decapitations and Carter cutting his way through the body of a white ape, emerging covered in blue blood. We’re not saying that it’s inappropriate (if you think kids don’t like seeing gore, you don’t know kids), or that genre-hopping can’t work. But Stanton needed to pick a side.

8. It’s Not About Anything
Here’s the most surprising thing about the film, given the emotional resonance of Stanton’s previous work, and the presence of a Pulitzer Prize winning author among the screenwriters; it’s not actually about anything. Frankly, it’s about too much stuff. But thematically, what was going on? “Finding Nemo” was about a father learning not to be over-protective; “Wall-E” was about caring for the planet and in Stanton’s words “Irrational love defeats life’s programming.” “John Carter” seems to be about a man who accidentally goes to another planet and gets to bang a woman he never seemed to like that much. You can sense the script straining to find something else; we suspect they were aiming at making Carter a broken man who finds a cause worth caring about. But with his background glossed over (Confederate soldiers being less than popular as movie heroes), his dead family token and the Martian plot confusing, he never really gets there. And what’s worse is that the writers try to pin the thing on the rotten old Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey template (we’d recommend Film Crit Hulk‘s piece on this for more). The idea of the hero refusing the call to adventure is a common one, but as in last summer’s “Green Lantern,” trying to avoid his responsibilities makes the protagonist seem passive, and even unlikeable.

9. The Visuals Are Surprisingly Bland
Most of the teaser posters for “John Carter” featured our hero against a blood red backdrop, but the movie itself (as the footage started to slowly reveal itself) is draped in a color palette defined by hues of drab light yellow or pale-brown. It’s enough to the point where, when he wakes up on Mars (or Barsoom as it’s known to the natives) and he feel so confounded by his alien surroundings, you don’t know quite why. It still looks like Montana or Utah. (It’s not until the aliens show up that things seem genuinely out of place.) The Martians – giant, multi-limbed beings – are even robbed of their visual vibrancy; they’re supposed to be green but look muddy and tired enough to be festival-goers finishing up a weekend at Burning Man. We understand by now that the film was based on a story that predates “Star Wars,” “Avatar,” and the rest, but does that give the film an excuse to have such anonymous vehicles and beasts that look recycled and weak? The airships of the warring tribes even look exactly the same, until about halfway through the movie when a character suggests us to “look at the color of the flag.” Even the costumes are derivative – the Princess Leia-like bikini number, the “Gladiator” underoos – Mars could have been wild and unpredictable; one of the reasons “Avatar,” for its many problems, wowed is that its creatures and world felt genuinely alien. Here “John Carter” felt like the designers picked and chose from earlier sci-fi flicks.

10. Yes, The Marketing Sucked
Ultimately, none of the above point to reasons why the film didn’t perform well at the domestic box office over the weekend. Sure, the reviews didn’t help, and word of mouth may not have been great, but the damage was done long before that. It’s possible that audiences just didn’t want to see the movie, but the decent performance internationally, and success of other sci-fi pictures, suggests otherwise. So really, the blame has to be laid at Disney’s marketing of the picture. It was clear from the off that the studio, whether from a lack of confidence in the final product or not, didn’t know how to market the disparate elements. And they were running scared. They changed the title after “Mars Needs Moms” tanked, believing that people didn’t want to see something with ‘Mars’ in the title, leading to a final effect equivalent to changing “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to “Henry Jones.” They downplayed the Western elements after “Cowboys & Aliens” flopped. But truly, there were many baffling decisions here. Why sell the film with posters almost solely featuring the face of Taylor Kitsch, a man whose own family would struggle to pick from a line-up at this point in his career? Why spend millions on a Super Bowl spot, only to use a full third of the one minute ad on an elaborate title sequence? Why put ten minutes of the movie online the week of release, only to pick the ten minutes of the movie entirely ignored the science-fiction aspects? Then again, if sources like Vulture are to be believed, it’s Stanton who commandeered the marketing campaign too, which could be studio spin, or could be the truth.

— Oliver Lyttelton, Drew Taylor, Kevin Jagernauth, Mark Zhuravsky, RP

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Down-playing the Mars aspect and Western aspect in a Sci-fi Western? This is why Hollywood needs to stop using focus groups.


Did you not read the books those were complicated plot wise. And the thanks he was fighting were a different tribe( the Warhoon) and to all the people who say it's been done before . The books started all the cliches. Do your research people!


I was delighted to have clicked on a fun, crappy b-movie on [some streaming website] but then after 10 mins of scenes and lightening I was thinking "damn that looks expensive" and after I've seen the first animations on mars I knew "no way this is a b-movie" and started googling …


It was #10. Not a bad movie. Just never heard anything about it, so didn't look for it when it was released.


I always think its funny how people claim that Stanton had such a PASSION for this project and the story, if so none of that is felt or scene in the movie. Yeah there are a few lip service jobs to the fans of the book here and there. To me I would've like to have seen some of that on the screen, some real crazy passion for the book. For instance the DUST…there is NO DUST on mars according to the book, also there is a lot of weird gold moss on mars. But if the movie had just a few little weird things like that I could've sensed some sort of actual passion and love for the book in the film, actually showing this odd commitment to the source material. But instead stuff was changed for whatever worthless reason. Otherwise it felt like a decent adaptation of the book, but at this point in John Carters history a decent adaptation is boring and they just did to Princess of Mars what everyone else has been doing the past century, cherry picking idea's they liked. This should've been a weird almost verbatim book to screen adaptation in the vein of Watchmen. And seriously….Cranstand's wig…..that's the best wig $250 million can buy?


Well, I agree wholeheartedly with half of the points, namely 1 (Purefoy for Carter would have been a 100% better choice), 3 (why add complication to a simple story, and more importantly, boring ones), 6 (thinking "franchise" fron the get-go was indeed a very bad idea), 9 (Burroughs' descriptions composed a much more unique landscape), and 10 (fan-made trailers made a better job at selling the movie).

I have a harder time with 2 (the backstory seemed enough to my taste, after all, the movie should about the characters and when they are at this point in their lives), 4 (actions scenes were clear to me), 5 (I found the 19th century stuff incredibly good), 7 (again, I had no problem with the tone at all, I had only issues with the pacing), and 8 (I disagree that all movie should be "about anything", it could have been a great adventure movie only and still be great, was Depp's "Pirates of the Carribean 1" about anything?).

But overall, a great analysis to me, that perhaps went too far in the "everything sucked anyway" area, but which made very good points.


overlooked the number one problem with the film: John Carter suddenly leaping over an entire city like Superman? John Carter jumping 15 feet is awesome .. John Carter jumping tall buildings in a single bound is .. ridiculous.


As for the assertion that it's "not about anything," this really does demonstrate just how little you paid attention, or how little you generally care for narrative and themes in storytelling. This is about a man of war and violence, someone who is good at it, who tried to turn his back on fighting and killing on behalf of other people's "causes" because it cost him his own family. He vowed never to do it again, and spent his life instead searching for a hole in the ground full of gold to fill up the loss inside of him. But now, that hole in the ground takes him to a world where the "cause" of other people becomes his own cause, because he comes to actually be a part of the people he's fighting for and because he has found it in his heart to love again. The man of war who spent the first half of his life fighting for wrong causes he wasn't truly part of now fights for the right cause that has become his own. He will only know peace by redeeming his previous "wrong cause" fighting with this "right cause" fighting, and thus earn a right to fall in love and be happy again.

Or, if that's too "complex" for you — man fights for bad side, looses family, gets sad; goes to new place, fights for good side, finds family, gets happy. To find redemption for the earlier bad fighting and senseless death, he must believe in a cause and fight for it to erase the earlier stain on his honor and heart. Then add complex emotions and serendipity and racial themes and romance. Get it yet?

So, you think the visuals are bland? This is just a subjective thing, but I'll point out that I must assume you thought "Gladiator" and "Conan the Barbarian" and "Jason and the Argonauts" and "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" were all visually bland. And that you thought large portions of "Star Wars" were bland (it takes place almost entirely on bland Tatooine, inside the bland Millennium Falcon small rooms, and in the gray & repetitive bland halls of the Death Star, for about 90% of the movie I'd guess). So I'm guessing "bland" visuals in your mind are defined entirely by how bright the colors are? Bright and shiny = not bland? So the imagery of these alien soldiers atop vicious beasts, riding across the Martian landscape, is "bland" to you, but if they'd been in bright yellow and blue outfits and there were more explosions in big bright red fireballs, that would've been visually exciting?

Most telling in your complaint about the visuals, though, is the remark that it looks like the filmmakers chose from "other" films, and the two main sci-fi films you mentioned in the complaint are "Star Wars" and "Avatar." Which are both films heavily influenced by "John Carter." This film accurately and faithfully adapted the original source material, which was source material for those two other sci-fi films, as well as many others. That you seem totally unaware of this connection, and would accuse this film of being "derivative" of those other films, is laughable and displays a gross lack of knowledge about the subject matter. This film chose not to try to run from the truth, and instead embraced the source material and the cinematic traditions it inspired, demonstrating just how much modern sci-fi owes to "John Carter." A more insightful article would know that, instead of absurdly complaining that "John Carter" is too much like the films inspired by it.

Lastly, while the marketing is the one area of complaint that I think has very valid points, it's very much worth noting that the marketing was competing with uninformed, repetitive bash-fest journalism that was declaring this film bad and a flop etc long before it even opened. Critics and writers who resented and disapproved of the large budget, who turn a stiff upper lip toward what they feel is "excess" by Hollywood, and therefore who set out to bang the drum against this film (something that happens to plenty of films in advance, when critics and journalists decide to "take the film down a notch or two" on principle instead of based on any honest, serious assessment of the film on its merits), helped create a very hostile environment in which this film had to market itself, and the truth is that the marketing was flawed but not so bad as to cause a significantly low opening.

No, the marketing was drowned out by the echo-chamber of negative commentary about the film, most of it hyperbolic and disingenuous in the extreme. And once this narrative had been established early on, the typical lazy behavior of too many writers kicked in and it was easier to just keep writing the same thing instead of using their brains and thinking a bit for themselves in order to write something original and more accurate and honest about the film. (Plus, I've no doubt that a notable segment of film reviewers and Hollywood journalists were itching for a chance to render a "failed!" verdict against Pixar, even indirectly, because too much success breeds contempt in some circles.)

The "lazy narrative" problem is very common, since it's always simpler to just write the same tripe everyone before you wrote, of course, and in this case it started before anyone had even seen the film. Having already proclaimed it bad and a likely flop, some writers felt beholden to stick to that narrative after the film released, and so they piled on with negative reviews and articles like this one here. Some even lifted much of their reviews from previous ones, including the same repeated lines and phrases to bash the film.

Now, in the aftermath, a little silly cottage industry exists right now, with some writers trying to milk all the mileage they can out of the bash-fest against the film. Another case of lazy journalism, obviously, and this article is a perfect example. Lazy thinking, lazy writing, all founded on lazy viewing and lazy expectations that can't tolerate "complexity" at any level, apparently. Or it's all just intellectually dishonest, and the complexity complaints are just a cheap excuse to find reasons to complain, in order to hammer out a lazy article for quick readership. Either way, it's lousy film reviewing and writing.


This is frankly a rather absurd list, based on a truly simplistic viewpoint regarding film and storytelling. Let's break them down to demonstrate how little substance there is to your list…

The first point, about the supposed lack of charisma, is subjective of course, but I'll just note a few problems with your assertion of the point. You say he seems "too contemporary," but what exactly does that mean? Your explanation is to just reference his character from "Friday Night Lights" and say that in the film he's "Tim Riggins in a hat and beard." So you thought John Carter was basically a problem drinker who uses women and has no focus in life, stuck in a small life setting that he both resents and identifies with? And surely you don't think long hair and a beard were out of place on a Civil War vet? I don't see you articulating any evidence of the characterization being "contemporary," and I think it's because there isn't really any such evidence. It's just a way of trying to assert "he's just the same guy he plays in that TV show" but lacking any substance to the charge.

Regarding your complaint about backstory: We get a LOT of backstory for Carter, Dejah, Tars Tarkas, Sola, Tardos, and even Burroughs. We know their background and motivations. But you single out two characters who supposedly lacked background, as evidence for the entire film lacking it? And I'll note you apparently went to the bathroom when Matai Shang's (and the Therns') basic backstory and motives were laid out. But can you seriously mean it when you say you never find out why the warlord Sab Than is bent on conquering the planet? A warlord, on a planet of diminishing resources, bent on ruling the world… and you don't get it? Wow.

You also complain that it's too complicated. Oh no, a film with a plot. God forbid. Look, it gets a bit tedious to read reviewers who either moan about how films are so simplistic nowadays, and then groan about how a film is too complicated to understand in a simple one-two-three manner. It's intellectually dishonest in the extreme to start spouting off a list that includes "what's the geography of the planet?" as a complaint about how oh-so-hard-to-follow the film is, for goodness' sakes — you're clearly reaching for excuses to justify the claim, nothing more. This film had a plot more complicated than "man punches alien, things go boom!" but not more complex than plenty of other films that are in fact hailed for not spoon-feeding the audience. Being complex and requiring you to use your brain is a GOOD thing, and perhaps film critics who spend a lot of their time bemoaning the lack of more thoughtful, complex stories need to try to be a little more consistent.

You go on to complain that the editing is bad — and your proof of this is one of the most excellent, thoughtful sequences in the film?? We get a magnificent moment where John Carter wades into an army in an apparent suicide attack, to allow Dejah to get away alive, and as he fights the endless army that's slowly surrounding him, we see quick flashes of his finding his family dead and digging their graves — all cut to mirror what's happening in the action sequence. It's a great, complex moment of editing and storytelling (and providing additional motivation and backstory, which you complained was lacking earlier). Most critics would — or rather, should — understand this sequence and appreciate the complexity of editing and emotion behind it… well, unless complexity is suddenly some kind of BAD thing.

(Complex story, complex editing, complex emotional revelations, complex revealing of backstory — there comes a point when these complaints start to paint a picture that's rather more revealing and negative about the *reviewers* than about the film.)

Those complaints about the bookend scenes (with Burroughs) make no sense. You basically just say "what's up with THAT?" as if just saying it somehow renders the sequences worthless/pointless. Well, you don't actually do anything to demonstrate how or why they are supposedly pointless except to indicate you don't understand it or don't like it (or both). We see that John Carter has spent his life digging around the world for something, and that his body is hidden away in a tomb that only opens from the inside — leading to his nephew's reading of a secret journal that takes us into the story. And that opening seems pointless to you? As opposed to, for example, mysterious and interesting? When we finally come full circle back to the nephew (Burroughs) and get the twist ending, it sets the stage for John Carter's return to Mars, but it doesn't actually take us there yet — that's for the sequel, obviously. To treat these bookend sequences as some sort of huge problem that helped sink the film, and as if they just make no sense and serve no purpose, displays a lack of appreciation for (or understanding of) narrative techniques and rich storytelling, and seems just another cynical attempt to find excuses to complain about the film without any true substance to the complaint.

The claim that the villain is just a setup for the sequel makes exactly as much sense as if you had said "Darth Vader in 'A New Hope' was just one big setup for a sequel" too. The villain plays a key role in this story, there is another villain who drives events as well, and the fact that the villain survives to return in a sequel is hardly some huge "OMG teh villain lives!!!" moment. If you honestly (as opposed to just being disingenuous about it as an excuse to write a snarky article) think that a villain surviving totally reduces the villain to existing just to set up a sequel, negating their entire role in the existing film's plot, then you have a very simplistic view of storytelling and are not paying enough attention to the films you're watching.

Your complaint about the tone needing to either be humorous and self-aware or dark and brutal indicate a surprising lack of matured sense of tone and storytelling. Did you sit through "Die Hard" complaining the entire time that it needed to either be a brutal action flick or a comedy routine? This is another example where complexity is being treated as a bad thing. "Don't give me complex tone! Pick one thing and just do that the whole time!" Exactly how simplistic and lacking in any sort of complexity did you really want this film to be? This film never attempts to be a "kid film," and you seem biased by the fact this is a Disney/Pixar film and so you are making wrong assumptions in that regard. The inclusion of humor and a cute animal never become fodder for "kid-fare" moments in the film, and while the film can definitely be viewed and enjoyed by young audiences as well as adults, there was never any attempt by the filmmaker to sway back and forth into "kid-film" territory here.


Regardless of the film's quality, it's sad that most movies these days only get 3 days to prove themselves. After the first weekend, the L.A. Times was already comparing "John Carter" to "Heaven's Gate" and "Ishtar". That said, the marketing was dreadful; those orange billboards screaming JOHN CARTER with what appeared to abominable snowmen on them-no wonder no one
knew what the film was about.


I'm compelled to respond – concisely – to your points since I found many/most of them to make no/little sense from a blog that I thought to have intelligent film discourse. It'd be one thing, if this was being badly marketed to only 10 year-olds but clearly it was still badly marketed to be a 4-quadrant film. So I concur with your #10.

As I do, mainly, for your #9. Being more red – in the atmosphere and/or surface – would've immediately disorient JC and the audience. Would've probably sped up the plot. (Like he's really not on Earth).

Your #8 is just dismissive. I could clearly see the ironic theme of a man looking for peace, yet again in war – and by extension creating a planetary peace, and future for all who're "good." Sure there is the missing Star Wars-kumbaya moment with all happy races but the subplots worked.

Your #7? Ok I give you that but I also expected it to be all over the place, respecting the tone of the source material. Pulp science fiction is messy by design and default: you can't say that Star Wars doesn't have the same tonal shifts that simpler storylines allowed for.

Your #6 is just ridiculous. Tell me that FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING wasn't a setup for Frodo. That A NEW HOPE wasn't a setup for Luke & Vader. Shang is a puppeter with power that JC had yet to understand; yes he's got some weak parts but their conversation via JC's capture and the ongoing wedding was some mature stuff.

#5: I'd have to see JC again to agree or refute this claim. I was only bothered by JC's first flight sequence. It was rushed and forced for me, in stakes and in VFX.

#3 and #4: all I have to say is that I saw it in IMAX 3D and saw the plot holes. But it didn't bother me. The story wasn't confounding at all. (What, the Tharks couldn't exist with different bands or clans? Are you that dull to think that there's only one monolithic race?) I understood each piece without being too bored it all; I'll concede that a sense of urgency with revelations came late in the film.

#2. Did a puppet king really need backstory? We got it in the first, though woefully placed, scene with all that voiceover. Here's a greedy, spoiled king who gets some new power and makes a deal. The sorrowful, losing king with the smart-warrior-princess. (Plenty of missing mothers.) The proud, thoughful Thark; the "ruined" or ostracized Thark who also grows because of JC. I didn't need to know their life story; the conflicts were clear as day. Thin for some? Sure. Did you complain when Chewbacca and Solo didn't talk about their frat days?

Your #1. This was not TINTIN. Woola isn't Snowy. They don't even occupy the same space narratively or in relationship to the protagonist. The Tharks did their job, and so did the live cast. Frankly, I'm tired of seeing Strong being evil or underhanded but no one went in half-assed.

Okay that wasn't concise but I appreciate getting the words out.


Not a perfect movie by any stretch, but head and shoulders over anything Michael Bay has ever directed. I really enjoyed it. Going back again this weekend and taking my wife. Haven't met anyone yet that didn't like it, actually. The only negative buzz seems to be coming from media outlets.




John Carter is this year's Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The Playlist runs a piece by someone who clearly misunderstood most of the film, while the IMDB rating climbs higher (instead of falling lower) and it eventually gets called the unexpected feel good blockbuster of the year a few months from now on this very same site.


I enjoyed it too. It's not perfect but it's far from a flop.

Miles Bader

Hey was was your issue with Tintin, anyway? It completely nailed the tone of the original books (despite the dramatically different visuals). I suppose you might argue that the main character isn't most charismatic figure—but neither is the original Tintin. His appeal really isn't "charisma."


I really enjoyed it actually but I also thought it could have been much better.
Watching it I did think that there was so much to take in that I would have loved to see it as a series competing with Game of Thrones.

Anyways in the end it worked for me although I wish it worked more for others so I can see a darn sequel.


Relating the success/failure of this film to Stanton's previous career seems to miss a vital aspect – his previous work is made up of original and creatively difficult films, which were new to audiences. If this film stood on it's own, if Star Wars or Avatar or the endless list of other similar sci-fis didn't exist, then John Carter would have offered audiences a reason to go. They do exist, so they haven't. The core genre fans have turned out and the numbers are fair for them. It's not a once-in-a-ten-year experience Disney seemed to budget for. People will love it or loathe it for their own reasons, but Disney's expectations lacked common-sense. I wonder if they'll be emailing out copies of the Jefferey Katzenberg 1991 memo, it's a true for them now as it was then.


The book series is really fun & engaging, and builds a whole world around its characters, despite elements being cribbed from it for the past century to make who knows how many other movies it could still be told in a way that comes off with more originality. The movie wasn't terrible, but the criticisms of tone & pacing are dead on. A feature clearly wasn't the way to tell this story. Perhaps it could have worked if they'd been able to launch a franchise by using a more modest budget & to the point marketing, but come on the series just screams to be done by people taking it seriously & with time on their hands like a series in line with Game of Thrones. It's a shame this will only go down as a footnote in movie history instead.

Mark Deckard

What happened is that the wrong studio and wrong producer made this story into a movie. This is a shame considering this saga is the ancestor of all modern scifi story telling. (If you consider when these stories were written you realise Star Wars and Avatar ripped off Burrows) When I was a teen the sci fi fantasy guys and the D&D crowd considered the John Carter series the definitave action adventure story. We imagined John Carter through the amazing cover art supplied by the great Boris Vajeho . No hats off to him whatsover in the visual or cinematography. I thought maybe this was shot on Tattoine. I kept waiting for Jedis to jump in and help. In order to really create an unearthly feel the martian scenes should have felt more like the atmosphere of 300 or the Immortals. That strange blend of Noir 3d scenery and augmented live action would have taken us to Mars and never let us for get we had been there. Oh yea and maybe the dirt could have been more…I dont know…RED? As in the RED planet.
I tell you who should have done this movie. Peter Jackson. I dont care if it had to be done in three parts each 3 hours long. A lesson from this and from Atlas shrugged. There should be a law against someone taking a artifact of literary history and absolutly blowing the film adaptation opportunity for all time. They missed a chance at epic movie legend with John Carter.


I thought John Carter's family background was hackney sure but I really liked the cutting in the battle against the band of Tharks.


Does anyone actually believe Disney allowed Stanton to control the marketing of the film? I don't think a studio would let a director do that in 1979, let alone today with a picture this expensive.


I wholeheartedly agree with the assessment of the fight scene. I sat there thinking WTF does this flashback have to do with this.
The whole film is a mess actually. Who is gonna let this guy ever direct again?


Yes, nine of your "causes" are really subjective. The only good reason you give is the marketing. The rest is just personal opinions and critics of the writers.
And of course it is a setup for a sequel. Making John Carter in one film is impossible. So you didn't like it, but that doesn't explain why it flops.


your only point that caused it to flop was #10

would it of been so hard to market trailers with title cards of :
"From 2 Time Academy Award winning Director of WALL-E & Finding Nemo"
"Based On The novel That Inspired Star Wars & Avatar"

Bethany Taylor

I could not wait for this movie to hit the big screens!! I saw it opening day and LOVED IT!!!!! The twists and turns were great, I never had a clue how it would end and loved the suspense.

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