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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Enlisted by a team of honor students for a seminar on superheroes, a mild-mannered professor discovers his inner obsession. Assuming the powers of a novelist, teacher, playwright, and scholar, Professor Chris Gavaler embarks on a mission to unlock the secrets of the multiverse.

John Carter is already headed to my area’s second-run theater. Wall Street estimates Disney is going to lose $165 million. After dragging my eleven-year-old to a matinee, I can now report that Mars isn’t as bad as its buzz. Earth, however, has some serious problems.

John Carter is about a reluctant warrior who gets roped into other people’s wars. First this army officer tries to bully him into fighting Apaches, but Carter refuses, saying he didn’t start it. So he ends up having to finish a 1,000 year-old war on Mars instead. But the real enemies are these godlike beings who pull the strings from the shadows and feed off the destruction. The environment of every planet they visits ends up dying while its inhabitants are busy battling each other. How’s Carter supposed to win that fight?

I’ve read some rotten reviews, and though I agree the director should probably stick with animated fish, the real problem with the movie isn’t the movie. Mars is as good an afternoon escape destination as any. The trouble is leaving it.

Ask Barack Obama.

Lynn Collins, who plays the princess, said she cried the first time she read the script. Why? Because she “felt its parallel to Earth was so poignant.” If President Obama stumbles into a second-run theater, he’s going to be sobbing buckets.

Little wonder movie audiences haven’t flocked to John Carter. They know the plot too well. They’ve watched the Obama administration running it for the past three years. That bullying army officer trying to make Carter fight a war he didn’t start? That’s George W. Bush. And I don’t mean the mission to Mars he started talking up in 2004 (Obama has almost gotten on board with that). I mean the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and how he left both conflicts catastrophically unfinished. Like the reluctant Carter, Obama didn’t have a choice.

Disney spent $250 million on their project and had hoped to gross $700 million. That may sound like a lot, but it’s all in a day’s work. Literally. The U.S. spends about $300 million in Iraq and Afghanistan daily. Disney’s dreamed-off profit wouldn’t finance our military project through Wednesday. That catastrophic loss Disney is facing? We lose almost that much every day by lunch.

Like Carter, Obama just wants to get home. But that requires fighting. In 2006, when even Bush realized that Donald Rumsfeld was a liability, he replaced him with Robert Gates. When Obama announced that Gates was staying, I thought that was just for show, a gesture of bipartisanship Obama wanted to bring to the capital. It’s six years later and Gates is still Secretary of Defense. Bush was hoping for a manned mission to Mars by 2010. Gingrich wants a moon colony by 2020. We’ll be lucky if we’re not still trapped in the gravity of Afghanistan.

Carter has an easier job.  Unifying Mars is nothing compared to unifying Washington.  It only takes him an hour or so to win over those strange, desert-dwelling Tharks (in part by showing that deep down inside their green skin, it’s family they care most about). But a decade into a real war and the U.S. is no closer to understanding what’s under Afghani skins. (On Mars, the burning of a book doesn’t cause greater upheaval than the murder of a child.)

Reviewers disliked John Carter because its plot was too complicated. Instead of vilifying one of the warring tribes (Sunnis, Shiites, etc.) , the film personifies war itself. You could argue those war-profiting god-aliens are Wall Street, but I think the writers (Michael Chabon? Really?) were going for something even more abstract. While the Martians have been battling for centuries, their planet is all but dead. And where were the aliens headed next? Earth. That’s right. Global warming. While we waste trillions (latest estimate: $3.7) on alien-orchestrated conflicts, our planet rots out from under us.

It’s an inconvenient plot to get your head around. Conservatives are generally better at writing villains than liberals are. Probably John Carter would have sold more tickets if it had a simpler us vs. them story to sell.  Obama would probably have a higher approval rating too. Voters, like theater audiences, like things simple.

In the end, Carter saves the day. The war is over. Mission accomplished. He even wins over the Martian people and gets their princess to marry him (Lynn Collins, by the way, looks nothing like Afghanistan’s President Karzai). It’s bittersweet though, because once he’s happy, those nasty uber-aliens fling him back home. The same thing they did to Bush in 2008. Like Carter, Bush now spends his time in his basement study—he dubbed it “Mission Control 2”—plotting trips to Mars.

Obama’s future is less clear. We know John Carter won’t get a sequel. Obama’s box office numbers don’t come in till November.

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