The strapping, titular hero of Disney’s upcoming John Carter, a big-budget science-fiction epic due in March 2012, has braved the battlefield of the Civil War, but in the best of the four extended scenes from the film shown to fans at the studio’s D23 Expo in Anaheim this past weekend, he faces an even greater threat: a group of green, 12-foot-tall, four-armed aliens ready to shoot down a perceived invader like Carter. In the clip, Carter (Friday Night Lights’ Taylor Kitsch), a military veteran suddenly transported to Mars, tries to engage with Tars Tarkas, a member of a Martian warrior race called the Tharps (Tars is played in a motion-capture performance by Willem Dafoe, who had to walk around the film’s scorching desert set on stilts with motion-capture cameras surrounding his face). Carter, keeping a close eye on Tars’ more trigger-happy Tharp companions, tries to explain to the non-English-speaking stranger that his name is “Captain John Carter, of Virginia,” which leads to Tars mistakenly calling him Virginia.
In this and another scene in which Carter tries to evade Mars’ version of a dog only to have the slobbering, loyal creature catch up with him at every massive leap (the human soldier benefits from Mars’ lack of gravity), director and co-writer Andrew Stanton brings the same funny stranger-in-a-strange-land sense of dislocation he brought to Pixar’s animated masterpiece Wall-E. Stanton appeared in person at the Expo, as did stars Kitsch, Dafoe, and Lynn Collins, who plays Mars royalty and eventual Carter love interest Dejah. (Funnily enough, though Dafoe’s famously creepy mug couldn’t be more different from Kitsch’s handsome movie-star looks, both actors sported the exact same buzzed-in-the-back haircut at the Expo, a fact they merrily joked about.)
Stanton enthusiastically explained his passion for Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of John Carter of Mars novels, which the film is based on, saying that when he was a teenager, “my girlfriends would call them my romance novels.” In an even more endearing moment, Stanton compared the drawings of Carter he would doodle as a young man with those co-writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon drew in their youth.
Stanton’s evident love of the material indicates John Carter is in the right hands, though one of the four D23 clips fell totally flat—a romantic scene between Carter and Collins’ Dejah marked by stiff expository dialogue one would never expect from Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Chabon (The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay). It may end up playing better in the context of the finished film, but the lack of chemistry between Kitsch and Collins recalled an unflattering Disney adventure that the studio probably wishes its D23 followers has already forgotten: last year’s flop Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
John Carter opens March 9, 2012.
Check out two new pieces of concept art from the film that Disney debuted at D23:
Over the past three years, the film division of Marvel Comics has done such an exhaustive (and, to some who are burned out on superheroes, exhausting) job laying the groundwork for next summer’s all-star-team event movie The Avengers—planting recurring characters and plot elements in solo-superhero outings like Iron Man, Thor, and, most recently, Captain America: The First Avenger meant to explain why so many mighty crimefighters end up banding together—that seeing the stars behind the capes and armored suits appear in front of an enthusiastic crowd of fans at Marvel Films’ parent company Disney’s D23 Expo in Anaheim felt like a reward for following the multi-film bread-crumb trail that Marvel has sprinkled along the path to next year’s ensemble-powered action juggernaut.
Although Chris Evans (Captain America), Mark Ruffalo (the Hulk), and Samuel L. Jackson (eyepatch-wearing SHIELD agent Nick Fury, who assembles the Avengers) were unable to make the event, Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr., appeared, alongside Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), Tom Hiddleston (the Avengers’ villainous foe, Loki, who’s also Thor’s brother), and Cobie Smulders (who plays a key SHIELD agent). The actors didn’t have much to say (a dependably confident Downey shouted, “see you next summer!”), not that the screaming fans seemed to mind.
The assembled convention-goers also seemed to approve of the Avengers footage screened, which indicated that writer-director Joss Whedon is taking an actor-centered, lightly funny approach to the material, not a bad idea after the square-jawed seriousness of Captain America and the convoluted-plot-driven Iron Man 2.
The footage began with an extended scene in which Nick Fury (Jackson) squares off against Loki (Hiddleston), who SHIELD has imprisoned in a high-security cell suspended over a 30,000-foot drop. Hiddleston, who emphasized Loki’s frailty and fraternal jealousy in the backstory-building Thor, gets to let loose in this clip with some refined, malevolent sneering that would make Anthony Hopkins proud. His velvety villainy provides a nice contrast with Jackson in crowd-pleasing badass form. “You made me desperate,” Fury tells Loki, following with the warning, “you may not be glad that you did.”
Following this scene at the presentation was a rapidly edited montage offering glimpses of explosive action (Hawkeye engaged in a parking-lot shootout; fireballs erupting on a car-filled city street), and accompanied by Iron Man alter-ego Tony Stark’s (Downey) wry voice-over “head count of [the] master assassins” that make up the Avengers. The montage ends with Stark casually sipping whiskey while matching wits with Loki. “I have an army,” Loki threatens. Stark’s merrily tossed-off comeback is, “we have a Hulk.”
With Stark’s quip providing an appropriate introduction, the crowd at the D23 Expo was then treated to the first shot anyone anywhere has seen of this movie’s CGI-animated take on the Not-So-Jolly Green Giant. And so I’m in the privileged position of sharing that the Hulk featured in The Avengers looks…well, actually he looks exactly like the version of the character on view in 2008’s Edward Norton-starring Marvel production The Incredible Hulk, albeit with much fiercer eyes. Given the highly anticipated nature of this project, though, expect those angry eyes to be the subject of fierce online debate over the next few days.