Green Lantern opened last week to underwhelming box office (particularly in light of its huge budget) and disastrous reviews, and is now shaping up to be one of the biggest financial and creative failures of 2011 – a pricey dud poised not only to torpedo its own burgeoning franchise, but the proposed run of DC Universe movies that Warner Bros. was hoping would replace Harry Potter as its yearly cash cow.
But is it really as awful as you’ve heard? With so much of the modern film discourse dominated by web-based critics and a geek community hype machine that’s often heavily invested in aspects of the material existing apart from the film, can you be sure you’re not getting an inappropriately skewed appraisal? Was Iron Man really that spectacular, or were critics with a fandom background simply whipped into irrational euphoria by Nick Fury announcing the arrival of The Avengers and comic-style continuity to the silver screen? By the same token, is Lantern really so poorly assembled, or are fans just angry about minor details like continuity deviation or costume changes?
Well, my review was one of those disastrous ones – and as far as I’m concerned the answer is that yes, it’s really that bad. (Answer to the Iron Man one: Kinda, yeah – pretty much everything after he saves that village is actually pretty damn forgettable.) However, the concern raised is a valid one. So, here’s what I’m going to do: This piece will be an in-depth appraisal of Green Lantern based only on specific elements of filmmaking – completely excluding the film’s success or failure as an adaptation from the equation. Did they “ruin” the costumes? Is the mythos “butchered?” Perhaps, but for the next few pages none of that matters – this is a Fanboy(ism) Free Zone from here on out.
For the purposes of (relative) brevity, we’ll deal with the film’s major issues in sections. Major spoilers, obviously, follow:
Info Dump Opening
The film opens with a long expository monologue from Tomar-Re (Geoffrey Rush) explaining the entire back story of the Green Lantern Corps, starting with the beginning of the universe and ending an undetermined number of years before the main story. It’s a lot of information all at once: a flood of alien names, alien worlds, mythic histories, even the exact division of sectors in the Universe and the precise distribution of Green Lantern agents therein.
There’s nothing wrong with opening like that – Thor did, after all, and so did Fellowship of The Ring. Sometimes, it’s the only pragmatic way to catch an audience up on a litany of extra knowledge they’ll need to get into the main story. Except in this case, it’s clearly not an organic addition. All of the information it delivers is information we learn again later on. Typically, this is an indicator that the filmmakers have recognized late in the game that their narrative isn’t working, and that the audience may require some training wheels.
That awkwardness would be bad enough, but it also ends up undermining what appears to have been intended as the dramatic arc of the character Sinestro (Mark Strong). In brief: The opening narration informs us that the Green Lantern Corps’ ultimate foe is Parallax, a massive demonic entity powered by “Yellow Fear Energy” that was defeated and imprisoned by Corps member Abin-Sur. Literally moments after we learn this, the actual movie opens with Parallax breaking out of its prison and killing Abin-Sur, who manages to communicate the word “Parallax” to home base before going down. Sinestro, his buddy, doesn’t know exactly what this means, and grows increasingly frustrated that The Guardians (The GL Corps bosses) aren’t being up-front about what Parallax actually is. Eventually, his disillusionment with his superiors leads him to suggest incorporating evil weaponry into the Corps’ arsenal – sending him down a path to becoming a villain himself.
Without the tacked-on narration, this might’ve been an interesting piece of storytelling, leading the audience to sympathize with Sinestro’s frustrations and adding an air of mystery to the Big Menace. But since we’ve already been told exactly what Parallax is – save for an ultimately meaningless detail about why it has a face – and what it does, the tension is gone. Good idea: leaving an audience room to get ahead of the story. Bad idea: forcing them ahead of the story, but then pretending that you didn’t.
Go Nowhere Characters
Quick aside: Most of the issues on this list are symptoms of a bigger issue – that the film has obviously been hacked to pieces in between the conclusion of production and release. It reeks of the all-too-common occurrence of producers realizing that they’ve assembled a bad film and opting to try and soften the damage by cutting it as short as possible in order to maximize the number of shows in a day and hopefully sell more tickets. One of the most visible results is that characters and story points that were clearly meant to be important threads woven throughout the narrative instead appear and disappear with little rhyme or reason.
For example, directly after an overlong action scene lifted from Top Gun where Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) flashes back to the origin of his obligatory childhood tragedy (his dad died in an explosion) while pulling a piloting stunt that establishes him as a reckless hotshot with commitment issues, he drops in on his nephew’s birthday party and has an argument with his brother that reiterates all of the back story and psychology info we just heard.
None of Jordan’s family members will appear in the film again, and nothing we learn hasn’t already been said. Presumably, these people might have had some scenes later on in a longer version of the film – Hal comes out as Green Lantern to pretty much all his friends, so it’d make sense that his brother or at least the nephew he’s obviously close to would be in the know, too – but if that’s not going to be the case why is the scene still here at all? Well, because we’re to understand that Hal’s tinkering with the kid’s Matchbox cars gives him the idea for how he uses his Power Ring in a big action scene, and since you need your big action stuff the otherwise useless scene that foreshadows it has to stay in.
Hal Jordan works as a test pilot for a company that makes military aircraft. So does his ex-girlfriend Carol, whose father owns the company. Said company has a government contract to make self-piloting robot planes, and has invited military brass to watch them in a staged dogfight with his best pilots, Hal and Carol. Hal wins the dogfight by pulling a risky stunt that almost kills him. Carol’s dad is pissed, because since the robot planes lost now the military doesn’t want them.
For starters, why would military brass base their decision on a test being held on the company’s property involving the owner’s daughter, circumstances that could obviously be fixed to deliver the best result? And even forgiving that, how exactly is “You need to commit suicide and destroy your own weapons in order to outmaneuver them” a negative for the robot planes? Why isn’t Carol’s dad worried that more or less openly saying that he’s angry at his own employees for not taking a dive against the drones will get him sued (or arrested!) on suspicion of attempting to defraud The Pentagon?
Also: After sucking at learning to be a Green Lantern on Oa for all of five minutes, Hal says he’s “done” and goes back to Earth to mope in his apartment. But he still has the Ring, which he uses to show off to his buddy, stop a helicopter crash and take Carol on Clark & Lois’ rooftop date from Superman: The Movie. Eventually, he tells us that “I’m done” was actually him quitting the Corps.
Why does he still have the Ring, then? When I quit my job at Best Buy I didn’t even get to keep my blue polo shirt because they don’t want you using it to sneak into other stores’ stockrooms, but you can quit the Green Lanterns and keep your all-powerful super-weapon? If so, why does Sinestro spend the whole 2nd act being mad at The Guardians for not letting him fight Parallax “his way?” – you obviously don’t have to listen to them in order to keep your powers.
The film’s secondary villain, Hector Hammond, is a longtime (childhood?) pal of Hal and Carol. Both men are sweet on Carol, but it was no contest because Hal is a handsome hero jet-pilot and Hector is a prematurely balding Community College science teacher. Everybody likes Hal better – even Hector’s dad, a swaggering Alpha Dog US Senator.
In the present, Hector gets tapped by the government to help do an autopsy on Abin-Sur, the alien who gave Hal the GL Ring. His life continuing to be a funhouse mirror of Hal’s, Hector catches some Parallax germs from the corpse and develops mutant mind powers that he uses to take revenge on everyone who has “wronged” him. This is a good character arc – it’s tragic, relatable, and it puts the cosmic scale dangers of Parallax in human terms for Hal.
The movie completely bungles it with bad structure.
We don’t meet Hector until well into the second act, and he doesn’t have a scene with Hal and Carol or any indication that they have any kind of prior relationship until about an hour into the movie, well after Hector has already gotten zapped and started to turn evil. His supposed unrequited crush on Carol – which only exists in the first place because this is a superhero movie and someone has to kidnap The Girlfriend in Act 3 – is foreshadowed only by an awkward insert-shot of a news clipping on his desk.
Why does this take so long to happen? Hell, Hector doesn’t even go full bad-guy until the same moment that Parallax itself shows up on earth – meaning that Hal fights both villains in the span of a few minutes at the very end. Isn’t the whole point of having a mini-boss bad guy so that they can give the hero something to do in the second act instead of mope around and kill time … which is exactly what happens in this movie?
Lack of Momentum
The Green Lantern is a film that takes place both in Outer Space and on the sprawling alien planet of Oa, and features an entire army of Green Lantern Corps members – all of it rendered entirely using several hundred-million dollars worth of CGI animation. Oa and The Corps figure heavily in the film’s (retooled) advertising – with huge banners depicting Hal Jordan flanked by a litany of strange alien buddies.
Only one of those buddies has more than a few minutes of screen time. The others appear in the film as background extras, without dialogue or even names to call their own. The small portion of the film that actually takes place on Oa is devoted exclusively to expository dialogue and a very brief training sequence. Its action sequences include, in order: Hal flying a plane at the beginning, Hal catching a helicopter, Hal wrestling with a puffy-headed guy, and Hal tricking an angry cloud monster into flying into the Sun. At one point, a handful of nameless Corps members fight Parallax by throwing a net over it and shooting it with lasers for a minute or two.
Beyond that, nothing much happens. The other scenes largely take place on Earth, in and around Hal Jordan’s apartment, where he frets about not being good enough to wear the Ring the Guardians are still letting him keep for some reason and getting pep talks from his friends. There is a incredible lack of action in this action/adventure film, and even the strange alien vistas are presented in the most static way possible. Hal’s scenes on Oa have all the visual dynamism of a three-camera sitcom, and the obligatory “hero fights thugs in an alley” scene looks so much like a mid-1990s TV show I half expected Bulk and Skull to show up.
While it’s inevitable (and deserved) that comics fans will be using Green Lantern as a punch line for its numerous sins as an adaptation (are “glowy veins” the new “bat-nipples”?) its true failings are in the realm of basic moviemaking. This is Film Studies 101 stuff – the kind of problems you’d expect to find in an amateur YouTube production. And when you contrast it against the ginormous wall (soon to be ginormous discount-bin) of Green Lantern baubles at your local Wal-Mart, the picture becomes depressingly clear – and depressingly familiar. This is what happens when the people making the movie are interested in everything but making the actual movie.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.