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Heroic Failure: A Critique of John Carter's Marketing Strategy

Written by Owen Weetch.

Photo from the article It is difficult, when considering John Carter, to ignore the ignominy of its reception. The film bombed spectacularly at the box office, losing Disney two hundred million dollars and purportedly provoking the resignation of Rich Ross, then-chairman of Walt Disney filmmaking studios. As such, the words ‘John Carter’ have rapidly become understood as shorthand for an example of Hollywood hubris and failure, a Cutthroat Island (1995) for the 2010s. This means that any piece taking a positive stance cannot help but seem defensive, the writer inevitably appearing more apologist than critic. Rather than avoiding this issue, then, perhaps a more measured way of engaging with the film is to confront its ‘failure’ head on. Inspired by an article written by Claude Brodesser-Akner for Vulture.com titled ‘The Inside Story of How John Carter Was Doomed by its First Trailer’ - which puts the blame largely on director Andrew Stanton’s apparent insistence that the film not be marketed to people unfamiliar with the source material - I will note some ways in which the film was improperly marketed, and, in turn, suggest alternatives. This article, then, critiques the marketing strategy rather than the film itself. In the process, though, I hope to throw into relief some aspects of the film that I feel are of particular merit. In short, I am going to be an apologist, crying over spilt milk.

Brodesser-Akner’s piece sees Stanton as guilty of refusing to acknowledge that, for the vast majority of people, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars simply wasn’t a household name. There is, then, no mention in any of the trailers, or any of the posters, that this is an adaptation of A Princess of Mars, a founding text of the science fiction fantasy-adventure genre, and the influence behind such wildly popular films as Star Wars (1977) or Avatar (2009). The trailers show sequences that, without an awareness of the film’s provenance, seem lifted wholesale from Lucas’ films. As Brodesser-Akner puts it, “Because the Barsoom books were so influential to cinema's greatest sci-fi auteurs, just about everything in it had already been plundered and reused by other hits. And as a result, the more that was revealed of John Carter, the more derivative it looked, even if its source had originated these ideas.”


Brodesser-Akner lists many other ways in which Lucas pilfered from Burroughs, but let me direct your attention to the ‘coliseum’ set-piece wherein Carter, held captive by the Tharks, takes on two great white apes. The key image emblazoning the majority of posters for the film comes from this sequence, but this only serves to reinforce Brodesser-Akner’s point: it takes place in an environment very similar to the amphitheatre sequence in Attack of the Clones (2002), and the great white apes themselves are visually reminiscent of the Rancor featured in Return of the Jedi (1983). The sequence’s high visibility throughout the marketing seems strange for reasons other than its implication that the film is a rip-off. The sequence is possibly the least integral element in the film’s overall narrative: it functions as a distraction to Carter’s quest to ‘rescue the princess’, a hindrance in his attempt to ‘save the world’.

Indeed, it seems to be the story itself that is the most obvious victim of the marketing campaign. The narrative setup is alluded to atmospherically in the teaser trailer, but not adequately spelled out, and shied away from almost entirely in the second in favour of pyrotechnics. This seems both neglectful and incompetent: a few soundbites would have sufficed to describe a film this resolutely straightforward. It also reveals a failure to capitalise on the narrative’s expert use of archetypes, so instrumental to the success of the early Star Wars films. This is a shame, because John Carter, while it deploys well-worn tropes - the hero, the princess in peril, a war between rival cities - does so in a fashion that is both more-self-aware and more concerned with character than anything on display in either Lucas’ or Cameron’s films, both of whom are all too often prone to privileging basic narrative function over personality. The hero of this film, for example, has a compelling backstory that wasn’t sufficiently adumbrated in the early marketing campaign. According to an interview with Metro.us, Kitsch himself admitted he would have included more emphasis on this: “I would love to see a bit of […] the Civil War John Carter […] You don’t see literally any, really. [I’d show] him on a horse, maybe, or […] waking up from Mars with the beard.” Without this, the film appeared lost, a dull piece lacking human interest amongst the computer-generated mayhem. Providing more character information, as Kitsch states, would “just ground […] it more […], rather than people trying to really decipher Mars.”


There does appear to have been at least some attempt to convey who John Carter actually is about a week before release, when this ten-minute clip from the film’s opening was released online (presumably - in light of Brodesser-Akner’s piece - a last-ditch attempt to sell the film by the studio). I would argue that this segment is filled with a wealth of elements that should have been key to the marketing campaign. There’s a more varied generic heritage than would appear at first glance, the clip filled with an old-fashioned sense of derring-do, and its sumptuous widescreen use of the Arizona locations recalling the westerns of John Ford. The death of Carter’s family constructs him as much more of a hard-bitten, cynical hero - more Josey Wales than Luke Skywalker - than the rather blandifying ‘beefcake-takes-on-green-screen’ that the second trailer and posters would suggest. The clip also evidences much more humour than anything else had revealed up until that point, the multiple-escape sequence providing a fine example of how adept Stanton is at conveying information through formal wit, the plasticity of his storytelling elegantly diluting exposition throughout the film. A later sequence, intercutting Carter’s battle with hundreds of charging Tharks with the burial of his family, showcases this dexterity: both excitement and emotion are interlaced, mutually reinforced to expressive effect.

Carter’s loss, and his resultant reluctance to commit to a cause in which he does not believe, forms the backbone of the film’s message, one that is in no way clear until you have already bought your ticket. The film presents its villains, the powerful and omniscient Thern - whom John Warrender sees as “The Man in ghostly white form, preventing the people of Barsoom from finding their feet” - arbiters constructing a destiny defined by hierarchical conflict, against which Carter rallies. The marketing’s neglect here consequently, and criminally, sidelines Dejah Thoris, a character with considerable depth and narrative agency. The Princess is introduced as the head scientist of Helium, researching and developing technology to harvest the mysterious power source that functions as the film’s MacGuffin, in order to rescue her people from destruction. While arguing for the film as straightforwardly feminist would probably be misjudged - it remains the case that the film is, at base, a ‘damsel in distress’ narrative - there is a sensitivity to these issues and an admirable effort to create a character with substance who is proactive in her own right. Thoris is represented as independent - and critical - of the male characters in the film. Consider the sequence where she is dressed in bridal garb on the eve of her enforced marriage to Sab Than. The design of the outfit in this sequence recalls the rather infamous slave outfit worn by Princess Leia in Jedi, one of the most problematically fetishistic moments in mainstream family film. Here, however, what initially seems to be an equally straightforward example of the male gaze is, if not overturned, then at least humorously addressed when Thoris replies to Carter’s remark that she is “beautiful” with the observation that that the costume is “traditional Zodangan, worn by the groom’s mother I’m told,” adding that it’s “a little vulgar for my taste, but my opinions are about to become irrelevant.”


While no Ellen Ripley or Katniss Everdeen, I would hold that Thoris is a much more interesting depiction of a strong female character than is often seen in popular fantasy cinema (for more on the film’s considered treatment of gender as well as the ways in which it negotiates the colonial stereotypes of the source material, Warrender’s piece has some interesting points). These characters’ simultaneous rebellions against the Thern give birth to an eventual romance that carries weight and conviction. I would hold that there is an affecting love story here, one that should have been instrumental to the marketing campaign (according to Brodesser-Akner, this was felt by marketing executives at Disney also). Warm performances by Collins and Kitsch convey strength, charm, sexuality and intelligence. The result is a film that presents the audience with two fully-fledged characters who find something of interest in each other - something, refreshingly, to which the audience is also privy. It is notable that John Carter’s climactic scene is not an action sequence (the assault on Helium is given rather short shrift, whose abruptness is one of the film’s few faults) but a narrated montage detailing Carter’s attempts to return to his new home in order to simply be with Thoris. Their relationship, rather than her rescue, emerges as the narrative’s ultimate objective.

It is thus in its character-led story, as well as its visual invention, that John Carter’s success lies, which makes its box office failure all the more lamentable. These are traits discernible in all of Stanton’s film to date (even in his worst film, A Bug’s Life [1998] - whose narrative John Carter closely resembles). Despite this, Brodesser-Akner tells us that Stanton stipulated that his name not be emphasised in the posters and trailers, lest his latest be popularly perceived as a film for children. This is his most perplexing move by far (it would have surely drawn Pixar acolytes to the multiplex in droves), but also his most bullishly ignorant: John Carter is a film for children, just like Star Wars before it, and contains within it many pleasures that would resonate strongly with that audience. Indeed, for all the above discussion of sardonic montage and mutually respectful relationships, the most glaringly incomprehensible aspect of this entire fiasco is the promotional neglect of Carter’s zenocanine companion, Woola. A resounding feat of creature design and animated artistry, the completely endearing frog-rhino-pug is a side-kick as charming and deftly-sketched as Dug the talking dog in Pixar’s lucratively successful Up (2009). The notion that a film will not prove popular with adults if light and suitable for children is a fallacy, and something to which I will return in my concluding remarks.


There is one way in which Disney did manage to outweigh Stanton’s influence, though, and this was in the decision to post-convert the film into 3D. Though Mark Kermode may have, rather predictably, lambasted the stereoscopy as “rubbish”, it turns out to be a success, making the fact that it wasn’t foregrounded in the marketing yet another regrettable state of affairs. Just as in Avatar (which promoted its use of the format to lucrative ends) the 3D gives weight and presence to the largely computer-generated locations and characters, making them feel more present and thus contributing to the film’s suspension of disbelief. Simultaneously, it also accentuates the strangeness of the film’s spectacular design work. Consider the tree which Carter and Thoris visit that unveils the secret of the Ninth Ray: the CGI edifice upon which both characters stand is built of tier-upon-tier of brambles, but you wouldn’t know it to watch the film in 2D. The manipulation of 3D space, however, gives the sense that they are stood atop a massive intertwining that is essentially hollow, separating out the brambles and emphasising the space between them through a use of deep stereospace. Furthermore, the 3D aids the comprehensibility of action sequences, such as Thark-charge mentioned above, separating out the different CG characters and thus contributing to the sequences’ already considerable sense of geography.


Perhaps, however, the film was always “doomed” to failure, and not, as Brodesser-Akner put it, because of its first trailer. The critical opprobrium that greeted the film seems to display an inherent snobbery about the very kind of film this is. Philip French, for example, describes the plot as concerning “a war between competing factions with ridiculous names like Tharks and Zodangans”, and Peter Bradshaw laments that John Carter “can't go 10 minutes without one of this nation's character actors striding on saying something ridiculous in a silly outfit with a straight face.” It may be that critics and audiences have well and truly tired of material inspired by Saturday morning serials. When a deftly crafted example comes along it now seems to be the traits of the genre itself - rather than the individual text - that come under fire. Films like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Superman (1978), and Star Wars - whose narratives concern events no less “ridiculous” or “silly” - were once resoundingly successful. Noël Carroll once wrote of those films that they were “remembrances of things past, of comic books and serials, of times of which it is said that good and evil were sharply cleaved,” filmmakers’ heightened “reverie[s] on the glorious old days.” No matter how ill-informed or disingenuous they may have actually been, I can’t help but think that an oversaturation of films like this has finally taken its toll. Movies with a similar heritage that have proven critically and commercially successful recently tend to be superhero films like Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise - largely humourless enterprises that are keen to emphasise their ‘darkness’ and ‘plausibility’ as a means of differentiating themselves from lighter family fare. Maybe films like John Carter, recalling times when it was sufficient that a superhero be able to leap a tall building with a single bound, have had their day. They’re just too twee for audiences who’d rather see serious meditations on morality and civil responsibility preached by a man dressed as a flying rodent.

This article was published on May 02, 2012.

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