Tuesday, December 13, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Green Lantern (2011)

Green Lantern (2011) is pretty much your average, boiler-plate superhero movie of the "Superheroes Triumphant" Era (say 2003 to Present).  It features jaw-dropping special effects (which admittedly look great on an HD TV), big stars, and a storyline consisting of so many genre conventions you can recite them by heart at this point.

For me, the most intriguing facet of Green Lantern is its negative reception and failure at the box office.  The film is, for all intents and purposes, much the same movie as Thor, only released a month later. 

Both movies rely on otherworldly CGI vistas and intricate back-stories of cosmic intrigue. Both movies also feature a perfunctory love interest/romance subplot.  And finally, both movies feature superheroes who require accessories (ring or hammer, respectively) to claim their mantel as (super) hero. 

And yet despite numerous similarities, critics and audiences seem to have really liked Thor while they rejected wholeheartedly Green Lantern.  

Since in terms of style, originality, presentation, and even narrative detail the movies are virtually interchangeable, I can only surmise that the vast difference in reception came about because we've already seen Ryan Reynolds do this kind of shtick before (in Blade: Trinity, for instance), whereas relative newcomer Chris Hemsworth seemed like something of a revelation in Thor. 

In other words, Reynolds is a familiar flavor, while Hemsworth is a fresh one.  What enjoyment could be gleaned from Thor came almost entirely from our first encounter with Hemsworth's persona and charisma as a leading man.

Am I actually arguing here that Green Lantern is a better movie than Thor?  No.  Only that Thor and Green Lantern exist on the same unfortunate plateau of mind-numbing mediocrity, and therefore it seems abundantly illogical to laud one effort while despising the other.  Step back a pace and you can see that they are the same Hollywood-produced superhero animal: both largely devoid of inspiration and originality, and both girded up with superficial virtues, namely fine special effects and beautiful cast members.  In broad terms, Thor is a bit more portentous, and Green Lantern a hair more cheeky, but otherwise, we're looking at  films separated at birth.

Green Lantern is the tale of ace pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), who -- like so many superheroes these days -- has daddy issues.  In this case, he still grieves over the tragic loss of his father (Jon Tenney) or father-figure (think Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, etc.), and wants desperately to live up to his dad's reputation as a paragon of fearlessness.  In the film's first scenes, Hal pulps an expensive jet during a war game to prove his courage, but the incident only seems to sow further self-doubt.  Just as Thor had to deal with his own arrogance and Daddy issues, so must Hal defeat his daddy demons too.

Meanwhile, a Green Lantern-turned-bad by the yellow power of "fear" -- called Parallax -- defeats the great Green Lantern Abin Sur (Temeura Morrison) in space, leaving the injured intergalactic policeman to seek a replacement on Earth.  "Choose well," he implores his green ring (which harnesses the emerald power of will-power), and it promptly selects Hal. 

After Sur dies, another man with Daddy issues, Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) also receives an unwanted gift.  While conducting an autopsy of the alien warrior, he receives a prick of Parallax-essence, and begins his descent into yellow-inspired madness and terror. 

So yes, it's the same I-Made-You/You-Made-Me or Two-Sides-of-the-Same-Coin dynamic we've seen in superhero productions (The Flash [1990], The Crow [1994], Daredevil [2003]) since the Burton Batman popularized the cliche in 1989.  

Hal finally adorns the ring and becomes Green Lantern.  He visits the planet of Oa, where he is trained in the ways of the Corp. by Kilowog (Michael Clarke Duncan), Tomar-Re (Geoffrey Rush) and Sinestro (Mark Strong).  This portion of the film is undeniably its strongest.  The tour of magnificent Oa truly inspires awe, and Kilowog and Sinestro both come across remarkably well.  Strong really holds the screen as Sinestro, giving the character a tremendous dignity that you won't find, for instance, on The Super Friends.  The scenes on Oa have a jaunty, delightful quality that lightens the movie, and the special effect "constructs" created by the Lanterns are awesomely rendered.

The remainder of the movie pretty much follows the current Superhero playbook too. Hal surrenders the "responsibility" of being a Green Lantern, and then must pick it up again when Parallax invades Earth, all while fighting to protect the love of his life (Carol Ferris), this movie's Lois Lane/Pepper Potts/Mary Jane Watson variation.  There are also a few scenes featuring a shadowy U.S. government agency, Checkmate, which is D.C.'s version of SHIELD, I guess you could say.  And naturally, there's a U.S. Senator prowling around behind the scenes, creating further intrigue (The X-Men [2000], Captain America: First Avenger [2011]).   The movie then ends with the newly-ensconced superhero doing a kind of special effects victory lap, much like the one we saw in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man (2002), or much earlier, in Superman II (1981).

In Green Lantern, Hal's final battle with Parallax is pretty impressive, visually-speaking.   And you won't be surprised to read that in the final moments, he conquers his lack-of-fearlessness, if there is such a thing, thereby coming into his own and erasing the looming shadow of his father.  

Watching Jordan ascend to his destiny, teeth gritted, I wished again for a superhero movie in which characters don't treat their super powers like an albatross, a lead weight dragging them down into psychological depression.  Then, the next day, my wish was unexpectedly answered as I watched Captain America: First Avenger.  What a relief: a modern super hero movie that doesn't treat super powers like a super drag. 

When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s and 1980s superheroes in film and on television were pretty serious, but they generally weren't such a glum, down-in-the-mouth and introspective bunch as we get these days.  I feel at this point that the pendulum has swung too far from the camp of the 1960s to the Dark Age, because superhero movies like Green Lantern or Thor all rely on this same tired dynamic of "tortured" individuals with tragic pasts who are really broken inside.  It's been done so many times now there's just no freshness left in the dynamic.   I don't want to go back to an "Old Chum"-styled Batman approach, either, but I wouldn't mind seeing the pendulum tick back toward the middle a bit.  I hate that our culture consistently mistakes "dark," "gloomy" and "angsty" (and "dysfunctional" too) for "mature."  It's a real bummer, but the dynamic, for the moment, prevails in superhero cinema.

So Green Lantern?  The special effects are good, the people beautiful, the vistas breathtaking...and the movie has not a single original thought in its head.  But -- let's be honest -- the movie is in no measurable way a worse viewing experience than Thor.  Both films scrape by on their budgets and the likability of their leads, with everything else (including internal consistency) coming in a distant second.

Faint praise, perhaps, but not entirely unexpected in an era wherein the emerald power of money often seems the chief artistic factor at work behind the making of yet another big-budget superhero "origin" movie.  Fortunately, every now and then we get an Iron Man (2008) or a Captain America (2011) to wash away the generic nature of a very expensive -- and very uninspired -- Thor or Green Lantern.


  1. It's an interesting comparison and I can't argue with your points; however, I think there were a few issues that tipped audiences toward Thor over Green Lantern. The biggest is that all the Marvel films are building toward the Avengers movie, so there's a sense that the movies are a series rather than one offs. Warner Bros. should have constructed a similar formula when they rebooted Batman and Superman. There was no sense that Green Lantern would lead to anything else.

    While I agree with the tortured main character similarity, I think it's more interesting for audiences to see a brash, cocky character humbled and made to become more human (a la Tony Stark and Thor) than an irresponsible jerk become heroic. In the latter situation, you always feel like the jerk will resurface once the crisis is averted. Plus, the idea that Hal Jordan was fearful was completely fabricated for the film. This was not an element of the comic, unless they changed something in recent years that I don't know about. In other words, they monkeyed too much with the fundamental premise of the character.

    Anyway, these were the two reasons why I saw Thor in the theatre and waited for Green Lantern to come out on DVD.

  2. I actually enjoyed this much more than I imagined I would - walked in with the thought that it was going to be pretty abysmal, but I was pleased. It's not a Great film, but it is a Pretty Good one.

    Reynolds acquitted himself quite well...although he was a bit dewy-eyed in the part, I thought that (working with a fairly knowing script) he played it well.

    The only real issue I have with the film is how truncated the OA scenes really are. Apparently, training consists of one brawl and having Sinestro raise his eyebrow at you.

  3. claudiu2:00 PM

    For me Thor was far better because:

    - the alien landscapes. There is a far better balance between the earth side (lame) and the alien side (awesome)
    - the costumes are far more impressive in Thor than in the Green Lantern
    - direction. Mr. Branagh did a far better job than Mr. Campbell
    - Thor has a lot more to do than Jordan. He shouts, he screams, he fights, etc. The other guy... not so much
    - the comic relief. the redneck hammer pulling contest was hilarious. I don't remember any from G.L.

  4. It's a bit like the public adoration for Obama in 2008.

    But, you know, your look at both Thor and Green Lantern was terrific.

    I had no interest in Lantern. I had little interest in Thor and now I understand why. Your articulate the things I had my finger on but couldn't quite put together without seeing them.

    That is an unexpected treat. I had seen everything I needed to see on Lantern and Thor and it was great to see you dissect the two together and reasons why they are mediocre at best.

    And gosh I am tired of the Ryan Reynolds schtick so great point.

    By the way I love the comics, and Ryan Reynolds just didn't feel like Hal Jordan or look the part to me at all. That was a terrible casting call. I would love a real good Green Lantern film a la the Chris Nolan Batman films. Generally speaking, I really would have enjoyed someone take a firm hand with a franchise name like Green Lantern.

    As you mentioned though, I'm most intrigued by the Oa scenes. They look magnificent.

    Cheers and great write up as always.

  5. Also, on the one hand I like Neal's point about Marvel's marketing strategy, but on the other hand, building toward a TEAM film or lack thereof wouldn't prevent me from seeing a film if it was done exceptionally.

    Nolan's films are exceptional and Green Lantern just wasn't. I'd still be there for a Nolan-directed Green Lantern and it would break box office records.

  6. Fine look at this one, John. And yeah, Thor and Green Lantern are on a tier down to the likes of this year's Captain America. I saw the film in theaters, so I'm saying this without a look at the 'Extended Cut' edition as yet. I didn't hate nor love it. I do feel it wasted one of the better DC comic book heroes, though. I'm not sure if it was due to studio meddling (the common crime of media conglomerates these days) or that an otherwise very good director, Martin Campbell, didn't quite know how to handle what he was given.

    Origin stories are tricky when introduced to those who may not be familiar with a comic series, especially one that has a long history like this character. I thought DC's animated movies released to DVD/BD have done a good job overall with their characters in the last few years. And GREEN LANTERN: FIRST FLIGHT (2009), voiced by a wonderful cast that included Chris Meloni as Jordan, Michael Madsen as Kilowog, and Victor Garber as Sinestro, was a great example. I'd hoped the live action version would come close. Alas, it wasn't quite up to the job.

    I do hope another Green Lantern movie comes along, though. I'd hate to see a fine superhero go to waste. Especially one as rich as this from the DC stable. Thanks, John.

  7. Great point about Martin Campbell L13. I think he's a generally strong director to on 007 and even Edge Of Darkness, but he definitely didn't look like he handled Green Lantern as his own. It's too bad. A real lost opportunity I think.

  8. Not to mention THOR has Natalie Portman who is a much better actress and much easier on the eyes (IMO) than Blake Lively in GREEN LANTERN. So there's that, too.

  9. TS Hart9:42 AM

    This review was excellent and made me re-think my feelings about the Green Lantern film. It's true that enjoyed Thor much more -but I would be willing to give this film another chance.

  10. I've seen the "Green Lantern is pretty much like Thor" thing come up here and there since Lantern came out and I don't really see it. I mean, I kind of get it in a really broad sense, and Thor certainly has it's problems (the narrative kind of wanders in a SHIELD-induced circle during the middle of the picture, and it's grand love story relies almost entirely on Hemsworth and Portman's chemistry in a couple of scenes) but I enjoyed it a lot more than Green Lantern.

    - Far more than Thor, I thought Lantern was a total mess tonally. Reynolds can be a funny, charming guy, so why is Hal so mopy for most of the middle of the picture? I think more than Hemsworth being new and Reynolds being something we've already seen, the difference is that Thor makes terrific use of Hemsworth's particular charisma while Lantern really misuses Reynolds's, making him sit around for much the movie stuck in the "refuses the call" portion of his hero journey. Then the truly grim, horrific material with Sarsgaard turning into the elephant man seemed like it belonged in a different movie (more on that in a moment). And any time it looked like things were settling into a fun or exciting groove (Oh look, a bunch of aliens with magic powers! Wow, a neat, silly action scene with a bunch of ramps and springs and stuff!), we follow it with scenes of Hal on his sofa not wanting to be a Green Lantern.

    - It felt like one of those truly committeed-to-death movies that didn't seem to understand how a story works. I didn't know much at all about the Green Lantern character before the film, and the movie felt more like reading bits and pieces on Wikipedia than an actual dramatic and engaging story. We get the opening narration, which is not at all a dramatic way to give us all of that potentially goofy information, before we have any characters to know or care about, and then we have to wait for Hal to learn it and get over his (really clunkily established) personal issues before he can engage with it. So we're way ahead of him, and we don't even get the pleasure of discovery since we had the primer in the opening minutes. Sarsgaard's character is essentially in his own little movie that has almost no impact on Hal's story (and with two really minor writing adjustments you could have lifted his character out entirely and it wouldn't change the story of the film a bit). We don't learn until approximately 1/2 or 2/3 of the way into the film that Hal, Carol, and Hammond grew up together and once we have that information the film does exactly nothing with it. And the mid-credits tag with Sinestro taking the yellow ring was obviously referencing something from the comic book but in this movie it seemed thoroughly unmotivated and actually betrayed what we did get to see and learn about his character and his relationship with Hal.

    The movie didn't make me angry or anything, and I enjoyed some of the action or alien designs or isolated character moments (really dug when Carol says that of course she recognizes Hal out on the balcony), but my predominant reaction to the movie was just confusion. Why are they showing me this scene? How did they decide that this was the way to dramatize this beat? How did this movie end up this way? I was certainly hoping to enjoy it, and Martin Campbell made one of my very favorite superhero movies with The Mask of Zorro (which in retrospect actually tells a similar story of a young man taking on the mantle of an old superhero) but this just failed for me over and over.