a tale of two flops: the lone ranger and john carter (part 2)

Like The Lone Ranger, John Carter is a long-running narrative bookended by a framing story. In this case, the frame involves weary Confederate officer John Carter who apparently dies, leaving behind a journal for his nephew and heir (named Edgar Rice Burroughs, in a metafictional twist) to read. Along with the journal come instructions to keep watch over a tomb that can only be unlocked from the inside. From this, the film launches into its main tale of a man thrust onto the alien world of Mars where he finds himself embroiled with the Tharks, the planet’s four-armed native Martians and, later, in the middle of a civil war between two rival city-states. His Earth physiology gives him an advantaged of strength and speed in the Martian environment, making him a coveted player in the war’s machinations.

Directed by Andrew Stanton, the film is beautiful designed and presented, with all the majesty of an epic story. The good news is that unlike many other films that feature white protagonists wading into “alien” environments (such as Avatar), John Carter successfully avoids the trap of colonialist condescension. The hero might be pivotal in the plot’s balance of power, even idolized in some cases, but he is never deifiedThe Lone Ranger, the stand-ins for aboriginal cultures in John Carter (the aforementioned Tharks) are presented with a complexity that evokes admiration and bafflement in various degrees, both of which play into a nuanced and ultimately respectful cultural portrait. All in all, John Carter comes across like fantasy role-playing.
into a Messianic character. And unlike Native Americans in

So it’s not subtext or conceptualization that weighs John Carter down on Earth, but rather a struggle with the elements of craft. The film runs long at 132 minutes, which gives us enough time to appreciate the gorgeous production design but nevertheless can’t accommodate all the plot stuffed into the narrative by an overly ambitious script. Where John Carter should feel like a brisk pulp adventure, it feels instead like a languid travelogue from a guide who keeps on schedule by giving only the most rudimentary lessons on culture and history. The lead, Taylor Kitsch, isn’t a particular asset either. His generic appeal is just good enough for the material, not rousingly charismatic as one would hope from a heroic pulp adventurer. Less  to no framing story, and more (but zippier) time spent with the core narrative would have elevated the film to the exhilarating altitude this sort of epic calls for.

In the balance, John Carter’s shortcomings are the sort to differentiate a good film from a great one. It’s a good-enough film to tease the imagination, with enough fun in it to wish for the series to continue with a few relatively minor course-corrections. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen for reasons having to do with Hollywood economics. Nevertheless, unlike The Lone Ranger which is a fundamentally flawed film from conception to execution, John Carter has enough charm and substance to make it worth keeping in mind.


a tale of two flops: the lone ranger and john carter (part 1)

Disney’s aspiring blockbuster franchises John Carter and The Lone Ranger are generally dismissed as flops on account of failing to satisfy critics and, most importantly, the all-powerful Box Office. Finding only some sort of lingering life in rentals since their theatrical release, they failed to ignite fandom in spite of each proto-franchise having significant cultural cachet. So what happened? Were the films essential flops or merely victims of marketing hype? The answer, of course, is both…but not to the same degree in each film.

Let’s start with the Wild West. It’s not until the intricately choreographed climactic confrontation on fast-moving trains that The Lone Ranger achieves the buoyant irony-free mood of a heroic adventure. Of all the film’s action set pieces, Verbinsky’s directorial wit shines best in this sequence, naturally set to the tune of the William Tell Overture. Everything that precedes and follows it, however, is a tonally inconsistent narrative that understandably alienates the generations who grew up with the legendary character and fails to impress a new generation of potential fans.

Some of the film’s sour atmosphere emerges from elements like a needlessly gruesome villain, Cavendish, whose cannibalism feels like a cheap shortcut to establish the character’s malevolence. Granted, audiences seem to prefer the directness of horror to the subtlety of terror, but can’t it be enough for a character to be a murderer and thief? Are we so jaded that storytellers have to resort to lurid gimmicks? Forget the expression “jumping the shark” as a shorthand for derailing into nonsense. I propose “eating the heart” instead.

Supernatural overtones, even as the product of an unreliable narrator’s interpretation of events, are similarly contrived. Layering the supernatural onto Cavendish whom Tonto perceives as a Wendigo and John Reid, whose path to becoming the Lone Ranger is associated with a mystical white horse, comes across as a stunt to add sparkle to a mundane plot. At least with Pirates of the Caribbean, the fantasy elements played into a deliberate embrace of exuberant excess.

This is by no means the worse of the script’s tendency to overcomplicate its narrative to the point of unraveling the film. Not content with a simple origin story, a comic element is added by conceiving John Reid as a bumbling city slicker who has to grow, with Tonto’s aid, into the role of heroic masked ranger.  A story rooted in the blurring line between personal revenge and genuine justice, as John is prompted to avenge his brother’s grisly death at Cavendish’s hands, is magnified by a larger plot involving that perennial Wild West villain, the megalomaniacal railroad company executive. And all of that is presented through a framing story in which an aged Tonto tells the story to an enthralled but skeptical young boy, a device that injects uncertainty into the narrative on account of Tonto’s  questionable reliability. It’s all too much, and the film groans with the juxtaposition of narrative themes, storytelling gimmicks, and ideas of all kinds.

Astonishingly, narrative bloat isn’t the film’s greatest shortcoming. As Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End proved, a film can be marvelously entertaining even as it falls apart from the attempt to cram too much into it. Rather, it is the film’s treatment of Native Americans in general and Tonto in particular that makes it a source of queasiness. The good news is that Native Americans aren’t presented as savages in need of civilization, or with the condescending reverence typically deployed in an attempt to counteract negative stereotypes. Yet their role in the film is arguably just as problematic: they serve as victims for the slaughter and, by extension, objects of pity. While the genocidal campaign against Native Americans is a decisive facet of early American life, surely this isn’t the only defining aspect of a people.

Similarly, while I have no objection to the use of tragedy to propel a character forward, as the film does with Tonto, I do question the filmmakers’ conception of the character. In the main narrative, he is portrayed as eccentric and unhinged, but is simultaneously too tragic to be comic relief and too quirky to be dramatically authentic. In other words, this is character that lacks dignity, being alternative a source of amusement and a source of pity. The framing story is even less charitable, presenting us with an old man displaced from this culture and reduced to a prop in a travelling exhibit. Despondent and doddering, with an uncertain relationship to reality, this Tonto merely evokes sadness. What the heck kind of movie is The Lone Ranger, then, that leaves audiences with a downer?

Next up: John Carter


identity, equality, humanity; how social roles restrict us (at TFPO)

Review of Gender & Sexuality for Beginners ... written by Jaimee Garbacik and illustrated by Jeffrey Lewis, examines arguably the most fundamental manifestation of identity politics. Much like Greek Mythology for Beginners, the book is formatted less like a comic book and more like an illustrated text – and a fairly dense one at that. The graphic design would have better benefited readers with a cleaner, more spacious layout. Nevertheless, the book’s well-researched and documented examination of gender construction and sexual orientation is first-rate.