The concept of an infinite number of universes parallel to our own has some vague scientific backing behind it, but is mostly just fun to consider without presuming there’s any real logic involved. If you buy into the theory, then there’s a parallel universe where Dewey did defeat Truman in 1948, where the Buffalo Bills didn’t lose the Super Bowl in 1990 against the New York Giants due to a wide-right field goal, and so on. Thus, there might even be a parallel universe where every aspect of our current one is the same except for one thing: here, John Carter was a success at the box office, not an eternal punchline. It’s been over 2 years since John Carter was released in theaters after decades of development, and it left theaters almost as quickly. Although it was not the most painful flop in recent memory (any movie that grosses nearly $300 million worldwide deserves a tiny bit of credit), and although it has a dedicated subset of fans, John Carter is almost akin to a modern-day Ishtar: a movie known for its financial failure to a wide audience, even if that’s not equal to its creative quality.
The failure of John Carter was, in some respects, preordained; by the time it opened, its director Andrew Stanton was being defined in the media as a mercurial and inappropriately self-obsessed animation auteur who thought working in live-action would bear instant hosannas. A profile in The New Yorker a few months prior to John Carter’s release helped solidify this image, true or not. Plus, Disney’s marketing team didn’t seem to know how to sell the film appropriately, having already forced a title change because they presumed audiences would reject a movie with “Mars” in the title. (It’s safe to assume that audiences are pretty keen on science fiction of all kinds, and have been for a pretty long time, so thinking that the name of a planet in the title would turn people off is baffling still.) Even though the film was based on a hundred-year old story, people looked at the trailers and saw a Star Wars ripoff instead of the opposite. The familiarity of the content, the weak marketing, and the presumption that, unlike his fellow Pixar stalwart Brad Bird, Stanton couldn’t adequately make the jump into live-action all helped sink John Carter.
So why, you may ask, is this film the subject of today’s column? It’s interesting to consider what might have been with John Carter this week specifically, because Andrew Stanton is inviting us to wonder once more. He doesn’t tweet terribly often, but as of late, he’s been tweeting a fair bit about Edgar Rice Burroughs’ character and his own adaptation. A few days ago, he had a slightly melancholic tweet linking to a piece on RogerEbert.com, championing John Carter in a series called “The Unloved.” (It’s worth noting that Stanton linked to the piece when it was originally published on New Year’s Day 2014.) Then, a couple of evenings ago, Stanton tweeted two different posters for what would’ve been the sequels to John Carter: Gods of Mars and Warlord of Mars. So if there’s a question to ask here, it’s not why this column is focusing on the 2012 film this week. It’s to wonder what’s inspired Andrew Stanton to make these mockup posters public at this point.
Stanton had, of course, specified what his hopeful plans were for John Carter sequels back in 2012, in interviews like this one before its release. So while this may not be breaking news, its revival is a little odd. Stanton’s career could’ve been a great deal different had his sci-fi epic succeeded at the box office. Would we still have a Finding Nemo sequel to expect in 2016 if Stanton wasn’t the one directing? On one hand, Pixar is no stranger to sequels, and all of their current sequels aren’t tied to auteur-driven projects. What’s more, we have a third Cars and second Incredibles to prepare for in the years to come. But, for the moment, we don’t know how involved Brad Bird will be in The Incredibles 2 aside from apparently writing the script. No director has been announced, but one hopes it’ll be Bird, if only because this specific world is his more than it’s Pixar’s. To date, it remains the only Pixar film written and directed by the same person, instead of having multiple writers or directors. If Brad Bird, then, is the reigning auteur at Pixar, Andrew Stanton is arguably right behind him. Finding Nemo was famously inspired by Stanton’s own fears of how he behaved as a father, and WALL-E feels more specifically a representation of his ethos as a filmmaker in spite of having a couple of other writers attached. Frankly, even though he’s not currently credited with the script for Finding Dory, it’s hard to imagine that he won’t filter that film through his creative mentality.
But the flip side is the general perception of what Finding Dory represents for Andrew Stanton as a filmmaker. If Brad Bird doesn’t end up directing The Incredibles 2, it may be disappointing, but it won’t be terribly surprising. A few months before John Carter, as is well known, he directed his first live-action film, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, which was not only a huge financial success, but one of the best action films of the past decade. (Some, including this writer, would even argue it’s the best of the Mission: Impossible franchise.) Bird channeled all the goodwill from Ghost Protocol—even as some of that positivity seemed to revolve around people’s shock that a director of animated films could do an equally excellent job in live-action, which isn’t that shocking—into his next project, the upcoming Disney film Tomorrowland, starring none other than George Clooney. Bird’s live-action career is soaring where Stanton’s has been put on an indefinite hiatus. And so, people have presumed (accurately or not) that Andrew Stanton directing a sequel to Finding Nemo is the equivalent of going back to lick his wounds in a safe place.
We’re still two years away from the release of Finding Dory, which may end up being successful enough that Disney or another studio would reconsider letting Stanton get behind the camera of a live-action would-be blockbuster. But John Carter is clearly hard to shake, both for Stanton and for the passionate if not large legion of fans who have made groups online attempting to convince the Disney monolith to spring for that Gods of Mars sequel. One could argue that Stanton keeps bringing up the would-be follow-ups less because he believes in the project and more because he just wants to stoke the flames of fan-based anticipation. But the tone of his recent tweets falls very much in line with his attitude ever since John Carter opened with a middling opening weekend at the box office. (Though as one box-office website pointed out, it actually grossed more money in its first 3 days than the opening weekend of Edge of Tomorrow, the new Tom Cruise sci-fi film that’s garnered a louder and more positive critical consensus.) It’s not a huge leap to read a tone of glumness into Stanton’s tweets unveiling the posters for his pipe-dream sequels to John Carter, a message of “Oh, what could have been.” The same goes for his other prevailing message, when highlighting praise: “You get what I was trying to do.”
Granted, the idea that only a select few people truly understood the purpose behind John Carter makes it seem like Stanton’s film is more instantly alienating or difficult to crack than it really was. (And, to be clear, this writer enjoyed the film just fine.) John Carter is a big, messy, emotional, visceral film with moments of true wonder and excitement; however, anyone who approached the film and walked away with distaste didn’t automatically do so because they didn’t “get” it. It may be presumptive, but when Stanton voices these comments—and he does so every now and again on Twitter—one wonders if he’s doing so simply because he’s justifiably annoyed at how disastrous Hollywood, the media, and members of the public have treated the film. That much is, frankly, true: there was a sense of schadenfreude surrounding John Carter, and so its failure was a foregone conclusion. If Stanton was bitter about that, it’s easy to see why.
Still, it’s fascinating to see that he (publicly) hasn’t been able to let go of the project even as he’s moved onto something that will arguably be far more anticipated and, likely, successful. Outside of the basic synopsis as well as some of the cast members, we don’t know much yet about Finding Dory. But unless there’s turmoil on the production, it’s almost certainly in full swing as Stanton and Pixar’s animators attempt to bring back the joy and thrill of Finding Nemo into its follow-up. That he’s thinking, even for a brief moment (and not so brief that it’s not immortalized online for all to see), about a different world and a different sequel is, at least, a bit strange. If he had nothing else on his plate, if nothing else could distract him, maybe it would make more sense for Andrew Stanton to pine once more to return to Barsoom.
As it stands, a John Carter sequel is roughly as improbable as someone being struck by lightning twice in one day. (Or, if you like, as improbable as being transported to Mars, today or on any other day.) In spite of its tiny but fierce group of fans, it’s not as if a crowd-funded sequel is even remotely possible, even as Stanton and even Taylor Kitsch tease how “awesome” it would’ve been. (Please note, though, that the writer of that article evinces the same kind of smug tone people had towards the first film well before it was released. Just as Stanton can’t let go of what could’ve been, so too does the media refuse to let us forget how bad they believed John Carter was.) Andrew Stanton has, ostensibly, moved onto another project, returning to Pixar after a few years away in the world of aliens. In some ways, his story has paralleled that of his version of John Carter: a man transported to a fascinating, scary, and thrilling environment filled with the impossible, only to be yanked out unceremoniously just when things were going his way. John Carter, at least, gets to return to Barsoom by the film’s end; one wonders how badly Andrew Stanton would like to return as well, if only he had the chance.