The sad ballad of “John Carter”

john carter

Disney’s John Carter is among my favorite movies of 2012 so far. I feel like saying so as a relatively published film critic is akin to lighting a blunt in church, with respect to the canonized list of shit you just don’t do. Though the film has its defenders, however few, far more people are talking about what an unmitigated disaster it is, a big-budget flop that will live in infamy alongside Cutthroat Island and Waterworld as a quintessential example of what happens when a movie studio’s unbridled hubris comes back to bite it in the ass. There’s just one little problem: John Carter isn’t actually tanking. In fact, it’s doing pretty damned well and everybody needs to slow their roll for a minute.

Statistics time: John Carter has indeed flopped by U.S. box office standards. Relative to its estimated $250 million budget, so far it’s only pulled down $68 million and counting. At most, it’ll top out around $70 million in theaters before trying to recoup on DVD. What most people don’t realize, though, because evidently America = the whole world forever with respect to box office, is that Carter has also made over $200 million overseas and is currently placing high on several other countries’ box office charts. The domestic grosses combined with those worldwide paint a very different picture of Carter, one that suggests the film will at the very least break even. It won’t be the franchise-starting hit Disney probably wanted (a similar situation happened with Tron: Legacy, though that film was cheaper to make/market), but it’s by no standards a flop. Hell, while I’m on the apologia train, Waterworld was actually profitable when you include the worldwide grosses, and Cutthroat Island…nope, that one still tanked.

Now that I’ve proven with advanced statistical science that John Carter is not in fact the unmitigated flop that its current reputation would suggest, I’m moved to ask: Why do people hate it so much, and why does it feel like everybody wanted to? For one, I loved the film. I think it’s a genuinely fun, breathlessly imaginative throwback to not only Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original novel, but also 1950s pulp serials in print and onscreen alike. The film is the tale of a Civil War veteran (Taylor Kitsch, who has the best possible surname for the movies he’s been showing up in lately) who’s sent to Mars and becomes the unlikely leader of a rebellion against the evil red guard (the visual aesthetic owes a lot to the Fire Nation from Avatar: The Last Airbender, but done properly this time around), who threaten to colonize and oppress the whole of Mars. Also, gravity does not apply to John Carter, as his body is made for that of the Earth. This leads to a deliriously entertaining sequence early on, in which Carter takes a series of massive leaps around the barren deserts of Mars, flailing at first until he finds his feet. So, too, does the film; after a first 40 minutes or so weighed down by a great deal of necessary exposition, it becomes an unabashedly gleeful piece of big-ticket fantasy/sci-fi that director Andrew Stanton (of Pixar fame, most notably Ratatouille) milks for everything it’s worth.

One of the immediate conclusions I want to draw about America’s rejection of John Carter is that, at some point in the advertising process, it seemed like Disney got really embarrassed that they spent so much money on a fantasy film and started trying really (really) hard to hide it. Between the absurd Super Bowl ad, which says virtually nothing about the movie or anything that happens in it, and the title change from the far superior John Carter of Mars, it felt like there was a certain degree of battening down hatches, a prevailing feeling that the movie was a flop that in turn became a self-fulfilling prophecy before the thing even had a chance to come out and prove itself. It doesn’t help that staunch genre filmmaking usually doesn’t get the kind of budget that Carter got, so the pressure was on from the outset.

More than anything, though, I think we’re in a strange paradox as a moviegoing nation right now, wherein geek culture is being heavily fetishized, but within a rigid set of unspoken parameters. Superhero movies are in vogue, as are other arguably geeky properties, but only if they’re not too ostentatiously so. Both Green Lantern and Sucker Punch were high-profile flops last year, and even though neither of them were very good, there’s a certain suggestion that the superhero/cultish/otherwise outré properties have to have a certain aesthetic coolness to them (Chris Nolan’s Batman series) in order to be palatable on a mass level. John Carter not only didn’t have that, but was almost defiant in its world-building feel, one more akin to Star Wars than to the instant accessibility of, say, the Spider-Man films. John Carter may not reinvent the wheel, and sadly, it may not even get the chance to deepen its universe in a second go-around. If you’re interested, though, don’t let the hype fool you. Join the party, and the vocal few of us will be here waiting for you to see the light.

(Final note: Thanks are owed to Nico Lang for his help in shaping this piece.)

  • Robert James Pailing

    Thank you for standing up and speaking out, and letting us know John Carter was not quite the flop the media would have us believe. I have always loved the imagination of Edger Rice Burroughs, and I think he would have liked this movie. Preacher, Alaska

  • Found you on Twitter. I saw John Carter in the first week in IMAX. I was lucky because due to its poor marketing I had no idea what it was about. The only reason I went was because I noticed that the guy who played Gambit from Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine Origins was in it. But I now know that that was Taylor Kitsch and the source material The Princess of Mars was a 100 years old written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. As the wonderful score by Michael Giacchino began, I was soon swept up into Barsoom and now I want to go back. I want a sequel.

  • Anonymous

    JOHN CARTER is a wonderful movie that deserves an audience.  Definitely one of the best movies I have seen so far this year, more entertaining than The Hunger Games and as much fun as The Avengers.  Let’s hold out hope that great DVD/Blu-ray sales in the long run will save this movie and give us some sequels down the road!

  • Jan Austin


    John Carter was an exceptional film. It was a wonderful
    story that made you want to go back and see it time and time again. The
    characters were heartwarming and fantastic. The cast – incomparable (if you
    loved the HBO Rome series, you will love this cast!). The story was beautifully
    written and directed by Andrew Stanton. There are thousands and thousands of
    fans from all over the world who love John Carter and are fighting for a
    Sequel. Now that the DVD has been released (and Number 1 in sales it’s first
    week!) I hear new fans say everyday that had they seen more advertising of this
    film by Disney, or had known what John Carter was all about, or had not
    listened to reviewers of this film, they would have seen it in the theater. Had
    Disney marketed this film even close to standards, had Disney politics not
    played a part in the mishandling of this film, John Carter would have been a
    box-office success. So take a chance, buy the DVD and watch this film for
    yourself. Then join the thousands and thousands of fans who want Disney to take
    them Back To Barsoom!

  • Jeffrey Fouberg

    Good review.  I agree it is one of the best of 2012.  I actually liked it best of all the movies thus far.  I went to see it 6 times in the theater and each time was fresh and wonderful.   The dvd is great and soon I will see it in blue ray.  A wonderful movie with Lynn Collins performance as Dejah Thoris excellently done. 

  • Giselle Feuillet-Tunis

    Studio executives still think the US is the only market that matters… 

  • Good review of an under-appreciated film. Most of the publicity and awareness around John Carter was almost completely about how the filmed flopped at the box office. No mention on how the film itself is a fun fantasy with great special effects. Interestingly, the poor-box-office publicity is what made me curious enough see the movie on RedBox after it came out – and I love it enough to now buy it on Blu-ray. I look forward to updates on DVD/Blu-ray sales, and hope the movie gets the sequel it deserves.

  • JC Fan 4 Life

    Thanks for this write-up.  John Carter rocked. BEST FILM OF 2012.  No offense to the rest of my fellow Americans, but your taste in movies sUUUUUUUUcks.  God, how the hell did The Hunger Games do some much? The Lorax? Madagascar 3????  And why the hell do we have now have 5 Resident Evil films?  3 Underworld films? Okay, budget, I get it.  There’s a way to complete the John Carter Barsoom Trilogy – Film parts 2 and 3 together with a combined budget of 150-200 million. It will do twice that in foreign box office alone. Positive word of mouth is finally countering the bs internet-foaming-at-the-mouth attacks on this great film.  It did $40 million in DVD/Blu-Ray already.  The audience for this film will grow day-by-day.  When people finally get a chance to check it out, they are gonna be PISSED that they listened to the critics this time. Maybe they’ll think for themselves.  Most of the people who bashed John Carter never saw it.  It just became a running joke and the hip thing to trash it. Sad thing is, the joke is on America.  Keep listening to the critics.  Keep enjoying the crap reboots/4-quels Hollywood feeds you.  Ignore history. Stay illiterate.  Pretend that you saw it all first with all the derivative films that ripped off Burroughs work for years.  Act as if you are in the know after you saw one trailer you didn’t like or read some snarky online review and pre-judged the film.  Or give it a view and then learn about the history of this amazing film. Read a book.  Find a cause.  Fall in love.   

  • Thank you for such a great article! For me, even though John Carter (the original stories) inspired nearly all of our modern science fiction for the pats 100 years, the film felt so unique and different than anything I’d seen in ages on the big screen. It’s immersive quality, detailed and not dumbed-down story, and sweeping epic feel really appealed to me on so many levels. I adore it and consider it one of my favorite films of all time! The fan movement to turn the tide of opinion of the film and get John Carter 2 made is going strong, and I have high hopes we will prevail as fans have done many times in the past with their favorite shows or films. I REALLY want to go back to Barsoom!!

  • Great thoughtful review? It’s nice to see that some reviewers get it. Thank you!!!!!!!

  • Great review! My favourite movie in 2012 so far. Hope it will get the recognition and love it deserves!