I’m almost ashamed to admit it but I saw Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance in the theaters a couple weeks before seeing John Carter. Turns out it was the best decision, not necessarily of my life but for my movie going pleasure. This was so monumental because it gives you tons of perspective about not really caring about a studio’s motivation.
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012) was directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor for Columbia Pictures. Based on the Marvel Comic, the story was written by David S. Goyer and the screenplay by Scott M. Gimple, Seth Hoffman and David S. Goyer. The film stars Nicolas Cage, Ciarán Hinds, Violante Placido, Johnny Whitworth, Christopher Lambert and Idris Elba.
This is what the movie’s facebook page said: “Nicolas Cage reprises his role as Johnny Blaze in Ghost Rider™ Spirit of Vengeance. In this gritty new vision for the character, directed by Neveldine/Taylor (Crank), Johnny is still struggling with his curse as the devil’s bounty hunter – but he may risk everything as he teams up with the leader of a group of rebel monks (Idris Elba) to save a young boy from the devil… and possibly rid himself of his curse forever.”
John Carter (2012) was directed by Andrew Stanton for Walt Disney Pictures. Based on the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the screenplay was co-written by Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon. The film stars Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciarán Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, and Willem Dafoe.
This is what the Disney site had to say about their movie: “From filmmaker Andrew Stanton comes John Carter - a sweeping action-adventure set on the mysterious and exotic planet of Barsoom (Mars). John Carter is based on a classic novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose highly imaginative adventures served as inspiration for many filmmakers, both past and present. The film tells the story of war-weary, former military captain John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who is inexplicably transported to Mars where he becomes reluctantly embroiled in a conflict of epic proportions amongst the inhabitants of the planet, including Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) and the captivating Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). In a world on the brink of collapse, Carter rediscovers his humanity when he realizes that the survival of Barsoom and its people rests in his hands.”
—Yay! Kiss…Purr~ Moment
Definitely Idris Elba! I first saw him as the title role of Detective John Luther in the BBC television show Luther. (I have never seen The Wire.) When I saw he was in this movie I thought wow, someone has good taste and as such surely the entire movie is in such good taste…unfortunately not a great assumption. Still Idris Elba rocked this role and I’d still see anything he stars in.
I really enjoyed the world, the really great character driven story, the Tharks represented so well by Willem Dafoe and how it all came together. I loved most of the jumping scenes: when he first came to the planet and couldn’t walk and when he bopped around the space ships. This ability was rather unique and really helped define the character for me.
—Pro and Cons: A Review
I really went and saw Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance because of my brother. He talked about wanting to see it and since it’s so hard to get him to like anything I jumped on board when I found out about Idris Elba.
I don’t hate Nicolas Cage. Yeah his choices have been suspect lately and he’s a little money hungry but not without reason. Yet because of this, as the star, Cage really can’t weigh in on whether you see a movie or not. You have to have some interest in the premise or the character and make your decision from there. Still, much like Willie Nelson, I’d like to support a man who’s in a bit of trouble because he was happy and trusted too easily.
In this role, Cage actually went a long way to make cheesy and campy plot work at least on a certain level. For example, the scene above was to illustrate the eight years since the last movie and how much Blaze still struggled with his Ghost Rider persona. In a way Cage really made this scene believable as you can see the struggle and how it’s made him slightly crazy. But it doesn’t make the eight year time span believable in any way, shape or form. The whole movie was like this, working on one level because of the acting but just not making any story sense.
In the end, you can’t really say Cage is a bad actor, no matter what you think about his choices. He knows how to embody a character and engender immediate character sympathy even if each and every other element of the movie is badly done. Which, in the case of Spirit of Vengeance, isn’t true.
Of course I’m talking in part about Idris Elba! I really enjoyed the character, Moreau. I thought he was well established right from the opening sequence as a wine swilling monk of the world, rather a rogue but on the side of the good and the innocent. His light colored eyes (created by contacts I suspect) contrasted beautifully with the rich color of his skin and the leather jacket he wore. His voice also goes a really long way in contributing to his characters, you know he’s a real man at least he sounds like one.
Actually all the actors worked in their roles really well. Ciarán Hinds returned in his portrayal of the Devil, one in which his human body is failing. Christopher Lambert joined the cast as the head monk for a group out to stop the Devil from gaining a new human shell. Johnny Whitworth shone as new villain, Blackout, and did okay as the dirtbag boyfriend turned mercenary who sells his girlfriend and her child to the Devil. Violante Placido really did a lot to help you sympathize with the kid as the boy’s mother trying to protect her child. And the boy, I really liked him and not just because he was a kid being used badly. Cage went a long way here too because he sympathized with the boy’s plight.
When I say they worked I mean the actors had the abilities needed to have really rocked their characters if said characters had been developed properly with proper roles and story arcs. At heart this movie is rotten from the inside with a shell of candy goodness to try to get us to bite. Actors check, comic book character (in a way taking the place of premise) check, special effects check. The real problem was story. At the heart of every movie is story. The plot was as rotten as Blackout’s cool flesh killing ability.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the plot so much as it’s totally generic. Devil needs body so clones himself by getting a human woman pregnant. Such and such group wants to stop this from happening while Satan worshipers want to help him succeed. If you take out the Ghost Rider aspect, the movie could be called Moreau Fights the Devil as much as a Spirit of Vengeance. We need a story where Ghost Rider and who he is, is essential. I believe looking to the comics for a story line would have been the best way to go about the plot. The most objectionable part of this sequel is that the directors pretended the first movie never happened while simultaneously building on the Johnny Blaze back history. None of the plot really jives well with the plot of the first movie. This acts almost like a reboot of the whole franchise and because of this fails on every story level.
Actors can only take a movie so far. Special effects are great but do not a story make. Moviegoers are actually in the theater for the story, to be captured and taken away to a new place with new people doing new or at least different things. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance needed to take a hard look at itself and see if it was inflicting injury, harm, or humiliation on itself or it’s audience.
I was on the fence about seeing John Carter for the longest time. So many people I read about were planning on not seeing it as if they knew something I didn’t. Finally I read a post by a blogger that said the dialogue is what really soured him on the movie, but he was quick to say everyone should still see it. I really dislike when people complain about dialogue, not that all dialogue is equal but because not all dialogue need be superior. So it was decided and I got my family on board. Amazingly we had the opportunity to see it a lot sooner than I normally would have and so I found myself at the movies.
I went into that theater with perhaps more open-mindedness than a typical movie-goer, in part, because I didn’t think the dialogue was so bad it merited mentioning and on another, more unconscious level, because the last movie I saw was Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. (I’ll get back to that more later.)
I have to start out this review with the stand out character: Tars Tarkas played to maximum effect by Willem Dafoe. I know what you’re thinking: ‘You mean the CGI alien?’ Yes, yes I mean the CGI alien! Not only did I love and adore this character but I really liked the multiple arms and their very brutal horde mentality as a race. I appreciated that Tars had kept this deep, dark secret about his daughter, Sola, whom he should have killed but simply couldn’t and it changed what kind of Thark he became.
One of the challenges for any story is forming a connection between the protagonist and the audience so that they care about what happens. For me, Tars Tarkas supplied the needed emotion for me to connect with John Carter the man. From his Vir-gene-ia misunderstanding of Carter’s name to his demands for the man to show off his jumping abilities to him giving Carter to his daughter to ‘raise’ as her child. He uses every single moment he has on screen to raise Carter one notch higher in my estimation while at the same time making me care for a bunch of heathen aliens that even the humans of the planet don’t bother dragging into their fight.
Tars was not without effect on the plot either. For example, the jumping scene in particular when Carter finally breaks down and uses his abilities. You see right away, through showing, why Tars felt Carter so valuable that he would fight his horde to keep the human around. (Of course, that reason is that he can reach the flying machines of the humans.) There was so much thought put into developing the race: visually, story- and character-wise.
The next stand out element of the movie is Princess Dejah Thoris played by Lynn Collins. I say stand out element because I don’t know that I love her character per se so much as the effect her character and point of view had on the story itself. I do think Lynn Collins is beautiful and princess-like. I really believed her when she fought at times, how she ran away to find another option to save her people and the scientist aspect of her character. So as an actress portraying these elements it really worked.
As a character I felt like she ran away pursuing another option rather randomly without any likely option out there to find. So it’s the accidental nature of her finding Carter as a solution to her troubles that gave me pause about the character. The actress helped immensely with this but it’s one of the few story elements left for us to presume with no real basis. (For example, Princess Leia asked for Obi-Wan’s help through R2-D2 who enlisted, unknown to her, Luke’s help.)
The science aspect of her character was a nice modern touch, she spent so much time researching the 9th ray that she’d become a threat to the Therns. It also made sense to me that she manipulate Carter at some point to try to get him to see her point of view and stay and help them. I did really appreciate what an independent, strong female character she represented. If she wasn’t going to get the help she needed then she’d bite the bullet and go along with what recourse she had. We really need many more such female characters at the side of their male counterpoints in all forms of entertainment media.
Now for my absolutely favorite character…Woola, the lizard-dog Lassie of Mars! Yeah I know you adore him too, don’t you?! I loved how he had a legitimate role as nanny to the baby Tharks and how he ran really fast to protect the baby Carter as he tried to escape. I love the six legs (like all the native creatures of Barsoom he has multiple sets of legs). He played an active role in the plot of the movie (helped Carter escape from the Tharn). I mean wow! When you are going to include an animal in a sci-fi or fantasy story like this, this is how to do it.
Every movie though at heart is a visual medium and it’s in the production and special effects area that John Carter really shines. I’m aware of directors and the part they play in a really well made movie but I don’t tend to follow them with passionate fervor either. In this case I think the director, Andrew Stanton, really warrants mentioning. He did an excellent job homogenizing past sci-fi flicks into a cohesive new look for an alternate Mars. I especially liked that he didn’t try for a red planet sort of look…it makes sense that if we don’t think there’s life on the planet when there really is that perhaps we aren’t seeing things correctly. I had no problem with another desert planet. Besides the correlation to blanket red possibly being sand, there are only so many types of landscapes on a planet and desert is a really easy place to film.
I especially liked how you really didn’t need a lot of the back history explained to you as much of it was shown to you visually. The constantly moving city that was eating the planet alive. The two rival groups of humans illustrated through color (though a little is explained so you understand their are not a massive amount of humans on the planet). From the battle between airships you could see that much like a cannonball would rip through a ship on the high seas, the same is true in the air. So by a small introductory battle we are shown that the planet’s level of technology is certainly on level with still using swords and having a heathen race the mucky mucks think are inferior. When the dichotomy of a weapon existing that can rip apart anything is introduced we clearly know through visuals that all is not in balance on this planet. I think this is where Stanton really excelled in production! In any case Stanton makes a good case for life on Barsoom with air ships instead of water born ships and a planet of dwindling resources slowly dying.
This leads me easily into the best part of the movie for me…the story! Yeah I can really whine and cry about this aspect of a movie. I really get frustrated when the plot doesn’t jive with the characters, their personalities or their motivations. Except for the odd random action by the Princess to advance plot, all the other story elements were supported properly and logically.
I thought it totally plausible that the limit of Carter’s abilities were reached in the arena with that massive chain (as in comparison to the suitably man strength chain that Carter broke easily in the babies’ cave). I thought it a great foreshadow, to worry you, that he might have reached the limit of his jumping abilities when he needed to get from his prison room to the princess’ tower. And in actuality he had but he was close enough for him to make the final jumps.
I loved that the writers utilized Carter’s gravity strengths in such a way to advance the story and give merit to the character. Many modern writers would have shunted aside Burrough’s use of this, citing an old fashioned element to this principle. In reality, it’s just science and the way gravity works and so added a bit of realism to the challenging idea that Mars is habitable.
Coming out of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance at first I totally rationalized seeing the movie and thought ‘oh that wasn’t so bad.’ I talk a ton about how character can overcome a lot of deficiency in a story and how as long as the motivations are solid plot can be given the benefit of the doubt. Just not in the case of this movie. The generic-ness of the plot totally killed everything the actors did to make this movie pop. In writing this post I tried to do some research about the Ghost Rider comics and what I found was a seriously twisted world that made very little sense. You’d have to be a real fan of Ghost Rider it seemed to even be able to make sense of said world.
Still I wanted to see if I could make enough sense of it to come up with a satisfactory premise for a second movie. Wikipedia said this about the Ghost Rider’s enemy Blackout: “A Lilin that worked under Deathwatch that frequently crossed swords with Ghost Rider. After the hero burned him to disfigurement, Blackout learned his secret identity and began killing his loved ones and acquaintances.” Wow! So much better than what we got in the movie. Which the same passage goes on the mention: “Blackout appears as a henchman of Satan in the 2012 film Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.” See how much more generic that sounds by comparison? Yeah I know! Why’d they do that? Laziness I suspect. So Blackout was a great choice of villain to contend with on some level just not the lowly one executed (mercenary turned to complete the Devil’s mission).
Seeming a good source for some basic information, here’s what Wikipedia said about the Devil or rather “Mephisto – Johnny Blaze’s Archenemy. A demon that posed as the devil himself to claim Johnny Blaze’s soul. Mephisto is the one responsible for bringing Ghost Rider into Johnny’s life. Ghost Rider, however, is able to resist the evil that overcame him long ago, and is now able to use his powers for good no matter what. Angered, Mephisto sought revenge against Ghost Rider, and now constantly tries to win his creation back.” Here’s the basic premise I was looking for: “Mephisto…now constantly tries to win his creation back.” Makes sense even with the story line of the original movie!
So I didn’t even have to wade far into the Ghost Rider world to find some source material on which to base a new story. My point is that a lot of the story work (which seems not to interest some directors) is done for you when your character has source material. They could have included a newly cast Roxanne Simpson and woven in some of the better Johnny Blaze story line of which there is such a plethora surrounding her character. Source material is such a rich starting point, why not use that history?
I’m sure by now you see that I loved this movie and believe that the naysayers are a bit on the picky and whiny side. That’s their opinion though so to those ends I evaluate five of the most popular complaints with John Carter:
#1 – This seems to be the most prevalent opinion, especially with the male gender (thought not all): Taylor Kitsch sucked.
I had to ponder this idea for a long time even after I saw the movie. When I left the theater I had no problem with him. He seemed to be what he was – a solider who fought a war he didn’t give a whit for, only to come home to a dead, raped and tortured family. (I separated raped from tortured because to burn someone, probably alive is real torture on top of rape!) This stays with you and only things of equal importance will motivate you to action and a princess not getting to marry who she wants is not motivating or important. That said, when I really think about it Carter was not terribly charismatic or hero-like as modern people think male protagonists ought to be like. I think a major proponent of this was the way Carter’s and color was made to look, visually. Take a look at these two photos of Kitsch:
Which one would you rather as a hero? Yeah I know, the Friday Night Light’s character! First the Carter character looks midget-ized because of that upper belt – it needed to go so as not to shorten his trunk area. Second, Carter’s face looks gaunt from that horrid haircut instead of strong and manly. That’s not the reason though…it’s because throughout the movie Kitsch maintained that pinched look on Carter’s face. It wasn’t until the very end that he visually looked happier. From this photo comparison I realized where Kitsch tripped himself up. (And in his defense where the director who counseled him probably tripped him up as well.) Once he hit Barsoom Carter should have gotten happier being caught up in what was happening to him rather than what happened to his family back on earth. Basically out of sight out of mind. Perhaps this sounds harsh but for those movie-goers who didn’t relate to Tars and Tar’s liking of Carter, they needed Carter to show/emote to them why he had such potential.
So while I don’t agree that Kitsch sucked or wasn’t capable I do think there was a slight misstep in the emoting and look of the character. By dropping a belt, cutting his hair in the more flattering but still long haircut (from Friday Night Lights), and leaving behind the pinched look from earth we would have seen a man changed and worth following.
#2 – The next criticism that I didn’t wholly agree with is the dialogue was awful.
Like I said earlier this gets my back up faster than a lot of other criticism. Because I read about this before seeing the movie I listened hard to the dialogue. Sure Carter didn’t have a bunch of catch phrases like “I’ll be back,” “Say hello to my little friend,” or “Yippe-ki-yay, motherf–ker.” He did get across what he needed to say. Personally, I don’t need a character to sling words about as if thrown from the stage but I understand that nowadays it’s those that can that hold modern people’s attention (Like Robert Downey, Jr. in the Sherlock Holmes or Iron Man franchises). So to an extent I get it that no one really had an even mildly worth quotable catch phrase and that many believe dialogue isn’t good until a catch phrase is born.
#3 – The jumping ability, the use of swords and the air ships didn’t jive with a sci-fi adventure or with each other.
I just absolutely, totally, beyond reason disagree with this whole idea! The use of these was actually well supported in the story and the world setup. As I said about the ships – they were meant to be on par with pirate ships of which projectile weapons are little used compared to the sword. The jumping ability comes naturally from the gravity differences from earth. Biggest of all though is the fact that the Tharn suppress any technology that could propel the populace out of their control.
#4 – The story could have done without the Tharns period, they complicated the story too much and were very distracting.
I really, really disagree with this opinion. The story was built around the Tharns and many, many plot elements would needed to be totally re-written to subtract them from the story. How does Carter get to Barsoom? Where did Sab Than get his 9th Ray? Why can’t we tell Mars is inhabited? And most important what motivates Carter to stay and fight for Barsoom? The story is actually really simplified with the Tharns in the story. When you are taking six books and boiling them down to three movies you reveal things as a matter of course rather than keeping it hidden like in a book where you need to take more time and drag things out. The Tharns were always responsible for things in Burrough’s universe…it just wasn’t revealed until a later book.
#5 – The setup was muddy and couldn’t decide what kind of movie it wanted to be, flipping through different genres and periods.
This is the only criticism I can wholly get behind. While I had no trouble getting into the story and waiting for it to build, I did think it started at an odd place with a bit of a little long winded setup. First off drop the uncle’s office full of artifacts. Anyone wanting to leave earth would have immediately sold each and every item unconcerned with relics that won’t get them back to Barsoom. It just didn’t jive with what was happening. Also the long winded run around London to elude the Tharn following Carter was totally unnecessary.
Instead, have a man watching Ned read the telegram as he gets out in front of a lawyers office. He enters said office to find it opulently appointed with an obviously important lawyer for wealthy people. Said lawyer hands over the journal and leaves so Ned can read it. Enough said for that setup, intriguing but not distracting and a whole lot cheaper for camera setup. (Later, the tomb is the only part needed to tie up this part of the story.)
This part needed to be thin because the old west part of the beginning actually was really needed as the status quo from which Carter transitions. I also thought it foreshadowed the end quite well, showing the way Carter thought rather then telling us. As an alternate ending I might have stopped with the wedding. This is a riskier choice, leaving a lot more dangling threads of an ending but it would have been a great place to pick up the story from in the next movie. It would have also made you think a little bit more about everything that happened. This is a matter of opinion though because I love leaving the theater thinking rather than leaving wanting to go to bed or have a snack.
If you scan over these five complaints and my responses you can see a certain pattern forming as compared to Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. Yeah the story, the basic plot didn’t really engender any criticism (I ignore the Tharn complaint as it would be a totally different story without them). That’s because the story worked. It was well written and when developed didn’t stray from the spirit of the source material. By tapping the original author’s work when developing other mediums to tell the story you start with a rich tapestry of logical and at least thought about back history.
By seeing a really terrible but deceptively likable movie before John Carter, I went in managing my expectations and my open mindness didn’t let me get bogged down in slight criticisms toward a really great movie.
As a writer myself what I desire more than anything is to sell my book. Not necessarily to become wealthy out of my mind so much as to get my story out there. Of course, I do want to be able to make a living at it and hence I need it to bring in the moo-la.
This might seem a bite of a stretch relating myself to a huge company but in order for Disney Studios to bring us more movies they need to at least break even if not make money. In fact, all businesses, whether a Mom and Pop place or a chain mega-store, need to make money if they are to keep supplying their customers with goods and/or services. It’s a really huge pet peeve of mine that when a studio is trying to do everything right and give use a quality movie, like John Carter, everyone is calling for their blood saying it’s all about the money. Well sure, it is in the end about making money but they could have gone about it in a much more selfish and sacrificing of story manner.
Does Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance come immediately to mind? Yeah, well it should. Story was sacrificed to every other element of the movie when it should have come first. And since the makers of the movie are trying to make money just as much with their product as the makers of John Carter I think you can see the greater crime. So yeah, John Carter has it’s faults but everyone needs to let it go that Disney wants money and applaud that they took the proper steps in making their movie in order to make said money. (Which incidentally will probably not recoup it’s costs. Which is equally as sad as a sequel could have been really cool.)
As an artist’s method of self expression Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is so bad it ought to censor itself. As a lesson to moviegoers everywhere about managing expectations the movie should win awards. I’m so glad I wasted the ticket price on this movie because it gave to me such perspective about the next.
I really wanted to give John Carter a four reel rating…but without proper character sympathy by the audience no matter how good a story is written the work won’t be well received. This movie had everything going for it, it’s potential developed to reap the maximum benefits, so much so that the most important of elements was neglected. Still it’s a movie that delivers on so many other fronts that if you give John Carter the man a break you really will fall in love with Barsoom like he did.
Have you ever given a movie or a tv show the benefit of the doubt because of some other element or some other influence? Do you think your expectations of John Carter were out of proportion to what it could deliver? Are you a fan of Ghost Rider and Johnny Blaze comics or is he too obscure for your tastes?