What’s In A Name?

John Carter, a man in search of a sunset.

John Carter bombed at the box-office recently and all the blame was put on a flawed marketing strategy. In particular the decision to remove “of Mars” from the title to distance it from other Mars-related flops (Mission to Mars, Mars Needs Moms, etc.) with the misguided hope of joining the ranks of Mars-centric successes of yesteryear (Total RecallWar of the Worlds).

Fans of science-fiction fantasy have decried the effort by the studio to strip the material of its core essence by removing all references to Mars in the title and art work, which feature the eponymous hero fending off monsters that may or may not be Martian in origin. However the problem does not lie with the title itself but the decision to strip the film of all idiosyncrasy  in an effort to reach a mass audience. Fine, you want to be all things to all people, but give them something to latch on to.

Note the red-yellow colour scheme, which was inverted on the sunset-themed John Carter poster (above). The blue pants help Spider-Man "pop" while Carter's silhouette further obscures an already ill-defined protagonist.

Take for example the impossibly inert posters for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man franchise: they were shiny, sweet nothings but at least they had the benefit of a costumed hero. Block out the words “Spider-Man” and you still knew you were getting, at least, a superhero movie of some kind. Which is exactly what it was.

The name John Carter by comparison is too bland, too unrecognizable, too vague to draw in an audience. Had the studio chosen to replace “of Mars” with something else – anything else – it might have piqued peoples’ interest. Something as painfully generic as John Carter: Warrior even could have generated more buzz. In the absence of name recognition, a title that hints at the film’s story, however vaguely, is preferable.

Sure, the studio was worried about associations with Mars but without something – anything – behind the John Doe-esque John Carter what can one expect but for the film to recede into the background? Total Recall is cryptic and unusual – an apt title for a film that purposely distorts reality –  while War of the Worlds promised battles, carnage, and destruction. In both cases the films delivered and raked in the dough while John Carter promises us nothing and therefore creates no incentive for us to invest our time and money.

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