Thursday Rethink 3: John Carter is Not a Failure

John Carter still 2
John Carter still 2

The Proposition: Disney's John Carter is not the catastrophic artistic and commercial failure that the media and popular discourse has labelled it as.

The Backdrop: I remember scrolling through my Twitter feed and checking out some websites early last Friday evening (March 9th). Already, John Carter was being declared an absolute failure, just as it had barely opened to the general public. Is this due to an over-emphasis on not only the weekend box-office, but also box-office estimates? Think about how often the weekend's "winner" is declared on Sunday. Or, is John Carter a total dud deserving of mediocre ticket sales, as many critics have declared? The Three Brothers encourage you to re-consider the hasty consensus.   

Three Reasons:

1. Anders: John Carter mostly succeeds in trying to wed a very personal vision of a classic science fiction novel to the demands of mainstream movie audiences. The failure of Disney marketing to find the target audience for the film or convey a sense of what it is all about does not mean the actual film itself fails. Despite protests to the contrary, many film writers don't like films that they cannot pigeon-hole and are especially unforgiving of films that fail to meet box office expectations (much like the stock-market, performance is often driven by perception rather than results). It's hard to imagine that some who have decried the film wouldn't have taken a shine to this film if the $250 million dollar price tag weren't the prime emphasis. The fact is that a quick perusal of Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic shows a fairly even split in the reception. Critics seem far quicker to forgive this weekends upcoming 21 Jump Street its faults and declare it a "fun" film than they did a week ago to embrace the imagination and spirit in John Carter. Is the price tag the reason why?

2. Anton: The film is a solid, handsomely-fashioned planetary romance adventure. Andrew Stanton and his talented company have clearly taken great care in creating the imaginary world of Barsoom (Mars), which, if not as wonderfully realized as Star Wars' Tatooine or Avatar's Pandora, is still leagues above most cinematic fantasies, which tend to use their imagined worlds merely as an excuse for unrealistic battles and mayhem. The film is actually interested in building a complex fictional world. (Paradoxically, John Carter bares the filmic influences of its own generic successors; in other words, even though Edgar Rice Burroughs' first Barsoom novel was published in 1917, Andrew Stanton's film includes nods to, for example, Attack of the Clones [2002], a film influenced by Burroughs' creation.)

3. Aren: There's a charm and wonder to John Carter that most Hollywood blockbusters lack. Watching John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) discover his ability to bound across the low-gravity of Mars, not to mention his reaction to the Tharks and his subsequent discovery of him actually being on Mars, is delightful. The film has a humourous vein that pervades everything. Take for example Tars Tarkas' reaction to Carter after they ride into Zodanga. This kind of perfectly-timed humour is rare in Hollywood action blockbusters. This isn't to say the film isn't taking itself serious — it is — but it understands that much of the story's joy is to be found in the fantastic aliens, awesome landscapes and Carter's peculiar and awestruck reactions to everything he encounters. Stanton and company realize the potential of Barsoom, and have fun with it, letting the character, and, by extension, the audience revel in the wonder of this fantastic world. I can understand if people don't appreciate the unabashedly pulpy (some would say cornball) charms of John Carter, but such vehement dislike of its plot and characterization is more a matter of taste than quality. As an old-fashioned genre adventure, John Carter succeeds in leaps and bounds.

So, what do you think?