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Green Lantern: A Hero Falls

by Ethan Alter June 17, 2011 6:00 am
<i>Green Lantern</i>: A Hero Falls

There's an interesting conceit at the core of Green Lantern, the otherwise overstuffed and clumsy superhero outing starring DC Comics' ring-wielding interstellar cop. Instead of pitting Hall Jordan and his emerald knight alter ego (played by Ryan Reynolds, in his third comic book-inspired outing after Blade: Trinity and X-Men Origins: Wolverine) against a bad guy bent on world domination, the screenwriters -- a four-man team that includes TV veteran Greg Berlanti and comic book scribe Marc Guggenheim -- make his primary enemy his own fear and self-doubt. Okay, so technically the film does feature a bad guy bent on world domination, an enormous yellow space cloud named Parallax that's floating towards Earth with plans to feast on the terror of the entire populace. But thematically, Parallax is just a giant, gaseous manifestation of Hal's shaky confidence in himself and his ability to be the hero his world requires. When he stares into the cloud's vaguely demonic face, he doesn't just see a villain that needs defeating -- he sees his own inadequacies reflected back at him.

The notion of a superhero paralyzed (at one point literally) by a serious crisis of confidence won't be new for regular readers of comic books, where writers from Alan Moore to Brian Michael Bendis have previously dealt with it in memorable ways. But it is a relatively rare storyline for comic book movies to tackle; Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne may have temporarily given up their heroic mantles in Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight respectively, but their decisions were primarily driven by other forces than self-doubt. In Green Lantern Hal spends much of the movie convinced that he lacks the will to wield the Power Ring entrusted to him by the dying alien Abin Sur (Temura Morrison) and the Guardians of Oa, the planet that serves as the central precinct for the thousands of officers in the Green Lantern Corps.

He doesn't exactly get a lot of encouragement from the other Lanterns; his trainer Kilowog (voiced by Michael Clarke Duncan) beats him to a pulp during their sparring sessions, while the Corps' demanding leader Sinestro (Mark Strong) tells him flat-out that he's unworthy of the gift that's been bestowed on him. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Jordan endures a steady stream of criticism from his employers at Ferris Industries -- makers of fine military-grade fighter planes since the '50s! -- where he toils as a hotshot, rule-breaking test pilot in the mold of Top Gun's Maverick. The most cutting comments come from his former flame Carol (Blake Lively, whose skin-tight, cleavage-enhancing ensembles do most of the performing for her, just like on Gossip Girl), who now regards him as little more than an overgrown child. So many potshots are taken at Jordan during the course of the movie that, instead of Green Lantern, the title could have been Everybody Hates Hal.

To his credit, Reynolds rolls with the many punches flung his way with wit and charm. In the past, I've been skeptical of his abilities as a leading man, but here he provides a strong center for a movie that's juggling far too many moving parts. He's funny without being obnoxious (unlike in, say, Van Wilder) and gamely delivers the script's clunky, exposition-heavy dialogue (you can tell that most of the writers have a TV background -- this often feels like a pilot for an ongoing series, which, in a way it is). The movie awards him a decent human foil in Peter Sarsgaard's Hector Hammond, a dorky scientist who becomes infected with Parallax's fear gene and somehow gains psychic powers. This storyline makes very little sense, but Sarsgaard is determined to have fun with the character anyway, playing him as a demented cousin to Gene Wilder's Victor Fronkensteen in the immortal Mel Brooks comedy Young Frankenstein. His outsized, played-to-the-rafters performance is often at odds with the rest of the movie's more somber tone, but the levity is appreciated, particularly in the second half when the grinding F/X-driven mechanics of contemporary blockbusters threatens to snuff any fun of the proceedings.

Given that Green Lantern was directed by Martin Campbell -- the man responsible for two of the strongest recent James Bond outings, Goldeneye and Casino Royale, as well as the hugely enjoyable swashbuckler The Mask of Zorro -- it's surprising that the movie lacks a single memorable action sequence. Then again, both of those Bond pictures (particularly Casino Royale) were mostly grounded in the real world. Green Lantern marks Campbell's first foray into science fiction and he doesn't seem entirely comfortable with the sheer scale of the world(s) he's building onscreen from the ground-up. The sweeping backdrops of Oa more often resemble screen-savers rather than an inhabited environment and most of the Earth-bound sequences have that staid artificiality that comes with extensive soundstage shooting. Campbell also has a hard time figuring out how to use Green Lantern's ring in inventive ways; the film's cleverest moment involves Hal conjuring up a racecar and racetrack to save an out-of-control helicopter before it crash-lands. Otherwise, he falls back on such dull, obvious tools as a giant fist, a sword and a big gun. If Green Lantern does get a sequel, here's hoping that the next director allows Hal to be a bit more imaginative in how he uses the most powerful weapon in the universe.

Much like Marvel's first Iron Man adventure three years ago, Green Lantern represents DC's attempt to broaden their cinematic horizons beyond their big two heroes, Superman and Batman. The two movies share other similarities as well -- they're both inelegantly plotted and require their leading men to do a lot of heavy lifting to get the narrative through its rough patches. For all its flaws though, Iron Man moves with a confidence that Green Lantern noticeably lacks. Of course, part of that has to do with the distinct personalities of their respective heroes, but Iron Man director Jon Favreau also had a clearer vision for what he wanted the film to be than Campbell and the screenwriters display here. Green Lantern has the feeling of a film that was endlessly worked over by committee at every step of the way, from the script, to the set, to the editing room. It lurches from scene to scene when it should glide, introduces characters and conflicts just to ignore them and allows good ideas (like Hal's self-doubt) to get lost amidst the spectacle. There's a really good comic book movie buried in here somewhere if only someone in charge had put in the effort to find it.

Check out what Green Lantern got right and wrong and see how DC Comics' movies compare to Marvel's.

Is Green Lantern's space ring any sillier than Thor's magic hammer? Omar G and Pablo G debate the most important question of our time in this video:

Tell us what you thought of the movie below, then check out our guide to the Corps' strengths and weaknesses and our picks for the worst superhero movie costumes ever!

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