Warner Brothers has made a taut, exciting entertainment out of the Green Lantern comic books. Unfortunately, it’s not the new movie that just opened, with a reported budget approaching $200 million. It’s an episode of the Superman animated series from over a decade ago, which manages to tell the Green Lantern origin story in a lean 22 minutes, and packs those frames with wonder and excitement.
What the studio has splashed across multiplex screens this weekend is a bloated, incoherent, badly-paced mess. Its problems are more interesting than what it does right, but there is some brightest day mixed in with the blackest night.
Despite early apprehension from comic fans, Ryan Reynolds is one of the bright spots, not one of the problems. He tries to have some fun in a film that alternates between sullen obedience to convention, and attempts to act profound after huge bong hits of CGI animation.
There’s also a brief sequence, where our hero visits the alien world of Oa to receive training in the use of his new powers, that is very entertaining, and captures a little of the cosmic wonder that sets Green Lantern apart from other superheroes. Unfortunately, this sequence feels like it was kidnapped from another movie and spliced awkwardly into the unhappy Earth-bound film around it.
The strength of the Green Lantern concept is another asset. I get the impression from talking with non-comic-book fans that they found the character intriguing, and wish this movie had done more with him. If Green Lantern pulls in enough box office despite its flaws, the post-credits teaser hints at far more interesting things to come. For longtime fans of the comics, it really is a kick to see a squadron of Lanterns soar into battle.
The biggest problem with this movie is impossible to fully discuss without spoiling the plot of a sequel that may never make it to the screen, so I’ll try to put it in vague terms: Green Lantern commits the cardinal sin of saving the hero’s true archenemy for a hypothetical second installment, and expects us to settle for a couple of B-listers instead. A creepy dude with a bulging forehead, and the angry cloud he worships, are no substitute for the enemy that would have challenged our hero on every level: thematic, emotional, philosophical, and physical. Christopher Nolan got away with saving the heavy artillery for a sequel in Batman Begins because movie audiences had already seen Batman battle the Joker, and because, hey, he’s Christopher Nolan. No one associated with Green Lantern is playing in his league.
Green Lantern is the story of a cocky, irresponsible test pilot named Hal Jordan, who becomes the first human chosen to join the Green Lantern Corps, a gathering of 3600 alien heroes from across the universe who have defended peace and justice for millennia, under the watchful eyes of the enigmatic Guardians. They do this with rings that harness willpower, and allow ring-bearers to create green energy constructs of anything they can imagine.
They’re not magic rings. Clarke’s Law, people.
Jordan gets inducted into the Corps when its “finest warrior,” Abin Sur, becomes a corpse. He’s killed by Parallax, a monster that harnesses the yellow energy of fear, and plans to make a snack of Earth on its way to destroy the Corps homeworld of Oa. Exposure to a fragment of Parallax mutates a weird scientist named Hector Hammond into an even weirder secondary villain, who becomes what Professor Charles Xavier would be like if David Lynch was allowed to make an X-Men movie. He’s even tooling around in a wheelchair by the time the finale rumbles to life.
Worse than its arrogance in holding back the really great villain until next time, Green Lantern has no theme. It feels pointless because it doesn’t know what story to tell with the huge number of boring humans who clog up the script, or the amazing aliens who hover in the background, but largely refuse to engage themselves with the plot. (For a group of 3600 super-cops whose beat is the entire universe, the Green Lanterns spend a lot of time milling aimlessly around at their headquarters. They’ve got thousands of galaxies apiece to patrol, and a horrible Thing That Should Not Be on its way to wipe them out, but only a handful of them do anything. Are the rest busy using their rings to send green holographic images of their junk to random women they met on the Internet?)
The writers are the ones who really failed this movie. They’re not witty enough to make the moments of comedy sparkle. A funny little scene that points out the limited disguise value of Green Lantern’s tiny mask hints at the kind of humor that would have made the rest of the film more charming.
The writers aren’t imaginative enough to make Green Lantern the science-fiction epic it really wants to be. Instead, they stuff it into an ill-fitting superhero costume, working their way through a checklist of tired clichés. Hero and villain rise to glory and descend into madness through intercut montage? Check! Hero recalls traumatic incident that shaped his personality? Check! Villain and hero both attracted to the same woman? Check! Hero has big debut in front of astonished crowd bristling with cameras? Check!
The laziness of the writing is evident in the huge amount of backstory delivered through clumsy data dumps. There’s a tedious opening monologue that recites the history of the Green Lantern Corps, which we should be learning at the same time as our uninitiated hero. (In fact, we have to sit through it again when the same character who delivers the opening monologue explains things to Hal Jordan later.) Flashbacks erupt at odd moments, as if the film is pausing to let us read the characters’ biographies. We even get a lengthy flashback for a completely irrelevant minor character that is mostly in the movie as fan service for DC Comics readers, with a fine actress wasted on playing her.
The script wants to be a meditation on the nature of fear, and how courageous people overcome it, but it’s written in crayon. It hints at a galaxy-spanning space opera, but spends most of its time moping around on Earth. It beats cosmic marvels into the background, so it can tell the story of a man who finally makes a jailbreak from arrested adolescence. Hammond is only in the film because supervillains are obligatory in superhero movies. It’s painful watching the writers fumble around for a way to patch him into the Hal Jordan story: he’s got a thing for Hal’s girl, or he’s got daddy issues, or he’s hungry for power, or he’s a tragic victim… whatever, dude, he’s got a big head, and we need someone for Green Lantern to beat on.
It would be fascinating to explore the morality of the ancient Guardians of Oa and their drive to impose order on a cruel and random universe. A writer of Christopher Nolan’s skill could have even made that feel relevant to current events, especially if there was a character who would challenge the philosophy of the Guardians by pointing out that they’ve given their powerful Green Lanterns an impossible task, and hobbled them with restrictive rules of engagement.
You know what? There is a character like that. You’ll get a tantalizing glimpse of him if you sit through the ending credits. Unfortunately, you’ve got to make it through a $200 million movie about nothing to get there.