Monday, June 20, 2011

Brightest Day? Blackest Night? GREEN LANTERN - Reviewed!


- Green Lantern is a movie that I desperately wanted to love. To me, the prospect of a Green Lantern movie - one based on the epic space-opera adventures that writer Geoff Johns has helped craft over the last several years in the comics - was infinitely exciting. Don't get me wrong, I've always liked GL, and got into the character as a kid during the whole "Emerald Twilight" storyline (where Hal Jordan turned evil/insane and killed all of his fellow GL's - ahh, the 90's). For years after Emerald Twilight, I followed the adventures of Hal Jordan's successor - Kyle Rayner - who would become the sole bearer of the Lantern legacy in those post-Jordan years. I was also a huge fan of Guy Gardner - the GL-turned-Justice League member who brought smartass attitude, a warrior's spirit, and a hopelessly dorky bowl-cut to his adventures. I collected the entire run of Guy Gardner's 90's-era comic book, and was a pretty consistent reader of the main Green Lantern title as well. While there was a huge - seriously, huge and LOUD - outcry from longtime comics fans when Hal Jordan went bad - to me, as a kid new to comics, this was exciting stuff. Hal as a good guy had always seemed boring to me. He was sort of a wet blanket, personality-wise, a straight-arrow from the Silver Age of comics who was drawn with streaks of gray in his hair. Hal's costume, too, always struck me as super-lame, with the green and black design looking like a guy wearing a female swimsuit over a black leotard. So for me, I loved the reinvention in the 90's of Hal as uber, world-conquering villain. He made an awesome nemesis for the DC Universe and for Kyle Rayner, and was the driving force behind many of DC Comics' most well-remembered, 90's-era, big-event storylines - Emerald Twilight, Zero Hour, and Final Night - in which Hal went out a good guy, sacrificing himself to reignite earth's dying sun. To me, for all the outcry around Jordan's storylines in the 90's, his turning evil had been the driving force behind all of DC's most exciting events of the time. And, Kyle Rayner in many ways made more sense as a Green Lantern. He was an artist - more sensitive, more emotive than Jordan - but a more natural fit to wield a power ring that could create any sort of construct that one could imagine. Hal's old adventures were filled with giant fists and boxing gloves and anvils. Kyle would tap his artist's imagination to really show us what the ring could do. I was a Kyle fan, and a Guy fan. I never cared that much about Hal Jordan, except as a cosmic villain, as a hero-gone-bad. That is, until Geoff Johns reinvented the Green Lantern franchise in the 00's.

Capitalizing on the early 00's resurgence of Silver Age characters and sensibilities in the world of comics, Johns brought the then-deceased Jordan back from the grave, in a rip-roaring storyline dubbed Green Lantern: Rebirth. Rebirth brought back Jordan, but the focus was not just on his arc of redemption, but on creating a whole new, epic mythos out of the Green Lantern legend. For decades, we'd had the concept of the intergalactic police-keeping force, the Green Lantern Corps, with Hal and the other Lanterns of earth being just a few of a group of thousands of alien heroes. But Johns gave the mythos a new sense of scope and scale - revealing that Parallax, an ancient entity of fear, was in fact responsible for Jordan's previous, villainous transformation to the dark side. By making former GL and Jordan archmesis Sinestro into the master of this same primal force of fear, Johns reestablished Sinestro as a cosmic threat of epic proportions - the Darth Vader of the GL universe. Eventually, the books took on an even more epic, Star Wars-like tone. The green light of willpower and the yellow light of fear were shown to be only two of many primal forces that could be shaped into rings of power. Johns introduced red, orange, blue, and indigo Lanterns, among others. And suddenly, there was a whole universe of ring-slinging factions, each at odds with the others. Johns' run on GL just kept building and building momentum - reaching its peak with Blackest Night - when the zombiefied Black Lanterns were introduced - the ultimate threat that Hal and co. had faced thus far. This was truly the Star Wars saga of DC Comics - a cosmic tale that seemed tailor-made to be the next huge sci-fi movie franchise.

I give you this preamble not just to establish my own personal connection to / fanboyism for all things Green Lantern, but also to set the stage for the fact that really, all the material is there to make Green Lantern into not just the next great superhero franchise, but something above and beyond - the next huge sci-fi / fantasy saga on par with a Star Wars. And man, the movie we got ... it has certain elements, certain moments, that strongly hint at that possibility. Whether it's Mark Strong's fantastic performance as a pre-villainous Sinestro, or the moments on the planet OA where we see thousands of alien GL's united and ready to fight off evil. There are those moments where GL feels like the cosmic epic we all wanted. And you know what, there is still a lot of potential here. The cast is good, sometimes great. The design work is really nice. OA and the Lanterns all look superb. And really, the straight-from-the-comics storyline is, big-picture, handled pretty well - all the seeds are planted for one hell of a sequel or two. In these respects, Green Lantern gets the job done.

What kills the movie is simply how rushed and messy it feels. The pacing is all over the place, there's little sense of scope or scale - few moments to simply drink in the awe and wonder of these alien worlds and creatures. Director Martin Campbell does a workman-like job, but there's little grandeur or majesty. There's less of a 2001 vibe and more of a Saturday morning cartoon one.

And that's not to say that a Green Lantern movie needs to be slow-paced or deadly serious. I appreciate that this is a "fun" franchise with big, broad, out-there concepts at its core. I wasn't looking for this to be The Dark Knight. I was looking for a great outer-space adventure movie. And again, I just think the pacing of GL is so all over the place that you never quite get the proper sense of scale. Let's look at some of the main issues behind this:

- Ryan Reynolds is too much of a fun-loving "everyman," and not the Indiana Jones-esque icon that he should have been. Reynolds works in the role of Hal because he does bring a lot of charisma and likability to the table. But the film seems too indecive about who Hal Jordan is. Reynolds' natural acting mode is to be likably goofy. But Hal's character is such that we want him to be larger than life - a fearless test pilot who shrugs off danger and laughs at death. I was worried about this from the moment I saw the first trailers for the film - would Hal Jordan - the tough-as-nails fighter pilot, really rattle off teenage-appropriate dialogue like "I know, right?", when showing his friend Tom his new ring-generated costume? There are moments in the movie - like when Hal runs off to try to save the dying alien Abin Sur - where he feels like the Hal Jordan from the books. But there are too many parts throughout the film where Reynolds - and the often lame dialogue he's given - undermine the type of character that the movie wants him to be, and that the mythos demand him to be - a man's man, a tough guy, a man without fear.

- Too many characters, and too many characters given the short shrift. It's an ongoing problem in superhero films - too many characters crammed into the film, and some characters having their potential wasted. In Green Lantern, a movie packed to the gils (literally, in the case of the fish-like alien Tomar-Re) with plot and high-concept story, did we really need the added, earthbound element of the goofy/grotesque looking Hector Hammond and his ever-expanding noggin'? While Peter Skaarsgard puts in a lot of effort to make Hector a fun character, he just feels shoehorned into the already-crowded plot. As a character, Hector feels like a time-filler - an effort to include a more traditional, Marvel-style super-baddie in an already overstuffed plot. We touch on Hector's longstanding crush on Hal's boss /love-interest Carol Ferris, get a taste of the tension between him and his congressman father (a mostly wasted Tim Robbins) - but with Mark Strong totally stealing the show as Sinestro, you keep wanting more time with him, with GL trainer Kilowog, with the mysterious, blue-skinned Guardians of the Universe, as opposed to Hector. The other character I have to mention is Angela Bassett as Amanda Waller. If you only know Waller from this movie, you'd think she is a marginally-important side character - and why not? She's given little personality (and a horrible-looking hairdo) in the film. But given that "The Wall' is played by the very-capable Bassett, and given that Waller is one of *the* all-time great characters of DC Comics (as written by the great John Ostrander in Suicide Squad), it hurts to see her barely utilized in the film. I think a lot of people thought that Waller would act as the DC film version of Marvel's Nick Fury. Like Sam Jackson, Bassett as Waller would show up in various DC films and help provide that fanboy-enticing link between them. But no hint of that was given here. Fans who knew Waller from the comics or the cartoons would surely walk away disappointed in the character's role (or lack thereof) in GL.

- The pacing is too jumpy. Again, things that felt like they should have been given a lot of screentime were glossed over to the point of craziness. One of the truly blissful moments in the film is when Hal is on OA training with Kilowog and Sinestro. But the scene lasts barely a few minutes - and it's not even like we get a montage of Hal's further training. The movie makes it feel like Hal gets to OA, trains for five minutes, goes back to earth, and then a little while later he's singlehandedly saving the universe from Parallax, doing on his own what Sinestro and an elite squad of trained Lanterns could not. What's more, Hal's trips from earth to OA happen at rapid pace - there's the feeling that Hal is travelling across deep space in the blink of an eye - and the initial wow-factor of this earthman going to a strange new world is quickly diminished. There's another scene in the film where Hal is at a party, but it's unclear what exactly is going on. We soon learn that it's a birthday party for his nephew, at his brother's house. As a comics fan, I enjoyed the nod to Hal's brothers and nephew (who figured prominently into his origin story as written by Geoff Johns). But in the movie, the scene felt completely random. His brothers and nephew are never heard from again beyond this one scene, and we never even hear them mentioned before or after. It's instances like that that give the film a hastily-assembled, thrown-together quality. A made-by-commitee sort of quality. It felt like a much-better "director's cut" could eventually be edited together. But what we got here felt rushed and all-over-the-place.

- The f/x feel rushed as well. And look, a lot of the CGI does look good, and I really liked the overall art-design of the film. OA in particular looks awesome, and the one scene in the film that truly gave me chills is when Hal and Tomar-Re soar through the spires and cityscapes of the iconic alien planet. But some of the CG just looks weird. There are scenes of Hal flying where he seems to transform from actual human to videogame character in mid-flight. There is an opening scene of aliens being wiped out by Parallax that seriously looks like a shoddily-done videogame cut scene. And Parallax himself looks sort of ugly. In the comics, the Parallax entity is a giant, insect-like creature. Here, he is just an amorphous blob of yellow energy - looking like a leftover effect from The Mummy 1.

This isn't to diss on the f/x overall. Just seeing the Green Lantern constructs brought to life is thrilling, and the film does a great job with the ring-charged battles. The GL costumes actually look pretty good overall - much better than in the first footage shown to fans. Again, the character designs are uniformly excellent. Tomar-Re, Kilowog, Sinestro - they all look by and large perfect. Even the GL's in the crowd-scenes represent fun characters from the comics with pinpoint accuracy, with favorites like Green Man, Bzzt, and others making an appearance.

And the cast, overall, is good, sometimes great. Blake Lively is not bad at all as Carol Ferris. She has a good chemistry with Reynolds and makes a likable leading lady. Geoffrey Rush voicing Tomar-Re, and Michael Clarke Duncan as Kilowog? Note perfect. And of course, Mark Strong is the real star of the film as Sinestro - totally awesome in the role - essentially the comic book character come to life. Do I wish that more time was devoted to Sinestro's character arc, so that the final reveal involving him was a better pay-off? Hell yes. Do I wish that more of a relationship was developed between Hal and Sinestro? Definitely - again, everything with the character felt far too rushed. But, it was no fault of Strong - he ruled it in the part, plain and simple.

I also think that Reynolds should be given some credit for really giving Hal Jordan a lot of personality. It may not have been the exact *right* personality, but look, Reynolds does a lot to make the movie feel fast-paced and engaging even when the script and editing isn't really clicking. I'd like to see him be less Peter Parker and more Han Solo in future installments, but overall, this movie showed me the potential of Reynolds to be a great Green Lantern *if* he and the script can reign-in his usual Ryan Reynolds-ism, and challenge him to be a different sort of character than he's necessarilly played before.

And you know what? Despite the messiness of the film, despite some of the glaring issues ... I still find myself surprised to see just how much venom is being spewed at the movie by any number of critics. The movie had some issues, but man, it really had some ambition as well. It didn't shy away from the crazier elements of Green Lantern. And although Reynolds had some cheesy jokes and one-liners, the movie mostly took itself seriously, allowing you to suspend disbelief and buy into its universe-spanning mythology. I mean, remember, if you will, that several years ago WB execs wanted to make a GL comedy starring Jack Black. My god. The fact that we actually got a Green Lantern movie, with characters and themes that are mostly true to and respectful of the source material - that is pretty awesome. And I did love this movie for the sheer comic book-iness of it all. A lot of the big themes - the talk of willpower vs. fear, for example - felt directly lifted from the GL comics. And the weirdness of GL - the funky aliens, the pink-skinned villains, the bright colors and costumes, even the Guardians in all their millenia-old craziness - all of that was here, preserved, for a new generation of kids to enjoy and discover. And you could almost feel the push and pull in the movie. You could feel a really shoddy script and a really badass one fighting it out. I am pretty sure that someone, at some point, crafted a goofy, cheesy GL movie with a wisecracking lead and a conventional, earthbound storyline. But then, later on, someone (Johns, most likely) was brought in and insisted that all of the cool stuff about GL be put in there - they insisted that this was not DC's Spiderman, but its Star Wars. And though some traces of that crappier, less-ambitious movie remain, there is enough of that second, more kick-ass movie that shines through to make Green Lantern a fun and at least semi-satisfying movie. I could sit here and nitpick at things that bugged me about the film all day, but I could also rant and rave about what a sequel could be, about all the possibility for awesomeness that this franchise is just bursting at the seams with. I don't know if I'd keep Martin Campbell onboard - get someone with a bigger, more cosmic sensibility. Get ONE writer who gets GL and loves the Johns comics (maybe Johns himself) to write the script. Pump up Strong's Sinestro as the big bad. Smooth out the f/x. And damn, you'd have yourself one hell of a movie. This one isn't brightest day nor blackest night, but it is a movie that has enough potential that, I think, it deserves support from fans. Despite its flaws, this is a fun movie that is hard to hate and easy to root for.

My Grade: B

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