By Bart Testa
That Green Lantern is a painfully confused and overwrought film is obvious at a glance: the plotting is uneven, errant, repetitive and sluggish, larded with metaphysical hooey and featuring too many ceremonial set-pieces on a faraway planet and too many pointless trips to the balcony of the designated love interest (the inaptly named Blake Lively). Even in a summer that has already seen the Marvel-derived Thor thumping across the screen looking for his hammer, Green Lantern is too much, and without that film’s surprisingly humourous emphasis on its titular hero’s blond, amiable stupidity. No matter its third-tier hero and general outlandishness, the salient ingredients of Green Lantern—briskly efficient action veteran Martin Campbell, who refreshed the James Bond franchise with Casino Royale (2006), and lead Ryan Reynolds, a strong comedian whose bravado and intensity carried the stark premise of Buried (2010)—bore some promise that has been decisively wasted. Green Lantern is not just a bad comic book movie, but an incontinent one—an expenditure of a potential franchise on its first go.
While the telltale signs of a troubled production were present from the beginning (there are five credited screenwriters and four story credits for story, familiar symptoms of hovering producers) the early trailer gave the impression that what the filmmakers were shooting for was another Iron Man (2008): a smart-ass protagonist inadvertently thrust into superheroics and forced to grow into his role. Green Lantern’s 1959 “origin story” (which replaced the original 1940 incarnation of the hero—the first “reboot”?) provided fertile terrain for this spin. Daredevil test pilot Hal Jordan comes upon a crashed spacecraft and its dying extraterrestrial pilot, who entrusts him with a power ring (allowing him to create anything he thinks about as a manifestation of green “solid energy”) and its lantern charger. Entering into his superhero role without guidance, Jordan puts the ring’s powers to often amusing crime-fighting use, which for years gave the series a goofy bricolage effect even as Jordan himself flattened into just another super-powered policeman.
The 1959 vintage Hal Jordan/Green Lantern would, with judicious adjustment, have well-fitted Reynolds’ talents, as it would Campbell’s kinetic but reality-grounded action style. But the summer season requirement of overloaded spectacle—as established by Michael Bay’s overblown Transformers sequel (2009), the Pirates of the Caribbean series and the 3-D elephantism and grimly epic sincerity of Avatar (2009)—have yielded the clot and confusion of Thor and X-Men: First Class, while the initially refreshing Iron Man franchise is being herded towards the doubtlessly painful bloat of the forthcoming superhero block party The Avengers. In light of this, and the strenuously po-faced pall of the record-setting The Dark Knight (2008), there seems little room left to try another quirky-relaxed, much less sarcastic superhero movie. Whatever one might hope for Reynolds, he is not as assured as Robert Downey Jr., nor is Campbell as nimble and self-aware as Iron Man director Jon Favreau. The reasonable suspicion is that during the film’s production, the studio overseers lost their nerve and likewise abandoned confidence in their star (who is now being promoted more on the tautness of his abs than for his wit and energy) and simply ignored their director, leaving both to flail through a solemn, poorly-staged promenade which neither of them signed on for, and to grapple with a storyline at once weirdly elliptical, overstuffed and inconsequential.
These more proximate issues aside, the hideous misshapenness of Green Lantern can also be traced to the unique problems of the superhero/comic-book adaptation, ones that are inherited directly from their source material. Superhero comics are more than a little like television series: the characters and their story-worlds go on for a long time, and like TV characters (and unlike film characters—with the possible exception of the pre-Campbell/Daniel Craig James Bond), the hero has to consistently undergo dire events while not experiencing any lasting effects, thus allowing him to return, unchanged, in the next instalment to face a fresh adversary. This essential stasis at the core of the genre’s frenetic action cannot go on forever, and so two primary solutions were developed that correspond neatly to the two dominant comics companies, Marvel and DC. Beginning with Fantastic Four in the 1960s, Marvel sought to give their heroes “realistic” personalities as a contrast to their colourful adventures, making them troubled, alienated or neurotic and putting them in vexed or frustrating relationships, creating a kind of Peyton Place in spandex. The more straight-laced DC, with their generally more wholesome and long-standing roster of heroes (Batman excepted, though his innately Gothic nature lay dormant more often than not), opted instead to add ever more elements to the characters’ story-worlds—which is how Superman wound up with a super-dog, half his home planet of Krypton miniaturized under glass in his Fortress of Solitude, an inverted “Bizarro World,” eight kinds of kryptonite and plenty of other super-clutter.
In recent TV series, these extensions often take the form of a sub-master-narrative of ongoing conflicts and developments sometimes referred to as a “mythology,” a term first used in relation to Chris Carter’s The X-Files (1993-2002). While most of that show’s weekly episodes were self-contained paranormal investigations, progressively more became devoted to an underlying alien conspiracy, creating a narrative template subsequently employed by Joss Whedon for Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and becoming the entire basis of J.J. Abrams’ Lost (2004-2010), which spun out a single, slow-moving and endlessly filigreed story across six seasons. In the wake of these successes—a contrast to earlier, relatively short-lived televisual experiments with the continuing-narrative form, such as Michael Mann’s Crime Story (1986-88) and Steven Bochco’s Murder One (1995-97)—almost every other AMC or HBO series now seeks to sustain a single plot-line for the baker’s dozen of hour-long episodes which make up a season. The obvious advantage gained is more complicated and enriched story arcs; the danger is that increasingly baroque elaboration can make it impossible for a late-arriving viewer to understand what is happening. Even worse is that elaboration often becomes convolution, and the pathos of a character or characters’ emotional journey descends into bathos, which effectively did in The X-Files’ last season, Felicity (1998-2002) somewhere in the middle, Lost three seasons in, and the subsequent Heroes, V, and The Event with quite astonishing speed.
Now that comics-derived would-be blockbusters look to become franchises before the first film even reaches the screen, similar issues have started to afflict feature films. Each adaptation is faced right off the bat with the same problem: at what stage in the history of the hero’s story-world does the film begin? That almost all superhero films begin by default with the hero’s “origin story” hardly solves the problem, as most long-running comics series tend to retell that origin in increasingly decorated ways. As it happens, and despite his relatively lower place on the superhero totem pole, Green Lantern sports one of the most expansive of all superhero story-worlds, an extremely complicated science fiction-fantasy saga spanning galaxies and involving hundreds of characters (who have an alarming tendency to transform, return alternately as villains or heroes, etc.), most of whom are members of the “Green Lantern Corps,” a colour- and species-neutral cohort of cosmic policemen who all bear the name “Green Lantern” on their respective beats (since the series’ inception there have been a half-dozen terrestrial Green Lanterns). Not even Frank Herbert’s Dune cycle has a more confusing diegetic scope, a problem compounded by Green Lantern’s stop-and-start publishing history and the multiple reconceptions of the character even after his decisive 1959 makeover. The result has been a hero with an overload of mythological add-ons, and no Frank Miller has yet come along to perform a baggage-dumping, Dark Knight Returns triage and strip the character down to his essence (if such a thing exists).
The Green Lantern film, years in development while awaiting a satisfactory script, attempts to combine both the relatively straightforward 1959 origin story with one of the saga’s most baroque periods (the 1980s and beyond), and while this offers plenty of opportunity for CGI spectacle the film reels into incoherence in large part because there was no attempt at a Miller-like reduction and rebuilding. Instead, there is just a stitching-together of inchoate bits of Lantern mythology—notably the stupefyingly banal “metaphysics” of the power ring, which involves some colour-coded folderol about will (which is green) and fear (which is yellow) that is even more vaguely portentous than Star Wars’ the Force—with the go-to device of Daddy Issues, the kryptonite of all contemporary screen heroes both super- and non-. The humourless and cruelly discordant result, desperately and expectedly relying on a tsunami of advance marketing to compensate for its shapelessness, will likely have the opposite effect of sinking the franchise before it begins.