Over the course of Christmas Day, I was watching movies with my family. And by some chance, we decided to cover a double feature of two recent science fiction blockbusters, namely Guardian of the Galaxy and John Carter. I had seen both before (in fact, I wrote my thoughts about Guardians here), but watching them back-to-back gave me a reason to compare and contrast the two.
Obviously, the two films enjoyed vastly different levels of success. While Guardians just became the highest grossing film of the year, John Carter barely made back its budget, likely ending any chance at a franchise. What exactly caused such a
Well, there probably isn’t one simple answer. Or rather, there is: Guardians is just a better victory overall. But that’s not too helpful unless we break it down into the minutiae. And while there are several reasons that Guardians is better, I’d like to focus specifically on one specific storytelling aspect.
Both movies require setting up elaborate and unfamiliar worlds far across the galaxy. But Guardians of the Galaxy does a much better job at setting up its universe, which in turn allows audience members to care about this unfamiliar world much more quickly. That was one of my biggest problems with John Carter the first time I watched it: I had trouble getting into it because I had little idea of what was going on. Once the story gets going, you become invested, but it takes a while to get that far along.
The straight-forwardness was something that I praise Guardians for the first time I saw it. For example, let’s look at the main characters’ introductions. As Starlord comes on-screen following the title screen (following a pretty intuitive scene of young him on Earth), we see him exploring a desolate planet. We quickly find that he is hunting for a treasure, with the intent to sell it and not get caught by Korath. Simple enough.
We go next to Ronan’s ship, which establishes Ronan as a murderous lunatic with a desire to kill Xandarians. Meanwhile, we find out that he wants the orb Peter Quill found, and that his assassin Gamora will be tasked with retrieving it.
Cut to Rocket and Groot on Xandar. They loiter in the town square when they see a bounty come in on Quill’s head. And so it continues. I could go on about the characterization and such going on in each scene, but on the basic plot-conflict level, none of this too confusing. The ideas in play are all pretty common and understandable on some level. The only deception going on is Gamora’s plan to betray Ronan, but she admits to that right away. These simple ideas allow us more time to reflect on other things in play, like the complex universe, bizarre worlds, and alien politics in play, or the traits of the characters that we will be focusing on.
Now, compare this with John Carter. We begin with a voice over explaining the conflict between Helium and Zodanga. Then, suddenly, mysterious third party aliens intervene, killing all but one Martian (which side this one is on isn’t made clear) and giving him a…weapon? It’s not totally clear. Then, the movie follows that by showing us that the main character has mysteriously died, with the promise of more explanation to come to flesh out what happened. All fine so far, even if it is a little confusing to start after the death of the title character.
After an incident with American troops and the Apache tribe, we’re more or less told that John wants to be left alone, to search for treasure in peace and sort through his personal issues. Then, all of a sudden, John winds up on Mars (still following) where he is found by…a fourth tribe of aliens (the Tharks), unrelated to the two nearly-identical warring ones (which is itself a bit of a problem) and the intervening third ones in the intro. On top of being the fourth civilization on Mars that we’ve seen, these ones actually have a very alien culture and language, which just throws us for a loop longer. We find the chief, Tars, very quickly, then we see him interact with another, Sola, in a very peculiar way, then see a third, Tal, challenge him, and all the while, they’re discussing what to do with John in an alien language needing subtitles.
Eventually, the solution is…John Carter magically becomes able to learn the language and things are explained to him. I feel like this is sort of emblematic of what’s going on; the movie beats around the bush a little, obfuscates things to create a little mystery, then finally caves and just explains what’s going on. Look at the main characters’ goals: John wants gold…but later we find he’s just looking for a cause. Helium Princess Dejah wants peace between Helium and Zodanga, and is set to unwillingly marry antagonist and Zodangan leader Sab Than (who was the chosen survivor from the intro, we later find) for it…but she doesn’t want to…because she doesn’t trust him (these are two separate reveals). Sab wants to rule Mars and will do it by marrying Dejah…but actually, he’s just going to kill her and restart the war, because the Therns told him? Actually, the Therns are a whole other mess, as we don’t really know anything about them until halfway through the movie, even though we see that they are super powerful and manipulating things behind the scenes right from the start. Then there’s the Tharks, who have their own storyline going on; chief (or “Jeddak”, as the film calls rulers) Tars wants to avoid war, be a good ruler, spare a clumsy Thark…who it turns out is his daughter too, and also he had some reason for saving John when the rest of the tribe wanted to kill him to be safe.
Reading all of that, it sounds like it’s really confusing. And it is; that’s the problem. When you know what’s going on, it’s kind of straightforward. But the first time you see it, it can be overwhelming, getting all these alien cultures and characters and trying to guess what each one is hiding. Add that with a little bit of a slow start, pacing-wise: we start with about five minutes introducing the framing device, then another ten setting up John in the Old West searching for gold and avoiding being conscripted by American troops and in a chase scene with troops and Native Americans, and both plotlines that are more or less dropped until the very end of the movie as soon as we get to Mars, which is, again, something like fifteen minutes into a 132 minute picture.
And that’s sort of what kills the momentum in John Carter, compared to Guardians of the Galaxy. Guardians introduces it’s characters without interrupting the story in play, doesn’t linger on “mysteries” for every character, and lets us absorb the alien worlds. John Carter drops alien worlds and a host of characters with more going on than they’re letting on all at once, after taking fifteen minutes to even get to most of it. If you can get through that, it’s a good movie. But it’s crucial not to kill audience interest before you get to that point. Don’t spend fifteen minutes messing around with something that won’t be relevant the rest of the movie. Don’t introduce characters, then sit on the information about what’s motivating all of them for twenty or thirty minutes. Curiosity and a sense of wonder can only carry us so far before people start to give up, and for some people, that’s a lot sooner than for others.
This isn’t to say that a movie would have to show all of its cards up front. There’s a time and place for that. But you have to balance holding back on information with making viewers feel like they’re still involved with what’s occurring. And when your story deals with a lot of different aliens and planets and such, that just more information you have to balance. Because at a certain point, if people don’t feel like they adequately understand the story or what the payoffs of investing in it will be, they sort of give up. Guardians understood this much better overall.