When John Carter was originally released in 2012 a lot of the press around the movie focused on how expensive it was to make and how much money it lost at the box office. The presumption was that John Carter was obviously a bad bet from the word go and that Disney should have realized that a movie about a Civil War vet who is transported to Mars was never going to be popular enough to make back it’s $250 million dollar budget. But that sort of Monday morning quarterbacking is never very persuasive to me. William Goldman’s old adage about Hollywood – “Nobody knows anything” – applied to John Carter, too.
The truth of the matter is that most of the pre-release criticisms that you could have leveled at John Carter also could have been leveled at the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and that movie ended up kicking off a billion dollar franchise. Both movies were not cheap to make; both pirate movies and outer space movies were seen as being out of date; they both came from semi-unlikely source material. (The book that John Carter is based on is over a hundred years old; Pirates was a theme park ride.) The only real difference as far as I can see is in star power – Johnny Depp was a much bigger star than Taylor Kitsch was, but it’s easy to forget that when Depp signed on to be Captain Jack Sparrow he was mostly known for being in weird dramas, so he wasn’t that much of an improvement over Kitsch, who was coming off of the popular show Friday Night Lights.
You can also see John Carter’s biggest flaws in Pirates, too. John Carter’s plot is simultaneously too complicated and too threadbare. When Carter arrives on Mars, he’s immediately thrust into the middle of a civil war between two humanoid tribes, one of which is being manipulated by a third group of ill explained bald wizards. Oh, and there are also the Tharks – four armed green warriors. Having so many parts requires the movie to have a lot of exposition, but the plot doesn’t merit that much set-up; when you get right down to it, this is basically a movie about a hero who has to save a princess from getting married to a bad guy. But it’s not like the Pirates of the Caribbean movies were ever models of storytelling efficiency. They’ve always had an excessive number of characters and locations and bloated running times.
So, yes, it’s understandable why Disney would roll the dice on John Carter, despite how risky it was, because their bet on Pirates had paid off so well. What kept Carter from doing as well as Pirates was actually the execution. Pirates might drag when it isn’t in the middle of an action sequence, but when it comes time for a big setpiece, it really lights up the screen. Director Gore Verbinski managed to nail a live action Looney Tunes tone which gave the various chases and fights an eye popping and funny look. In contrast, most of John Carter’s action scenes are pretty much stock sci-fi – not bad, really, but not good enough to redeem all of the longer boring exposition-y parts. When you left a Pirates movie, the unnecessary crap faded from your memory while the swashbuckling parts stayed vivid in your imagination. After you left John Carter, all that was left was a vague feeling of bloat and boredom.
Honestly, John Carter is right in the middle of the pack, not just next to Pirates of the Caribbean, but with a lot of other franchise films. It’s a lot more coherent than other blockbusters which made a lot of money (like Michael Bay’s Transformers series), it’s more pleasant than other CGI-heavy affairs which aim more to impress than entertain (like Man of Steel), and it did a better job of world building than other sci fi movies which erred on the side of over simplification (like the Chronicles of Riddick.) I understand that all of that is relative. I understand that left to it’s own devices, it has a bad case of being too-much-too-little: an enormous and exciting setting filled with stock villains and princesses; enough storylines that it could easily be turned into a long running television series crammed into one overlong long movie; and yes, a big budget and a small box office. But it's absurd that of those three inequalities, the last one - the one that matters the least - was the one that was talked about the most.