A Beginner’s Guide to John Carter’s Mars

This Friday, Finding Nemo and WALL•E director Andrew Stanton will go where no other filmmaker has managed to go before, as he tackles the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs in Disney’s John Carter, and genre fans, whether in comics or movies, may be pleasantly surprised by the familiarity of some of the themes, being that Burroughs’ work had such a huge creative influence on fantasy and science fiction writers in the hundred years since the first book, “A Princess of Mars.”

By now, you’re likely to have seen the commercials and trailers, but maybe you haven’t read any of the Edgar Rice Burroughs books yet. Since it’s opening in a few days, you probably won’t have time, but don’t worry, we’re here to help.

The sad fact is that John Carter of Mars hasn’t remained as iconic as Superman or Sherlock Holmes or Spider-Man or other fictional characters whose stories everyone knows. That’s why we’ve put together this brief overview of some of the characters and races encountered by the protagonist of the title. Unfortunately, this may not be stuff you can get from the commercials, nor should you, since director Andrew Stanton probably would want moviegoers to discover the wonders of Barsoom and its inhabitants for themselves by seeing the movie. That said, while Stanton’s movie is a really fun action adventure, for some moviegoers, it’s going to be a lot of information to absorb all at once.

Ironically, a lot of the information here is courtesy of Disney’s production notes, which act as a scorecard that makes it easier to appreciate the movie and all the different characters and races on Barsoom. We also got a bit of help from Josh Kushins’ “The Art of John Carter: A Visual Journey,” a companion book being released by Disney Editions and Encyclopedia Barsoomia. You may be surprised to learn that most of the cast in John Carter also have appeared in other comic-related movies.

Best of all, we’re going to keep this brief guide relatively SPOILER-FREE, which means you can learn just enough to watch the movie without major plot points being spoiled. Cool?

We’ll start with John Carter himself, as played by Taylor Kitsch from “Friday Night Lights” and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. He is human. Doh.

What you may not have realized before the 10-minute clip released over the weekend, John Carter is not from our time. The movie actually takes place in the 19th Century with Captain John Carter being a cavalryman from Virginia who finds a cave full of gold where he encounters a mysterious man carrying an amulet that transports him to Mars. (This aspect of the John Carter story was clearly a huge influence on the DC Comics superhero Adam Strange.) His nephew is a young guy named “Edgar Rice Burroughs” (played by former “Spy Kid” Daryl Sabara) but that’s all we’re going to say about him.

We soon arrive on Barsoom, the planet we know as Mars, and that’s where things get both confusing and exciting as we’re immediately thrust into a civil war between two humanoid races: the Heliumites and the Zodangans, both races covered in red tattoos with the main visual differential being the blue flags of the former and red flags of the latter. The conflict rises from the Zodangans stripping Barsoom of its resources with their enormous moving city, called “the predator city,” but the citizens of Helium refuse to be usurped so easily so they fight back.

The “Princess of Mars,” from the title of Burroughs first John Carter book, is Dejah Thoris, played by Lynn Collins (also from X-Men Origins: Wolverine), who not only has been trained in all matters of fighting but is also a Regent at the Royal Academy of Science, making her quite intelligent. Her father Tardos Mors, played by Ciaran Hinds (Ghost Rider Spirit of Vengeance), is the King (Jeddak) of Helium and he’s reached a point where they’re about to lose everything to the Zodangans and their powerful new energy weapon. The last Heliumite of note is Kantos Kan, as played by James Purefoy (Solomon Kane), the loyal admiral of Helium’s “Air Navy” leading their airships against those of Zodanga.

Leading the oppressive empirical Zodangans in their quest to invade Helium and stripmine it of all their valuable resources is Sab Than (Dominic West from 300), who is given a powerful weapon as the story begins and only agrees to a cease fire with the Heliumites if Tardos Mors agrees to give him the hand of his daughter Dejah in marriage.

The third humanoid race of Barsoom, and the most intriguing one, are the mysterious Therns, powerful ancients thought to have a direct connection to “The Goddess,” the deity praised by all of Barsoom. These mythical beings, who few believe exist, are able to shapeshift into different forms to keep their identities secret, travel across long distances at the blink of an eye and have other telekinetic powers. Manipulating Sab Than and making the situation between the two races worse is Matai Shang, a powerful Thern played by the inimitable Mark Strong (Green Lantern), who gives Sab Than power in the form of an unstoppable weapon. Sab Than may remind some of Mr. Smith from “The Matrix Trilogy.”

Then there’s Barsoom’s non-humanoid race, the indigenous Tharks. 9-foot tall, green, four arms and large tusks protruding from their heads, they’re the most alien inhabitants of Barsoom and the ones most different from us, which may be why they’re played in the movie as performance capture. The Tharks may not have direct involvement in the war between Zodanga and Helium, but the stakes can’t be higher as they are the most deeply affected by the Zodangans turning their planet into a dry, barren wasteland. While the war may be meant as an allegory for the Civil War, the Tharks are Barsoom’s version of the Native American tribes that were most affected by the white men from Europe who swept across America.

There are many different factions of Thark on Barsoom, but the ones encountered by Carter is led by their jettak or king, Tars Tarkas, as portrayed by Willem Dafoe (the Green Goblin in Spider-Man), who is intrigued by the “white worm” he finds in the wasteland who has abilities beyond the “redskins” they’ve spent their lives hiding from. On arriving at the Thark camp, Carter meets Sola (Samantha Morton), one of the rare Tharks who shows him kindness, something that adds to her outcast among her people who have branded her with marks from her constantly showing weakness.

Though the Tharks will eventually accept John Carter as one of their own, there is dissension in the ranks in the form of the General Tal Hajus (performed by Thomas Haden Church, the Sandman from Spider-Man 3), who challenges Tars Tarkas for the leadership of the Tharks. Sola’s nemesis within the tribe is Sarkoja (Polly Walker), who follows Tal Hajus’ edict that no one in the tribe can show any form of weakness.

Lastly, we have our favorite character in the movie, Woola, Sola’s pet Calot, an enormous creature that looks like a cross between a dog and a dinosaur. If you read Fantastic Four comics, you may know Lockjaw, the Inhumans’ giant teleporting bulldog, who may as well have been inspired by Woola.

Hopefully the above will help you get into the swing of things when you check out John Carter on Friday, March 9.

You can learn more about the worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars by reading his books (most of them available as free E-books) or pick up Josh Kushins’ “The Art of John Carter: A Visual Journey,” published by Disney Editions. If you don’t have time, you can also learn more over at Encyclopedia Barsoomia and check out our interviews with director Andrew Stanton here and his cast here, and if that’s not enough, you can read our earlier set reports here.