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Barsoomian Beat-Down!

Longbox Graveyard #39

I wasn’t going to write this column.

I intended last week’s John Carter, Warlord of Mars column to be my first and last word on the subject. Acknowledge my love of the property, excoriate the Marvel Comics run for being so crappy, express my anxiety over the movie, and finish things off with a one paragraph review of the film.

Done!

But today I got into one of those protracted geekfights that makes you think about things, and reevaluate, and get worked up all over again. So what the heck … one more John Carter column isn’t going to kill anyone. This subject does matter to me and I am seething with nerd rage.

I stand naked before you, beneath the hurtling moons of Mars!

Hear my cry!

Disney’s John Carter pierced me through my fanboy heart!

(all art in this blog by the immortal Frank Frazetta!)

As I noted in my update to last week’s column, John Carter gets more things right than wrong … but the things it gets wrong are so wrong that it torpedoes the whole enterprise. Even worse — barring some miraculous international box office — the movie is going to perform so poorly that it will turn the entire property into a toxic tire fire. There won’t be a sequel, there won’t be a John Carter movie franchise — just this single, flawed, oh-so-promising misfire.

And that’s a cosmic shame.

I am severely conflicted about this movie. My personal grade of C+ puts me a little ahead of the the critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes, and only one letter grade behind John Carter’s CinemaScore rating by audiences exiting the theater. Put a radium pistol to my head and I will admit that the movie was … good.

(Some of the time.)

(When you look at it just right.)

The problem is that with all the money, talent, and ambition that went into John Carter, “good” isn’t good enough. This picture deserved to be GREAT! Anything less is the cinematic equivalent of a Barsoomian airship captain leaping from the prow of his doomed flyer — a symbolic act of surrender.

I do love John Carter. Not as much as I love Conan, or The Lord of the Rings, but I do love the series. It’s probably not top ten for me, but it is comfortably in my top twenty. When the Conan movie tanked last August I reached back to the books and offered up a fist-full of suggestions about how the Cimmerian might be better treated on film, but I have no such prescription for John Carter. The books frankly aren’t that good — and I say this as a fan! Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ novels are full of wonderful ideas and imagery, but as fiction they are a tough read. In the run-up to this movie, when I read that director Andrew Stanton was picking and choosing from the books, and throwing out what didn’t work … I felt great! That’s exactly what this series required! Mine the books for ideas, find the heart of the series, and make a movie for 21st century audiences!

I had faith that Andrew Stanton — the flat-out genius behind Wall-E — would do justice to the sentimentality and the heart that is at the core of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian romances.

John Carter was never deterred by long odds

But I knew.

I knew the moment I saw that first brown, tepid, dirge of a teaser trailer last year that this picture was in trouble. That trailer was all about loss, and mourning, and dust. There was no adventure. There was no romance. There was no attempt to connect this movie to contemporary audiences. From the creator of Wall-E and Finding Nemo! From the writer of Tarzan! Pixar’s first live-action movie!

None of that was on display in this first lifeless trailer:

And it is not too much of an exaggeration to report that it was all down hill from there, with an increasingly off-kilter marketing blitz just muddying the issue right up until the movie was delivered, dead on arrival, at theaters this past weekend.

I was one of the few Americans who turned out for this picture on opening day, watching the film in IMAX 3D, and my militant optimism turned to dismay almost from the opening curtain. The film opens in a strident rush of yelling and explosions and over-amped action that left me lost — and I’m a guy that’s read all the books, and blogs about this nonsense. Incoherent action, sky ships blasting anything and everything, characters we don’t know snarling at each other … then McNulty is confronted by three flying dudes who give him some kind of nanotech wonderweapon and I am supposed to care because …?

The Wire’s own Jimmy McNulty — Dominic West — played the heavy in John Carter, and I put him here because it is probably the last chance I’ll get to reference my favorite TV show at Longbox Graveyard

Look, opening the picture with a bang and introducing the audience to Barsoom is a great idea. But is this the best Stanton could do? My pal and sometimes Longbox Graveyard contributor Chris Ulm pulled a better opening out of his backside. Why not go with a Lord of the Rings opening? Show how distant Barsoom is a dying planet, with less water and less air each passing year. Show legions of Red and Green Men savagely battling over these precious and dwindling resources. Juxtapose the Martian civil wars with the American Civil War here on earth, show John Carter as the peerless Virginia cavalryman, fighting for his doomed lost cause. Have Carter unhorsed by some underhanded Yankee treachery, have him take a bullet in the gut, have him crawl off to die in the night and reach out to the glowing red planet Mars — then, boom, take us there and get on with the tale!

None of this protracted origin story that didn’t make sense in the book, and works even worse on film. None of this Edgar Rice Burroughs framing sequence nonsense. Just introduce the world, raise the stakes, tell us why we should care, and get on with a fast-paced, action-packed, fish-out-of-water adventure on a fantastic world with the homespun, Southern gentleman Carter our anchor against the unreality of it all.

those odds are looking worse

When the picture does get around to John Carter on Mars, things improve a bit. For awhile. But it is here that my greatest disappointment with the movie comes to the fore — Stanton opts for spectacle over character development.

The Green Men are wonderfully realized, and the strongest part of the film. But rather than following the book, and richly developing John Carter’s relationship with the Tharks (and I can’t believe I am defending a book I don’t like all that much!), the film throws characters and situations at us in a rush. John Carter’s slow-developing friendship with Tars Tarkas is central to the series. The Tharks are savages who laugh only when someone is in pain, but through John Carter, Tars Tarkas learns the value of friendship, develops the courage to acknowledge his daughter, Sola, and bravely charts a new path for his people. The friendship between John Carter and Tars Tarkas is one of the greatest in fantasy fiction (and George Lucas pretty much stole it for Han Solo and Chewie), but Stanton gives us no chance to enjoy watching these two characters come together, testing each others’ strengths, challenging each others’ most deeply-held convictions, and emerging better for the experience. Instead we get a kind of rough sketch of Tars Tarkas’ wonder at encountering John Carter, and a couple scenes where Tars tells us how Carter affected him, rather than showing us through action, dialogue, and character development.

ace character actor Willem Dafoe is larely wasted in his role as Tars Tarkas

Sola fares a bit better — and the bit with her body being branded for each crime she has committed is a nice way to externalize her outlier nature — but we aren’t shown enough about Thark society to really understand how special she is for feeling kindness and maternal instincts. And likewise we have little chance to appreciate the unbreakable bond of loyalty between John Carter and Woola — the poor beast set to “guard” him — because the movie is moving at such a breakneck pace that there is no time for the relationship to simmer, to transform from prisoner and jailer to man and man’s best friend in a fashion that could have illuminated character and bound the audience to the story.

Dejah Thoris and Woola (I think)

These oversights are critical because more than flyers, radium rifles, beasts, and aliens, Burroughs’ Mars books are about friendship, love, loyalty, and honor. What makes John Carter special is his compassion — that he wins over an entire planet through his courage, but also his mercy. The kindness Carter offers his foes blows Barsoomian society apart. It turns Sola into a mother, and Woola into a faithful and loving companion. It transforms the Tharks from savage raiders to eternal allies of Helium. And it wins the heart of the “incomparable Dejah Thoris,” in the central romance of this sword & planet romance series.

Dejah Thoris fares a bit better than the other characters in the film. I thought her reinvention as a scientist and woman of action was clever and appropriate. But her romance with John Carter is almost entirely truncated in service of a silly plot contrivance based around Carter wanting to return to his home planet, and playing the world-weary warrior. John Carter is a one-dimensional character in the books, but if he is about anything, it is two things — that he is a fighting man through-and-through, and that he falls in love with Dejah Thoris at first sight.

Why did the movie turn Carter into a reluctant warrior who thinks Dejah Thoris is a spoiled little snot? Again, I never thought I’d be defending the book — where the romance is melodramatic, overwrought, and juvenile — but, sheesh, I would have rather seen Burroughs’ turgid romance brought to the screen word-for-word than the expository partnership we got in this movie. The male/female adventuring almost-lovers dynamic is one of cinema’s most basic archetypes — how did Stanton get this part wrong? Has he never seen Speed, Romancing the Stone, The Princess Bride, or a Thin Man movie? Raiders of the Lost Ark? Star Wars? Bonnie and Clyde? Ferris Bueller? Anyone, anyone?

Why on two worlds did the movie devote screen time to the deadly-dull interplanetary Thern conspiracy when there was so much basic character work that went undone?

That’s the kind of nonsense I’d expect from Zack Snyder or Michael Bay. From Andrew Stanton — it was a shock. And a bitter disappointment.

Andrew Stanton should be thrown to the banths for messing this up!

In my naive, fanboy way I came away from the film constructing a best-case scenario. After all, there was so much to like! I thought the Tharks were terrific. I loved the look of the film — the architecture, the technology, the costumes, jewelry, and makeup. I even mostly liked the cast. And there was a part of me that still had faith in Andrew Stanton, cleaving to the notion that his vision of the film had been subverted by interference from meddling producers, and undone by criminal marketing.

But then came this long story in Vulture magazine about how this film is 100% Andrew Stanton’s vision — including the marketing campaign — and all hope evaporated. Because even if by some miracle this film does well enough overseas to justify a sequel … that sequel is going to be the vision of the guy who so missed the center of the target this first time around. And if the movie doesn’t pull off a box office miracle, then it is going to be so toxic that John Carter will never see the screen again … and it will likely drive the final stake through the heart of a steampunk fantasy genre already savaged by movies like Wild Wild West, Cowboys & Aliens, and Jonah Hex.

So in John Carter we have a film that kills not only a franchise, but an entire genre, and sullies the esteem with which I held the director for his work on Wall-E. As a movie, John Carter is just mediocre — but as a missed opportunity, this movie ranks among some of the most disappointing genre films I’ve ever seen, right alongside pictures like The Phantom Menace, Watchmen, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Like all of those movies, it is disappointing enough to make me reassess why I liked the original vintage so much in the first place.

fortunately, there is still SO MUCH to love about the original vintage

My advice to Disney — have faith in the franchise, get Jon Favreau for the sequel, and slash $100M from the budget of the next picture.

My advice to Andrew Stanton — get back to Pixar and make movies with bugs and fish and robots … you know, things with heart.

My advice to Longbox Graveyard readers — go see John Carter! Ack, I can’t help myself! This moment may never come again, the chance to see John Carter — however flawed — on the big screen. Go see the film, and with your wallets keep the flickering hope of a sequel alive. And let me know what you think of the movie in the comments section.

In the name of the Ninth Ray, that we have come to this! Chris Ulm’s daughter decided she hated the movie, sight unseen, and reports that the kids are calling it, “John Farter.” A century in the making and instead of taking a victory lap, John Carter needs mercy tickets to get a second time at bat. And here I am still holding out hope for this hopeless mess of a movie. I guess I really do love John Carter, after all.

“A warrior may change his metal, but not his heart.”

Sigh.

Thank you for indulging my rant. Next week I will get back to comics with my WonderCon report (and if you will be at the show, come see the panel I am moderating Friday at 4:30 — “Triumph of the Small Screen!”).

Until then … Kaor, my Barsoomian brothers, and blessed be the shell of thy first ancestor!

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #40 WonderCon Wrap-Up!

 

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John Carter, Warlord of Mars

Longbox Graveyard #38

John Carter comes to the movies this week, completing an odyssey stretching back one hundred years, beginning with publication of A Princess of Mars in 1912.

Created by Edgar Rice Burroughs — and vastly less successful than that author’s Tarzan of the Apes — the John Carter series has nonetheless fascinated geeks like me for a century, giving birth to the “sword and planet” genre, and having its bones mined by dozens of science fiction books and films to follow, most notably Return of the Jedi, where the whole first act owes more than a little to the airships and savage desert races of Burroughs’ Barsoom.

John Carter has remained in print these past hundred years, first as a serial, and later reprinted as a series of eleven novels. It was in the Science Fiction Book Club editions from the 1970s that I first encountered John Carter, and I still have those battered low rent hardbacks on my shelf today, mostly because of the classic Frank Frazetta covers …

… and some pretty special black & white interior art, too.

Those covers and (especially) those interior drawings set the look and feel of John Carter for me, the tale of an ex-Confederate adventurer from Virgina who is mysteriously transported to Mars, where he is caught up in a whirlwind of swords, radium pistols, flyers, princesses, wild beasts, and the savage Green Men roaming the dead sea bottoms of Barsoom. It’s not great fiction — unlike Robert E. Howard’s Conan series, I find little joy in Burroughs stiff, neo-Victorian approach to storytelling — but it is great world-building, right up there with the creations of J.R.R. Tolkien and Frank Herbert.

On the eve of the movie’s release, it’s fruitless to speculate on it’s success — the tale will be told at the box office this weekend. But it doesn’t look good. Tracking numbers are weak and the knives are out for the film and the studio that greenlit the $250 million dollar production. For my part, I expect to like the picture (and I did — sort of — see the end of this post for my brief movie review). I respect director Andrew Stanton — I thought Wall-E was brilliant — and the footage released onto the web by an increasingly nervous studio adequately satisfies my fanboy expectations.

The marketing has been tepid, with the studio distancing themselves from the term “Mars” for crazy reasons; likewise they have steered clear of the story’s post-Civil War period roots, probably spooked by the failure of last summer’s Cowboys & Aliens. John Carter seems doomed to be another Scott Pilgrim Versus The World — a genre film that audiences like, but for which the audience was too small to sustain a franchise, which is a real shame, because Burroughs’ Martian saga is broad and rich enough to sustain several feature films.

But I’ll take what I can get.

In 1977 the notion that I would some day get a John Carter movie — in a summer that will also bring me a Batman, Spider-Man, and Avengers movie — was more fantastic than John Carter slicing up a whole legion of the synthetic men of Mars. Three decades ago, the closest I could get to a John Carter movie was Marvel’s John Carter, Warlord of Mars comic series, and I bought every issue (and three annuals, too).

And boy oh boy did they stink!

I stayed with the book to the bitter end out of some misguided loyalty to the property but this run was terrible — terrible art, terrible storytelling, terrible design. Even the colors were terrible. And that the book was so poor despite the heartfelt efforts of some quite talented pros — like Marv Wolfman, Gil Kane, and Chris Claremont — points out how hard it is to get this story right (and simultaneously increases my respect for Frank Frazetta, even as it makes me that much more nervous for the movie).

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Marv Wolfman was one of the finest comic book writers of his day, and in the letter page editorial introducing the first issue, Wolfman says all the right things — how he’s loved the series since he was a boy, how he’s always wanted to do John Carter at Marvel, how Gil Kane was his perfect pick for penciller. He knew the books well enough to spot a multi-year gap buried between paragraphs at the end of A Princess of Mars in which to set his series, and he launched the book with an ambitious, twelve-part epic called “The Air Pirates of Mars” that showcased all the many weird races, landscapes, and creatures of Burroughs’ Mars.

But sometimes the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Wolfman never really made Barsoom his own — the humorless, first-person narration Burroughs uses is tiresome in the original books, and when Wolfman brings that style to the comic page it is positively deadly, offering little insight to the stoic John Carter while encumbering each page with a wall of words.

So, too, do Gil Kane’s pencils fail to impress. I’m massively indifferent to Kane, but even his most ardent supporters will find little to like here, in page after page that seem a tangle of red bodies and snarling faces. A John Carter artist must be a designer as much as a storyteller, and Kane was either incapable or totally disinterested in developing the look of John Carter’s world — his panels are almost entirely bereft of memorable architecture, costume design, or technology. There’s practically nothing about these pages that tells us we’re on Barsoom aside from a few extra limbs on the fauna.

all the parts are here, but I’m not feeling it

I re-read the series for this review and was appalled at how bland, dull, and lifeless were Burroughs’ creatures and characters when transferred to the comics page. In being so faithful to Burroughs, the series did Edgar a disservice, who even in 1977 was in need of an updating, but instead of cutting to the heart of Burroughs’ Barsoom — and giving us stories of romance, friendship, and loyalty — we get a kind of joyless Burroughs pastiche that fails by leagues to compare with the images that the novels conjured in my imagination.

Wolfman departs after a dozen issues, and Chris Claremont does a bit better job as scripter. In Claremont’s first issue, John Carter is poisoned, and presumably killed, so Claremont dismisses the first-person narrative form, and the series is better for it … for all of half an issue, then Carter is back telling us nothing and the book is all grinding gears again. Like Wolfman’s tale, Claremont’s “Master Assassin of Mars” story arc is too long, and not helped at all by a second-rate effort from artist Rudy Nebres as the book runs out the string.

I scoured the series for pages worth scanning, but couldn’t find much, aside from the splash page of a Dave Cockrum single-issue story, when Deja Thoris finally looks at least a little bit “incomparable” …

… and a dynamic page from a young Frank Miller, just finding his way as an artist at Marvel.

You also can find a few more decent pages over at the always-cosmic Mars Will Send No More … it’s too bad Alex Nino didn’t score a full-time gig on this book!

But really, this series is better left forgotten. For lifeless scripting, uninspired pencils, anachronistic storytelling, and utterly failing to deliver on the promise of Burroughs’ rich Barsoomian mythos, Marvel’s John Carter, Warlord of Mars earns the first failing grade on the idiosyncratic Longbox Graveyard report card. I’ve loaded my copies aboard a barge, set it aflame, and floated it down the River Iss … and am crossing the fingers on all four hands of my Tars Tarkas action figure that the great John Carter fares better in his feature film debut!

UPDATE: I’ve seen the movie now (in IMAX 3D no less) and while John Carter gets more things right than wrong, the things it does wrong pretty much kill it. I am stunned that Andrew Stanton (director of Wall-E) would get the heart and sentimentality of this story wrong, and it is deadly. Instead of focusing on the warm emotional relationships between John Carter, Tars Tarkas, Sola, Woola, and Dejah Thoris, we get a complicated story where a Thern conspiracy and a well-intentioned but boring Edgar Rice Burroughs framing sequence crowds out screen time that would have been better devoted to core character development. The movie looks good, the Green Men are great, and I was fine with most of the casting (I thought the smart and resourceful Deja Thoris was an especially welcome revision). But the movie races along at a breakneck pace, too strident, too shrill, too eager to please, and ultimately a confused muddle of names and places and pointless details that just distance us from the heart of the story. The film looked like it needed another month in the editing bay (and maybe there will be a better cut on home video some day), but the damage is done. This film was doomed out of the gate by Disney’s catastrophic marketing campaign and with the movie underdelivering in it’s opening weekend (pending only some massive international box office), poor John Carter is going to be one-and-done. I’m disappointed and not a little depressed that this franchise has been smothered in the crib. It could have been great … but now it goes on the shelf with other promising misfires like Firefly, Rocketeer, and Scott Pilgrim. Pixar got the story wrong! Who’d a thunk it? So sad.

  • Title: John Carter, Warlord of Mars
  • Published By: Marvel Comics, 1977-1979
  • Issues EXILED From The Longbox Graveyard: #1-28, June 1977-October 1979
  • LBG Letter Grade For This Run: F
  • Read The Reprints: Amazon

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #39 Barsoomian Beat-Down!

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