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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Edgar Rice Burroughs

Dear Disney,

Yes, I know you said you wanted to gross $700 million before you’d agree to either of the two sequels Andrew Stanton had planned for John Carter. And I know you’re still miffed about everyone making fun of you when the opening weekend flopped. But who was laughing when foreign sales pushed it over the $250 million budget in its fourth week? Yeah, I know, there’s still the $100 million in advertising. But those oversea millions are still flowing, and add in the DVD sales lined up for June, and we all know the red planet will soon be in the black.

Sure, the $350 million profit you were dreaming of back in February would have been nice, but you’re probably just happy to have dodged that “biggest flop in movie history” bullet. Congratulations. Now all you want to do is pack up those noisy Tharks and Calots and put John Carter behind you.

But is that how you capitalize on an investment?

I’m sorry Mr. Stanton convinced you that Carter was just like Tarzan, a beloved Burroughs classic with a massive fanbase begging to be exploited. Which explains why your marketing plan went so wrong.  You should have been recruiting, not supplying Superbowl ammo for an army that didn’t exist yet. There was only one species of John Carter fan: readers. There had never been a movie, a TV show, a cartoon, a 40’s film serial, nothing.  When I asked my 14-year-old daughter about the character, she said “Who?”

You now know that you should have been building infrastructure.  Why, for instance, was the new edition of A Princess of Mars (with that eye-catching intro by Junot Diaz, the second Pulitzer winning novelist attached to the project) released AFTER the film? You should have pushed that through the presses as soon as you green lighted the movie. Ditto on a new comic book adaptation (from a market-dominating publisher like Marvel, not the very respectable but very tiny Dynamite or Dark Horse who both have miniscule Mars niches). Or what about an animated TV series on Cartoon Network? Or a series of animated films the way DC keeps its roster of superheroes alive and literally kicking while hatching long-term blockbusters?

Some of these you could still do. But you’re thinking, What the hell for? John Carter isn’t about time travel. The marketing window is long closed.

And that would be your next big mistake.

Yes, you blew the lead-up to the movie. But the window on the character is still wide open. John Carter is a long-term commodity that you control. You didn’t just squander $100 million in marketing. You invested $350 million in a franchise, and the movie itself, not those wasted ads, supplies the missing infrastructure.  Have you been by Facebook lately? In addition to those loyal novel readers, John Carter has a fierce film cult begging for a sequel. These people will devour anything you toss at them.

No, I’m not suggesting you give them and Stanton another $250 million. In fact, I’d go in the opposite direction. Think B movie budget. Remember the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies from the 30’s? MGM made those for one reason and one reason only.

They had the footage.

Trader Horn was the first big budget Hollywood film shot on location. The production was a disaster. They came back from Africa with scene after scene of inaudible dialogue, a star infected with malaria, and the suitcases of crew members devoured by crocodiles and trampled by rhinos. They also had miles of jungle footage, way more than could ever go into a  single movie. Trader Horn came and went, but to capitalize on all that location shooting they’d already paid for, MGM rolled out Tarzan the Ape Man the following year. It was a cheap hit that spawned five low-budget sequels.

MGM could have walked away from their original investment. They could have put the Trader Horn fiasco behind them and never gone near Africa again. But that would have made bad business sense.  Disney is in the same position with Mars. You already have the location footage—those hard drives brimming with otherwise unusable CGI that could fuel a decade of Martian adventures.  You already paid for it. It’s just sitting there.

Just keep your human cast in pre-fab Helium and those Tharks in some distant subplot, and your sequel is already half made. And, yes, you’re probably still kicking yourself for letting Stanton move forward without a big name star. But now that plays to your advantage. Kitsch and Collins are cheap. All your costs are capped.

So let’s add this up. A loyal and expanding fanbase at home, a voracious market abroad, a modest new production budget, and a marketing infrastructure you’ve already paid for.

Suddenly those dreamed-of profits are in reach of all four of your little green arms.

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Superman wasn’t the first alien to gain superpowers by hopping planets. That honor goes to John Carter, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pre-Tarzan pulp star. He premiered in All-Story magazine a hundred years ago last month. This Friday Carter takes his first superpowered leap to the big screen.

In 1939, Jerry Siegel offered a “Scientific Explanation for Superman’s Amazing Strength”: “The smaller size of our planet, with its slighter gravity pull, assists Superman’s tremendous muscles in the performance of miraculous feats of strength!”

But Burroughs beat him by more than a quarter century. John Carter’s powers are a product of “the lesser gravitation and lower air pressure on Mars.” A “very earthly and at the same time superhuman leap” carries Carter “fully thirty feet into the air” and lands him “a hundred feet” away.

Before 1912, the 20th century had never seen a hero fling himself through the air before. And since John Carter is beating Man of Steel to theaters by more than a year, he bounds over Superman in the 21st century too.

Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon (who’s always had a thing for Martian scifi) co-wrote the screenplay. It’s his first film credit since 2004’s Spider-Man 2, the former high mark for superhero excellence (pre-The Dark Knight, of course). Readers of Thrilling Tales (the retro-pulp issue of McSweeney’s that Chabon edited back in 2003) know the first chapter of his sadly unfilmed screenplay “The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance.” Chabon told me he has no intentions of completing the novelization, so his John Carter revisions are the closest we’re going to get.

Given that Burroughs’ first Carter novel, A Princess of Mars, is one of the most hilariously racist novels I’ve ever read, I trust Chabon had his delete key in full working order before opening director Andrew Stanton’s script.

Carter, a former Confederate Captain, is a “southern gentleman of the highest type.” In fact, “slaves fairly worshipped the ground he trod.” Once he makes the magical leap to Mars (or “Barsoom,” the quasi-oriental-sounding name Burroughs gives the planet), he wars with a race of four-armed savages, each a “huge and terrific incarnation of hate, of vengeance and of death.” If the connection to the so-called savages of the western plains is too subtle, then please note that Captain Carter was battling a band of Apaches seconds before his apparent, planet-flinging death.

Barsoom also hosts a race of four-armed white gorillas, a funhouse reflection of those trod-worshipping slaves freed after the Captain’s Confederacy lost its War Between the States. There’s even a human-looking race of a once great but now tragically fallen civilization. Burroughs doesn’t describe any antebellum mansions in the ruins, but a 1912 reader would have recognized the vanquished South in Barsoom’s dusty riverbeds.

Carter, a well-bred Virginian, arrives ready to rule. Those ferocious-looking Martians are “infinitely less agile and less powerful, in proportion to their weight, than an Earth man.” Carter doubts “were one of them suddenly to be transported to Earth he could lift his own weight from the ground.” Mars, with its impossibly arrested climate and cultures, are his to conquer. John Carter is the ultimate colonizer. Mars was literally made for him.

I don’t know what the screenplay looked like before Chabon started his repairs, but Stanton is already planning two sequels. Burroughs wrote ten, but Disney wants to rake in $700 million first. That’s less than Spider-Man 2, but still a high bar for even an interplanetary superman to clear.

Will Disney’s John Carter also clear the racial politics of the Burroughs novel?

Well, let’s see. Martian women wear “flowing Middle Eastern garb,” and their cities are modeled on the ancient ruins of Petra in modern Jordan. Chabon likens those four-armed Tharks to 19th century “Afghani tribesmen,” and Stanton gave them the lean look of “desert-dwelling people,” specifically “the Masai warriors and the Aborigines.” Plus, for musical icing, that’s Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” playing over the trailer.

So what do India, Afghanistan, Jordan, Kenya, and Australia have in common? They were all British colonies. Disney’s Mars is the ultimate melting pot of non-Western “others.” Which is the scifi way of saying: “They all look the same to me.”

[Addendum: Lynn Collins, who plays the titular Princess, self-identifies as “Irish and Cherokee Indian.” She also cried the first time she read the script. Why? Because she “felt its parallel to Earth was so poignant.”]

Stanton and Chabon let Carter remain a Civil War vet, but the wars that will inevitably haunt their film are Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the trailer, if Carter does not defeat his enemy on Mars, that enemy will attack Earth next. It’s a one-sentence summary of George W. Bush’s foreign policy. The war on Mars sounds a lot like the War on Terrorism.

In a creepy way, that’s appropriate. Burroughs’ character was a hit in part because Carter reflected U.S. foreign policy of 1912. England was done with imperialism, and America was its heir. Our internal frontier was closed. The government fought its last battle with Native tribes in 1898 and seized the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam the same year. To expand our naval capabilities, we instigated the 1903 secession of Panama from Columbia and the construction of the Panama Canal. When Burroughs’ Martian canals were premiering in All-Story, our own canal was just two years from completion. America was the newest global power. And John Carter was our very own superman.

A hundred years later and he still is. It’s not just the Martian weather that never changes. For good and bad, superheroes remain America’s favorite way of mythologizing itself.

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