Burying Burroughs... Prematurely?

by Bill Gibron

12 March 2012

So, the critical consensus is in and after three official days of box office figures, the pundits are predicting that John Carter will be the first major flop of 2012.
cover art

John Carter

Director: Andrew Stanton
Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Willem Dafoe

(Walt Disney Pictures)
US theatrical: 9 Mar 2012 (General release)
UK theatrical: 9 Mar 2012 (General release)

So, the critical consensus is in and after three official days of box office figures, the pundits are predicting that John Carter will be the first major flop of 2012. Of course, this ignores a couple dozen January to March releases that have already heaved a sigh of insignificant turnstile relief (Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Gone, One for the Money), but that doesn’t stop the tribes of tongue waggers from burying the proposed epic while it’s still struggling. Granted, much of this has to do with expectations, the rumored production costs ($250 million by some secret estimates) and the lack of “legs” (ability to endure beyond the basic week long release window), but as with any premature declaration, it also has a lot to do with the web’s desire to be first if not foremost.

From the beginning, John Carter was going to be a hard sell. It is based on the books by pulp author Edgar Rice Burroughs and comes with a cult that’s faithful, if not quite far reaching. It represented the first live action feature for Pixar pioneer Andrew Stanton, and while the subject matter seemed perfect for his otherworld talents, trepidation at the House of Mouse (Disney financed this proposed fiasco in the making) saw some alleged infighting. Even today, budget and marketing numbers are debated, the company wanting to seem sensible and stable and not buying into the harmful hype Title changes (from John Carter of Mars to the new moniker) and junket schedules where the first indication of possible trouble. But no matter the final costs, or competence behind the lens, John Carter is now permanently stained by its initial performance.
All of which translates into a premature RIP for a film that probably didn’t have a real chance to begin with. March is never a good time to try and sell and epic, and with a barnstorming barrage of publicity coming for the teen lit sensation The Hunger Games, Carter only had two weeks at most to dominate the tally sheets before it disappeared. Of course, there is always foreign ticket sales, and in that realm the film has done decently - some estimates push it toward $100 million total worldwide. Yet for all the arguments over why and how, one fact remains - a strange kind of cabal is building within the realm of nu-media, an assumption and then assertion that has more to do with ill-considered consensus and less to do with quality.

To be fair, the film fared poorly with the critical community. Even those from “legitimate” sources (read: print or premiere online sites) were unusually hard on the final effort. Many pointed to its boring prologue, it’s lack of space battle spectacle, and an overall feeling of b-movie material amped up to proposed A-type treasure. While we still live in the era of post-Star Wars sentiment, where almost everything sci-fi or fantasy it illogically compared to Lucas’ legacy, even those less enamored with Jar-Jar and friends found fault. With positives rare indeed (yours truly enjoyed it quite a bit), Carter had to rely on word of mouth to maintain forward momentum. However, even with scores ranging from four and a half out of five among Yahoo Movies users to a solid seven out of ten at IMDb (Rotten Tomatoes agrees with a 72% “liked it” among its readers), the public’s say seems unimportant.

That’s the case in 2012. What the people want (or will watch) is often overridden by a desire to make headlines and half-assed predictions. Those in the supposed know begin the Telephone Game like scramble toward an early determination, and before long, the original opinion is turned into truth. It’s a dangerous dynamic - one that’s repeated over and over and over again. In fact, the Internet should be censured for finding a way to turn a person’s own view of things into an actuality that should be believed unabashedly. Back in the days of daily columns and judgmental thumbs, critics were taken with a grain of sensible salt. What they offered was just an viewpoint, not some manner of Gospel.

Yet thanks to information dispersal substituting for clarity of individual thought and the need to be part of a growing social network, audiences have stopped thinking. Instead, they listen to the Harry Knowles of the world and wonder who they can be privy to such insider perspective as well. As the great equalizer, as the source for as many aggregate answers as legitimate dialogue, our text and tell mentality means few forward their own agenda. Put another way, the lone voice of reason is often stamped out by the din of a flurry of Facebook activity. After all, individuality is hard to “Like,”  as is the notion that something you see should be digested before broadcast to the world in instant, 164 characters knee jerks.

And yet there they are, instantly firing up their phones after a press screening, immediate thoughts spewed out like so many Adele lyrics. Add in the blogsphere which rarely follows embargo protocols and fringe sites who thrive on violating journalistic standards to garner those important advertiser numbers and it’s no wonder a “difficult” movie dies quickly. As the great re-evaluator, the Web enjoys knocking down the different, only to build them back up around the time the DVD is released. They do it all the time - something like the lambasted Sucker Punch gets redefined once it hits home video (as the original hater has a chance to actually ‘watch’ instead of simply ‘react’ to the film) while the initially reviled remake of Halloween by Rob Zombie goes from blasphemy to one of the best horror films of the era. It’s the nature of the beast.

Of course, John Carter has to be judged on its own merits, and may or may not be suffering from a dogpile movie critic mentality. It’s also important to note that Monday morning quarterbacking such as this is just as hasty and imprudent as any instant post-preview post. Sometimes, it’s impossible to determine why an otherwise likeable title fails. In this case, John Carter seems to have the deck stacked fully against it. This doesn’t mean that said determination is right, just what everyone thinks right now.

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