In a Marvel dominated 2011, DC had just one hope this year: Green Lantern. Perhaps not as well known as Batman, Superman, or the X-Men, but an old fan favourite and a character with a great history of superb stories to choose from; intelligent plots, multilayered characters, and traditional fights between good and evil.
In many cases it is unfair to compare the original comics with the film adaptation, but it is perhaps inevitable when a movie so spectacularly wastes its rich source material. At a cost of £200 million, Green Lantern manages to disappoint even the lowest expectations, particularly in comparison to the wonderful, and perhaps equally difficult to realise, Thor. There is only one possible explanation: this is in fact a children’s movie.
If you like your superhero movies light and fluffy, and suitable for the under-tens, then this is the film for you. That’s not to be dismissive; in a world where comic book films are becoming increasingly dark, there is certainly a place for kid-friendly super-films. But for those who prefer their superhero movies dark and adult, Green Lantern is a huge let down after the recent success of some great Marvel movies, and of course DC stablemate Batman. Visually impressive when not looked at too closely, director Martin Campbell has failed to bring his Bond touch to this endeavour.
With a set-up a little more complicated than “alien baby falls to Earth” or “my parents are dead and bats are scary”, Green Lantern was always going to be a harder sell. In brief, the Green Lanterns are an intergalactic peacekeeping force, bending the power of will to their command in order to keep the inhabitants of the universe safe. The Lanterns are chosen by power rings that locate a person with strong willpower to wield their force. By using their willpower, a Green Lantern can create physical constructs made of energy: large green fists for example, or a minigun if you prefer. The ring also enables the Lantern to fly, both on planet and between galaxies. It also projects a nifty green suit on to your body, complete with a mask to protect your identity.
When one Lantern dies, the ring finds another wearer in the closest population. Eventually it had to happen near Earth, and ace pilot Hal Jordan was the first (for all intents and purposes) chosen. Some of the other Lanterns are concerned about this young species member wearing a ring, but sure enough his humanity turns out to be his greatest strength and he saves the day, becoming one of the greatest Lanterns of all time.
It’s not actually that complicated, and the comics certainly don’t each begin with a recap. The film however takes a different tack, beginning not with Hal or with perhaps the incident in his youth that made him the man he is today, but with a voiceover reminiscent of a catch-up at the beginning of a TV episode, explaining all of the above. It’s jarring and dated, and takes away most of the experience of discovering things through the hero’s eyes. It is however perfect for younger viewers, stalling the first “but why…?”.
Ryan Reynolds is as likeable as ever in this film, using his comedic timing and puppy dog eyes to great effect. In the comics, Hal is a much straighter character, but the humour works well here to offset the slightly ridiculous plot events. Hal has it all but is haunted by the death of his fearless father, thus succumbing to fear himself. This is hammered home fairly often, so we can fully appreciate the easily understandable story of the hero resisting responsibility until the last possible second when he realises he can overcome his fear. He even has time to give his nephew a quick hug to further underscore just who the target audience is.
In muddling about with the comics, the film cripples one of the greatest villains: Parallax. The giant sentient embodiment of fear that can destroy entire civilisations is rather impressive to begin with, but the deaths later are fairly incidental with little emotional gravity given to their passing. The cloud beast is in fact rather unintelligent which seems at odds with the fear it is inspiring in the Lanterns. In the comics, it is Hal himself who eventually becomes Parallax in his grief and madness, making the villain that much more compelling.
A manically gleeful performance from Peter Sarsgaard ensures that the film does have a wonderfully creepy villain, as Dr. Hector Hammond turns from unappreciated son to cackling madman. His monstrous transformation is shown physically, again perhaps for the younger audience, and becomes a purely evil character without any hint of nuance. Suitably wretched though, Sarsgaard is perhaps more suited to being the main villain than the many tentacled cloud of doom.
Mark Strong excels as Sinestro, but is given far too little to work with. One of the greatest characters in the Green Lantern mythos, Sinestro is a dedicated Lantern with sinister origins. His desire for peace gives way to an increasing obsession with order, and when his totalitarian dictatorship is exposed, so begins his career as the greatest Green Lantern enemy. There’s a little bit of set-up for this throughout the film, but it’s all very obvious with none of the subtlety that makes Sinestro such a delightfully devious character.
Interestingly, for such a large peacekeeping force we only ever see three other Lanterns throughout the film, the rest appearing only as a backdrop. And yes, the rumours are true, the underboobage is back. In the first trailer for the film shown at Wondercon, the one female Green Lantern to be seen was shown with a big hole cut out of her costume, showcasing her breasts. After a bit of uproar, later trailers showed her in a normal Lantern costume like everyone else. In the film? The original costume is back – apparently Green Lanterns are fine with women as long as they display their boobs.
Green Lantern also spectacularly fails the Bechdel test, with only two women in the film who speak, with non-overlapping roles. Blake Lively is sweet as Carol Ferris, Hal’s boss and long-time love interest. Carol is a hotshot pilot herself, as well as a brilliant businesswoman but here sadly she is made to look a little pathetic, wistfully looking out for a man who spends his time jumping into bed with everyone else, and reaffirming the ego of her beloved man-child. Angela Bassett is an absolute scene stealer as DC’s legendary Dr. Amanda Waller, but again given far too little screen time.
The main issue with the film is that it is terribly shallow. Characters are simple, either clearly good or definitely evil, and there is little character progression beyond the obvious realisations. It’s an origins story without any great origins. The use of flashbacks is uninspired, the special effects are annoyingly and persistently green, and there seems to be no real public reaction to the appearance of a superhero in modern day America. We don’t even get a montage of Hal saving the day all over the world while testing his powers, as surely a hero would be wont to do.
It’s enjoyable enough with some great performances, but ultimately it’s hard to care about characters you know very little about. Sure the set-up is maybe a little hard to swallow, and the humour is certainly necessary, but Thor conquered the very same problems with aplomb.
For kids though, it’s a classic tale of a heroic man becoming a hero, getting awesome powers, and saving the day. All while being cheered on by an adoring (and gorgeous) woman. In space.