Talking Movies

December 5, 2011

Green Lantern: In Overcast Evening

I’ve just read Green Lantern: Secret Origin by Geoff Johns, so it’s an opportune time to weigh in with some thoughts on how Martin Campbell handled the same story cinematically.

Back in January I dubbed Green Lantern the biggest gamble of the year because the power ring which allows him to physically project anything he can imagine, but can’t handle the colour yellow because of the evil Parallax, makes him the most far-out of the major DC Comics characters. I predicted that if the movie worked it would open up the whole DC Universe for cinematic imaginings. If it failed then I foretold that Nolan’s Batman swansong and Snyder’s Superman: The Man of Steel would be the end of DC on film for another decade. Sadly the popular and critical reception appears to have consigned Green Lantern to the dustbin of abject failure, and Wonder Woman and The Flash ride with it to development hell. For my money it’s not a disaster and it’s not a triumph, it’s merely perfectly acceptable with some nice touches.

But therein lies the problem, being perfectly acceptable is not acceptable for the summer blockbuster market, and only having some nice touches doesn’t cut it in the writing stakes even though it’s a logical consequence of the straitjacket of the origin myth within which all new superhero franchises are constrained. I tweeted the other week that I couldn’t actually remember what the summer blockbusters had been, perhaps because of the ubiquity of origin myths – which are all effectively the same damn story with a different coloured cape in the lead role. I’ve never heard anyone complain that The Maltese Falcon wasn’t Sam Spade’s first case and we were never told how he became a PI, but superhero movies appear to bear out Jacob Lambert’s contention that the legacy of Lucas’ convincing special effects was to destroy the audience’s ability to suspend its disbelief without tutorials.

Green Lantern dutifully trots thru the obligatory origin myth that almost all of us could write from memory at this point in a breezily efficient manner, without ever being particularly brilliant on the large scale. What I liked were the little touches from the writers kicking against this enforced rail. I adored the fact that Hal Jordan simply said “Hey Hector” as he walked past the villain at a party, thus saving us about 20 minutes of narrative hide and seek, as they’ve known each other for years. In a similar vein the writers cheekily revealed that Hector Hammond’s overbearing father is the Senator referenced by other characters, and that’s the reason Hector was given the job of examining Abin Sur’s crashed ship – a plum assignment that ironically backfires against the father trying to do something nice for once for his disappointment of a son.

The endless angst produced in films by the strain of maintaining secret identities, as well as the stark nonsense of doing so thru the use of terrible disguises, was almost immediately dispensed with by Carol Ferris recognising Hal, despite his protestations, and loudly proclaiming, “Hal! I’ve known you all my life. I’ve seen you naked. You think I’m not going to recognise you because I can’t see your cheekbones?” Hal also got wonderfully upbraided for his carelessness in charging his power ring, “You broke it already?!” Nicest of all was that he gleefully showed off the instantaneous costume-change to that same friend, “Cool, right?”, and in a wonderful move was depicted cheating at the start of the movie as a fighter pilot in a combat simulation, and cheating again at the end of the movie as a Green Lantern in the climactic fight against Parallax.

Parallax is used well as a villain who becomes stronger the more afraid you are of him, and the revelation of his origin is a nice stroke after the discussions of the power of will versus that of fear. Not to push things too far but there’s some mileage to be had in the idea that according to this movie the native hue of resolution is green, and it’s sicklied o’er by the pale cast of thought which is yellow. In slightly less strained interpretations there is some very Nietzschean undertones to the discussions about Will and Fear surrounding the use of the power rings but sadly they’re never fully developed. The really cinematic joy of Green Lantern should be that with a power based on imagination, it’s fun to see what Hal thinks of to save the day, but there’s not enough of that.

There’s a certain amount of similarity between the movie and Johns’ origins comic, but the differences are vast. Hammond is a confident sleazy scientist in the comic, Carol Ferris and Hal Jordan have never been an item, Parallax is not involved at all, though there are hints of a renegade Guardian, and Sinestro plays a much more important part and is more supportive of Hal after initial misgivings. Johns hides within the origin myth a set-up for a future storyline in his saga, a touch that refreshes a familiar tale that the movie cannot adopt. The choices of Hammond as weakling controlled by villain Parallax, Hal and Carol as re-united lovers, and Sinestro as minor figure are all interesting and valid, but the film never achieves the feeling of fun of the comic which comes from believing you’re confidently re-telling a classic tale with purpose.

The post-credits scene seemed to imply that we could expect the sequel to be a spin on Johns’ Green Lantern: The Sinestro Corp Wars storyline. Sadly, that’s now unlikely to happen, so perhaps we should stop being slightly ridiculous about all this and just read the great, varied and unpredictable comics to experience the DC universe rather than watching decent, identikit predictable films apparently aimed at people who have no ability to suspend their disbelief and just go with it.

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