As Kermit the Frog once famously said, it ain’t easy being green. The same could be said for modern superhero films and comic book adaptations. It seems a daunting task when you really think about it, the notion that you’re entering into one of cinema’s most expensive endeavors, yearning to please its most incredulous audience while trying to carry the mainstreamers along as well. In some instances, as is the case with Green Lantern, you’re task is to bring a wide audience up to speed on a complex, rich and intensely alien mythology. It ain’t easy. So as an audience, when we see a film like Green Lantern, one that does so much of the most difficult stuff right, but gets almost all the easy stuff wrong, it can be the most entertainingly frustrating experiences of our summer.
The whole thing smacks of 2006, when a passionate superhero auteur named Bryan Singer gave the world a lavish, modern version of the Man of Steel in Superman Returns. The things he got right in his pursuit of faith and glossy nostalgia were dazzling. The visual effects were seamless, the world’s hardest working alien was truly spectacular in flight and feat. But when it came down to the most basic elements of storytelling, the parts where we get to human emotions like love and longing, all the personality of a once dynamic character appears to have been sucked out by a cosmic force. Left in its wake was emptiness. Green Lantern suffers, despite the best efforts of its charismatic leading man, from the same lack of personality.
Even more frustrating is the way director Martin Campbell and his cavalcade of writers dispatch the complicated mythology of the Green Lantern Corps. This hero, making his first trip to the big screen, is no easy sell. The conceit involves a race of immortals who harnessed the green-tinted power of will and forged it into power rings. The rings, worn by a group of 3,600 protectors known as Lanterns, aid the corps in policing the evenly divided sections of the known universe. With the ring, a Lantern can construct any weapon. The only limitation is their own ability to imagine fierce weaponry. The greatest threat to the Lanterns is the yellow power, the color of fear. Some time ago, the most powerful Lantern, Abin Sur, imprisoned the holder of the yellow power, Parallax, on a lost planet, never to be heard of again. All of this is handed to us efficiently in the film’s opening moments, as we watch Parallax escape from his prison and exact revenge on Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison). A frightening villain enters in a ferociously cool action sequence, sending a wounded Abin Sur hurling toward the nearest inhabited planet. You can probably guess where he ends up.
And it’s all down hill from here. Not really, but almost. The story picks up on Earth, where Hal Jordan, played by the ever-mugging, fast-talking most Ryan Reynoldsy version of Ryan Reynolds we’ve seen in quite some time, is a test pilot who likes to womanize and oversleep, much to the dismay of his lifelong friend and winglady, the dollish Carol Ferris, played by an intensely spray-tanned Blake Lively. These are the two best pilots in the world, we learn. We don’t believe, but we learn. Along the way we pick up a few tidbits that will come up again, including: Hal has issues overcoming fear that stem back to the death of his test pilot father, Carol has lingering romantic issues with Hal, Hal is a terrible driver and a slightly worse uncle, there’s a guy named Hector Hammond, a scientist, who comes in contact with the yellow matter, enhancing the size of his brain as well as his own daddy issues and Hal Jordan envy. And did I mention the daddy issues? Remember those, as they’ll be back often.
Fast forwarding to the stuff we showed up for, we see Hal Jordan chosen by the power ring and brought to Abin Sur. The ring chose him, for better or worse, to protect this neck of the universe. And without warning, he’s shot through the cosmos and brought to Oa, the home planet of the Lanterns. This is where Green Lantern wins most of its battles with its own fear. With dazzling grandeur, we are introduced to the Corps. Both in concept and execution, everything about Oa is fantastic. It’s some of the most ambitious effects work we may see all year. The same can be said about Parallax, a villain that could have gone either way. He’s essentially a big yellow space cloud that sucks the souls from its victims when he smells their fear. That’s pretty silly. But in execution, Lantern‘s big bad is an often terrifying, always larger than life reminder that in order to become a hero, Hal Jordan must overcome fear. Did I mention the overcoming fear part? Don’t worry if you forget, the movie is very good at reminding you.
If it sounds like there’s a lot of thematic hand-holding going on in between spectacular effects shots, that’s because there is. If Green Lantern has one greatest fault, it’s a lack of trust in its own audience. Further perplexing is its solid trust in the fact that its audience will understand the alien back-story. Yes, you’ll understand all of this fantastical stuff about power rings and globe-domed immortals, but human stuff like overcoming fear and having healthy relationships with other attractive humans, that’s going to take some coddling. It doesn’t help that the performances are all over the map, either. Ryan Reynolds stands tall and righteous as Hal Jordan, but fails to inject anything beyond his standard smirk into the character. He’s Ryan Reynolds with a power ring. It’s okay, because that’s what we expect to get, but it’s probably not what the character deserves. Blake Lively is well-tanned window dressing as Carol, never to be taken seriously as a character. She spends much of the film’s intimate character scenes talking through clenched teeth, taking things far more seriously than everyone else. Peter Sarsgaard, as the aforementioned large-headed human villain Hector Hammond, is the only one who appears to be comfortably enjoying himself in his role. He has fun going crazy, and it’s fun to watch him do it.
If Green Lantern is anything, it’s another lavish, expensively produced superhero movie that wins with some ambitious visual stuntery and the introduction of a rich mythos that, as we experience with ease, is quite cool. But even that ambition falls short of making something truly special. For a character, like Superman, who has almost limitless power, Hal Jordan certainly fails to impress. He spends most of his energy fighting off his emotional issues, chasing after a girl who spends 90% of her screen time angry with him, and struggling with the notion that maybe, for the first time in the history of the universe, “the ring chose wrong.” When it comes time to fight, the limited imaginative power of the film’s writers imagines shackles around his legs. Mind-eviscerating spectacle is what’s possible here. Mind-eviscerating spectacle, this is not.
Once Hal finally does figure out that being a Green Lantern is awesome and he can defeat a bad guy previously thought to be undefeatable by all the other, more powerful Lanterns, he does so with relative ease. It’s all indicative of a writing team that wasn’t thinking about making one good movie, they were thinking about creating a three film arc. What begins as a film that takes care in introducing us to a very alien world quickly becomes a movie that is sprinting to a sequel. The most excruciating evidence of this is the nonsensical post-credits scene, involving Sinestro (Mark Strong), a character established briefly as the fiery leader of the Lantern Corps. I’ll leave you to discover the rest of that on your own.
In the end, it doesn’t appear to be that hard being green. It’s the being human part that trips up the makers of Green Lantern. It’s a film that is ambitious, but lacks subtlety and grace. It delivers some of the best effects work we’ll see all year, but some of the worst character work. It stars one of the business’ most charismatic leading men, but lacks personality. It’s greatest theme is overcoming fear, but it can’t overcome the fear that its audience won’t get the message. When it’s all said and done, the most damning thing to be said about this movie comes from within itself. Its shrug of the shoulders storytelling comes full circle in its main character who, grappling with the choice to fight as a hero with limitless power or go back to being an annoying test pilot decrees, “but I gotta try.” It’s that kind of attitude that creates superhero films like Green Lantern — well, the character is there, so we might as well make a movie out of it.
The Upside: Lantern dazzles with some ambitious visuals, a wicked cool mythology and a fierce big bad.
The Downside: When it comes time to inject humanity into its alien aesthetic, it fails with all the power of limitless imagination. It has trust issues, daddy issues and a strong fear of its own audience’s ability to understand basic thematic elements.
On the Side: Keri Russell, Eva Green, Jennifer Garner and Diane Kruger were all, at one point, considered for the role of Carol Ferris. Every single one of them, even on their worst day, would have been a better choice than Blake Lively.