The superhero age started at DC Comics, and DC icons Superman and Batman made their big-screen debuts before Marvel Comics was a glint in Stan Lee’s eye. In recent years, though, Marvel characters—the X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man, etc.—have taken over Hollywood while Superman and Batman’s costumed peers—Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman—have waited in the wings. Green Lantern is the first big-screen debut for a costumed character from the DC universe outside the Superman and Batman franchises.*
If that first paragraph (and note) is way too geeky for you, you are not the target audience for Green Lantern, a superhero movie that is very much for comic-book fans. Green Lantern comes to the screen with more mythological baggage than most: the Guardians of the Universe, a super-ancient race of philosopher-kings who live on the planet Oa; the Green Lantern Corps, with their power rings that run on the green energy of will-power; the dangerous contrary yellow energy of fear. Rather than try to minimize its comic-book silliness, Green Lantern embraces it, from the mostly straight-faced storytelling to the computer-augmented hyperreality of the production design, which looks more comic-booky than any superhero movie I can think of, including this spring’s Thor.
If only the filmmakers had put as much creative energy into the character of Hal Jordan as they did into his lovingly rendered CGI-enhanced suit, which pulses and glows as it hugs every bulge and swell on Ryan Reynolds’ impeccably sculpted torso. Impressed with the popular success of Iron Man, they’ve turned their hero into the big-screen Tony Stark’s screw-up kid brother, an irresponsible, wisecracking, self-destructive womanizer with absent-daddy issues who flies military planes instead of running a military contracting firm.
Counting Thor, that’s three recent comic-book bad-boy heroes who need to grow up and learn responsibility. Of the three, only Iron Man’s flawed hero is persuasively humbled, hits rock bottom, is forced to face the consequences of his irresponsible ways and fundamentally reexamine his priorities. When Hal encounters a dying alien warrior who entrusts him with an awesome power ring, he does ask some uncomfortable questions about himself. As with Thor, though, there’s no moment of truth like Tony’s experience in that terrorist camp — or like Peter Parker holding his dying uncle, for instance. When Hal suddenly starts acting like a noble superhero, it doesn’t feel earned.
Complicating matters is the element of destiny or fate. Unlike Tony Stark, a manifestly flawed man whose power came from necessity and invention, Hal was chosen for great power by the ring itself, which (we’re told) never makes mistakes. Thus, Hal must already have the makings of a hero — but why? It’s a question that baffles him, his friends, the Green Lantern Corps, the audience, and perhaps the filmmakers, who offer a few unconvincing stabs at an answer. “Maybe on their planet ‘responsible’ means ‘a‑‑hole,’” muses Hal’s friend Tom Kalmaku (Taika Waititi). Real friends tell you the truth.
There are some redemptive flashes. I like the way Hal’s first response on seeing the dying alien, after a moment of shock, is to leap into action to try to save him, with no thought of risk — and how, genuinely distraught when the alien dies, Hal buries him, telling Tom that he couldn’t leave him lying there. In the comics Hal is originally chosen for his fearlessness, but the movie goes beyond this, invoking the idea of courage as acting in spite of fear rather than as its absence. (In Christian tradition, burying the dead is one of the seven corporal works of mercy, while courage is one of the four cardinal virtues.)
But it’s not enough. The movie jokes about the Green Lantern oath (and they’re funny jokes), but never considers the moral significance of that oath, or how Hal is or is not bound by it. In the end, Hal seems to suggest that the ring chose him for his flying skills. Toward the end, when Hal goes to the Guardians to plead for help saving the earth, the movie doesn’t even seem sure why human beings are worth saving. At least, Hal’s speech isn’t very moving, even in a corny, comic-booky way. (Where’s Roland Emmerich when you need him?)
Reynolds is game, but lacks Downey Jr.’s larger-than-life charisma. The supporting cast fares somewhat better. Peter Sarsgaard is entertainingly skeevy and over-the-top as embittered biologist Hector Hammond, called in by the government to examine the alien corpse. Mark Strong has terrific presence as a senior GL warrior named Sinestro, whose name tips off even the uninitiated that he is destined for the dark side. As Carol Ferris, Hal’s boss, fellow pilot and love interest, Blake Lively is no Gwyneth Paltrow, but at least she has more of a character than Natalie Portman in Thor — and she gets one of the funniest moments in any superhero movie, a send-up of the whole genre.
I like a movie that’s not afraid to bite off more than it can chew, but pitting the novice GL against Parallax, a cosmic energy being that represents an existential threat to the entire GL Corps and the Guardians, is a mistake. It diminishes the Corps as well as leaving sequels little place to go. I’m not saying there will be sequels, but, well, it’s a vicious circle, isn’t it?
At the same time, the action is pretty paltry, at least until the end. GL’s earthly debut consists of a single stunt rescuing an out-of-control helicopter. After that, there are two brief indoor fight scenes before the big climax. Hal’s friend Tom chides him for the banality of the helicopter rescue, essentially a Hot Wheels stunt writ large. The same charge applies to the filmmakers: Couldn’t they have come up with more visionary ways to use a power ring that can create anything one can visualize? Please do not write and tell me that they were limited by Hal’s imagination. That’s why God created suspension of disbelief, and anyway, this isn’t a movie that’s worried about plausibility or plot holes.
If it were, the government would not have responded to the discovery of an extraterrestrial corpse by pulling in a single biologist with sketchy qualifications, no matter how connected he was. (See the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still for a much better scenario.) A fight scene at a lab would not begin with GL appearing unexplained, or end abruptly without explaining what happened. A later fight scene would not leave viewers wondering whether GL can or can’t control the ring when he’s not wearing it. Oh — and in the whole film we only see him charge the ring once. Going in to the third act, the ring sputters once during a deep-space flight (now would be a bad time to run out of juice) — but then he goes the whole climax with no trouble, right up to the end.
A few lines about the power and dangers of fear hover on the edge of topicality and thoughtfulness, but when the dialogue turns to will as the strongest source of energy in the universe, and how will is stronger than fear, I found myself wondering whether we really need an Ayn Randian Superman, and where the biblical notion that “perfect love casts out fear” would fit into this schema.†
In the end, the filmmakers seem not to appreciate the idea of expanding DC’s big-screen presence beyond Superman and Batman. At a time when Marvel movies are savvily building a cross-franchise universe toward next year’s Avengers film, a flying man in a green suit appears in a new cinematic world — and there’s no sense of what that world makes of him. The first time Hal’s friend Tom sees the suit, he chortles, “You’re a super hero!” Does he mean “like in comic books and movies”? Or “like those guys over in Metropolis and Gotham City”? If you aren’t interested in questions like that, why are you making this movie?
* Geek notes: Catwoman is an extension of the Batman franchise, while Supergirl and Steel are Superman spin-off characters (even if the Steel movie spins the character further from his origins). Swamp Thing and Jonah Hex are not “costumed characters,” and, while Watchmen was published by DC, it’s not part of the “DC universe,” and its characters are not Superman and Batman’s “peers.” Also, I did not say that Superman was the first superhero. Go ahead, pick another nit.
† I looked it up. In the comics there’s a whole ROYGBIV “emotional spectrum” from “rage” (red) to “love” (violet), with “will” (green) right in the middle. According to Wikipedia’s account, love is the “most pure” emotion but also “just as distorting as rage.” None of this is in the film, though.
Green Lantern: my “Reel Faith” review.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.