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In Defense of 'John Carter'

John Carter
Disney

"John Carter" is coming. You can't escape him. This Confederate soldier turned Western outlaw turned world explorer turned interplanetary warrior (and lover, reowwwr!) is the most discussed fanboy movie since "Avatar."

Even my old man peeked his head out from behind his copy of "The Wall Street Journal" to ask if Disney was gonna lose their shirt on this picture. Then I fetched him his pipe and slippers and waited for Mother to finish braising the roast.

A lot of weisenheimers have taken it upon themselves to beat their social media chests over how derivative the movie looks. "Haven't I already seen 'Attack of the Clones/Avatar/Flash Gordon/Stargate/Planet Hulk'?" some of these douchenozzles have been musing. (Hey, fellas, they're called Tharks, not Snarks!)

As a reaction to this, many righteous among the nations have loudly rebuked them, proudly pointing out that "John Carter" is a film based on an amalgam of Edgar Rice Burroughs stories (chief among them "A Princess of Mars") that are about a century old. Furthermore, every major sci-fi writer and designer has cited them as something of an ur-Text of 20th Century geekery.

John Carter
Disney

When I finally saw "John Carter" this week I was prepared to catalogue the myriad connections between it and my beloved core nerd properties, but two unexpected things happened. First, I had to take stroke-preventative breaths into my empty popcorn bag at the real life Frank Frazetta painting that is Lynn Collins' Warrior-Princess (and Regent of the Royal Academy of Science!) Dejah Thoris.

Second, while indeed there are many surface similarities (the metal bikini armor on Dejah Thoris may give you Leia deja vu!) it struck me that director Andrew Stanton and his team did an outstanding job in keeping this old material fresh. Indeed, there is something new under the Barsoonian sun!

FX

"John Carter" opens up with a breath-taking arial battle that collides and reconstructs a number of visual influences. The fighting resembles a pirate's siege, but because they are flying it is in three dimensions. The ship's controls are somewhat steampunk-y, but the bridges are open and clear, a little like in "Flash Gordon," but with really dazzling computer-based animation. So, no, Twitter snarkers, you HAVEN'T quite seen ships like this before.

Creatures

"John Carter" only scratches the surface at the unique culture of the giant, green, multiple-limbed Tharks, but it is enough to make them difficult to pigeonhole. They aren't Na'vi, they aren't Klingons, they aren't Sand People, they aren't Bokanovsky-bred citizens of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," they aren't the sperm-looking creatures from "Battle For Terra," though there are characteristics that jibe with all of them. They are a unique race of curious customs, one that I am itching to know more about. The Tharks have inspired me to take immediate action and download all the Burroughs novels to my Kindle. (Don't worry, they're all free because they are so old.)

More Creatures

Another thing that's hard to get a bead on in "John Carter" are the Therns. Mark Strong (always spooky, always bald) is the representative of this teleporting, puppet-master race that has dominion over Ninth Ray technology. They aren't quite evil like the Sith but they aren't quite representatives of benign neglect like DC Comics' Guardians of the Universe.

Disney

Maybe "John Carter" is a little too ambiguous about what is up with these guys – their main objective seems to be planning weddings – but anyone who waves Therns off as "oh, I've seen this a hundred times before" is fibbing.

Hot Lady

Lastly, the Princess of Mars herself. Yes, recent years of post-'60s cinema have tried to present us with an ass-kicking female hero. From the Bionic Woman to Barb Wire filmmakers have tinkered with the alchemy of just how "masculine" a hot, heterosexual badass woman can be.

I don't know that "John Carter" is the magic bullet (or that it will come in our lifetime) but I couldn't help but notice that Lynn Collins' metal skirt did have a a strangely phallic bit of low-hanging plating in a rather specific location. Hey, Stanton's "Wall-E" was kinda transgressive, too, if you looked at it from the right angle.

Come back every Thursday for more intergalactic musings on Planet Fanboy and follow its fearless leader Jordan Hoffman on Twitter! Check out previous Fanboy columns here!

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