"John Carter" is based on a series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the writer who also created Tarzan. He introduces the character of John Carter in the "Barsoom" series, which began in 1912. It is very old-fashioned science fiction in that it romanticizes the previously mysterious and captivating planet of Mars. The movie tells the story of Carter, a Civil War veteran, who gets transported to Mars and tangled up in the conflicts of the planet's inhabitants.
The movie currently stands at a 51% on Rotten Tomatoes, with a painful 34% among Top Critics. The summary of critical opinion is that "while John Carter looks terrific and delivers its share of pulpy thrills, it also suffers from uneven pacing and occasionally incomprehensible plotting and characterization." Audiences weren't wowed by it either since it wasn't the smash anticipated. It's worth noting that sometimes movies do very well but are considered flops because they are being measured against the cost in making it. "John Carter," however, only made about $62 million stateside, which is not impressive at all. To give you some context for comparison, "21 Jump Street" has already made $71 million domestic, and even "Act of Valor" made $66 million domestic. "Safe House," which also received a 54% from Rotten Tomatoes, earned $122 million domestic.
So here lie the two big questions - why did Disney put so much faith in "John Carter" and why did it fail? First, let's address why Disney invested so much into it. Large-scale, sci-fi/action adventure movies can be very lucrative if they strike a chord with the viewing public. If you can build off of nostalgia for an established series of novels, even better. In the era of "Avatar," studios are willing to shell out the big bucks for movies with stellar visuals. Additionally, the Disney name still carries some weight when put before a film title. But in the end, "John Carter" didn't perform.
Like many people, I have a few opinions about why this is. First, there were no big names to draw in the crowds. If you know who Taylor Kitsch is at all, you probably know him as that guy who was on "Friday Night Lights." You know, that critically acclaimed show that no one watched. Between Sam Worthington, Channing Tatum, and now Taylor Kitsch, there seems to be a sale on bland hunks in Hollywood for leading roles. The rest of the cast is equally obscure, with the exception of Willem Dafoe. Although looking at the cast list, it's a veritable who's who of "that guys." It's filled with people who you probably recognize, but would never be able to identify by name. "Avatar" was led by two semi-nobodies, but you had the pedigree of James Cameron behind the picture. "John Carter" was directed by Andrew Stanton, an established Pixar director making his live-action debut here. "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" was the live-action debut of another Pixar man, Brad Bird. One of these men hit it big in live-action, and it ain't Stanton. Also, never underestimate the importance of good writing. Even if a movie looks amazing, if the story lacks any impact, its chances for success are slimmer.
A minor point I'd like to mention is the presence of the word "Disney" in the marketing campaign. The movie is PG-13, but the Disney label might keep some folks away. Disney is still associated with children's entertainment. My youth was the time of the Disney Renaissance, filled with brilliant children's movies, but they were still aimed at the younger crowd. If all you know about "John Carter" is that it's that Disney movie set on Mars, you're probably not going to be dying to see it, in my opinion. That's just not enough for true mass appeal. On this topic, I think the story itself isn't a big draw. The concept of "the mysterious Red planet" is very old-fashioned. Mars once set the literary world ablaze as writers' imaginations overflowed with possibilities for intelligent life in space. But it's 2012, and while Mars fiction will always be around, it doesn't have quite the same appeal as it did in the early 1900s when John Carter first set foot there in Burrough's novels. The concept just felt painfully antiquated. And if you don't have big stars or a well-known director/writer or a premise intriguing to the mainstream, maybe you can at least draw in the fans of the source material. To be perfectly honest, I had never heard of the John Carter novels before this movie came out. I'm positive there are many people like me who saw previews for this movie, a Disney sci-fi epic with a (still largely) unknown lead with a title like "John Carter," and barely registered it.
Whether it's due to all of my reasons or none of them, "John Carter" bombed big time. A sequel was planned, but it's not clear if that's going to happen or not. Despite plenty of source material to draw from, it's unlikely Disney will sink more money into this franchise.