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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Afghanistan

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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Superman wasn’t the first alien to gain superpowers by hopping planets. That honor goes to John Carter, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pre-Tarzan pulp star. He premiered in All-Story magazine a hundred years ago last month. This Friday Carter takes his first superpowered leap to the big screen.

In 1939, Jerry Siegel offered a “Scientific Explanation for Superman’s Amazing Strength”: “The smaller size of our planet, with its slighter gravity pull, assists Superman’s tremendous muscles in the performance of miraculous feats of strength!”

But Burroughs beat him by more than a quarter century. John Carter’s powers are a product of “the lesser gravitation and lower air pressure on Mars.” A “very earthly and at the same time superhuman leap” carries Carter “fully thirty feet into the air” and lands him “a hundred feet” away.

Before 1912, the 20th century had never seen a hero fling himself through the air before. And since John Carter is beating Man of Steel to theaters by more than a year, he bounds over Superman in the 21st century too.

Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon (who’s always had a thing for Martian scifi) co-wrote the screenplay. It’s his first film credit since 2004’s Spider-Man 2, the former high mark for superhero excellence (pre-The Dark Knight, of course). Readers of Thrilling Tales (the retro-pulp issue of McSweeney’s that Chabon edited back in 2003) know the first chapter of his sadly unfilmed screenplay “The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance.” Chabon told me he has no intentions of completing the novelization, so his John Carter revisions are the closest we’re going to get.

Given that Burroughs’ first Carter novel, A Princess of Mars, is one of the most hilariously racist novels I’ve ever read, I trust Chabon had his delete key in full working order before opening director Andrew Stanton’s script.

Carter, a former Confederate Captain, is a “southern gentleman of the highest type.” In fact, “slaves fairly worshipped the ground he trod.” Once he makes the magical leap to Mars (or “Barsoom,” the quasi-oriental-sounding name Burroughs gives the planet), he wars with a race of four-armed savages, each a “huge and terrific incarnation of hate, of vengeance and of death.” If the connection to the so-called savages of the western plains is too subtle, then please note that Captain Carter was battling a band of Apaches seconds before his apparent, planet-flinging death.

Barsoom also hosts a race of four-armed white gorillas, a funhouse reflection of those trod-worshipping slaves freed after the Captain’s Confederacy lost its War Between the States. There’s even a human-looking race of a once great but now tragically fallen civilization. Burroughs doesn’t describe any antebellum mansions in the ruins, but a 1912 reader would have recognized the vanquished South in Barsoom’s dusty riverbeds.

Carter, a well-bred Virginian, arrives ready to rule. Those ferocious-looking Martians are “infinitely less agile and less powerful, in proportion to their weight, than an Earth man.” Carter doubts “were one of them suddenly to be transported to Earth he could lift his own weight from the ground.” Mars, with its impossibly arrested climate and cultures, are his to conquer. John Carter is the ultimate colonizer. Mars was literally made for him.

I don’t know what the screenplay looked like before Chabon started his repairs, but Stanton is already planning two sequels. Burroughs wrote ten, but Disney wants to rake in $700 million first. That’s less than Spider-Man 2, but still a high bar for even an interplanetary superman to clear.

Will Disney’s John Carter also clear the racial politics of the Burroughs novel?

Well, let’s see. Martian women wear “flowing Middle Eastern garb,” and their cities are modeled on the ancient ruins of Petra in modern Jordan. Chabon likens those four-armed Tharks to 19th century “Afghani tribesmen,” and Stanton gave them the lean look of “desert-dwelling people,” specifically “the Masai warriors and the Aborigines.” Plus, for musical icing, that’s Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” playing over the trailer.

So what do India, Afghanistan, Jordan, Kenya, and Australia have in common? They were all British colonies. Disney’s Mars is the ultimate melting pot of non-Western “others.” Which is the scifi way of saying: “They all look the same to me.”

[Addendum: Lynn Collins, who plays the titular Princess, self-identifies as “Irish and Cherokee Indian.” She also cried the first time she read the script. Why? Because she “felt its parallel to Earth was so poignant.”]

Stanton and Chabon let Carter remain a Civil War vet, but the wars that will inevitably haunt their film are Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the trailer, if Carter does not defeat his enemy on Mars, that enemy will attack Earth next. It’s a one-sentence summary of George W. Bush’s foreign policy. The war on Mars sounds a lot like the War on Terrorism.

In a creepy way, that’s appropriate. Burroughs’ character was a hit in part because Carter reflected U.S. foreign policy of 1912. England was done with imperialism, and America was its heir. Our internal frontier was closed. The government fought its last battle with Native tribes in 1898 and seized the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam the same year. To expand our naval capabilities, we instigated the 1903 secession of Panama from Columbia and the construction of the Panama Canal. When Burroughs’ Martian canals were premiering in All-Story, our own canal was just two years from completion. America was the newest global power. And John Carter was our very own superman.

A hundred years later and he still is. It’s not just the Martian weather that never changes. For good and bad, superheroes remain America’s favorite way of mythologizing itself.

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