When it arrived in theaters in March, Disney’s “John Carter” faced an audience as inhospitable as the arid landscape of Mars. Preceded by months of negative hype about its forgettable marketing campaign, truncated title, untested star, and a director who might have been out of his depth moving from animation to live action, the film’s inevitable box office flop — just $72 million domestically against a budget of more than $250 million — felt like a foregone conclusion.
“John Carter” came to DVD and Blu-ray last week, complete with a new round of reviews and reconsiderations. When the film opened in theaters, reaction was mixed at best; 52% at Rotten Tomatoes, 51 at Metacritic. But now the overall tenor of reviews seems to be shifting, from muddled mess to unappreciated gem. IGN called the Blu-ray “great.” Salon described director Andrew Stanton a “genius” and a “savant.” Crave Online compared “John Carter” to beloved classics like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Citizen Kane” that bombed on their initial release. Following as many critics and cinephiles as I do on Twitter, I’ve witnessed a steady stream of supportive tweets since its Blu-ray premiere last Tuesday (“Enjoyable as hell, and highly re-watchable,” reads a typical one). Suddenly, people kind of like “John Carter.” So what changed?
Expectations, for one thing. I don’t believe that critics (at least reputable ones) are easily swayed by things they read in The New York Times or Variety. I don’t think they go to the theater with their review already written. But I do think no movie gets seen in a vacuum (except maybe when the crew of the International Space Station watches “The Avengers”). Every viewing experience comes with baggage, and that includes things like hype and buzz, both good and bad.
In a sense, the reevaluation currently under way for “John Carter” is a more protracted, less enthusiastic version of the response to Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret.” That was another movie beset by piles of bad press about its tortured production; story after story was written about how the film was too long, the post-production was even longer, and how everyone involved was suing everyone else. How could the product of that creative environment be any good? These sorts of questions becomes self-fulfilling prophecies: you hear something is bad, you subconsciously expect it to be bad, every problem you see only confirms your initial suspicions.
Hollywood has always produced bombs, but I do wonder how much of “John Carter”‘s failure is related to contemporary online film culture and its increasing obsession with prejudging movies. Films are no longer anticipated by a single trailer and poster; every day of every week, it seems, there is a new teaser, or set of publicity stills, or junket interviews, or exclusive clips. Studios pass them along to film blogs and news sites, who reprint them and analyze them; their readers, in turn, weigh in with detailed comments.
To a certain degree this is free advertising for the studios — and you know the old saying about how there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But as perpetual sneak preview culture becomes normalized, audiences are being conditioned to weigh in on a movie before it even comes out. They’re trained not only to trust their expectations, but to express them constantly. “I knew this movie was going to be bad from the first trailer,” is a commonly expressed opinion online. At a certain point, it begins to feel like people want a movie to fail, if only to prove their expectations right.
In the case of “John Carter,” the film was dismissed and discarded before it ever opened (I say this, by the way, as someone who wasn’t a particularly big fan of the movie). It’s not all that notable — or all that surprising — that people suddenly like “John Carter.” But in light of its earlier reception, it’s good that people are finally giving it a chance.