a tale of two flops: the lone ranger and john carter (part 2)

Like The Lone Ranger, John Carter is a long-running narrative bookended by a framing story. In this case, the frame involves weary Confederate officer John Carter who apparently dies, leaving behind a journal for his nephew and heir (named Edgar Rice Burroughs, in a metafictional twist) to read. Along with the journal come instructions to keep watch over a tomb that can only be unlocked from the inside. From this, the film launches into its main tale of a man thrust onto the alien world of Mars where he finds himself embroiled with the Tharks, the planet’s four-armed native Martians and, later, in the middle of a civil war between two rival city-states. His Earth physiology gives him an advantaged of strength and speed in the Martian environment, making him a coveted player in the war’s machinations.

Directed by Andrew Stanton, the film is beautiful designed and presented, with all the majesty of an epic story. The good news is that unlike many other films that feature white protagonists wading into “alien” environments (such as Avatar), John Carter successfully avoids the trap of colonialist condescension. The hero might be pivotal in the plot’s balance of power, even idolized in some cases, but he is never deifiedThe Lone Ranger, the stand-ins for aboriginal cultures in John Carter (the aforementioned Tharks) are presented with a complexity that evokes admiration and bafflement in various degrees, both of which play into a nuanced and ultimately respectful cultural portrait. All in all, John Carter comes across like fantasy role-playing.
into a Messianic character. And unlike Native Americans in

So it’s not subtext or conceptualization that weighs John Carter down on Earth, but rather a struggle with the elements of craft. The film runs long at 132 minutes, which gives us enough time to appreciate the gorgeous production design but nevertheless can’t accommodate all the plot stuffed into the narrative by an overly ambitious script. Where John Carter should feel like a brisk pulp adventure, it feels instead like a languid travelogue from a guide who keeps on schedule by giving only the most rudimentary lessons on culture and history. The lead, Taylor Kitsch, isn’t a particular asset either. His generic appeal is just good enough for the material, not rousingly charismatic as one would hope from a heroic pulp adventurer. Less  to no framing story, and more (but zippier) time spent with the core narrative would have elevated the film to the exhilarating altitude this sort of epic calls for.

In the balance, John Carter’s shortcomings are the sort to differentiate a good film from a great one. It’s a good-enough film to tease the imagination, with enough fun in it to wish for the series to continue with a few relatively minor course-corrections. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen for reasons having to do with Hollywood economics. Nevertheless, unlike The Lone Ranger which is a fundamentally flawed film from conception to execution, John Carter has enough charm and substance to make it worth keeping in mind.

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