The dead-inside Pirates of the Caribbean franchise may still be vacuuming up money globally for Disney, but creatively it ceased all coolness activities around the time of the underwater skeleton army and the guy with the tentacle-face. It could go on forever but it shouldn't.
What should have been good news, then, was a ready-made franchise just sitting around waiting in some very old books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, about a guy named John Carter of Mars. All they had to do was make sure it was well made, didn't cost a quarter of a billion all by itself and market it properly to let potential audiences know the story's impressive pedigree.
Except it did cost a quarter of a billion to make. And have you seen the trailer? No, not the coherent, meaningful one cut together by a fan on YouTube. I mean the official trailer, the one that makes absolutely no sense, doesn't explain why you should even want to go see something about a guy named John Carter and, worst of all, comes off like another attempt to sell audiences something like Prince of Persia. Somehow, in all the lead-up time, nobody bothered to make the decision to tell ticket-buyers that everything they ever loved about sci-fi/fantasy/action/adventure films like Star Wars and Avatar, or the idea of a man being able to fly like, say, Superman, all found its origins in the John Carter stories. It's like they're trying to fail before it even gets to theaters.
Good thing the movie itself is awesome.
Yes, it's full of worn tropes thanks to decades of inspired borrowing from every other great adventure that made it out the gate first, but those ideas have been given an infusion of fresh energy by director Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, Finding Nemo) and a huge team who all worked on making sure that the old-fashioned idea of going to Mars wasn't going to bore you into a two-hour nap. So when burned-out Civil War soldier John Carter winds up on on the angry red planet (a medallion whooshes him there, just fyi) caught between rival warring races, aided by a princess, helpful aliens and a heroic lizard-dog, you'll brush off that nagging "seen this somewhere before" sense of familiarity.
And it doesn't hurt that it all looks great, engages your brain, sense of humor and emotions while delivering spectacular fight sequences, spaceships and creatures (personally, I was really into the giant, white, four-armed battle-apes). It's packed with just about everything except Ziggy Stardust and those spiders of his. Smarter still was the casting of non-household-names like Taylor Kitsch from Friday Night Lights and Lynn Collins from, well, a lot of stuff where she never fully stood out before. Look, you'd never heard of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford or Carrie Fisher before a certain point either.
The other day a friend whose kids are all boys said to me, "I want this to be the kind of movie where my sons leave the theater punching each other." He's in luck, because the best praise I can give to this exciting popcorn blowout is that his kids are going to wrestle each other into a dangerous backseat driving distraction, giving him the opportunity to say every Dad's favorite threat, "Do I have to pull this car over?"