“I think audiences are ready [for more challenging superhero films]. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s anyone in Hollywood who could drum up the $300 million it would take to make [a Final Crisis movie]. But entertainment has changed, again. We’ve been concerned with realism for a while, but we’re getting back into psychedelia and fantasy again. Look at James Cameron’s Avatar or Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which are two of the most successful films of the last two years. Both happened to catch a wave that few were ready for.”
My recent entrance into the world of fatherhood has done to my theatergoing what Bane did to Batman’s back, but that hasn’t kept me from eagerly anticipating new superhero movies, for good or for ill, nor has it stopped me from picking them apart with my friends. During one such recent discussion about Kenneth Branagh’s hit Thor adaptation, two of my friends said it feels a lot like Marvel Studios’ other movies — one of them meant it as a compliment, the other as a criticism, but both agreed that this similarity was the plan all along. Thor’s roots in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s cosmic take on the Norse myths may be a million miles away from Iron Man’s weapons-manufacturer-turned-roguish-hero science fiction, but both properties are being filtered through Marvel Studios’ version of Marvel Comics’ “as close to the real world as the presence of superheroes will allow us to get” tone — specifically, the military-industrial version thereof that was pioneered, I’d say, by Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s The Ultimates a decade ago. Most of the other big superhero movies have been similarly earthbound, aesthetically speaking, from Christopher Nolan’s dark, Chicago-set Batman movies to the paramilitary jumpsuits of Bryan Singer’s X-Men. In those cases you could make a reasonable argument that toning things down made sense. In other cases, like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies, making Spidey as much of an everyman as possible is part and parcel of the concept’s appeal.
But then there are situations like Fantastic Four, which seemed to run screaming from the visual and narrative flair provided by the Lee/Kirby original. Would it really have been so horrible to portray Galactus as a gigantic guy in a purple suit and hat? I know that in the bizarro logic that pervades a lot of nerd culture, that’s somehow less “serious” than a movie about astronauts who get mutated by cosmic rays would otherwise be, but even so, providing filmgoers with something they’ve never seen before can be a recipe for blockbuster success just as much as visual comfort food often is. Why not give it a shot? Why not use all of the spectacular elements of superhero fiction to really blow some minds? Sure, Thor has Asgard, but it’s still a relatively toned-down version compared to Jack Kirby’s eye-melting godlike machinery.
Which leads me to Green Lantern. Its first trailer was very very Iron Man in tone, with its “handsome womanizing wiseacre gets powers, learns to use them heroically” arc. Its second trailer was a more traditional “very serious superhero versus very serious threat in very serious action film” affair. But its third and most recent trailer goes full-on, balls-out cosmic in its depiction of the Green Lantern creation myth and the menagerie that is the Green Lantern Corps. Cotton-candy colors, wavy hazy energy, landscapes straight out of a Roger Dean album cover for Yes, a Crayola 64-pack of aliens, epic narration (“Billions of years ago, a race of immortals harnessed the most powerful force in existence: the emerald energy of willpower”) that sounds like it could have come from the B-side of Donovan’s “Atlantis” — it’s defiantly unrealistic. It presents the Green Lantern Corps as the anti-S.H.I.E.L.D. — there’s nothing ground-level about them whatsoever.
Obviously the movie’s not out yet — it could be really bad, and/or it could bomb. (Those two things are by no means necessarily related.) I’ve already seen plenty of complaints about the CGI, which makes no effort to hide that it’s CGI; I don’t mind that, because to me that’s how all sci-fi CGI has looked, from the Star Wars prequels right on through Avatar (The Lord of the Rings still has the best blend of extensive and convincing CGI usage to date, going on 10 years after it premiered), but I’m sure that could hurt it with some segments of the audience. But in watching this third trailer, what came to mind weren’t the two touchstones of contemporary superhero cinema, Iron Man and The Dark Knight, but Morrison’s dynamic duo of Avatar and Alice. Is that what superhero audiences want to see? We’re about to find out.