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Most of the buzz surrounding John Carter has been solely based around the film's budget. Never mind that the film is Andrew Stanton's first live-action film, or that the film predates everything that others claim it to be "ripping off". This is not Star Wars, this is not Avatar, this is not box-office obsessives' opportunity to destroy a film before it is released because it cost a lot of money. This is a story, plain and simple. Wait for the lights to come up before you make up your mind.
Many films have started out with the premise of a lone man in a world that he doesn't fit in, disjointed from society as much as he is from himself. He has proven himself in battle, to the point where drawing a gun is easier than negotiating. The Civil War has left a hole in John and he isn't sure if that void can be filled again, fortunately, the isolation of the west has provided a break in the meantime. John Carter is not the most unique protagonist, but he is the hero we are given.
And that hero finds himself in the midst of a civil war raging on Mars. The Helium Academy finds itself under attack from the ignorant brute that is Sab (Dominic West) backed with a dangerous weapon from the far more nefarious Matai Shang (Mark Strong as evil as ever). The Tharks have found Carter and see him as the weapon that can be used to best Sab's. John just wants to get back home.
Yes, I know you've heard it all before: the fish out of water comes to new land, finds himself an interloper in a larger conflict and reluctant to join, he relents and joins the fight at the behest of a young woman and gives a rousing speech to the masses. But that description matches 40% of the films released in the last thirty years, so if John Carter is not completely new you'll have to forgive me for not caring.
With all of that said, John Carter is the live-action debut we were hoping to get from director Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, Finding Nemo). A genre-melding epic—that's right, western, war and fantasy—that offers as much in story as it does in spectacle. Mars and its inhabiting characters are painstakingly and thoughtfully fleshed out and brought to life. Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe) in particular, is a treat.
What shortfalls may come from the story are not complicit in the visual realization of Mars.
With the impassioned direction of Andrew Stanton any flaws there may be in the story do not overshadow what is happening onscreen. Taylor Kitsch manages to create empathy with his character, Lynn Collins' warrior-scientist/princess doesn't need help, but will fight on her own because her cause is just (seriously, Collins may have one of the best female characters of all-time) and Willem Dafoe takes a role that could be nothing more than mail-in and infuses it with heart.
John Carter may stumble a few steps before leaping to heights of its own—integrating the background of an entire franchise into a 140 minute film will do that—but when it gets there, the audience could truly care less about the projected weekend revenue or how much money is onscreen. They only see the heart.