There were a whole host of problems with Disney’s quarter-billion-dollar bellyflop John Carter, but my biggest issue with the movie went deeper than the goony visual effects and the nonsensically overcomplicated mythology. Put simply, the movie suffered from Origin Overdose. Now, the whole notion of an Origin Story is so dear to the hearts of geeks everywhere that it’s easy to overlook a simple truism: Without fail, a hero’s origin story is the absolute least interesting thing about them. It’s the story of a hero before they become a hero – which is to say, the story of an interesting person before they become interesting.
It helps to compare the difference between Taylor Kitsch’s John Carter and his literary namesake. In Edgar Rice Burroughs’ glorious pulp novel A Princess of Mars, Carter is literally a man without a past – there are intimations that he might be some sort of immortal, and he doesn’t even seem to know much about his own history. He’s not a particularly deep character – his most well-defined character traits are “general awesomeness” and a tendency to speechify – but part of what makes that sort of story fun is that characters are defined by action. Conversely, the movie version of John Carter comes weighted with a backstory straight out of the Modern Manic Depressive’s handbook. He fought in the Civil war. His wife and child were killed. When we meet him, he has a sad-hipster beard. When he gets to Mars, he spends the entire movie trying not to be a hero, because he’s sad or something. (Origin Stories always turn even the mightiest heroes into emo kids.)
John Carter openly apes the cinema of John Ford, but Ford preferred his heroes to have a little mystery. Part of the problem with contemporary blockbuster’s fascination with origin stories is that they remove any mystery from the equation. Just look at X-Men Origins – Wolverine, a film which kicked off by presenting one of the most badass comic book characters in history as a kid with his hands in the air screaming “Noooooo!” after killing his secret father. Wolverine literalizes the biggest problem with the Origin Story: By focusing on the titular hero before he got amnesia, it’s not so much a movie about Wolverine as it is a movie about the boring guy Wolverine was before he lost his memory.
Of course, Wolverine brings up the more cynical aspect of an Origin Story movie: It’s almost always a pilot for a franchise, which means all the really fun stuff gets held back for the sequel. John Carter is particularly guilty of this sin – it only really reveals the main antagonist halfway through the movie, and then forestalls any actual showdown with that antagonist for a sequel that would presumably be named John Carter 2: Vroom Vroom Barsoom. Now that the movie’s a flop, a sequel seems unlikely. What do you call an origin without a story to follow it up?
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