Last Call

You need to watch Disney's best disaster before it leaves Netflix next week

Disney's worst failure is also one of its greatest sci-fi movies ever.

The same year Disney found a goldmine in Marvel's The Avengers, the studio suffered one of its biggest failures. This movie didn't just lose Disney money, it also caused the exit of the studio's chairman just three years after they took the job. In a 2015 retrospective piece, Forbes writer Scott Mendelson described the movie as "a cautionary tale about what can go wrong when trying to craft the next great worldwide smash hit."

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On May 1, John Carter from director Andrew Stanton will leave Netflix. It will find a permanent home on Disney+ on May 2, but with the film's exit on Netflix is the perfect time to revisit a legitimately amazing action-adventure movie that was simply dealt all the wrong hands — especially if you don't have a Disney+ subscription.

To answer a question posed by one of my co-workers this morning: No, John Carter has nothing to do with John Wick. The movie is an adaptation of a hundred-year-old science-fiction novel, Edgar Rice Burrough's A Princess of Mars. It's the story of a Virginia cavalryman from the Civil War, John Carter, who is transported to Mars, or "Barsoom," where he gets caught up in war and romance on the red planet.

A Princess of Mars is credited with influencing practically all of 20th-century fantasy and science-fiction. The book was a favorite of famed astronomer Carl Sagan, and directly inspired sci-fi legends like Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, James Cameron, and George Lucas. Simply put, there's no Star Wars without A Princess of Mars.

John Carter's journey to the big screen was a long one, but here's the quick gist: In 1931, Looney Tunes director Bob Clampett pitched an animated film version of A Princess of Mars to a very interested Burroughs. But film exhibitors hated the test footage, believing the concept was too out there for mainstream audiences. The footage was presumed lost until Burroughs' grandson, Danton Burroughs, found it in the 1970s.

In the 1980s, Mario Kassar and Andrew G. Vajna obtained the film rights to A Princess of Mars for Walt Disney Studios. The studio was looking for a competitor to Star Wars. (Funny how things turn out.) A movie with Tom Cruise playing John Carter was close to starting production until director John McTiernan deemed the state of visual effects inadequate to properly flesh out the story. Despite chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg's interest in making John Carter a Disney franchise, the rights returned to the Burroughs estate.

In the 2000s, the rights ended up at Paramount, which signed Robert Rodriguez to direct and intended to reuse the digital sets created for his 2005 noir picture Sin City. But a dispute with the Directors Guild of America caused Rodriguez to resign, leading Paramount to Jon Favreau. However, when Iron Man came around, Favreau moved on to that, and the Mars rights went up for grabs once again. Pixar's Andrew Stanton (Wall-E, Finding Nemo) lobbied Disney to regain the rights, and it worked, giving Stanton the chance to direct.

A collection of 'A Princess of Mars' trade paperbacks. The story influenced a whole century's worth of creatives like Ray Bradbury and George Lucas.MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images/MediaNews Group/Getty Images

That's how we got to 2012's John Carter. It's well-documented in articles and books that bad marketing (again: Who is John Carter?) and exorbitant production costs (a reported $307 million in total) derailed any chances at box office success.

But what few talk about is just how great John Carter really is. As a throwback to swashbucklers you don't find anymore and satisfying modern set-pieces, the film fires on all cylinders with only a few creative misfires. The only real reason for its failure was the public's unfamiliarity with "John Carter." The movies it influenced, from Star Wars to Indiana Jones, had eclipsed Burroughs' story in recognition.

At its heart, John Carter is a western. Starring Taylor Kitsch as John Carter wandering a post-Civil War frontier. Carter ends up on Mars, known as "Barsoom" by its natives. There, he falls in love with the Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), a scientist trying to end a war between her people and the Tharks. The cast includes Bryan Cranston, Dominic West, Ciarán Hinds, Mark Strong, James Purefoy, and Willem Dafoe as the voice of Tars Tarkas.

Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins in 2012's Disney's bomb, 'John Carter.'Disney/Kobal/Shutterstock

With only two real offenses, a miscast Kitsch (unconvincing as a 19th-century renegade) and Martians whose CGI is now showing its age, John Carter is a modern pulp epic that could have launched a new Hollywood franchise. It has a universality like Star Wars and Avatar in its frontier spirit (Barsoom looks an awful lot like the Arizona desert) and familiar themes like racism and war that resonate no matter the time period. It remains hard to swallow that John Carter was a Confederate, but you can guarantee that's glossed over throughout the movie.

Today, watching John Carter years after it bombed and lost Disney millions, it feels unfair how it's this movie that failed. As studios race to scoop up books and old TV shows for franchising, it's unfathomable that a crusty pulp novel was given all the resources to look alive. And it does! Barsoom is a gorgeous world of sand and blue skies, with vaguely Egyptian and Middle Eastern-inspired technology and architecture. (Whoever is designing 2021's Black Adam, take note.) The movie is colorful in ways so few modern blockbusters are, instead plagued by muted colors and poor lighting. Looking at you, Avengers: Endgame.

John Carter would have benefited from a different title. Coming from Disney, the studio that made fairy tale princesses a brand, a title like John Carter and the Princess of Mars would have given the movie identity (it's reported Disney actually avoided words like "Princess" and "Mars" for the title, which is baffling).

In the end, John Carter exists. No matter how long it took or how it was welcomed, it exists, and perhaps in time, it will get its due.

John Carter is streaming on Netflix until May 1.