By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com March 12, 2012 at 1:48PM
Speaking of editing, what in god's name was up with the framing structure? Stanton was doggedly opposed, from the beginning, to simplifying or streamlining the source material, up to the point of paying homage to Rice Burroughs' appearances in his own novels, but what do these scenes actually lend to the finished movie? The integrity of the structure is undermined by starting things off on Barsoom anyway, but soon we're treated to scenes of a miscast Spy Kid reading things. In his TED talk, Stanton points to this scene "as making a promise to you that this story will lead somewhere that's worth your time." In other words, it's there to pay off the ending, where Carter turns out to have faked his death, in order to throw off the Therns, and to return to Mars. But all this stuff is only loosely connected to the events on Barsoom, and that ending is hugely frustrating anyway: Carter's returned to Earth, goes through a half-assed fake-out, and then goes back to Mars. Either leave him victorious on Barsoom with Dejah, or have him tragically plucked from triumph and separated from his lady-love, stranded far from her (as "Thor" did with some success, and by Odin's raven, we never thought we'd be holding that movie up as a paridigm of successful storytelling). Don't try and do both in the last ten minutes of the film.
But then, much of that ending is setting up for a sequel, something that's plagued Hollywood tentpoles of late -- think of "Robin Hood" or "Iron Man 2," films that seem to exist only in order to set up future installments. And "John Carter" suffers from the same problem, particularly when it comes to its villain. For all the many antagonists thrown at him in the first 90 minutes, John Carter finds out in the last third of the movie, it’s actually Matai Shang (played by Mark Strong) who's the villain. Pulling the strings behind Sab Than’s quest for power, he spends most of the movie keeping an eye on John Carter before they finally meet head to head late in the game, although he doesn't simply kill Carter, because he's a cliched movie bad guy. So with this stakes-raising element now in play, what do the screenwriters do? They let Matai Shang escape, and even worse, he pops up in the film’s coda to ensure that a setup to a sequel is in place. In the context of a movie, it’s a suckerpunch to the audience. Allowing Matai Shang to survive for the sequel that will probably never get made allows for two things: 1) it essentially reduces “John Carter” to the status of a prologue, rendering much of what happens in the movie as meaningless 2) it fundamentally changes what “John Carter” is actually about. Is this about a Civil War hero turned Martian hero? Nope. It’s essentially “Wedding Crashers: Mars Edition” turning John Carter not into someone who changed the course of Barsoom’s history forever by removing the man behind the curtain, but as a guy who momentarily brings peace by stopping a wedding and breaking a goblet full of water. Enthralling.
Just as defences of the "Star Wars" prequels of "It's a kid movie!" were nullified by plot elements involving senatorial elections and trade embargoes, "John Carter" can't really be excused by its Disney label and tween-targeting. That first twenty minutes or so are aggressively humorless, with little of the playfulness of Stanton's earlier work (the escape jump-cuts as Bryan Cranston interrogates Carter are a nice idea, but only half-work in execution). From then on, we get some humor aimed at the kids (Woola for instance), but the palace politics of the Barsoomians is dry and dull. The broad adventuring is the stuff of pulp fiction, but the violence is surprisingly brutal -- from that grim action sequence against the Tharks, intersposed with flashbacks of the murder of Carter's family, to decapitations and Carter cutting his way through the body of a white ape, emerging covered in blue blood. We're not saying that it's inappropriate (if you think kids don't like seeing gore, you don't know kids), or that genre-hopping can't work. But Stanton needed to pick a side.