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Blaugust 2023, Day 5: Belly Up To The Low Barsoom

No cold open. Because things are about to get hot in here. Hot with YELLING.

FOR SOME REASON THE SCREENSHOT DID NOT SAVE, so you will have to take my word–rely upon the strength of the Bageler’s Bond™️–that it was #7.

#7: What piece of content would you
most like to have a sequel or reboot?

Oh I’ve got so many answers in so many mediums–you bet your ass I’d figure out how to reboot a book–but for the sake of simplicity I’ll adhere to Pharod’s Razor1 and go with the property whose failure baffles me most, which was SUCH a slam-dunk waiting to happen that all they had to do was tap the ball like they were burping a baby frog2, but which was still a catastrophic disaster: 2012’s John Carter.

Huh wow what a neat logo wonder why we didn’t see that used more, I wonder if the Bageler is gonna yell anything about that for half a fucking page

I have always, always been the guy who reads some half-forgotten old garbage and makes it is whole deal for a while3, and it was no different when I cracked open a volume containing the first three Barsoom novels while making lazy behind my Blockbuster counter in 2010 or so, I think after the announcement of the movie but well before its release. Anyway it was tough to get me to talk about much that didn’t happen on Mars (CALLED BARSOOM, OR “EIGHT-WORLD”, FOR IT IS THE EIGHTH CELESTIAL BODY FROM THE SUN IN THE MARTIAN RECKONING, WHICH INCLUDES BOTH PLANETS AND THEIR MOONS) for the next few months; using Tars Tarkas and Woolla for my pals4 and Deja Thoris for She Who Was Then My Girlfriend in my phone, peppering my speech with Martianisms5, and generally being a big ol’ nerdlinger for that Red Dusty Boi.

The picture came out, and my mate Thony and I went to see it6, and it was…goooood? Good. G-it’s good! It’s a good mov–it’s fine, it–it has problems, but it sincerely has so much heart and so many amazing pieces that just didn’t come together quite right due, mostly, to Executive Meddling. Damn the Mouse, man.

Okay what’d they do wrong, and
how would you fix it, smart guy?

First of all? Fuck you, I’m dumb as hell and I’m still the most fun you’re gonna have hearing about a book from 1903 today.

Fix #1: Actually mention the coolest,
weirdest thing about John Carter

“But wait,” I hear you cry, “but he goes to Mars! That’s gotta be the coolest thing about him, right? What else–his last name is OF MARS!” It sure is, citizen! Also here’s the very first paragraph of the very first book:

I am a very old man; how old I do not know. Possibly I am a hundred, possibly more; but I cannot tell because I have never aged as other men, nor do I remember any childhood. So far as I can recollect I have always been a man, a man of about thirty. I appear today as I did forty years and more ago, and yet I feel that I cannot go on living forever; that some day I shall die the real death from which there is no resurrection. I do not know why I should fear death, I who have died twice and am still alive; but yet I have the same horror of it as you who have never died, and it is because of this terror of death, I believe, that I am so convinced of my mortality.

A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs

Yes: JOHN CARTER IS AN AGELESS, RESURRECTIVE IMMORTAL. Have you ever heard this mentioned in any discussion of this admittedly relatively obscure cornerstone of early sci-fi? I submit that you have probably not, and that fact is fucking bananas. In the novel, Carter dies (as apparently is his occasional custom) in what is MAYBE a Magic Native American Cave, which zoops him (His mind? Soul? Unclear.) over to Mars and into a very human body identical to the one he left behind. How? Why? Unimportant because knock knock who’s there it is time for swordfights and sandals, in which he DESTROYS an entire battalion singlehandedly due to Mars’ lower gravity, which gives him super strength and long-distance jumping-ability. (And for those of you manga and anime fans keeping track, yes, as far as I’m concerned this means that these books are an isekai series and John Carter is an OP Gary Stu.)

The movie ignores this–and like look, I get why it seemed like an extraneous hat on top of a hat that was already pretty overloaded–and inadvertently changes the entire nature of the situation; Movie-Carter is just A Guy (though admittedly one with a pretty compelling backstory), which means his world isn’t a huge one full of mysteries and immortals and ancient connections between worlds, he’s just a chump who died in the right cave, and that’s just an inherently less interesting world.

Fix #2: Address the biggest yikes in the series

Soooo the immortal thing goes hand-in-hand with him being drawn time and again into soldiering; it’s what he’s good at, it’s what he enjoys, and historically the war-well doesn’t dry up. The problem is that these books were written within living memory of the Civil War, and John Carter was a captain in the Virginian army; for non-Americans or Americans who went to American schools, Virginia seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy to preserve slavery (don’t fucking start with me it’s in their honorless Declaration of Causes of Secession), and then West Virginia seceded from Virginia in order to re-join the Union.
This means that John Carter was a Confederate traitor and moral coward, and indeed admits to being a slaver, although he claims he was One Of The Good Ones and always treated them kindly, which was apparently all you had to say when there was a chance your book would be read by a grumpy racist grandpa with a grudge and a gun.

Gross and disappointing! But luckily maybe the easiest fix on this list: if John Carter is immortal and is habitually drawn to soldiery, that means he’s familiar with slavery (a depressingly common weapon of war historically, along with others we won’t be going into), and if he isn’t a fucking candy-ass racist he’ll understand that slavery is inherently evil, especially in the chattel form invented in Europe and refined in America (and South Africa), where enslaved persons are treated as property and not persons. Hell, he’d probably have been a slave a few times prior to the most recent system, and that is the perfect basis for John Carter to have undertaken an eternal, one-man crusade against the institution of slavery throughout history. (Subtle? Fuck no, but we know what happens when you try to give racists nuance and subtlety: you give them an inch and they take a country.) The fact that he was a slaver and Confederate pissant is relevant to his circumstances but not really his character; the book makes it pretty clear that he’s in that army because he lived in Virginia and then Virginia went to war, not because he’s especially passionate about destroying human souls by the denial of their humanity and liberty, and that doesn’t excuse shit but it does mean you could change it without altering his nature in any meaningful way.

Fix #3: Let the story be what it is

Earlier I implied that this movie was subject to and suffered from more Grade-A Meddlin’ than a Scooby-Doo villain (or a severely underrated Pink Floyd record), and if anything I sugarcoated it: my beloved tchotchkes, they couldn’t even land on what to call it until after post-production and most of the promo materials had already been made.7

The first novel is called A Princess of Mars, and indeed the titular Dejah Thoris, Princess of the City of Helium, is a major player and Badass Princess par excellence, and the book is named after her because yes, she needs to be saved by John Carter, not because she’s a woman, but because she’s waging a war in which she’s a key political leader and prize, and John is a walking army of one. It’s kinda like how Dr. Strangelove himself plays a key role but is onscreen for I think less than ten total minutes of Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.
The problem is that Disney feared that the word ‘Princess’ in the title would be box-office poison with the entire male child demographic (in fairness, possibly not a baseless fear, but the lads can surprise you), and decided pretty early on to call the picture John Carter of Mars, which is frequently used as a catch-all for the series because nobody knows what the fuck ‘Barsoom’ is unless they’ve already read the book, and it’s a good foundation to build a possible franchise on, so all in all a reasonable move. That’s the title they built their marketing campaign around, and even created a shockingly powerful and iconic logo for the property as a whole:

I will literally PayPal $10 American to whoever can tell me who designed this logo, because I’ve spent most of this Righteous Gemstones trying to find out

God that logo is just the bunny’s buttons. I’m getting that tattooed, let the Burroughs Estate come after me, I’ll still be doing more with the property than they are. Anyway, then the Mouse got nervous again because historically speaking “Mars”-centric titles have bombed catastrophically with the all-important little girl demographic, and at the last second they dropped the Of Mars, leaving them with a bunch of exquisite merch and promo material they couldn’t use, and forcing them to cobble together what is famously one of the most slapdash and financially disastrous advertising campaigns in history. So we ended up with a movie that sounded like nothing to nobody; people who hadn’t read the books had no way of knowing who the hell a nondescript “John Carter” was or why they should care, and Barsoomo-Wrestlers would think surely if it was John Carter of MARS they would’ve said so, and as a result it no one saw it but me and Thony.

The mistake made here is always among the most fatal possible: they didn’t give the audience enough credit, and they paid through the nose and wasted years of work on a movie whose constituent parts are of the highest possible quality:

The number of names to totally wig your shit out about on that list is EQUAL TO THE NUMBER OF NAMES ON THE LIST; for me the kicker is Michael Giacchino, one of my personal favorite composers whose scores you might most prominently remember from Lost and The Batman.

I could go on, but this is long enough already and we do not have the time for all of my yells on this topic, but thank you for joining me. And if you were the third person in that theater with Thony and I: I am not sorry for how much we yelled about Woolla, he was and remains the best six-legged Mars-doggo, my only regret is not yelling more and louder.

–The Bageler

She had means, I don’t need to say it
She had dreams I was only in the way of

  1. “There’s no need to remake something that was good the first time”. Remakes are best saved for things that could’ve, should’ve, or would’ve been good but couldn’t reach their full potential. We didn’t need a reboot of Jurassic Park because it’s perfect and will age better than almost any movie ever made; it did everything right the first time, so there would be nothing for a new version to say or do. ↩︎
  3. Which is why I never shut up about a Rabbi who solves crimes and a reporter who causes them, both from the 70’s and I think both thrift-store finds ↩︎
  4. Yep, both of ’em ↩︎
  5. I have been assured that everyone loved this ↩︎
  6. OR DID WE? This is an ongoing argument in our friendship; he insists this was the first movie we saw together, but I remember it being the regrettable Green Lantern. THE FIGHTING CONTINUES, usually in the form of gifts, like the luxe as fuck collection of the first five John Carter books with an incredibly passive-aggressive inscription he gave me when I moved to Arizona ↩︎
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