Saturday, June 18, 2011

Green is the Color

True story: The first time I saw a trailer for the new Green Lantern movie (2011, directed by Martin Campbell), a little girl a couple of rows behind me said to her parents: "That's not right! Green Lantern is black!" All hail the power of television, because the John Stewart iteration from Justice League is the version of the character that has had the most mass-media exposure, in spite of DC Comics' best efforts. John Stewart supposedly makes an appearance in the movie, but I didn't spot him. Perhaps as a kind of sop for going back to a whitebread Green Lantern, the movie makes room for Amanda Waller, head of DC's version of S.H.I.E.L.D., but it doesn't solve what may be a fundamental miscalculation on the part of the filmmakers if their intent is to build a franchise on a familiar character, because the Hal Jordan iteration of Green Lantern hasn't been the dominant one to the world at large for more than a decade.

I realize that I'm speaking in code. I apologize to any non-comics geeks out there. But then, this is the kind of movie that's really tailored for an audience of comics nostalgists with deep knowledge of the material. If a general audience can penetrate its mysteries, well, bully for them.

The story here finds irresponsible test pilot Hal Jordan being recruited into the Green Lantern Corps, an organization of interstellar police, just as the Corps faces its greatest challenge. After an encounter with the entity, Parallax, the lantern, Abin Sur, crashes on Earth. Abin Sur has been mortally wounded and he instructs his ring to find a replacement. Green Lanterns get their power from their will, and must be without fear. The ring brings Hal Jordan to Abin Sur, who tells him the bare minimum of what he needs to know. Soon, the ring also bears Jordan to Oa, the planet of the Guardians where the Green Lantern Corps are headquartered. The birdlike alien, Tomar-Re trains him in the use of his ring, which creates anything he can imagine out of the green energy of willpower. Back on Earth, the body of Abin Sur is examined by the government and Dr. Hector Hammond, who becomes infected with the remnants of the Yellow force that killed the Lantern. He becomes a proxy for Parallax. Meanwhile, Jordan is not making a good impression and eventually returns to Earth in the face of a duty he doesn't think he can handle. Unfortunately for Jordan, he's the only thing standing between Parallax and the destruction of the Earth...

As superheroe movies go, Green Lantern has an unusually large scope. It's the superhero movie as space opera and as such, it concerns itself with eye-drugging special effects. This is a nice change of pace even though this is yet another would-be franchise flick which tangles itself up with a need to give its hero an origin story, but it's an awkwardness of the form, I guess. For what it's worth the movie LOOKS great. I'm also impressed that the movie is able to depict the Green Lantern Corps itself without veering into ridiculousness, but maybe a little ridiculousness would have helped things. There's too much angst in this film and not enough genuine fun. It also indulges in naked franchise building, which may prove embarrassing if the movie tanks. I'd forgive all of this if I actually liked the central character. But I don't. This is a combination of casting and depiction: Hal Jordan is a douchebaggy dude-bro, played by an actor in Ryan Reynolds who has specialized in these kinds of characters. I dunno, maybe Reynolds is a victim of genetics and has been given a face that's incapable of anything other than a self-satisfied smirk or a pouty frowny face. This is sometimes the case with really good-looking actors.

The interesting characters in the movie are the peripheral characters. You could build entire universes around, say, Kilowog, the hulking alien Lantern charged with training Jordan in combat, or around Sinestro, the character the movie sets up as Jordan's arch nemesis for future movies. Or even Carol Ferris, who is a successful woman in her own right in a sphere dominated by men. The movie reduces her to the role of hero's girlfriend, unfortunately. Blake Lively is pretty good as Ferris, actually. Amanda Waller is the most suggestive character in the movie, given that she seems to have the backing of several shadowy organizations, though some of her screen presence stems from Angela Bassett, who has, by far, the most star-presence of any actor in the movie no matter how the filmmakers downplay it. Unfortunately for the movie, the arch villain of the piece, Parallax is underwhelming.

Parallax, it should be noted is a singular failure of imagination. He's another world-devouring entity that's depicted as an amorphous cloud a la Galactus in the second Fantastic Four movie (this time with an actual face, but still...). He's a straw man, too, designed to highlight the exceptionalism of Hal Jordan. Parallax's proxy, Hector Hammond, is a lot more interesting, and when the movie is using him as a villain, it's at it's best. Arch villains should be reflections of the hero in one way or another, and Hammond fills that role as disappointed reflection of Hal Jordan. The movie makes a point of making all this about Fear vs. Willpower rather than good versus evil, but it's not fooling anyone. It's a Manichean division here, with both good and evil as abstract concepts rather than as concrete actions in the real world.

On the whole, this is a middling superhero movie and it IS professionally well-made (if you get my drift). I'm trying hard not to impose any ideas of how I think it should be made. I grew up as a fangirl at heart, but I'm trying to check that fannish sense of entitlement. But that little girl who complained about Green Lantern being white still echoes in my head, because it's emblematic of a movie that's more intent on asserting an image and a trademark--about exploiting an intellectual property--than it is with engaging the audience with an actual story and actual characters.


Aubyn said...

A lot of critics seemed angry at this movie for being well, mediocre. Peter Sarsgaard seems to be getting good reviews and I like him so that's one point in the movie's favor. I was pretty doubtful of the casting of Blake Lively since it seemed to be sort of a repeat of the Kate Bosworth problem in Superman Returns: a young actress playing a role she's not confident or experienced enough for. And I think Ryan Reynolds will probably mature into "sleazy" roles as many such good-looking guys have done before him.

On a side note, since I'm speaking to someone more experienced in comics than myself, may I ask if you've got an opinion on the recent DC reboot?

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Rachel. I have a LOT of opinions on the DC reboot. I think it's a folly of the first order. It seems to me that DC is trying to duplicate Image comics in the 1990s, which I don't think is possible. The Image success was fueled by a speculator market that's no longer there. If they REALLY want to expand their readership, they need to make comics for kids so that they'll have an audience down the line, they need to make comics for women, because it's stupid that they ignore 51 percent of the buying public, and they need to launch original free web comics on their web site that tie into their universe. But instead, they're just catering to their traditional audience (which is shrinking). I also think it's absolutely criminal that creators like Amanda Conner, Nicola Scott, and Bryan Q. Miller (to name a few) don't have books, but Rob fucking Liefeld has one (which is the good ol' boy's club at work). The balance of creators is completely skewed: Of the 105 listed creators, only two are women.

A wish list if I were minding the zoo: An all-ages Wonder Woman book drawn by Becky Cloonan and written by Gail Simone, a Lois Lane book written by Kate Beaton, an all-ages Teen Titan's book by Ty Templeton, and an all-ages Superman book by Amanda Conner. What I DON'T want to see is a bunch more grim and gritty superhero books. I was looking at all 52 covers of the relaunch the other day and it occurred to me that only ONE character had something other than a grimace on his or her face. One!

Some specifics: the cover of the new Suicide Squad makes me want to gouge my eyes out with a spoon. The reversion of Batgirl to the Barbara Gordon Batgirl at the expense of the MUCH more interesting Oracle is so wrong-headed I don't even know where to start talking about it. It seems completely wrong that there are 11 Batman-related titles but only one Wonder Woman. Where are the Marvel Family (Shazam!) characters?

It's not all bad, though. I'm looking forward to a new Swamp Thing book. I'll also be buying Batwoman, because us queer redheads need to stick together. But on the whole, I think the whole thing will tank. I don't think anything will get better for Marvel and DC until they adapt to the realities of the information age, something they seem willfully unable to do.

Aubyn said...

(I should add a disclaimer here that anything I know about comics comes from 1. The rantings of my friends. 2. Atop the Fourth Wall. And 3. Scans_Daily)

I love Kate Beaton and I would so read a Lois Lane series by her.

To me, the emphasis on dark/gritty often seems to close off story possibilities rather than create them, since it means that creators are killing off interesting characters for the sake of drama and derailing plots just so the hero can suffer.

Someone pointed out to me that by putting Barbara Gordon back in the Batgirl suit, they have, in one stroke, removed an Asian Batgirl, a lower-class Batgirl, and a paraplegic superheroine. Way to be classy, DC.

And I too, think the Marvel family has lots of possibilities and wonder why they haven't been made into a movie yet.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Regarding the new Batgirl series: if they were to run something like this as a back-up, I would be a reader forever. But they won't, which is a pity.

Yeah. Ditching their other Batgirls is a bitter pill. It's doubly offensive, too, because DC went out of their way to ensure that all of the MALE former Robins have showcase books. And Batgirl and Birds of Prey BOTH outsell any of the current books showcasing former Robins. I call bullshit on that. (Birds of Prey is coming back, I should note, but minus Oracle and, well, with a whole bunch of other problems from the looks of the cover).

By the way, you have accidentally triggered my "rant" button. :)

Regarding Kate Beaton and Lois Lane: I presume that you've seen this?