I saw John Carter last week, and ever since I walked out of the theater I’ve been trying to figure out why I liked it.  Don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot to like.  The action scenes are fun, a lot of thought went into the world-building, and the special effects supported both of those brilliantly.  Dejah Thoris is as sexy as they come, the Martian Marilyn Monroe, and that’s even considering the fact that she wears more clothes in this film than in any of her previous incarnations.  (Google images of Dejah Thoris and you’ll see what I mean.  It comes as little surprise that the people at Disney dressed her in more than just tattoos, but somehow they managed to wring more raw sex appeal out of a fully dressed Lynn Collins than the most iconic images from Frank Frazetta or Adam Hughes.)

I would have enjoyed this movie even without the sword-wielding goddesses and four-armed aliens, and I’m having trouble figuring out why.  I couldn’t stomach Avatar.  In that one the dialogue was so bad that I had to watch it in Spanish—I figured I might as well try to learn some new vocabulary—and even then I had to rely on my fast forward button to get me through the movie.  At the end I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to call it Dances With Wolves III or The Last Samurai II (The Last Samurai being Dances With Wolves II, of course).  It was just another haole-guy-lives-among-natives-for-three-or-four-days-and-instantly-masters-their-traditions-then-leads-them-to-a-victory-they-could-never-have-claimed-for-themselves story.  We’ve seen it in Dances With Wolves.* We’ve seen it in The Last Samurai.  And here we can see it again in John Carter.  So why did I like this movie?

I’ll admit to some nostalgia from reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, but that by itself doesn’t explain it.  A few years ago I went back and re-read some of those Tarzan books I used to love, and yeesh, there’s some dodgy stuff in there.  It’s safe to say my old infatuation with Burroughs is dead.

I’ll also grant that if you’re making a Dances With Wolves sequel, it really helps if in casting your Haole Guy Hero you choose an actor with some range.  Tom Cruise plays Tom Cruise as well as anyone, and in the right movie that’s a great role for him, but Dances With Wolves II ain’t it.  (Compare that one to Magnolia or Jerry Maguire and you’ll see what I mean.)  But though Taylor Kitsch is good in the role of John Carter, he isn’t so good that his performance is the only reason you need to like this movie.

I suppose it could be that John Carter isn’t Dances With Wolves on Mars so much as Dances with Wolves is really a John Carter story set in the American West.  (Burroughs predates Michael Blake by a good bit.)  But I don’t think that’s it either.  Most of the time I find haole-guy-lives-among-natives-for-a-few-days-and-instantly-masters-their-traditions stories to be pretty annoying regardless of era.

I’d like to say it’s as simple as the fact that while Dances With Wolves (which I liked a lot) and The Last Samurai (which I didn’t) are meant to be thoughtful and thought-provoking, John Carter is just a romp, a fun summer action flick that happened to be released in the winter instead.  But surely Avatar was meant to be a romp too, and yes, it had its share of nifty action sequences, yet every one of them fell flat.  Why?

I think my problem with those scenes in Avatar was that I just didn’t give a shit.  None of the characters were compelling to me.  It didn’t help that every twist and turn of the plot was predictable—action scenes are better when they’re surprising—but primarily, the dialogue was so stilted, and the story so shallow, that I just couldn’t muster the energy to care.

I can’t claim that John Carter was chock-full of surprises.  For one thing, I’ve read all the stories.  For another, it so happened that I saw the tail end of the movie in one theater before I saw the whole thing in another.  But most of all, it’s a great summer action movie, and that means it follows a certain formula.  Spoiler alert: there’s a big battle scene at the end, and a brief denouement that follows it, and somewhere in there the hero hooks up with the Martian Marilyn Monroe.  Duh.

I think the one thing that separates John Carter from the Dances With Wolves clones is that these characters are actually interesting.  (And here there might be legitimate spoilers; consider yourself forewarned.)  Willem Dafoe’s Tars Tarkas first appears as a friendly guy, then turns out to be a manipulative ruler, and then turns out not to be manipulative enough to retain his rule.  Dejah Thoris isn’t just a sex kitten; she’s also a scientist and a badass with a sword.  She proves tougher than the tough guys and smarter than the smart guys.  The badguys spend a fair amount of time screwing over other badguys, which is exactly what badguys ought to be doing, but which so few storytellers actually let them do.

By these lights, John Carter himself is actually one of the least interesting characters in the film, but hey, at least he doesn’t commit some of the sins I most despise in haole-guy-leads-primitives-to-victory stories.  He doesn’t learn the local language overnight.  (He needs alien technology for that.)  He doesn’t learn the local martial arts overnight.  (He’s a badass in his own right.)  And he doesn’t beat the aliens at their own game.  On top of that, he has nifty powers in low-G and a cool frogdog.  Thoughtful and thought-provoking it ain’t, but as a romp it’s good enough for me.

*Which, by the way, claims to be based on the book of the same title, despite the fact that in the book—which is excellent, and begins with one of the best opening sentences you’re likely to find—all of the principal players are Japanese, and the Tom Cruise character of the film doesn’t even exist.