Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 03 July 2013
Source Disney DVD
Categories Failed Franchises
There is a memorable, if unlikely moment in Wim Wenders’s masterpiece Paris, Texas in which we see quite clearly the power of the franchise. When we encounter Hunter, the young orphan at the narrative’s center, in his bedroom, we see that he’s surrounded by the manifold ephemera of Star Wars: bed sheets, action figures, PJs. For Hunter, as for many a small boy in the early 1980s and since, Star Wars is at once a stable point of reference to be quoted liberally and a vast collection of objects which literally surround him.
Thus the hallmark of a successful franchise is ubiquity, even of an invasive variety. Indeed, what other goal does a franchise have but saturation, full penetration of a market and the buyers it comprises, a total occupation? A successful series like Star Wars, as seen in Wenders’s privileged example, doesn’t simply hold a treasured place in what might fancifully be called the popular imagination; it occupies collective brainspace and determines buying habits. For some of us, decades later, it still holds large pieces of real estate in our parents’ basements.
What’s ironic about this profusion, this pervasive expansion into physical and psychic spaces, is that the predominant theme of the most trenchant franchises is one of salvation from a vast, incommensurable invading force. Franchises of the Star Wars - or Tolkien, or James Bond, or Harry Potter - variety all seem to stage narratives of earthly, intergalactic, or interdimensional invasion, the better to posit their own sets of heroes, invariably both virtuous and outnumbered, as more righteous in their omnipotence. (See especially those franchise archetypes portrayed as guardians of humanity, such as those of the Marvel or Transformers universes.) So, there’s a kind of bait-and-switch at work here, in which the narrative of the franchise is one of salvation from the very same logic that drives the franchise in the first place. One way to make this slow encroachment of the franchise more visible is through the eyes of a European art-film director; another is through the lens of those franchises that failed in their expansionist projects, leaving in their wake armies of orphaned toys and bed-sheets and PJs.
Which brings us to John Carter. Just a year after its release, Andrew Stanton’s adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s once widely beloved, now largely forgotten series of Martian swashbucklers has now become synonymous with the failed franchise and, taking up a position once occupied by Costner’s Waterworld, the big-budget flop in general. To be sure, Stanton’s film has its defenders, though it must be said that these brave champions of a $250-million Disney epic were for the most part protesting that John Carter was no worse than any number of other tent-pole films that fared better financially.
Even so, it’s hard to say just what sank John Carter. It certainly came bearing a seemingly reliable pedigree of talent, with Pixar’s Andrew Stanton (late of Finding Nemo and WALL-E) as director, providing enough of that trademarked hokey, winking self-deprecation that otherwise seems to sell well, and even some script-doctoring by novelist Michael Chabon. In the title role, the wonderfully named Taylor Kitsch (of Friday Night Lights) provides the appropriate quantity of beefcake, even if he lacks a certain thespian agility—though according to some of my sources, the latter is of absolutely no consequence. And there are the contributions by usually respectable actors like Willem Dafoe, Ciarán Hinds, and Samantha Morton.
There’s also no shortage of material: Burroughs’s original novels offer at least a dozen reasonably distinct storylines taking place on the planet Barsoom (which is what the Martians call their home-planet), boasting an appropriately vast and adaptable menagerie of flora and fauna, including primitive 15-foot-tall “green men” (called Tharks), skyscraper-sized white apes, and buxom princesses, and plenty of assorted geographies. Its hero is, reliably, a white American Adonis who, once magically transported to the alien atmospheric conditions of Mars - er, Barsoom - discovers he has super-human powers.
But then, partly for this reason, the John Carter franchise might well demand a fairly aggressive update, both in its science and its politics. By the time Burroughs began publishing his Barsoom stories in 1912, Mars had already provided the inspiration for many a science-fiction odyssey, from Wells’s famed 1898 invasion narrative and pointed critique of colonialism, The War of the Worlds (which Burroughs claimed not to have read), to Alexander Bogdanov’s 1908 novel Red Star, which imagines the red planet as a Communist utopia of collective labor and advanced gender politics. Like these authors (and many others), however, Burroughs drew his ideas primarily from the research of the amateur American astronomer Percival Lowell, whose famous mistranslation of Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli’s report of “canali,” or groove, on Mars as a network of artificial canals. From this, Burroughs inferred massive engineering efforts and advanced civilizations of not-so-little green men.
In his version, Stanton retains Burroughs’s faulty science, but he does so with a bit of a wink, introducing via a Willem Dafoe-delivered voiceover the Mars that we think we know and Mars as it actually is (or was). This is a canny hint of planetary catastrophes (and, perhaps, sequels) to come, and it has some precedents in Burroughs’s own series, but it’s still a remarkably anachronistic portrait of a planet whose surface had been so vividly pictured in high definition by a couple of fairly winsome MERs just a few years before. Despite this, Stanton’s Barsoom is somehow just as fanciful as Burroughs and, in some cases, more banal. Often, the surface just looks like Utah because, well, that’s exactly what it is.
But the relationship between Burroughs’s Barsoom and the actual planet of Mars is much less a problem with the John Carter series than John Carter himself. Burroughs’s Carter is a Southern gentleman extraordinaire, an exemplar of the values and traditions of the antebellum South, who defended the Confederacy during the Civil War and in general exhibits a certain American christliness. (Those initials are no coincidence. In Burroughs’s stories, he is also depicted as immortal.) In Stanton’s film, this is quickly telegraphed as a uniquely American kind of rough-and-tumble, never-say-die spirit, which finds him (rather comically) always antagonizing people or aliens who try to capture him and, in one memorably disgusting moment, responding to a competitor’s challenge by coughing up a loogie.
Not surprisingly, given that Burroughs is also the creator of Tarzan, John Carter’s position with respect to the “natives” of both his own country and his new alien home is checkered with certain old-fashioned notions of civilization and savagery. In both the books and the film, it’s clear that the primitive Tharks are stand-ins for American Indians, whom Carter is escaping from when he is inadvertently transported to Barsoom. Not for nothing was John Carter the childhood idol of a young Ronald Reagan: once transplanted to Barsoom, Burroughs’s Confederate war-hero takes up the cause for civilization and order, enacting his own kind of earthly Manifest Destiny upon the creatures of Mars all but single-handedly, and winning the hand of the voluptuous Princess Deja in the process. (It’s worth noting here that the image of this handsome couple features prominently in the artwork and book covers of Frank Frazetta1), which in turn inspired the design of Ralph Bakshi’s Fire and Ice.)
To be sure, Stanton attempts to smooth over the clear political impetus behind Burroughs’s work in his film, making Carter into a (sometimes thwarted) peacemaker between Indians and pale-faces, and green and red Martians alike. But Carter’s idea of peace is still achieved with an inordinate amount of carnage. In one scene alone, he slaughters what seems like thousands of Tharks, swarming in a CG multitude, piling up around him in a mountain of alien corpses. In this respect, John Carter is a curious inversion of the usual franchise-feeding invasion narrative: here, Carter is the alien invader who crushes and conquers an entire planet, and what’s more, he wins. In this way, Burroughs’s creation is a stark contrast to one of the many sci-fi epics it inspired: Frank Herbert’s Dune, which is avowedly about a developing-world revolution. John Carter, by contrast, is pure conquest, but as this is a Disney operation, Stanton makes a concession to concerned parents by making the Martians’ blood blue, apparently to make Carter’s alien holocaust seem somewhat less genocidal. But even so, it’s hard to get away from the image of Carter as the American Exception, not so casually plowing his way through the Martian hordes on his way to global salvation.
Of course, none of this quite explains John Carter’s failure; if anything, it’s surprising that the film didn’t work, given its particular coherence with the logic of the franchise, its clever channeling of the way franchises are built and sutured into the fabric of contemporary consumer culture. Perhaps, rather, John Carter wears its spirit of conquest too nakedly on its sleeve.
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