Why The Russos Are The Best Thing to Happen to the MCU Since Joss Whedon
In which Bill finally gets around to taking a critical look at the Green Lantern movie, which may be playing in your local second-run theater, possibly under its foreign market title of “Green Screen Lantern.” There will be SPOILERS, but you’ve all seen it by now anyway.
High school students have, for decades, read and written about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and more specifically, that damn green light across the bay. The eponymous Gatsby reaches out to it– as your English teacher would tell you, it represents hopes and dreams that are forever out of reach, as well as the sublime fear and promise of a new land– but it remains ever elusive. Something similar happens within this new motion picture entitled Green Lantern. Here, the green light signifies the power of will, formed into glowing energy constructs, but willpower alone cannot construct a proper story, or a large box office return, two things that seem out of reach, across the bay.
Green Lantern‘s not a bad movie, but it’s not great, either; it’s just okay. Like the “G” in “ROY G BIV,” it falls right in the middle of the superhero spectrum. I’m not a Green Lantern guy, as these things go– I like the concept and ideas but rarely the execution. Funnily enough, the movie works out the same way. The ways in which it doesn’t work, however, are oddly fascinating.
Pop culture has become inundated with superheroes once again, this time in film, where they lead shiny box office draws to compete against sparkling vampires, boy wizards, and amnesiac drunks. The occasional superhero movie used to be an event, either worshiped or mocked– it won’t shame me to admit I thought the neon toy commercial called Batman & Robin was the best movie I’d ever seen when it came out, but I’m sure others would disagree with my young self– but now, as we’ve become so inured to the similar storytelling beats of the superhero origin, some of these superhero movies fall between the two poles of love and hate, greeted with shrugs. The stories are no longer new or exciting, as the superhero genre has become commonplace. The film version of “the Green Lantern” is apparently one such movie, so intent on cohering to the superhero movie paradigm that it loses sight of telling a full or proper story. It’s paint-by-numbers, but almost every number asks for green (the rest call for yellow).
Green Lantern is ostensibly the story of a cocky pilot named Hal Jordan who secretly suffers from fears of failure and commitment. When an alien falls from the sky and bequeaths to Hal a magic ring, he must learn to become a true hero and save the Earth from a giant angry cloud. Ryan Reynolds plays our hero, and he follows the Bruce Campbell school of acting for this picture, playing a cocksure guy flung into a ridiculous circumstance, who has to learn to deal with it even as his decisions bite him in the ass. Heck, Hal even pulls out a green chainsaw at one point.
The reason I like Reynolds so much isn’t just his roguish charm, but his reactions to things. Like Buried, in which the audience spends 90 minutes trapped in a box with him, Green Lantern relies entirely on his reactions, because he’s often the only real thing onscreen. If he believes it, so will we, but we don’t always see it in his eyes. Take the image at the top of this post, for example; is that the steely determination of Hal Jordan, or the bored resignation to weeks of green screen work? Reynolds’ early reactions to his kidnapping by Abin Sur or his one-sided conversation with the lantern itself remind me of Campbell battling skeleton puppets and shouting at the Necronomicon in Army of Darkness. There’s a blatant artificiality to the proceedings, but the leading man throws himself into it with enough gusto for him and her indoors to buy into what the film’s selling.
Unfortunately, this attitude doesn’t last throughout the entire movie, because Hal Jordan must undergo a “hero’s journey” which supposedly consists of him becoming a better man and discovering his inner courage thanks to the circumstances in which he finds himself, but which comes off to the audience like a man complaining about the amazing power he’s been given until the plot decides it’s time for the final confrontation. The movie spends a lot of time on Hal’s initial “fearlessness,” which at first seems like a self-destructive death wish, but later stands revealed as a combination of daddy issues and avoidance. He’s actually a man composed entirely of fear, the movie insists– afraid of love, or of becoming his father, or being eaten by a space cloud, it’s never entirely made clear. We see him brush off the concern of his family (who disappear after their only scene in the first act), and concern for his career, but we see him tormented by the memory of his father’s death, his feelings for Carol Ferris, and the responsibility of being a superhero. Right before the big climax, his love interest tells him to man up, and all of a sudden he’s overcome his issues.
Conveniently, the show spends an awful lot of expository time setting up the twin powers of willpower and fear, represented in green and yellow hues, which bleed into the production. Most modern movies rely on your standard teal-and-orange color scheme, but Green Lantern shifts that to a green-and-yellow pattern. The story suffers from confused themes; Hal’s “humanity” enables him to think outside the box and defeat the drone planes in the first act, and presumably helps him do the same to Parallax in the third, though the movie doesn’t make it clear how, aside from his willingness to put himself in deadly danger to achieve victory– recklessness, rather than fearlessness. The script tries to tie his humanity into an ability to overcome fear, as Hal makes a big speech about being “only human,” and how that’s a good thing– why he didn’t say “where there’s a will, there’s a way” in this part, I have no idea– but how his humanity helps him save the day, it’s never made clear. Green vs. yellow, will vs. fear– in the end, it boils down to the fear response, in which our pilot hero must choose fight or flight.
But like I said above, that’s only ostensibly what the movie’s about. Looked at from a different perspective, however, the movie’s really about an unfortunate scientist named Hector Hammond.
Hector Hammond, as played with scenery-slurping zest by Peter Sarsgaard, serves as the dark mirror image of Hal Jordan, but accidentally becomes a far more sympathetic character than our actual hero. Whereas Hal Jordan is a handsome ladies’ man who flies cool jets, Hector Hammond is an academic, balding nerd who thinks mustaches are cool and pines after girls from afar– that is to say, he’s far more alike to the geeky audience the movie hopes to woo than is Hal. Hector is also the only character in the movie who really seems interested in the implications of all the science-fictiony alien stuff happening around him, from interstellar travel and spaceman biology to will-driven energy manipulation; everyone else in the movie just sort of takes it in stride. It’s his curiosity, his drive to understand more about the universe around him, that leads him to be sort-of-possessed by the yellow fear energy of Parallax or whatever the hell happens to him that gives him a bulging cranium and psychic powers.
Whilst Hal Jordan is haunted by the specter of his dead father, Hector is haunted by his living, breathing father, a passive-aggressive Senator played by Tim Robbins. Senator Hammond gives his son opportunities but isn’t surprised when he doesn’t live up to expectations. In fact, Hector can’t even live up to his father’s hairline. Robbins appears completely wasted in the role, a character that only exists to make the plot slightly more convenient, and to die in a way which mirrors the death of Hal’s father.
Once Hector– and it’s still completely baffling to me that a 200 million dollar superhero movie chose Hector Hammond as its lead villain, but I digress– gains his powers and begins to mutate, Sarsgaard plays him as the creepiest movie villain of all time, taking full advantage of Hammond’s lumpy body that degrades even as his mind upgrades, which makes the predatory sexuality and inhuman caterwaul that Sarsgaard gives the character even more frightening and off-putting. And yet, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the guy as the entire universe took a steaming dump on him.
Hector’s some poor schlub trying to make good, whereas Hal is consistently handed everything in the universe on an emerald platter. The powers the two develop– Hal’s ability to create objects he dreams up, and Hector’s to manipulate the objects around him with his mind– are actually thematically opposed to their characters. Whereas everything falls into place around Hal whether he wills it so or not, from pretty ladies to cosmic power, Hector spends a great deal of time and willpower forging his own path, as he’s not gifted by the gods like Hal. Hector’s downfall comes from an outside source– magic yellow fear poison from the corpse of Abin Sur– and his actions thereafter, while not those of a nice or heroic character, are of a man lashing out at the cruel universe that damned him. I can sympathize with that, but not with Hal Jordan’s internal struggles.
Superheroes, even if bestowed powers like some divine right, need to be self-made men for us to believe in them. Tony Stark’s naturally brilliant, yes, but he builds his own armor and works to right the wrongs he made earlier in life; Thor’s a god, but he must earn his powers back by achieving worthiness as a mortal man. Green Lantern has that Geoff Johnsian attitude of “he’s special because he just is, and because humanity is inherently awesome,” but it’s never properly explored or explicated. Hal doubts his gifts and complains about them, and must then learn to accept how awesome he really is. He seeks nothing, but gains everything; Hector seeks knowledge, understanding, and compassion, but gains mutation, humiliation, and finally, death.
Hal Jordan and Hector Hammond are the only two characters in the film with prominent motivations. The movie boasts a large cast, but we don’t really see how they connect– Hector, Hal, and Carol have all apparently known each other since childhood, but the audience only learns this at the latest possible moment, a matter of unnecessary convenience to get them all in the same scene. Amanda Waller is thrown in for good measure, with hints to a full backstory, but nothing comes of her presence. The entire Green Lantern Corps only receive fleeting glimpses; of the most prominent alien Lanterns in the film, Tomar-Re and Kilowog barely get any screentime (why hire Michael Clarke Duncan for a part if he’s got 90 seconds of material?). Only Sinestro feels like a proper character, and that’s mostly down to Mark Strong’s performance, rather than the material. Sinestro may be a soldier and a hardass, but he doesn’t seem ripe for future villainy, despite his willingness to let Earth become collateral damage in the battle against Parallax. A different plot, about how Hal Jordan learns responsibility and earns his place in the ranks of the Corps as Sinestro falls into darkness, could have worked much better, but it’s left for a sequel that may never come. Note to filmmakers: never write for the trilogy.
Blake Lively, as Carol Ferris, doesn’t have the inherent charm or nervous energy of her co-stars, but the script doesn’t do her any favors, either. She’s stern, but she’s stern because she cares, be it about her company or about Hal himself. The only time Lively pulls a Frampton and comes alive is in the scene immediately after Green Lantern rescues her, where she quickly susses out his not-so-secret identity and calls him on his actions, before succumbing to a proper human reaction to the superheroic madness that just happened to her. It’s maybe the best scene in the whole film, nailing its mild deconstruction of superhero tropes by hanging a lantern (hey-o!) on the ideas of domino masks and secret identities.
(Tom Kalmaku is also in this movie.)
How do the technical aspects of the film hold up? Martin Campbell’s directorial vision feels nonexistent, at least in comparison to his Casino Royale, so it’s up to the special effects to carry the day. Thankfully, the CGI excels in most spots; here’s one film where an overabundance of CGI helps instead of hinders! The green energy constructs find a nice balance between “solid” and “holographic,” and the suit looks pretty snazzy most of the time, though there do exist a few shots in which Ryan Reynolds’ head looks poorly Photoshopped onto his body, as if someone had been playing with Colorforms. The physical sets appear to be leftovers from the Iron Man movies, but the CGI landscapes look fantastic. The Oa of this film is not a gleaming world, but a colder, craggy planet, to better reflect the ancient, assholish ways of the Guardians. All the Green Lanterns that show up in the background– see above– also look great, considering the visual effects artists must have labored for many man-hours just to have whatsherface and thatguyfromthatthing appear for a scant few seconds (but no G’Nort or Ch’p? Bah.)
The only really iffy bit of CGI is the big puffy cloud of death that is Parallax, as if we as a society learned nothing from Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. To be perfectly honest, I found the scene in which Parallax invades I-guess-it’s-Coast-City and chases folks through a busy city center while they run for their lives and are reduced to skeletons in his wake pretty damn unnerving, mostly because it conjured up memories of September 11th footage. Innocent citizens running and screaming from a smoky black cloud through city streets– no one thought this scene maybe wasn’t a very good idea? If Parallax were a legitimate character instead of a cloud monster with an angry face, I may have viewed this scene in a different context, but alas, it isn’t so. Parallax has no personality, no motivation– he breaks free and wreaks havoc, first on the man who imprisoned him (Abin Sur) and then, I guess, on whatever he happens by.
I also happened to see the movie in three glorious dimensions, finally ending up suckered into our modern 3D fad. Frankly, I was just happy the 3D glasses fit over my need-them-to-see glasses, but 3D added nothing to the movie, aside from one particularly dizzying ground-level shot of a skyscraper. I expected green energy constructs to float off the screen, but the 3D was mostly just used to play with depth-of-field a bit, though in many cases it made everything on the screen feel that much flatter, like a pop-up book or paper diorama viewed with one eye closed. The 3D effects in the ad for the Air Force before the movie were better, if more eye-straining.
Other nitpicks include: I enjoyed the “vorp!” noise the GL ring made whenever it did something, I thought the score ripped off the main notes of John Williams’ Superman theme, and “yellow power of fear” sounds painfully silly when spoken aloud.
Green Lantern is a movie which has too much going on, and yet, not much happening. Plot, character, and theme should all work in concert, but here, they often pull away from one another. Somewhere inside the finished product is a solid tone and some decent ideas, and a good movie could have come of that, though apparently it’s not quite the fault of the filmmakers that it didn’t, if that link is to be believed. In the end, Green Lantern is there but not all there, solid yet transparent– kinda like an emerald energy construct.
Bill Reed is also solid yet transparent, but only under fluorescent lighting. He is also on the Twitter now, and you should follow him before the continuity of his Tweets gets too hard to comprehend.
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