I’ve already said my piece about the cinematic adaptations being brought to us by Marvel. I’ve talked about their savvy hype cultivation with regard to their in-house movies, I’ve talked about the state of their projects in other studios and I imagine I’ll have to talk about the subject at least one more time before the summer’s out. Yet in all of this talk about Marvel’s accomplishments in film, there’s one very important and impressive thing they’ve done that I haven’t yet addressed: They’re making the DC/Warner Bros. team look like a bunch of clowns!
There’s no point in pretending that Marvel hasn’t had their share of irredeemable stinkers (Daredevil, Ghost Rider, Elektra, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, etc.), but those were all done by other studios who screwed over Marvel because the rights were up for sale and Marvel needed cash. DC, on the other hand, has been a corporate sibling to Warner Bros. since 1969. As such, you’d think that these two companies would be able to communicate effectively and work together for mutual benefit, yet recent history has shown time and again just how terrible they are at getting things done.
Back in the early ’00s, when Spider-Man and X-Men were breaking box office records, DC/WB were still licking their wounds from Steel and Batman and Robin. Granted, the Batman franchise was revitalized by Christopher Nolan in 2005 and he made two (going on three) damn good films out of it, but look what else DC/WB has done so far. Watchmen was a box office underperformer, Superman Returns necessitated an entire franchise reboot (also by Nolan), RED was a surprise hit that every single subsidiary of Time Warner refused to make, and I won’t even get started on the spectacular failures of Catwoman and Jonah Hex.
Those are just the films that DC and WB have managed to get made. There was a Justice League movie that was beset by all manner of creative and executive idiocies before the 2008 WGA strike mercifully killed it. A few years ago, there was an awesome-sounding jailbreak movie in development that starred a wrongfully-arrested Green Arrow among various incarcerated DC villains, and it went nowhere! A movie for The Flash has been in development since 2004 and Captain Marvel has had a film go in and out of development for over a decade now. As for Wonder Woman, her years-long stay in development hell would have culminated in this atrocity, but for the grace of NBC. Joss frakking Whedon could’ve been releasing a sequel to his proposed Wonder Woman movie by this point, but WB fired his ass from the project so he could go on to direct The Avengers a few years later. Top notch, morons!
Right now, the folks at DC/WB look like they couldn’t find their asses with both hands unless Christopher Nolan helped them, yet he’s still proven to be a curse as well as a blessing. Both the Batman franchise and the upcoming Superman reboot have been influenced by Nolan’s bull-headed and pointless insistence that both heroes occupy their own separate worlds, without any cameos or references to other heroes in the DC Universe. At a time when Marvel has made crossovers their bread and butter, utilizing them for fan service and to lay the foundations for their own vast film continuity, Nolan’s dick move comes off as supremely short-sighted and tone-deaf. Yet WB’s hands are tied, because Nolan is apparently the only person who’s actually capable of bringing DC comics to the screen.
Enter Green Lantern.
I’m still amazed that Green Lantern has made it to this point, folks. Back in 2004, this was going to be a Jack Black comedy. Development was helmed for years by Greg Berlanti, whose sole directing credits are two romantic comedies, one of which was last year’s Katherine Heigl/Josh Duhamel Life as We Know It flop. He was replaced by Martin Campbell, which led many — including myself — to ask just how in the hell there was any connection between Hal Jordan and James Bond. Yet now, after four credited writers (including Berlanti) and absolutely zero involvement from Christopher Nolan, Green Lantern has finally made its way to screens. It’s clearly worse for the wear, though.
Let’s start with the positives: Ryan Reynolds does a perfectly serviceable job as Hal Jordan. Our hero is that perfect mix of eager, brash, self-absorbed and charming, with a fair bit of courage thrown in. Yes, Reynolds has built his entire career out of playing characters like this, but the role is uniquely suited to his strengths. He makes the character likeable and he sells Hal’s character development as best as could be expected.
Opposite him is Blake Lively, playing love interest Carol Ferris. Hal and Carol have been friends since childhood and we learn (within PG-13 confines) that the two have a history. Carol clearly has a great amount of affection for Hal, but she can’t seem to deal with his irresponsible and self-centered nature. She’s a love interest who’s trying to sort out her conflicted feelings for our hero, which provides a refreshing change of pace from the usual “hates our hero and gradually learns to love him” love interest. Lively plays it well enough, though she does give Hal a pep talk near the end of the second act that falls totally flat.
The production design also earns a nod. The power ring and the lantern itself are both especially cool, particularly in how they look like genuinely alien artifacts instead of… well, this. The costumes clearly had a lot of effort put into them, and the way they pulse with green light looks really cool. Pity they just couldn’t get the mask right, though.
The action is kinda hit-and-miss. First, the movie opens with a dogfight that’s honestly very exciting. Not only is it presented with some damn good VFX, but it’s also crafted in such a way that it serves as a great introduction to Hal Jordan. This fight shows us that he’s an amazing pilot, he’s reckless, he’s conceited and he thinks outside the box. But then the dogfight ends with a stunt that was far more impressive when I first saw it in Iron Man. Shortly after, Hal goes catatonic over a distressing memory triggered by a photo of his dad, which begs the question of why Hal would ever risk flying with a picture of his dad.
As for the more superpowered action scenes, I’ll grant that the energy constructs are used in ways that are clever and entertaining enough. The problem is that during most of these fights, there’s really nothing at stake. This is a symptom of the movie’s key problem.
See, the movie opens with a grandiose voice-over to introduce this universal patrol crew, led by a council of immortal superbeings. They’re responsible for capturing Parallax, an immensely powerful and destructive force capable of wiping out entire planets. Parallax is naturally unleashed and Hal Jordan procures his ring shortly after. In due time, Hal goes to the planet Oa, trains with his powers for a while, then calls it quits and goes back to Earth. And he stays on Earth through pretty much the remainder of the movie. Do you see the problem here?
Having an earthbound Green Lantern story might not be such a bad thing if our hero was given anything interesting to do while grounded, but no such luck. Instead, he’s saddled with a villain named Hector Hammond, played by Peter Sarsgaard. Now, I’ve got nothing against Sarsgaard. He and his dad are both amazing actors. I’ve no doubt that Sarsgaard Jr. would have been amazing in this role if those behind the scenes weren’t doing everything they possibly could to sabotage his role. For example, Hector is supposed to be a peer to Hal and a rival for Carol’s affections, which would be a lot easier to buy if the makeup department hadn’t made him look about ten years older.
Because Hector is this film’s earthbound threat, he gets a sizable amount of screen time, all of which amounts to nothing for two reasons. First is that Hector’s characterization saps any interest from his transformation to an alien-enhanced psychic. Hector starts out as an ugly, freakish sociopath and he ends the film as an ugly, freakish sociopath. Second is that Hector doesn’t do anything truly despicable. He doesn’t even rob a bank, for Christ’s sake. All he does is act on some totally petty grudge and do some relatively minor property damage until he gets killed off, having accomplished no real mayhem whatsoever.
Parallax, meanwhile, gets a dearth of screen time and the whole film suffers for it. The character looks amazing, which makes it all the more disappointing that we don’t see more of him. He’s a worthy opponent for all 3,600 Green Lanterns put together, yet we only see a handful of them take Parallax on before Hal fights him solo. We’re told that Parallax can destroy whole civilizations and planets, yet we never see him so much as try this until the climax. Finally, when the grand universal threat gets to show us what he’s made of in the finale, he’s beaten in a manner so lazy and stupid that it begs the question of why no one else in all the universe thought to try it before.
Finally, the unnecessary surplus of villains brings another problem to the script: More exposition. This film already had to explain the power rings, the power batteries, the Green Lantern corps, Oa, the Guardians, how the Lanterns’ powers work, the Emotional spectrum, Hal Jordan’s background and so on. This film spins its wheels through the first act trying to get all of this out of the way as quickly as possible and it’s bad enough that we have to throw exposition on one antagonist into the mix. Do we really need to gum up the works even more with another?
Basically put, this film suffers because it has no idea which story it wants to tell. It was split between an earthbound story and a spacebound story, trying and failing to keep both of them relevant and interesting to watch. In the end, the film was grounded at the expense of the far more intriguing cosmic story and personally, I choose to blame Mr. Casino Royale for this. In that film, Campbell not only directed a truly spectacular parkour chase but also set the world record for how many times a car could spin 180 degrees in the air before stopping. Campbell is clearly more comfortable with physical stunts, so whose bright idea was it to let him direct a film that’s so CGI-heavy?
As enjoyable as the effects often are, the CGI inexperience comes through just as frequently. Maybe this is an unfair comparison to make, but Oa didn’t feel nearly as vast or believable as Pandora did. Say what you will about Avatar, but there’s no denying that its world was beautifully realized and felt truly expansive. By comparison, Oa looks like a series of matte paintings that don’t extend any further than the four corners of the screen. It feels strangely constrained for a movie that’s supposed to have such an epic scope.
Last but not least, I don’t feel that this review would be complete without mentioning Mark Strong. I love this guy. He can play an amazing villain and I don’t think we see him in movies nearly often enough. Having said that, Strong really got shafted here. Sinestro monologues and glowers and gives Hal some abuse, but that’s basically it. He does get a big fight with Parallax, but it’s so terribly truncated that we never really get a chance to see what he’s made of. Sure, he beats Hal around for a bit, but our hero is so green at the time (apologies for that terrible pun) that it’s no great accomplishment.
EDIT: I’ve since learned that the movie has a stinger tucked away in the credits that I neglected to stay and see. Having seen a leaked version online, I can confirm that Sinestro does exactly what we all knew he was going to do eventually, except that the movie presents the action without any context. Sinestro has absolutely no reason for it except… well, that’s how he is in the comics. Bad movie! Bad!
Green Lantern has all the ingredients for an awesome movie, but a substandard villain on Earth and a lack of story focus keep all the various parts from meshing into a cohesive whole. It’s obvious that a lot of time, effort and ambition went into making this film great, yet for whatever reason — be it lack of time, lack of budget or lack of talent — the execution got muddled along the way. Still, some decent performances (particularly by Reynolds), a few funny moments, some clever action, nice effects and good use of 3D keep this movie from being a total waste of money. Nevertheless, the fact remains that if DC/WB is going to give Marvel a run for their money and give comic book fans the quality films they’ve been clamoring for, those in charge will have to do a lot better than this.