JOHN CARTER: Two Cents… to the Stars! – Roundtable Review


Two Cents is a Cinapse original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team curates the series and contribute their “two cents” using a maximum of 200-400 words. Guest contributors and comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future picks. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion. Would you like to be a guest contributor or programmer for an upcoming Two Cents entry? Simply watch along with us and/or send your pitches or 200-400 word reviews to [email protected].

The Pick: John Carter (Two Cents… to the Stars!)

To celebrate the much-anticipated second half of Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Dune, we are going to be exploring the stars this month. That’s right, a whole month of films that take place in the far reaches of space. In our final week on this theme we tackle Disney’s 2012 attempt at adapting Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter Of Mars series for the big screen, to infamously mixed results: John Carter!

Featured Guests

Alex Billington

Justice for Woola! Andrew Stanton’s sci-fi epic John Carter (of Mars) gets a bad rap though it doesn’t deserve the hate. It really doesn’t. Stanton went BIG with this. Disney infamously gave him over $250 million to make this sci-fi action movie, and I was deeply involved as a sci-fi geek following its development. I even visited the sets in Arizona and Utah while they were filming. I still greatly admire and respect Stanton for his vision, for trying his best to pull this off. Much like with Dune, this is a near impossible story to adapt correctly from page to screen. Stanton knew that but still made sure to try to do it justice anyway – most importantly with the motion and facial capture performances for the Green Martian Tharks, having talented actors actually be on set playing these characters. Along with massive practical sets that were a call back to how the original Star Wars movies also shot with practical sets in the desert. Does it all come together? Did he actually pull it off? Yes and no. I might even say, “not really”, because it didn’t become the massive hit it was supposed to become, which is a sign that it didn’t connect with viewers the right way. And while I have watched it a few more times since its release in 2012, I don’t often find myself thinking about rewatching it that much. That said, I do think it’s a one-of-a-kind movie that does get a lot of things right. There are some amazing scenes, like the one where John Carter fights all the Tharks after going down the River Iss, and almost anything involving Woola (he’s just the best).

Above all it is an entertaining movie – an epic look at a whole other world we’ve never seen before. It is not a perfect movie, it has a handful of issues, and it’s much more fun than it is brilliant or endearing. Andrew Stanton is great storyteller and it shows in the way he lets the story unravel as a gigantic space opera about a man who finds himself in the middle of a war on Mars, and in moments like that Thark fight. It’s mostly an enjoyable sci-fi adventure with some memorable moments. The relationship between John Carter and Tars Tarkas is quite moving and easily the best relationship in the movie, thanks to the excellent performance by Willem Dafoe. As for John, Taylor Kitsch has the right look and feel for this character, but his performance is a bit lackluster and doesn’t reach the same iconic levels as many other space opera heroes. The other characters played by Mark Strong, Thomas Haden Church, and Samantha Morton are strong performances but once again they aren’t as memorable as they should be for an epic sci-fi movie like this. Above all, the story following John Carter eventually becoming the “of Mars” leader he’s destined to become is the most thrilling and satisfying part of the whole movie. As many others have said, I had a feeling the sequel would turn out even better, but Disney never let Andrew Stanton make another one after this. Maybe one day someone else will try their hand at adapting Edgar Rice Burroughs’ story again.

Alex of – est. 2006.

The Schlocketeer AKA Daniel Baldwin

2012 was a different time. The Star Wars prequels and Lord of the Rings had run their course. The MCU was still new. Hollywood was looking for the next big thing, Disney in particular. Enter John Carter. Adapted from a series of novels that kicked off 100 years earlier, it was a potential Star Wars alternative for the House of Mouse. Until, of course, they actually bought Star Wars and no longer needed it. Much has been written about the release of John Carter. I’m not here to relitigate any of that.

A dozen years later, all that matters is that this “failed” blockbuster is still a rip-roaring good time. An absolutely delectable mix of westerns, epic sci-fi, and swashbuckling sword & sorcery presented on a delicious cinematic platter. Sure, the source material was cannibalized for decades by properties it influenced, from George Lucas’ saga to Flash Gordon to Dune and especially in James Cameron’s on-going Avatar saga. For what is Jake Sully if not a Jeddak of Pandora?

Andrew Stanton was well aware of such artistic piracy and wisely leaned into it, tipping his hat at each throughout the film in various ways, but never in a winking or mocking manner. Everything in John Carter is done with love, care, and sincerity, which is exactly what the brilliant source novels deserved.

Could a stronger filmmaker have made a splashier take on the material that might have better visually enraptured audiences? Perhaps, but I’m not sure if anyone else could have brought the heart to it that Stanton did. John Carter isn’t a perfect movie. The pacing is off, some of the casting is wobbly, and there’s too much plot crammed into the script. Its heart is what matters, though, and Stanton nailed that.

Will we ever see another adaptation in my lifetime? Maybe, but I’m not holding my breath. Instead of mourning what was lost, I prefer to celebrate what we have. I love this movie to death, just as I love the world of Edgar Rice Burroughs overall. Those too are flawed, but like with John Carter, I choose to overlook those deficiencies as I continue to enjoy them. Like Voor-jean-ya, they can be ugly, but they can also be beautiful. Chanting “Akh ahim akte wiz Barsoom” might not give me non-existent sequels, but I can still return to this film and the books whenever I want. And that makes me smile.

Daniel Baldwin is The Schlocketeer

Phil Gonzales

Kids, 2012 was a tough year to be a pulp adventurer. The Pirates series was floundering, The Avengers had yet to assemble, Conan the Barbarian… existed(?), and Star Wars, well, who cared about Star Wars? The cinematic universe had yet to be entirely swallowed by cinematic universes and John Carter teetered right on the precipice of that era. Set up to be the first part of a planned trilogy, Carter scared the pants off Disney. A hyper-expensive movie helmed by a first-time live-action director with no big-name stars set on a desert planet populated by visually unappealing goblins? Yeah, that’d scare the pants off anyone.

Having dwelt in pre-production for [checks watch] ten decades or so, Carter is the ultimate doomed passion project. People really wanted this movie to exist. Edgar Rice Burroughs really wanted this movie to exist. It was almost the first animated feature film; that’s how much people wanted this movie to exist. And, it shows. Carter has all the hallmarks of a movie that people thought way too hard about and cared way too much about. Tonally? All over the place. Visually? Simultaneously way too busy and way too bland. Set up? Takes far too long to get going. Performances? I’d say about half the cast understands the movie they’re in.


It mostly works. John Carter is trying to be something new. Andrew Stanton is trying to make the pulp movie of his dreams, like Lucas and Spielberg did three decades earlier. There are moments that capture the feeling of falling into an alien world and just going with it. The standout is Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris, the Princess of the Red Martians. Buffeted about by the unpredictable demands of the studio, Collins’s character was changed almost daily from a damsel in distress to an Amazonian action heroine. But, watching her is like seeing an illustration come to life. Phony accent and all, Collins carries the film on her shoulders and when she’s on screen the movie shines.

Then, it will hedge its bets. Over-explain the plot. Our hero will get captured. Again. Get thrown into a prison. Again. Have to break out of his chains. Again. All in the service of obtaining the plot-specific gewgaw that will get him home. Nothing we haven’t seen a million times before.

Disney would eventually buy Star Wars, trust a filmmaker with a bizarre space opera (Guardians of the Galaxy), and have more than its share of Sci-Fi cake. Carter would bomb and be mostly forgotten.

In any sane world, John Carter would have made Lynn Collins a star. At the very least it wouldn’t have resulted in a premature end to her rising career. But, the colossal disappointment of its box office needed a scapegoat and, sadly, Collins was the only woman in the room to take the hit. Even Taylor Kitsch, whose career definitely went off the rails for a while, found his footing again in 2018’s Waco, a movie that served his stony-faced weirdness a lot better than any pulp action role. Which is a shame, because John Carter is a movie that lives entirely on the strength of its Princess of Mars.

Phil Gonzales is a podcaster and storyteller out of Minneapolis, MN.

The Team

Ed Travis

Deep down in my heart of hearts I have a yearning for pure adventure. I never tire of being whisked away to magical worlds, of noble quests, or of asking those child-like “what if” questions. It’s no surprise, then, that I’ve got a soft spot for Edgar Rice Burroughs and his pulp fiction had a profound impact on me as a younger man, along with the works of Robert E. Howard. There’s a purity to the adventures of Conan, Tarzan, Solomon Kane, or John Carter that speak to me beyond the problematic elements of the writers who created them. And yes, John Carter is pretty damn dated and problematic, what with him being a noble Confederate soldier and all that. That said, Andrew Stanton’s big budget Disney take on John Carter, now infamous as one of the most significant financial flops of the modern era, does speak to that childlike wonder that exists deep in my core. So help me I love this movie and feel something deep down when watching it. It’s a simple as “You’ll believe a man can fly” for me. As backwards and unscientific and preposterous as it is, seeing John Carter leap and soar through the landscape of Mars, uniting tribes, winning the heart of a princess, and destroying evil… it gets to me in a way that’s primal. What if a man could leap tall buildings in a single bound?

Specifically with this film, I get why it just didn’t land with audiences. It always should’ve been called John Carter of Mars. It suffered from coming too late: when all the blockbusters since the days of Burroughs had been cribbing it, it just didn’t feel fresh. And now the box office catastrophe has such a stink to it that John Carter of Mars likely won’t be adapted ever again at this scale. But I think the financial disaster of this film can be divorced from the quality of the viewing experience, and while it doesn’t all work, there’s a deep magic to be found here, a longing romanticism that gets me every time. Stack some of these action set pieces, creature designs, world building, and costuming up against anything from the MCU or DCEU and you’ve got a damn fine blockbuster on your hands that stands toe to toe from any of them from a craft perspective. Sure, maybe Taylor Kitsch just wasn’t the rising star some studios thought he was, or the timing of this one just wasn’t right, but I’ll keep revisiting it long after the era of capes has faded, myself. And, let’s all be honest: The Princess Of Mars, Lynn Collins, is not only innocent of all charges but was a hugely compelling female lead here, tough, passionate, charismatic, and gorgeous. When virtually every dude came away from this bomb relatively unscarred (Kitsch maybe didn’t pass the A-list test but he works constantly to this day), it sucks that Collins seems to have somehow borne some of the responsibility on her shoulders. IMDb does tell me she’s been a lead on The Walking Dead, though, so more power to her.

(@Ed_Travis on X)

Brendan Agnew

I feel like John Carter dropped either 30 years too late or 10 years too early. 2012 was something of a ramp-up to the current science fiction invasion that has been defining modern cinema, from the explosion of hits like STAR TREK and AVATAR in 2009 until even C-teams like the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY could headline a blockbuster just a couple years later. The godfather of superhero and sci-fi pulp fiction wasn’t so lucky however, with general audiences shrugging at the muddled marketing campaign and story that seemed to be pulling from all their childhood and recent genre favorites (when it was actually the other way around). However, for those willing to take the journey, JOHN CARTER did – and indeed still does – offer a rousing adventure, unforgettable characters, and some singular and effective spectacle. For all that it gets off to a bit of a rough start (there’s too many introductions and playing coy with Carter’s motivations doesn’t quite work), JOHN CARTER genuinely commits to both throwing the titular hero into a strange new world and bouncing him around a truly delightful collection of characters and settings. Taylor Kitsch may only be “effective” rather than revelatory in the role, but character stalwarts like Mark Strong and Willem Dafoe are note-perfect, and Lynn Collins makes Dejah Thoris a sci-fi heroine for the ages. Watching the pieces all get assembled makes for intriguing world-building, but the film becomes a veritable rocket once is starts sending characters off on quests, having them get captured or cornered only to get through by the skin of their teeth in delightful pulp form. JOHN CARTER also holds up incredibly well as “VFX-heavy films from over a decade ago” are concerned. Andrew Stanton shows a very solid handle on creating personality, tactility and immediacy that cuts through the necessary loads of CGI to create Barsoom. This makes sequences like the Warhoon Attack or the battle in the Thark Arena genuinely thrilling action-driven character beats rather than the claustrophobic stilted awkwardness that has defined too many recent genre movies. I’m not going to call JOHN CARTER a misunderstood masterpiece, but it says a lot about what this movie got right that it still holds a place at the table after 12 additional years of blockbusters dipping from the same well.

(@blcagnew on X)

Jay Tyler

John Carter had perhaps strangely felt like it had become a major blindspot for me. Dismissed commercially on its initial release, its reputation as an underrated jam of space adventure cinema by just about anyone who had seen it cemented it in my mind as something that I needed to get around, but just never quite dedicated the two hours it needed. Plus with the Andrew Stanton of it all made it fall squarely into the “Disney animators attempt to make a big boy adventure move for the masses” sub-genre I am moderately obsessed with. All to say, I was really excited to finally have a reason to sit down and give it the honest chance it apparently deserved.

So imagine my surprise and disappointment when I didn’t love it. Sure, there is a lot to appreciate. The scope and magnitude of it is intoxicating, with plenty of classic sweeping vistas of Utah filling in for Mars, sorry, Barsoom to luxuriate in. There is an imaginativeness and a confidence in its large set piece action, especially the centerpiece arena sequence. And the square-jawed hero thrust into a complex epic war that he barely understands, only to rise to the occasion and fulfill his destiny? Pump it all directly into my veins.

But unfortunately it is missing a magical spark to elevate it from an impressive attempt at the sweeping sci-fi epic. A large portion of the blame can likely be set upon the shoulders of Taylor Kitsch, who with all the best will in the world just doesn’t have the juice for a performance this central. The film’s tone also makes the fatal mistake of taking itself very seriously, meaning that long stretches of it feel poe-faced and downtrodden, rather than the rollicking adventure that you want. I think Stratton’s heart of wanting to present an earnest, sweeping war epic is admirable. But when there are going to be easy comparisons to, say, other wars amongst the stars, it would benefit from the tone being dialed back maybe ten percent more. With so much to draw you in, you can’t help but wish these small adjustments would elevate it from a fascinating what if scenario to an undeniable space opera classic. As it stands, John Carter from any planet doesn’t quite earn the stripes it deserves.

(@jaythecakethief on X)

Austin Vashaw

It’s my third go-round John Carter, which remains a fun science fiction adventure despite having – with apologies to my real life friend of nearly 30 years who shares the title character’s name – maybe the most unexciting title they could possibly have used to adapt a novel called A Princess of Mars.

The film has taken on a reputation as a bomb, but that’s far more attributable to its astronomical $300M price tag than its respectable $284M gross. With that Disney-backed budget, the film sacrificed some of the pulpy, clothes-optional vision of Barsoom popularized by artists like Frank Frazetta in favor of an impressively realized blockbuster vision aiming for more of a Star Wars-esque appeal. It mostly works on the screen, even if the gamble didn’t pay off at the box office.

Something I find particularly compelling is the anachronistic juxtaposition of the post-Civil War United States and futuristic Martian culture. And the addition of a wraparound tale also adds an air of immediacy and mystery to the story, even if I don’t approve of Burroughs – a staunch racist and eugenicist – being propped up as a heroic character in the narrative.

With the major success being enjoyed by Dune, one wonders if perhaps Disney’s trip to Barsoom was just a little too far ahead of the curve. I certainly wish it had been successful enough to yield a few sequels returning to this world.

(@VforVashaw on X)

Justin Harlan

A first time watch for me and only minutes in I truly knew the aesthetics here were clearly “my kind of shit”… but, as the movie progressed, I struggled to follow some of the story beats and really felt like the film did itself no favors in regards to the complicated and convoluted nature of the plot. Still, the look and feel of the more hit a variety of my personal sweet spots.

While not as high on this one as others here, I think future watches could bring me around. Even as it stands, I’m glad it was picked and gave me a reason to catch up on this one.

(@thepaintedman on X)

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