Green Lantern: Emerald Knights, the latest foray in Warner Brothers’ collection of straight-to-DVD animated movies, is a tired collection of military cliches interspersed with some impressive fight scenes. Words like honor, sacrifice and bravery get batted around like a well-used hacky sack at a Grateful Dead concert, but to little effect, other than to remind you that there’s a big screen, live-action movie starring Ryan Reynolds that will be coming out in theaters any day now.
The film opens with a rather jarring sequence that I actually feel compelled to call attention to since it veers so far away from the tone and treatment of the rest of the film. In it, a generic Green Lantern is heading out on patrol when she is attacked and killed by a group of flying shadow monsters. That’s fine in and of itself, except that the movie takes loving care to show her being dismembered by the monsters, with her feet, then hands, midsection and then head rather gruesomely ripped from her body. The fact that there’s no blood or entrails doesn’t make this sequence any less disturbing. In fact, I’d argue it makes it even more disturbing. And I should note at this point that the film is rated PG. Way to do your job, MPAA.
But I digress. It seems the shadow monsters are working for the Lantern’s ancient enemy Krona, who apparently is planning to attack the guardians’ home planet of Oa any day now, once he can get out of his anti-matter universe or wherever it is he’s trapped. A call to arms is raised, and as the Green Lanterns gather and prepare for battle, our hero Hal Jordan starts telling the youngest and newest recruit, Arisia, some of his favorite stories about the Corps and its various members.
So what we have then is an anthology film, collecting various stories from the comics — some well known, some not so well known — all designed with one purpose: to hammer home again and again how utterly awesome the Green Lanterns are. At times this movie feels more like a recruitment film than a superhero cartoon.
We learn about the very first Green Lantern, Avra, and his selfless courage despite humble beginnings; about Killowog’s tough-as-nails instruction; and about Laira, who receives a decidedly unwelcome homecoming when she returns to her warrior-proud planet on a peacekeeping mission.
We are also treated to adaptations of two Alan Moore stories, both originally written way back when DC and Moore were bestest buddies. The first and best known, Mogo Doesn’t Socialize, is a rather faithful adaptation, though it adds more backstory than necessary and spoils the big revelation way too soon. I did, however, smile to realize that “Rowdy” Roddy Piper was providing the voice of Mogo’s “nemesis,” Bolphunga the Unrelenting.
The other adaptation is Moore’s “Tygers,” which is turned from a tight, nasty allegory about the dangers of second-guessing yourself into a rather muddled mess, with lots of dialogue between Abin Sur and Sinestro (who plays a supporting role here by the way; this film seeming to take place before his eventual betrayal) about destiny versus free will. I suspect that this is largely due not so much to Kevin O’Neill’s admittedly grotesque illustrations as it is to the fact that it puts Abin Sur in a rather weak light, and makes him seem susceptible to deception, which would be untoward in a film that’s devoted to selling you on the Green Lantern franchise as strongly as possible.
Like a number of recent DCU films, the animation here varies between stylish and proficient to sloppy and cheap. The fight sequences are, as I said before, extremely well choreographed and rendered, and are easily the highlight of the film. Elsewhere, though, it’s obvious the staff relied on CGI and a few other computer tricks to keep costs down and animate the less kicky-punchy sequences, but only serve to create a “something’s not right here” tone within the mind of the viewer. I will note that, while the look of the film is consistent overall, certain segments, like the Mogo chapter, seem to harken to back to ’70s animation, particularly the Heavy Metal film or a few Ralph Bakashi projects. If intended, it’s an homage that I greatly appreciated.
But the film’s real flaw is not the animation or its episodic structure. It’s the utter reliance on war movie tropes that were tired back when John Wayne was doing them. Every cliche in the military handbook is trotted out here: the nervous recruit eager to prove herself; the soldier who must choose between family and doing the right thing; the tough, sadistic drill sergeant who actually has a heart of gold; the neophyte who refuses to back down against overwhelming odds; and on and on and on.
The film constantly reminds us how being a Green Lantern is all about sacrifice and bravery, to the point where I expected to see Killowog turn around at some point, remind us that they’re looking for a few good men and suggest we contact our local recruiter. The most egregious effort in this direction is easily a supplemental documentary where Dan DiDio, Geoff Johns and some people with PhDs talk about how Green Lantern shows us what it means to be truly brave and how without him (and, by implication, the rest of the DC universe) we’d all be selfish, petty bastards with no understanding of nobility or the higher good. This isn’t implicit stuff; they actually come out and say this several times, interspersed with images of George Washington, King Arthur and, yes, John F. Kennedy, just in case we didn’t get the point already.
Well, so what? What’s wrong with tales about sacrifice and bravery? Aren’t these important ideals we should strive toward and admire, even when they’re presented in a cartoon? What’s my problem, anyway?
Well first off, all of the Hal’s talk of bravery and what it means to be a Lantern strikes me as a very lazy way to inject a bit of heightened melodrama and unearned grandeur. But then there’s also the issue of spelling everything out. A few weeks ago in one of our What Are You Reading? columns, I criticized Action Comics #900 for its insistence on making sure every story mattered, either by infusing it with unneeded political and social allusions (“torn from today’s headlines” as it were) or by overstating as loudly and explicitly as possible the mythological allusions and general awesomeness of their characters. It’s the old “if we tell you this enough times maybe you’ll believe it” school of storytelling, and Green Lantern: Emerald Knights buys into it 100 percent, to its detriment.
Overstuffed with melodrama and false piety, Green Lantern: Emerald Knights is short on character development, plot and any sort of emotional investment. Some Green Lantern fans, even those who serious groove on the mythology and details of the character and universe, may be disappointed to find Hal basically taking the role of a narrator here, though perhaps they’ll enjoy seeing various supporting characters thrown in the spotlight. Others will enjoy the film as a basic action, superhero film — the fight sequences are, as I said, the best thing about the film. Whether those fans pay any heed to the militaristic platitudes presented throughout the movie doesn’t make them any less prominent, however, or any less of a problem.