‘John Carter’ gets a poster, but what movie is it trying to sell?

“John Carter” might technically qualify as the “longest-in-development” movie of all time.  They’ve been trying to make a film version of the Edgar Rice Burroughs character since the very beginning of the film industry, and yet, for myriad reasons, the film that comes out next year represents the very first onscreen vision of the character and the world he lives in.  Considering next year is also the 100th anniversary of the creation of John Carter, that seems astounding to me.

During the era where Harry Knowles was working to produce a version of the film with a round-robin of directors including Jon Favreau, Kerry Conran, and Robert Rodriguez, I watched a lot of the work they were doing, including production art and concept work, and the one thing that was obvious no matter who was in charge was that Barsoom and the world of John Carter is a rich feast for the right filmmaker, and it’s all a matter of how you choose to embrace all the opportunities laid out by Burroughs in the first place.

There was a day last year where I was on the Disney lot for a “TRON: Legacy” press event, and the entire time we were talking to Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis, we were sitting in a room where the walls were absolutely papered with production art for “John Carter,” and I had trouble paying attention to the reason we were there.  I’ve been so curious about this film not only because of the source material, but because director Andrew Stanton is making the jump to live-action here, and considering his track record so far with Pixar, that’s exciting.

Having said all of that, the poster premiere for “John Carter” almost completely deflated by enthusiasm, no easy feat.  I think people are almost preposterously invested in marketing materials, and I watch some people on Twitter or Facebook or their own sites who go from hot to cold on films from commercial to commercial.  “Well, that was a good commercial.  Okay, I’m interested.  Wait, that commercial wasn’t as good.  Nope.  I won’t see this.  Hmm, that new poster may have changed my mind.  I’ll see it.  Oh, hold on, there was a sign on the side of a bus that I didn’t like at all.  I will NEVER SEE THIS MOVIE.”  it’s like a Mexican soap opera with each new piece of art.  Even so, this poster seems to me to be such an amazing misstep that I almost don’t know what to say about it.  Look at this and tell me what you think this film is about:

If that was fan art, I would call it bad fan art.  And yet that’s a real poster that will really appear in real theaters to advertise a real movie that Disney hopes will make real money.  That baffles me.  You’ve got a huge world with aliens and monsters and space ships and sword battles and mostly-nekkid Mars ladies, and you choose to sell the movie with a picture of a guy who I vaguely recognize glowering at me in black-and-white behind some letters I don’t understand.

I know Disney was never going to sell this using a piece of Frazetta van art from the ’70s, and the argument has been made that selling pulp in the 21st century is not an easy thing.  Even so, this poster doesn’t hint at genre or story or setting or anything else.  I don’t think the character has enough mainstream recognition right now to just let his name speak for him, and dropping “Of Mars” from the title was just the first step in stripping this down to a confusing degree.

There’s a good interview with Stanton over at Hero Complex today, and it includes some new production art.  I read what Stanton has to say, and it sounds to me like a guy who absolutely gets the material and will deliver a great version of it for the audience.  But when I see how Disney is kicking off their campaign, I just don’t get it.  I’m not even angry about it, because I don’t understand the choices they’re making.  I’ll put the question to you… when you look at that poster, what does it say to you?  Is there anything about that which makes you want to see the movie, or that even communicates what movie it is that they want you to come and see?

“John Carter” will open March 9, 2012.