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Green Lantern: Not quite lord of the ring, but not an emerald yawn

by  in Comic News Comment

The big-budget adaptation of Green Lantern is a fairly entertaining popcorn movie with a stentorian beginning, a strong finish, and a middle section which feels about a half-hour longer than it actually is. That’s not entirely unwelcome, because GL’s leads are charming when they need to be and engaging otherwise. Ryan Reynolds makes a good Hal Jordan, Blake Lively comes across pretty well as Carol Ferris, Mark Strong stands out as Sinestro, and Peter Skaarsgard plays Hector Hammond effectively as a misfit-turned-skeevy-sociopath.

Unfortunately, this is not director Martin Campbell’s best genre film, falling short of both the brisk, precise Bond reinvention Casino Royale (2005) and the clever, nimble Mask Of Zorro (1998).  Even so, Green Lantern is an ambitious attempt to bring the comics’ fusion of space opera and Earthbound superheroics to a general audience, and for the most part it succeeds.

SPOILERS FOLLOW…

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Starting with the Silver Age revamp, Green Lantern was already something of a generic superhero: ultra-brave person receives nigh-unto-magical power ring, and goes to work for immortals who have the universe’s best interests at heart. There’s not a lot of built-in character development, because at any given time there are over 3,000 sentient beings using the rings, each with a certain baseline level of fearlessness. In the old days this was not that big a deal, because the ring’s limitations allowed for puzzle-type stories. More often than not, Hal had to figure out a way around either the weakness to yellow (absent in this movie) or the 24-hour charge.

Eventually, however, Hal found himself at odds with the Guardians, either on philosophical grounds or because they thought he was spending too much time on Earth. These conflicts informed the ‘70s “Hard-Traveling Heroes” stories, the ‘80s arcs where Hal was first exiled into space and then quit the Corps entirely, and 1994’s infamous “Emerald Twilight” arc.

To get to that point, however, you need either a certain familiarity with the Green Lantern Corps or an easy way to bring a new audience up to speed. I’d have loved to see a Green Lantern movie take the Hard-Traveling route (possibly with John Stewart in the Green Arrow role, for simplicity’s sake), but after talking to friends and family unfamiliar with the core GL concept, I think the movie chose wisely to tell Hal’s origin.

In fact, the very first scene of the movie got a nice chuckle out of me, but probably not the way the filmmakers intended. The movie opens with a gorgeous deep-space vista, highlighted by a multicolored nebula, and the first words we hear come from the classy throat of Geoffrey Rush, as he describes the history of the Green Lantern Corps. However, I was reminded instantly of the original “Battlestar Galactica’s” opening narration, performed by the just-as-classy Patrick MacNee. In a way, that sets the tone, because the movie has some pretty cheesy moments, but not enough to overwhelm the viewer.

One moment which does threaten to overwhelm happens to be the flashback to Martin Jordan’s death, remembered in ponderous detail by Hal as he struggles with his jet. Campbell and veteran editor Stuart Baird hammer home every emotional beat laboriously, such that when Martin’s plane bursts into flames, it’s almost anticlimactic. What’s more, the script (by Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim, and Michael Goldenberg) wants to make this an understandably important turning point in Hal’s life, but at times it takes a back seat to Hal’s ambivalence about his new responsibilities.

Faring better are the outer-space scenes. While I might have preferred a more traditional-looking Oa, with gleaming architecture and a bright blue sky, the film’s craggy-coral-reef approach makes the Guardians’ home appropriately unfamiliar. The Guardians themselves are distant but fair, brought to life by CGI which isn’t always convincing, but which does the job.

Thankfully, more attention was paid to Tomar-Re and Kilowog, both of whom are interpreted very faithfully in CGI and by their respective voice actors. Rush lends Tomar a particularly genial air, and he makes a good tour guide for Hal and for the audience. Michael Clarke Duncan doesn’t have much opportunity to bring any nuance to Kilowog, but he can do “big and tough,” which is what the script mainly calls for.

Somewhat tougher to judge is Mark Strong’s Sinestro. Here he’s the heroic paragon of the Corps, cast as an effective leader and dedicated warrior — but if I were a moviegoer new to GL lore, I’d be wondering if a guy named “Sinestro” might have something more going on. Indeed, the seeds of Sinestro’s future career come to fruition in this movie, as part of a subplot which raises questions (explored in the comics, naturally) about the Guardians’ stewardship of the Corps. Not surprisingly, this subplot doesn’t occupy too much of the movie’s time, but by extension it helps establish Hal’s value as a GL. (Basically, towards the end of the movie he argues that if he can’t save Earth from Parallax by himself — without using the yellow ring, as Sinestro would — at least he can buy the defenders of Oa some time.)

I was pleasantly surprised by Blake Lively’s Carol Ferris. The Carol of the comics inspires some strong feelings among longtime fans, whether she’s on the wrong end of a secret-identity love triangle (which appears in this movie, and lasts about 3 seconds) or demanding that Hal choose between her and the Corps. Here, she’s set up as the adult in the room, trying to keep Hal out of trouble so that he won’t ruin Ferris Air. Her exact role in the movie is nebulous — she’s one of Ferris’ pilots, but she’s also a rising executive (because her dad owns the company, naturally) and at one point she defies her father very publicly. It’s not the best role, but she does a lot with it. Although Tom Kalmaku (the endearing Taika Waititi) is mostly comic relief, he is convincing as Hal’s confidant. Still, when Carol shows up to support Hal late in the film, it feels like she’s earned the right to be there. In another nod to comics history, Carol’s callsign is “Sapphire,” and I’m curious to see how Lively might handle her own CGI duds.

Peter Skaarsgard’s Hector Hammond starts off as a nebbish, and he actually has one of the movie’s more interesting character arcs, but it gets lost in one-dimensional villainy once he’s zapped by a remnant of Parallax. Essentially, he wants to make his own way in the world, unhampered by his own father (who’s a Senator, incidentally overseeing shadowy government agencies like the Department of Extranormal Operations); but when Dr. Amanda Waller (played with Hillary Clinton hair by Angela Bassett) gives him Abin Sur’s corpse to dissect, he realizes he only got the job through his dad’s influence. (Tim Robbins plays Senator Hammond, although I had to keep reminding myself he wasn’t Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane.) Nobly lamenting the fact that other scientists spend their whole lives for this kind of opportunity, this resentment gets fanned into an eeevil flame presumably by Parallax, who also causes Hector to toss and turn fitfully in his bed, and bellow uncontrollably at various points. I never felt like I got enough of a handle on Hector to judge him either as a villain or as a tragic figure. This was frustrating, because the movie is about (somewhat) ordinary humans swept up in a very old war between powerful cosmic forces, but it doesn’t seem particularly concerned with that perspective.

Still, Ryan Reynolds gives the movie a solid central figure. It’s a credit to Reynolds that he can play Hal as a jerk in the opening scenes (he pretty much sacrifices his wingman to prove a point), and later show Hal’s change of heart. Speaking of which, thanks to one detail of Hal’s arrival on Oa, I did wonder whether the ring itself forced a change in Hal’s personality, not unlike Parallax’s malignant influence on Hector. I kind of doubt it; but again, you can tell from his performance that becoming a Green Lantern compels Hal to reexamine his life. It’s not gradual — it’s more like Hal just flips a switch, and decides to be a better person — but there’s enough goodwill in Reynolds’ performance that it’s believable.

Perhaps most importantly, Reynolds really sells the idea that he’s zipping around in a suit of green-and-black energy, talking to extraterrestrials, and thinking up green-energy jalopies to run on life-sized Hot Wheels tracks. Green Lantern’s effects are quite good, and the green-energy constructs translate to the big screen very well. Sometimes they’re not enough to carry a scene on their own, but they’re a nice change of pace from generic energy-blasts. The final battle takes place right next to the Sun, as Hal applies one of Kilowog’s lessons in order to defeat Parallax, and all the elements come together effectively. Immediately afterwards, when Hal is reunited with Tomar, Kilowog, and Sinestro, I realized what a good time I’d had, and that I wanted to see more.

Basically, Green Lantern is a Geoff Johns comic blown up for the movies, with all the good and bad that implies. At times it strains under the weight of exposition and fidelity to the source material, at times it creaks with awkward dialogue. (Carol’s “you have the ability to overcome great fear” line doesn’t sound that much better in context.) There are echoes of similar films, from Star Wars and Top Gun to Superman and Iron Man. Still, it is a fine primer on Green Lantern lore, and a decent movie in its own right.