Director Andrew Stanton, being somewhat of the miracle worker that he is, has managed to capture the strengths of the original Star Wars trilogy while avoiding much of what was wrong with the prequels with his John Carter. This Disney epic provides for all of a boy’s basic needs, wants, and desires that Lucas’s prequels didn’t deliver upon. Stanton knows their sweet spot – and yes, I know how creepy that reads – by hitting all the major checkpoints required for them: beefy hero, beautiful love interest, sweet weaponry, non-pandering comic relief, big aliens, and exciting flying things that could not look more like the speeder bikes from Return of the Jedi. How do these amazing devices work, you ask? They just do.
Stanton treats the more fantastical aspects of John Carter like George Lucas did, “It’s just there, and who cares how it works or how it got made?” Overall, John Carter bears both many connections and thankful distances to the Star Wars series. Just how Luke Skywalker saw the vast universe Lucas created, there’s not one scene of Carter condescending to the mechanics or bizarro nature of the world – Mars, which they call “Barsoom” – he’s thrown into and never saying something along the lines of, “Isn’t this costume goofy, guys? (*wink* *wink*).” When things get silly, Stanton and his cast always play it straight-faced and with nothing but respect, like the original Star Wars films did. Carter doesn’t question the idea of huge white apes, he just kicks their asses. The tone is spot-on, and it gets right everything Episode I through III of Star Wars messed up, in terms of spirit and adventure. There’s little moping around and zero long, dull political discussions.
Tonally, John Carter isn’t concerned with taking itself too seriously, though Stanton does take Carter, the other characters, and the world they exist in seriously. A prime example of this is a scene between Carter and Powell, a blonde hippie-looking Confederate played by TV’s greatest badass: Bryan Cranston. As Powell begins to unleash the dull type of character exposition we expect from Lucas’s writing at its worst, Stanton continuously plays out a joke, avoiding the possibility of acting too serious for a movie with four-armed aliens and humongous apes. Whenever Powell attempts to give his spiel on Carter, Stanton uses a hilarious gag to cut through the set-up. The prequels rarely had that sense of humor about themselves. While pure goofiness was going on, everyone was crying, yelling, or discussing what the future holds, all in overly earnest ways.
Once the climax of John Carter comes, Stanton still rightfully aims for pure fun, while never forsaking the dramatic stakes. By the end, this served as another reminder of what did not work in the Star Wars prequels. Look at the final battles in Episodes I, II, and III, it’s all brooding. What child is going to take joy in seeing Anakin quickly having his arm cut off by Count Dooku at the end of Attack of the Clones or the horrifying sight of Anakin nearly burned to death in Revenge of the Sith? Lucas always said those films are for kids, but what type of kid enjoys that brand of emo adventure? All kids will have fun seeing Carter, a hero one can mildly get behind, try to save the girl. There’s no tears or emotional speeches in John Carter. Unlike Lucas, Stanton keeps the tone light.
Even when it comes to the ladies, Stanton knows what’s up, something we can’t say about Lucas’s approach to “heroines.” When Lucas put his women into action, there was such a cartoonishly horny nerd approach to it all. Remember in Episode II when we got Padmé in that tight white outfit with her showing off a little skin? That’s all Lucas saw in that character: a sexy girl who’s going to hang back while the boys do all the work. There’s a line in John Carter when Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) refers to a skimpy outfit as “vulgar,” and it is. In Return of the Jedi and Attack of the Clones, there’s none of that self-awareness over how the female leads are portrayed. Lucas finds that kinky stuff sexy, not demeaning like Stanton does. Yes, Thoris does sport some flattering warrior attire, but it is no more revealing – and possibly less – than what the guys wear.
With the badassery of Dejah Thoris and Sola (Samantha Morton) present, they ultimately end up outshining Taylor Kitsch. This brings up the most overt tie to the Star Wars series, and the biggest flaw of John Carter: we care more about the film’s cool supporting players, not the lead. When we first come to meet Carter, he’s a former Confederate soldier, and you just cannot buy Kitsch, a very modern actor, as a Confederate soldier with that “beard” of his and swagger. Just like our first introduction to Luke Skywalker, it takes time to warm up to our hero. Yet, once Skywalker and Carter start to become watchable and less whiny, the likes of Han Solo, Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), and Kantos Kan (James Purefoy) come in and steal their movie.
When it comes down to the supporting aliens, there is no Jar Jar Binks or C-3P0 in the John Carter universe. While John Carter does have a “dog” companion, Woola, he’s the most badass alien dog ever put on film. There are no fart jokes or a scene with Woola crapping on our hero’s shoes. Woola doesn’t wreak havoc and is never played as a goofy sidekick, and he even gets in on some of the action. Do you recall the first action beat in Revenge of the Sith, when Obi-Wan and Anakin are roaming that giant spaceship? All of that action got annoyingly intercut with R2-D2 making a mess with moronic robot guards, and there’s none of those lame sidekick jokes here to ruin the pacing. When Carter is in battle, Woola joins in. It’s reminiscent of the non-human creatures in the original trilogy: they’re treated respectfully as characters, not a punchline. They serve a purpose and have motivations, like Chewbacca or Jabba the Hutt did.
In the vein of A New Hope, John Carter’s flaws don’t tarnish the smart playfulness Stanton and the film perfect. This is what I wanted – and I’m sure plenty of you will agree come Friday – from the Star Wars prequels: high-flying adventure, not talk of trade federations, and all that mumbo jumbo. When the closing credits roll on John Carter, you will get the feeling that there are bigger and better adventures to come. This is the introduction, a small piece in something grand. When you rewatch A New Hope past the age of ten, you realize there’s clearly room for improvement, and that’s the case with John Carter as well. If the Movie Gods are out there, then we will get to see Andrew Stanton’s bigger and better Empire Strikes Back.