We're just one week away from the release of "John Carter," the Disney blockbuster budgeted, according to some reports, in the $250 million range. Most "John Carter" reviews are still to come, but early critical sentiment has been surprisingly positive; Drew McWeeny of HitFix called "Carter" "transporting in exactly the way I want my escapism to be" and Devin Faraci of Badass Digest said that "what it gets right it gets right with wonderful gusto." Still a couple good notices are a drop in the bucket compared to the deluge of skeptical press, like this video from Bloomberg Business with the headline "Disney’s ‘John Carter’ Fights Martians, Critics" or this article from The Daily Beast that describes the film as a "quarter-billion-dollar movie fiasco." Much has been made of the film's astronomical budget, rumors of production delays and reshoots, and the decision to change the title from the evocative "John Carter of Mars" to just "John Carter," apparently because Disney's previous Mars picture, "Mars Needs Moms," was a huge flop (by the way: did anyone ever consider "John Carter of Mars Needs Moms" as an alternative? I think that could have worked). At this point, whether the finished product turns out good or bad, there's a stink on this movie regardless.
But is that fair? Brad Bird, "John Carter" director Andrew Stanton's friend and co-worker from Pixar Animation Studios, doesn't think so. He took to Twitter earlier this week to vent his frustration over the media's coverage of "John Carter." "The showbiz press complains about big-budget sequels & remakes," Bird wrote, "but when a big NEW film like 'John Carter' arrives, support is nonexistent." Bird's certainly right about the first part; critics constantly beat the drum about the onslaught of derivative movies. Now here comes "John Carter" — not a sequel, not a remake, not based on an amusement part ride or a children's toy or a board game or a gimmicky Twitter account, but a classic piece of pulp literature by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Does does that mean it deserves leniency?
In an analysis of Bird's argument posted on our sister blog The Playlist, Kevin Jagernauth says that regardless of "John Carter"'s origins, Disney has no one to blame but itself. "Disney has been pressing this movie hard since last July when the first teaser landed, with the film being further rolled out at D23 in August," Jagernauth writes. "The entire point of that early press? To get people talking about the film, and if that talk has been unimpressed, it speaks to the quality of the campaign, not necessarily that of the film."
In other words, Disney and "John Carter" are the victims of the modern culture of film blogs, a culture that typically plays to a studios' strengths. Today, trailers are treated as news, and each one is received with its own post on just about every film site on the Internet. Typically, those posts come with a couple lines of softball analysis and speculation — and therefore some easy free publicity — but "John Carter"'s trailers were so underwhelming they inspired vitriolic responses from Internet columnists and commenters. That got the bad buzz ball rolling downhill, and once that bad buzz ball starts rolling downhill it can be very hard to stop, even with the enhanced strength a human acquires while living under the favorable atmospheric conditions of Barsoom (in a related story, I'm 75 pages into "A Princess of Mars," the novel that inspired "John Carter"). So if the buzz is bad, Jagernauth argues, that's because the marketing materials people have been given to write about have been bad.
That's fair enough. But I do wonder sometimes whether bad buzz has an undue impact on film critics' minds. Before a cult of critical reappraisal sprung up around Kenneth Lonergan's "Margaret," its first reviews were almost all mixed-to-negative. Did the crummy vibes surrounding the movie — the lawsuits between Lonergan and his producers and financiers over control of the film, the lack of ads or press screenings, the fact that it had sat on the shelf for years — affect the expectations of those early critics? A few weeks later, after a few passionate fans began drumming up support for the film on Twitter, another wave of critics sought out "Margaret" and loved it. So why were the early reviews so bad and the later reviews so good? If you walk into a movie looking for a bomb, it appears, you might be more likely to find one.
I would argue that no film deserves leniency. If critics give "John Carter" a pass just because it's "original" then they have to give a pass to every "original" film ("Mars Needs Moms" wasn't a sequel or a remake either). Stanton's intentions might be noble and his movie could still be a piece of crap. On the other hand, Stanton could just be looking for a big fat paycheck and he could wind up with a masterpiece anyway. The quality of the marketing and gossip should play absolutely no role in judging the quality of the movie. Critics are supposed to consider the narrative, not the story around that narrative, no matter how juicy that story might be. "John Carter" — and every film — deserves fairness, not leniancy.