Like Tron: Legacy
, John Carter
was envisioned as a franchise that would spawn plastic action figures and theme-park attractions around the globe. Based on an 11-installment series of fantasy novels by Burroughs dating back to 1911, the property has been hailed as the “Rosetta Stone
of modern sci-fi fantasy,” inspiring any number of sci-fi fantasies, Star Wars
and Flash Gordon
among them. As far back as the 1930s, Hollywood types had envisioned turning John Carter
into a movie.
The Disney version is largely based on Burroughs’s first installment, A Princess of Mars
, which chronicles the intergalactic adventures of Carter, a battle-scarred Civil War Army captain who finds himself magically transported to Mars (called “Barsoom” by its inhabitants), where he teams up with tattooed Martian princess Dejah Thoris and injects himself into a power struggle between warring factions the Zodangas and Heliumates. Thanks to Mars’s weaker gravity, Carter can effectively soar like Superman and kick mucho Martian butt.
Disney’s decision to put Andrew Stanton in the director's chair was hardly a no-brainer. Although Brad Bird, the animation hotshot responsible for Ratatouille
and The Incredibles,
recently scored a massive international hit with his first live-action gig directing Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol
, that film, unlike John Carter
, is part of an established blockbuster franchise with a bankable marquee movie star in Tom Cruise.
Stanton’s distinctive shooting style helped inflate the price tag. Known for his dogged perfectionism and penchant for reshooting scenes until he finds the proper balance of tone, emotion, and action—simple enough to do when your actors are animated—the writer-director dragged out physical production on John Carter
with a seemingly endless roundelay of reshoots, and reshoots of reshoots, done piecemeal around the world.
Although the character has been known as “John Carter of Mars” and was envisioned as a movie trilogy under that name, Disney marketers dropped the “of Mars” part because of industry-think holding that female movie fans are more likely to be turned off by such overtly sci-fi elements. And after the big-budget failure of last year’s Cowboys & Aliens
seemingly confirmed that modern audiences are uninterested in Westerns—or, by extension, vintage Americana—Carter’s Civil War connection has been all but excised from the marketing.
“You take out ‘of Mars,’ you don’t tell where he came from? That’s what makes it unique!” a former Disney executive said. “They choose to ignore that, and the whole campaign ends up meaning nothing. It’s boiled down to something no one wants to see.”
After seeing several John Carter
a rival studio executive agreed. “You don’t know what it is,” the source said. “The geek generation isn’t responding. It’s too weird for the family audience. Then it has the Disney brand and PG-13? I’m not sure who it’s for.”
For all Ross’s difficulty with John Carter
, most Hollywood insiders don’t think a flop will cause him to be banished from the executive suite. That said, he faces another day of reckoning on May 4 with the release of Marvel’s comic-book adaptation The Avengers
“If John Carter
flops, he’ll blame it on the old regime and live to fight another day,” yet another rival studio executive said. “It won’t be Rich’s undoing. Iger likes him because he’s all about protecting the brand at Disney.”
The executive paused, and then added: “Now, if The Avengers
looked like sh!t, that’d be another story.”