Friday, July 1, 2011

Green Green Lantern

So, since I wrote about the recent X-Men prequel in my last post, The Magneto Question, I might as well say a few words about the recent Green Lantern movie in this next one.

First, let me acknowledge that yes, the critics are right, the movie's plot is a bit of a mess, looks like five different writers worked on it, and the seams are showing, there are logical inconsistencies, non sequiturs, lapses and lacunas, etc., etc.  

But for all that, I enjoyed it, it was visually appealing, not artsy but attractive, and another nice use of 3D technology that doesn't hit you over the head with it.  Overall, it resembled less the other super heroes movies of recent years, and more the Star Wars films in its look and sensibility.  And it was exciting, despite the problems with the plot.

You can get some sense of the look of the film from the trailer (but of course it really needs to be seen on the big screen):

Let me add that, in my opinion, the Green Lantern comics superhero is a great subject for a major motion picture, and I was thinking that way for a long time now, going back to the first great Superman movies of 1978 and 1983 that starred Christopher Reeve.

Not that they were the perfect comic book adaptations, but they were entertaining films that capitalized on the new interest in science fiction and special effects that followed the introduction of Star Wars in 1977.  There were two more Superman films made in 1983 and 1987, neither very good, as well as a Supergirl movie in 1984, also not particularly memorable, before the more recent Superman Returns in 2006.  Then there were the two Batman movies with Michael Keaton in 1989 and 1992, with further sequels starring Val Kilmer in 1995, and George Clooney in 1997, before the series was rebooted with Batman Begins in 2005 and The Dark Knight in 2008, with Christian Bale in the lead role.

If you're wondering why I'm not mentioning Spider-Man or some of the other superheros, it's because I'm focusing on the the DC line of comics in this post, and the superheroes associated with them, who appear in Warner Bros. movies because DC is owned by TimeWarner.  And admittedly, Batman is the second most popular DC character after Superman, but Green Lantern is much closer to Superman in sensibility, as a truly superpowered hero, albeit one whose powers are derived from a ring that does or creates whatever the user wants it to, limited only by the individual's will power.  

The idea of will power was a powerful one in the early 20th century, albeit one with some problematic associations due to Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will.  But there was a great deal of talk at that time about will power, much as we talk today about how you can do anything if you put your mind to it, and how you define your own reality (aka The Secret).  Where there's a will, there's a way, we used to say.  It fit in well with the emphasis on individualism that had become the dominant ideology in the west, particularly in conjunction with the rise of literacy and print culture, before it was eroded by the electronic media.

But the point I was getting at is that Green Lantern was up there with Superman as one of the DC Universe's "big guns" so to speak (I believe that metaphor comes from World War Two), and the association between the two can be heard in one of the top hits of the sixties, Donovan's Sunshine Superman:

And here are the lyrics:

Sunshine came softly through my a-window today
Could've tripped out easy a-but I've a-changed my ways
It'll take time, I know it but in a while
You're gonna be mine, I know it, we'll do it in style
'Cause I made my mind up you're going to be mine

I'll tell you right now
Any trick in the book now, baby, all that I can find
Everybody's hustlin' just to have a little scene
When I say we'll be cool I think that you know what I mean
We stood on a beach at sunset, do you remember when?
I know a beach where, baby, a-it never ends
When you've made your mind up forever to be mine

Hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm
I'll pick up your hand and slowly blow your little mind
'Cause I made my mind up you're going to be mine
I'll tell you right now
Any trick in the book now, baby, all that I can find

Superman or Green Lantern ain't got a-nothin' on me
I can make like a turtle and dive for your pearls in the sea, yeah!
A you-you-you can just sit there a-thinking on your velvet throne
'bout all the rainbows a-you can a-have for your own
When you've made your mind up forever to be mine
I'll pick up your hand and slowly blow your little mind
When you've made your mind up forever to be mine

I'll pick up your hand
I'll pick up your hand

Okay, so it's just a little passing reference, but in those days, any kind of reference was very rare indeed.  Not that it's all that common today.  

But the point I was getting at is that Green Lantern is an excellent subject for a movie, and one that was long overdue.  In a way, maybe, too long overdue.  If they had gone for Green Lantern back in the eighties, the story would have been much simpler, as he was a Silver Age superhero, perhaps the first who was truly a space age hero, a test pilot with the right stuff out of the mold of Chuck Yeager, a bit of a swinging bachelor, not a womanizer like Star Trek's Captain Kirk though, as he had a girlfriend, Carol Ferris, who was more independent-minded back then than the stand-by-your-man version in the film.

The early take on Green Lantern was that he was a space cop assigned to our space sector, a sheriff mostly on his own, with occasional interaction with the Guardians of the Galaxy on the planet Oa, and his fellow Green Lanterns.  The movie has one thread along those lines, with Hal Jordan's origin story, and his earthly nemesis, Hector Hammond with the supersized skull.

But in the past few decades, more of the Green Lantern back story has been filled in, making him less self-confident before he gains the ring, more human and fallible, while making his alien enemy Sinestro, the renegade Green Lantern into an early mentor, and putting more emphasis on his working with the Green Lantern Corps off planet, and with the Guardians on Oa.  These other threads made for a movie on a much grander scale than it would otherwise have been, but also for a more confusing end product, as the various elements really needed to be dealt with one at a time to create a coherent storyline.

I do understand what happened.  There are all these cool items in the Green Lantern mythos, the Green Lantern Corps made up of aliens from every part of the universe, 3600 strong, one for each sector (how they arrived at these divisions is never explained, but it is a nice round and mystical number, a multiple of 9 and therefore of 3, and 12 for that matter).  There's the idea of a Green Lantern boot camp (part of a shift in presenting the Corps more like a military force as opposed to police or peace officers) run by a tough, pig-like alien.  There's the alien Sinestro (love those unsubtle sixties names for villains) who is thought to be the greatest of the Green Lanterns before Hal Jordan arrives, but who turns out to be a control-freak, we-must-have-order Hitler type, and is drummed out of the Corps, gains a yellow ring, and becomes a renegade supervillain.  There's the planet Oa where the central green lantern battery resides, along with the Guardians of the Galaxy who formed and powered the Green Lantern Corps, and give them their orders.  There's Parallax, the fear entity, fear being the opposing force to will power, and whose color is appropriately enough, yellow (in the Silver Age comics, Green Lantern's weakness was that his ring was powerless against anything colored yellow).

And while the film deviated from the comics in the way some of these elements were dealt with, it did try to cram them all in, along with the human villain Hector Hammond, and the Green Lantern origin story.  Too much, too much.

Sure, it was great to see the alien Lanterns, and Oa, and the Guardians, and outer space action, that was the real beauty of the film.  So why not stick with those elements?  Because, for some reason, the producers of this, and most superhero movies, feel obliged to begin with the hero's origin story.  Now, if you spoke to anyone who knows anything about superhero narratives, I am confident they would tell you that almost all origin stories are the least interesting aspect of the hero, and the whole point typically has been to get past them as quickly as possible, and into the real action.  Before he gets the ring, Hal Jordan is ordinary, uninteresting, and for the most part, unsympathetic (apart from the tragedy of witnessing his father's death as a child, but there was no room for any real psychological subtlety in the film).

Let me reiterate here.  Origins are boring!

Why bore us with a Green Lantern, for example, who is so very, well green?  That's what I meant here by titling this post Green Green Lantern, with apologies to my friend Paul Levinson, whose most recent book is New New Media.  Green Green Lantern is bumbling, insecure, foolish, and lacking in serious purpose.  Now, I know this is supposed to humanize the character, make him easier to identify with, and make the movie more broadly appealing.  But these are modern-day myths and romances, and they require something more from the narrative.  Like the Homeric epics, we need to be brought in medias res, into the midst of things, into the action, that's what works best.  

If you feel that an origin is absolutely necessary, put it in as a brief flashback later on in the film.  Want an example?  How about the first X-Men film?  And the second?  And the third?  Only after two sequels are we getting to the origins in two (so far) prequels.  And hey, look at Star Wars, and consider the difference in reception between the first trilogy, and the second three prequels.  For that matter, look at Star Trek too, and the failure of the last television series, Enterprise, another prequel.  Origins are boring, too much green, in between (and all around).  And especially for DC's heroes, who are more iconic, mythic, less rounded than Marvel's heroes with hang ups.

Why does Green Lantern have to be son green?  That's my question, but I suppose I should note that green was a popular color for comics (initially, they only had four to work with), and DC has a hero called Green Arrow as well as Green Lantern.  In the Green Lantern comics most recently, it's explained that green is the color of will power (why, I don't know).   But there are other connotations.  Green is the color of money, at least in the United States, where we have our greenbacks (the color of money is also, typically, the color of pool tables).  Green in recent years is the color of environmentalism, a better fit for the Green Arrow character (a Robin Hood-like archer) than Green Lantern.

Green is also the color of Islam, and I wonder what the reception and interpretation of the character is over in the middle east?  Note that Green Lantern's secret identity is Hal Jordan, the connection no doubt unintentional.  Of course there are other human Green Lanterns, the golden age Green Lantern (whose power was magical in nature rather than scientific, and whose weakness was wood rather than yellow) is Alan Scott, while the other human Green Lanterns in the GL Corps are Guy Gardner, John Stewart (the Green Lantern who is black, that is, African American), and Kyle Rayner (the youthful Green Lantern).  And with all of those other alien Lanterns, diversity is very much a part of the contemporary Green Lantern narrative.

Speaking of religion, there is a religious element to the oath that Green Lanterns take as they charge their rings.  It goes like this:

In brightest day, in blackest night,
No evil shall escape my sight
Let those who worship evil's might,
Beware my power... Green Lantern's light!

Yeah, I know, the rhyme is a bit hokey, but it was appealing when I was a kid, and the Silver Age heroes of the sixties were primarily meant to appeal to young readers.  The golden age Green Lantern had a different oath:
...and I shall shed my light over dark evil.
For the dark things cannot stand the light,
The light of the Green Lantern!
Now, that sounds downright biblical!  No rhyme there, but it sounds like Hebrew poetry, or rather the English translation of Hebrew poetry, where parallel structure rather than rhyming is used, and lines often begin with "and" (like the prayer that goes, "And you shall love the Lord your God..." which comes from Deuteronomy).

Notice that in both versions of the oath, the operative element is light, not being green.   When it comes to being green, well, I think you know who put it best:

Of course, green is also the color of envy and jealousy, the green-eyed monster, and sickness as well, and there are other negative connotations...

But maybe Leonard Cohen put it best:

In other words, what would be best is less green, more lantern!


Robert K. Blechman said...

I also liked the Green Lantern movie. However, if the director and writers really had a sense of humor, they would have included a scene where Hal Jordan contemplates his power ring and says "My Precious!"

Lance Strate said...

I wouldn't be surprised if they do it if and when they do the sequel, but with Sinestro and the yellow ring.