Friday, April 6, 2012

John Carter, Shirtless Failure

Recently, a couple of friends sent me a link to an article wherein people tried to explain why the movie John Carter was such a huge failure.

What truly interests me, however, is how the failure of John Carter wasn’t just vivisected, but predetermined. Read one article about how the movie flopped, and you will find links to five or ten more, all of which talk about how the movie is going to crash and burn before it even came out.

So here’s the part that bothers me: I think they got it wrong.

Oddly, I think it was the people in the comments of these articles who seem to have a firmer grasp on what happened, and one idea in particular set me on what I think is the right path, as far as the failure of John Carter goes.

But let me start here: First, I don’t think that John Carter was a failure. Whatever you read about the movie, and whatever you think about it, Disney now owns the John Carter franchise, and even if it takes 100 years, the movie is going to make money for them. Even if Disney collapses, and the movie goes to another company, it will make money. Movies make money forever, and a big movie like this will get a new cover every few years, and a 3D release, and a big push on cable networks, and a run on a major network, and on and on and on.

Movie companies love to pretend they lost money on movies, because then they never have to pay out to people who are owed a percentage o the profits. The author of Forest Gump had to sue the folks who made the movie, because they kept saying the movie last money, even though it pulled in 600 million dollars. (My memory of exact numbers might be incorrect here.)

For that matter, Peter Jackson had to sue to get the rest of the money owed him for The Lord of the Rings, a movie that no one could argue lost money.

Trust me. John Carter will make money. It might take a while, but it will happen.

So, okay, now that we’ve established that, what made the movie “flop?”

Well, lemme tell ya.

First of all, people claim the first trailer was bad. They are wrong. That’s not a bad trailer. It’s not a GREAT trailer, but it’s not a bad one.

If you want to see a bad trailer? Go find a copy of the very first Pirates of the Caribbean trailer. It’s awful. It mostly looks like stock footage, is based on a Disney ride, tells you nothing about the movie, and contains only one shot from the film. Skeleton feet underwater. It tells you nothing.

I recall that movie did okay. Unless you’re owed money on the profits for the film, in which case it lost money. As did the three sequels, I’m sure.

My point is, one bad trailer didn’t sink John Carter.

Let’s go back to the comments, which is what led me in the right direction.

Ask yourself this: Why are there no John Carter TOYS?

Again, let’s compare this to Pirates. Which is everywhere. They’ve got LEGO sets for Pirates. And action figures. And… well, frankly, lots of stuff. But really? The key thing? Toys.

There aren’t any.

Which announces, loud and clear, that Disney KNEW this movie was in trouble. Totally knew it, going way, way, way back (because these toy lines are getting set up at the same time the movie is being made, believe you me).

So that’s the first key, right there. And that’s a big one. The day you see a Pixar movie, or a Disney animated picture shoot out the gate with no toys whatsoever behind you, you know they know they done screwed up real bad.

Here’s the second key: How did they know they were up a creek without a paddle?

Now, that part, you can find in the trailer. But it has nothing to do with special effects. It has to do with a shirt.

Namely, halfway through the trailer, John isn’t wearing one anymore.

It sounds like nothing, but it’s everything.

At least, it’s everything when combined with the Disney logo.

That single article of clothing? The missing shirt? The moment Disney saw that, I’m positive they made a call and cancelled their toy line. They knew they had already lost the war, and only a single shot had been fired.

Because a shirtless dude does not say “family friendly Disney movie.” It says, “Conan the Barbarian.”

Which makes a whole lot of sense, when you think about it. The Princess of Mars, the first John Carter book, featured a naked princess. It was written in 1917, and the first Conan stories started coming out in 1932. Both of the books, around-about 1970 or so, had covers painted by Frank Frazetta, which generally featured really, really well-built dudes and mostly-unclad women.

Whether these two kinds of stories are, in fact, the same is somewhat irrelevant. Modern brains familiar with both of them in a cursory manner will, consciously or unconsciously, equate them.

Which brings me back to Shirtless John.

Now that you’ve established that at some point the guy is going to be shirtless, you’ve now set up two very conflicting expectations.

On one side of the equation, you’ve got men (and women, yes) who want to see a big-budget version of Conan. They want the adventure, the violence, and the naked, writhing flesh.

And then, on the other side of the equation, they see that’s it’s being released by Disney, and is rated PG-13.

Back in the early 80s, there was a bloody, violent R-rated Conan movie. It was called Conan the Barbarian. It’s still well-loved today, and it was a hit back when 40 million dollars at the box office was a hit. (This blows my mind.)

After that, there was a PG-rated Conan the Destroyer. Today, it’s better known as the Conan movie no one really likes.

Now, granted, the PG rating was one of the many flaws in the film, but that PG rating did some serious damage, as it removed some of the things people really enjoyed about the original.

And here’s John Carter. A former cover with a scantily clad female. An unclothed princess in the novel itself. And on the screen? She’s clad. And all the violence? Toned down to Disney levels.

So all the men (and women) who want THAT movie? You’ve lost a large chunk of them.

On the other side of things, you’ve got the families. They see Disney. They see wide-open vistas, and flying ships. They think, you know, this could be fun like Star Wars (which makes sense, since the original novel was an influence).

Then they see John Carter, Shirtless Dude.

And those people are out too. Because they don’t see the Disney label. They see Conan, a movie that, even with a PG rating, they’re highly wary of taking their kids to.

And subconsciously, I think parents noticed that there were no John Carter toys. Parents take their kids to stuff like Batman, even though that’s a highly dubious idea, because stuff that’s make into toys is, supposedly, safe for kid consumption.

So as you can see, Disney was stuck with a movie that was more-or-less made for nobody. At a cost of 250 million dollars.

Could they have saved it? Not after a certain point. If they CGIed a shirt back onto their hero, they might have had a chance. And I dunno how the female outfits looks in the movie, but in the trailer she looks pretty well covered. They might have had to do some work there as well.

I think in the end some really great reviews might have saved the flick being branded a failure. But based on what I’ve read of the critics, and what friends of mine have said, the movie is somewhere between okay and good, with few people stating that it’s VERY good.

And if you’ve got a movie people are unsure about, anything less than VERY good turns the movie into a rental.

And one last thing: The title John Carter did no one any favors. John Carter of Mars at least sounds interesting. John Carter sounds like Oscar bait.

My suspicion is that these issues will shake themselves out on home video. Some movies must ultimately leak themselves into the public mind, and I’m sure this one will be a slow-burn hit on cable and home video, after the parents deem it’s okay for (some) kids and action fans determine that, even though it’s low on gore and other carnal delights, it’s still a great deal of fun.

Some number of years ago, I read that Waterworld, one of the great punchlines of modern cinema, had finally made all of its money back. (Unless you’re supposed to get a percentage, of course.) I have no idea if it’s true, nor do I remember where I read the information. But I suspect that, yes, the epic flop that was so heartily mocked is now, on some set of books, in the black.

Ultimately, John Carter will probably get there too.


  1. I really enjoyed John Carter. The writing had issues, but it was a lovely adventure romp. I'm not going to say if it was "good" or not, because I like pretty much anything you can call science fiction and am a horrible judge of quality, but there were so many cool and wonderful things about it. I would recommend it.

    1. The impression I get is not that it's a bad movie... but I think to overcome its issues, it needed to be GREAT. I plan to see it at some point, but, you know, small child.

  2. The title does nothing for me... sort of like Ishtar.