Carter goes from being captured and enslaved by a tribe of the six-armed Tharks led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), and later pulled into the conflict between the reddish-brown skinned denizens of the kingdoms of Helium and Zodanga who conveniently color-coordinate so you can tell who's who during battles. The Zodangans are led by Sab Than (Dominic West) who possess a disintegrating ray which has felled many kingdoms and now he's got his eyes on Helium and its princess, Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) but then he's got mysterious benefactors pulling his strings personified by Mark Strong's character Matai Shang.
Will John Carter find something to fight for? Will he find love with the beautiful princess? Will there be much smashing and dispatching of enemies? An emphatic yes on all counts.
The real joy of John Carter is that it's a big action adventure movie that's not above having a sense of humor, but it's also hampered by how unrelentingly dour Taylor Kitsch plays the character for most of its running time. The Friday Night Lights actor has a naturalistic style that's not really up to the high action the movie warrants, and really goes kind of serious and internal with the role. Carter's back story is that he lost his wife during the war and now doesn't want to fight, and you can see that informing nearly every scene that Kitsch is in. But it's a movie that calls for swashbuckling adventure, making his performance feel at right angles more often than not to the action onscreen.
Dafoe and Collins fare far better in their respective roles, really embracing the pulp sensibility of the material. Tars is a wise leader looking to bring progress to his people, and Dafoe invests the character with dignity and a certain amount of playfulness which works well for the CG creation. Collins is a fierce heroine here, smart, funny, sexy, and dangerous, and you'll spend a good chunk of John Carter wishing the actress had a male lead who was able to keep up with her. In their smaller, but still no less fun roles, Strong and West shine (the last couple of years have made it amply clear that if Strong shows up as your heavy, at least that particular element of your movie will be excellent), along with Ciarán Hinds and James Purefoy who both deserved more time onscreen.
The action is beautifully staged and kinetic thanks to Stanton's camera, allowing the high-jumping Carter to feel like he has weight when he moves or swings and 100-lb chain through an enemy (this movie has a veritable pile of dead alien bodies by its end).
Again, the movie's not any kind of revelation, and is undone somewhat by the near century's-worth of comics, radio programs, TV, and film that have mined its source material, but that doesn't make it any less worthy or pleasurable to watch.
The disc includes an audio commentary with Andrew Stanton and producers Jim Morris and Lindsey Collins, the featurette "100 Years in the Making," "360 Degrees of John Carter," a blooper reel, and deleted scenes.