Disney’s John Carter failed to hit Disney’s financial expectations – and it took down plans for sequels with it.
One day, somebody is going to write a thesis on what went wrong with Disney’s John Carter. On paper, the plot seems tailor made for the big screen, it had a veteran Pixar director at the helm and a budget that, even today, puts in the list of the most expensive films ever made.
So what happened?
As ever, it seems, it comes back to money. John Carter was envisaged to be Disney’s next success story, spawning a film franchise, toys and merchandise. The story of the production of John Carter would make a fascinating book in itself – and sort of has – given there were issues with everything from the rights to the screenplay to casting and worrying reception to test screenings.
Attempts to make Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books into a feature had been mooted as early as the 1930s, with the likes of stop motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen attempting to mount his own version in the 1970s. In 1990, Die Hard director John McTiernan was attached to direct at one stage, and he hired Back To The Future co-writer Bob Gale to pen the screenplay. Several changes of personnel followed, including a period where Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts were mooted.
By 2005, future Iron Man director John Favreau was attached, having just helmed the underrated Zathura: A Space Adventure. This eventually fell apart, which was when long-time fan of the series and Pixar director Andrew Stanton pitched his take to Disney.
Based on the novel Princess Of Mars, John Carter followed the titular soldier as he attempts to broker peace amid the civil unrest amongst the warring kingdoms of Bardoon.
Taylor Kitsch starred as John Carter, along with Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy and Willem Dafoe. Stanton directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon.
By the summer of 2011 (when John Carter was entering its additional photography phase), Disney CEO Bob Iger had started discussions with George Lucas to purchase Lucasfilm and, by extension, Star Wars. While the $4 billion deal wouldn’t be finalized until a few months after John Carter was released, it effectively meant that Disney no longer needed its own big budget sci fi tentpole series.
Nevertheless, with Stanton’s vision for a film trilogy and writers Andrews and Chabon also eager to continue the story, work began on a sequel based on Burroughs’ second novel The Gods Of Mars. It’s unclear how far pre-production work got, or whether a full screenplay was ever produced. But there was clear intent here for more, as set up by the end of the first film.
However, the biggest blow was yet to come, as both critical and commercial reception to John Carter was extremely disappointing, such as Entertainment Weekly’s assertion that “Nothing in John Carter really works, since everything in the movie has been done so many times before, and so much better.”
As ever with Hollywood accounting, the specifics when it comes to exactly how much money was lost isn’t clear, but on the face of it the film cost between $250 million and $300 million to make, and it took just over $286 million at the box office.
Such dire financial straits effectively killed any notion of a sequel before it began. For his part, Stanton began feverishly working on another long awaited sequel – Finding Dory. The sequel to 2004’s Finding Nemo would go on to make over $1 billion worldwide.
However, in 2014, Stanton revealed to TheWrap some of what his pitch for the sequel, Gods Of Mars, included:
“It was going to be that every movie had a different character saying the prologue. The first one is Willem, as Tars. The second one’s prologue narration was going to be Dejah. And it was going to give anybody that hadn’t seen the first movie a little precursor of the history that got you to this movie. Shorthand, interesting imagery, whether it was artwork or whatever. And then you were going to reveal she was telling it to her baby. You were going to realize, ‘Oh my God, it’s the child. It’s Carthoris, this child of Dejah Thoris and Carter.'”
Stanton goes on to explain that the plot would have been akin to 1970’s Beneath The Planet Of The Apes, with the discovery of a secret race that lives below ground, controlling the world above.
The sequel to John Carter may never materialize onscreen, but feverish fans still keep the film alive via social media, while Burroughs’ series runs to 11 books. A twelfth was published by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc, written by Geary Gravel, in 2021.
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