The Discount Spinner Rack: GREEN LANTERN (2011)

Over the last few decades, comic book movies have reached heights of storytelling and spectacle that readers could never have DREAMED of. But for every triumphant high—The Dark Knight, The Avengers—there have always been a good number of stinkers… some bad enough to become punchlines or talking points, but most mediocre and ultimately forgotten…

Until they end up here.

The Discount Spinner Rack is where you’ll find the worst, the weirdest, and the most puzzling of comic book movie misfires. We’ll take a look at the things that actually work and the parts that absolutely don’t, and decide whether it’s worth your time and your dime. In the end, movies will be marked down on a scale from $1.00 (a surprise gem) to $0.05 (better used for kindling). Next up on the rack: the disastrous big-budget flop, Green Lantern!

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When it came to comic book movies at the start of the new millennium, Warner Bros. was dropping the ball HARD. The explosion of Marvel movies that followed the one-two punch of X-Men and Spider-Man ensured that theaters were filled year after year with colorful costumes and dazzling superpowers, but activity on the DC side of the aisle was strangely muted. Aside from launching the Nolan-helmed reboot of the dormant Batman franchise and finally scraping together a (sadly underwhelming) Superman movie, Warner Bros.’ efforts to expand the DC brand on the big screen were meager at best: a release of the long-gestating Catwoman solo film1, a John Constantine movie, a V for Vendetta adaptation. Warners seemed… reluctant to pursue the superhero craze—perhaps convinced that it was a passing fad, already on the way out when the much-reviled (but massively lucrative) Spider-Man 3 and the cheesy clunker Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer hit theaters in 2007. The bubble was going to burst, and Warners would wait it out, sitting on their sure-bet Harry Potter franchise to carry them into the next decade.

… Then Iron Man changed everything.

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And he did it with style.

With a single movie, the newly-launched Marvel Studios redefined Hollywood’s notions of what comic book movies could do. Powered by a perfect combination of the irreverently charming Robert Downey Jr., a great director, and a rock-solid script, the film proved that it wasn’t brand recognition or nostalgia that powered these films to success, but the strength of the characters and the stories themselves. If an obscure B-lister like Iron Man could sell a movie, then ANYONE could. And with its famous post-credits scene hinting at the future assembly of the Avengers, Iron Man suggested that not only were superhero films not going away, but they were about to get bigger.

Suddenly Warner Bros. found themselves well behind the curve, with the Potter franchise nearing its conclusion and nothing new lined up to compete with the looming threat of a Marvel Cinematic Universe. So the studio fell back on the oldest tactic in the ol’ Hollywood arsenal: they shamelessly ripped off a proven success.

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Green Lantern is the story of B-list DC icon Hal Jordan, played here by the irreverently charming Ryan Reynolds. Jordan, a test pilot for Ferris Air, is selected by a dying alien to succeed him as a member of the Green Lantern Corps—a legion of interplanetary peacekeepers from across the galaxy. Granted a powerful ring that can create anything Hal can imagine, he returns to Earth to stop scientist Hector Hammond, whose exposure to an alien power source mutates him into a telekinetic monster… and ultimately draws a more terrifying threat down from the cosmos. There are a number of surface similarities to Iron Man: the colorful cinematography, the aeronautic and military trappings of the story, the hero with the glowing circle on his chest. But more than anything, this was a film trying to replicate Iron Man’s cheeky, fun, adventurous tone, with just a hint that maybe there was a bigger world waiting just off-frame.

Directed by Martin Campbell—the man who gave us GoldenEye, The Mask of Zorro, and Casino Royale, for Christ’s sake—Green Lantern would be Warner Bros.’ throwing down of the gauntlet; a declaration of intent to launch their OWN cinematic universe, as they planned to follow this film with a Greg Berlanti/Marc Guggenheim scripted solo film for The Flash2. They sank $200 million into this production, hoping to beat Marvel at its own game.

Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out that way.

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I wonder why…

IN THIS ISSUE: Self-loathing. You see, Green Lantern is a movie that hates its own core premise.

Oh, it commits to it, alright… We get the whole shebang: pink- and purple-skinned aliens, bright green power rings, light constructs, blue space-midgets, Hector Hammond’s bloated super-brain, and that whole “green = willpower, yellow = fear” concept. But all of it is introduced to us in a flat and artless manner, lacking all sense of energy or drama (the Lantern mythos is bluntly explained to us in a voice-over prologue by an extremely bored-sounding Geoffrey Rush, as if to get the set-up out of the way as quickly as they could3). And at every opportunity, the film decides early on to poke fun at the ridiculousness of the whole situation: Hal makes silly jokes about pledging allegiance to a lantern, his best friend Tom (played by, of ALL f%$#ing people, Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi) makes fun of Hal’s choice of a giant Hot Wheels construct in a previous action scene, and they share a giggly stoner bro-moment when Hal shows off his costume (“I KNOW, RIGHT?!?”). The film seems convinced that a winking sense of self-awareness will get audiences to like it.

But see, here’s the thing about the concept of Green Lantern: it’s pretty silly. Of course it’s silly. And you don’t get a pat on the back for pointing out that it’s silly—as if that were some grand insight we couldn’t have reached ourselves. Green space rings that grant magic superpowers are as ridiculous a concept as, say, a man who flies around in blue-and-red tights, catching falling airplanes with his bare hands. Good superhero cinema isn’t ABOUT spelling out just how silly everything is for the viewer; it’s about making us forget just how silly it all is and just GO with it. And in that respect, Green Lantern is an abject failure.

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The script is a miserable, formulaic hack job. Warners took a decent first draft from DCCW architects Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim and then handed it over to a man named Michael Goldenberg (the scribe behind the 2005 live-action Peter Pan and Jodie Foster’s Contact), who ran it through the Save the Cat! story point checklist to make it as generic and homogenous as possible. In addition to significantly dumbing down much of the dialogue, he makes Hector a childhood friend of Hal and Carol’s to create a half-assed love triangle (even though, as adults, they all only appear in one scene together), needlessly shifts the main over-villain from Legion4 to Parallax (albeit only in name), makes Hal quit the Corps to arbitrarily create tension (even though Hal never actually bothers to give the ring back), and changes the climax of the movie from a harrowing mid-air jet rescue Hal has to pull off without his ring… to a big, boring battle with a giant C.G. cloud monster.

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Actually, it kinda looks more like an amorphous tentacled dog turd with a face.

The film isn’t a complete disaster, however. As strange as it may seem, Ryan Reynolds is actually NOT a bad choice to play Hal Jordan, the cocky, dashing test pilot who ends up becoming the first-ever human inductee to the Green Lantern Corps. In his third go-round trying to play a superhero character5, Reynolds seemed to have found a role that perfectly fit the combination of smarmy charm and bravado he’d always wanted to play; a character who, as he put it, could “tell a joke, throw a punch, and kiss a girl”. And in the moments where he’s playing THAT guy, he shines.

Alas, the script is once again a stumbling block, as screenwriter Goldenberg tries to make Hal both a cocky show-off and a cowardly f%$#-up in search of courage at the same time. The result is a character who behaves wildly inconsistently throughout the film, throwing himself headlong into danger in one scene and then hesitating and giving up in the next. In the end, Hal Jordan doesn’t leave any real impression on the audience, and all your left with is your personal feelings about Ryan Reynolds. And some people don’t much care for Ryan Reynolds.

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Maybe it’s the cold, dead, milky-white eyes.

Probably the biggest check in the “win” column comes in the form of Mark Strong as the Corps’ greatest warrior, Sinestro. Presented as a respected figurehead among the Lanterns with access to the Guardians of the Universe themselves, Sinestro is mainly in this movie to either deliver or receive plot exposition… but Mark Strong brings so much intensity and commitment to the role that he carries every scene he’s in. Even buried under pounds of latex prosthetic appliances and thick make-up, Strong has a commanding, regal presence and a powerful delivery that bring this hard-edged character to life. He even has the teeniest, tiniest of arcs in his antagonistic relationship to Hal, whom he initially sees as an unfit replacement for Abin Sur, but eventually grows to respect as a worthy comrade. It’s not much, but at least it’s coherent.

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Plus, the guy was rockin’ some sweet abs.

The rest of the cast is decent, if unremarkable. Blake Lively is an insanely gorgeous woman with fairly limited range as Hal’s on-and-off girlfriend, Carol Ferris (though she does share some genuine chemistry with Ryan Reynolds… which might explain why they ended up getting married later on6). Peter Sarsgaard brings the nebbish as introverted science teacher-turned-malevolent telekinetic slimeball Hector Hammond, whose dramatic shift towards homicidal evil seems both disingenuous and thematically muddled. Tim Robbins is here too, slumming it as Hector’s douchey father, Senator Hammond… Oh, and Angela Bassett shows up as Amanda Waller, an agent of the mysterious D.E.O. who was clearly supposed to be this film’s equivalent of Nick Fury.

Visually, the film is a feast for the eyes. Consistently warm, bright, vividly colorful cinematography makes every frame pop even BEFORE the Lanterns show up with the shining green spotlights on their chests. On top of that, the film is bursting with special effects work… some shots, admittedly, less special than others. Choosing to do the Green Lanterns’ energy-based costumes as a C.G.I. effect was a clever and creative way to illustrate the unique nature of their uniforms… but the flip side of that is, there are some shots (in particular of Reynolds’ mask) that look downright cartoon-y.

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The special effects team also went through the trouble of creating twenty-five C.G.I. Green Lanterns for the big scene featuring the Corps congregating on Oa (multiplying them exponentially for the big group shots). They painstakingly created a bunch of the weirdest, most alien and over-the-top creatures from throughout the history of the Corps, complete with unique movement cycles and attack animations. And in the end, all of those hundreds of animating and design hours are put to work… by having the characters stand silently in a room while Sinestro delivers a speech. In the end, the only C.G. Lanterns who get to speak are Tomar-Re (Geoffrey Rush) and Kilowag (Michael Clarke Duncan), who are only even there (say it with me now) to deliver blunt exposition over the course of a training montage.

In the end, nothing could say more about Green Lantern than the fact that they created an entire Corps to put up on the big screen, and yet couldn’t think of anything to DO with it.

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IS IT WORTH YOUR DIME?: Green Lantern is a pretty little bauble of a movie with a couple of clever ideas and some good casting. Unfortunately, it’s also completely hollow and empty-headed, settling for mocking itself rather than trying to engage us viscerally or intellectually. This is a movie that thinks it needs to explain how emotions work to the audience; if you can handle that level of vapid condescension, then, hey, maybe it’s worth a look.

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DISCOUNT PRICE: $0.50

FAVORITE BITS:

  1. “Hal?”: In the only truly great moment of the film, Hal goes to visit Carol as Green Lantern after rescuing her at the party. After a line or two of typical superhero-flirtation dialogue (during which Hal uses his ring to disguise his voice7 and insists on calling her “miss”), Carol walks towards him… then stops, peers a bit more closely, and IMMEDIATELY recognizes Hal Jordan under the face mask. When he asks her how she figured it out, her response is a brilliant poke at superhero-disguise tropes:

    “What do you mean? I’ve known you my whole life! I’ve seen you NAKED—you don’t think I’d recognize you just because I can’t see your cheekbones?!”

  2. Sinestro vs. Hal: Another solid beat in the film as Sinestro, the seasoned veteran Lantern, flies down and challenges the fresh fish to a sparring match. Mark Strong dominates the scene, knocking Reynolds around like a rag doll all while delivering his on-the-nose dialogue (“Fear is the enemy of will!”) with enough conviction and venom to make the viewer almost buy into it. Almost.
  3. Hector Hammond Can’t Stop Screaming. Here’s a drinking game for you: every time Hector Hammond starts shrieking like a goddamn banshee—whether he’s lying in bed, coming home after a nice party, or getting splattered with molten glass—take a shot. Take two shots if he’s clutching at both sides of his rapidly-swelling, deformed, distressingly testicle-shaped head.
  4. Coast City is “played” by establishing shots of downtown San Diego—a place I lived for eight years—and unlike the Dark Knight films, there’s no effort made to digitally alter or rearrange the buildings. You can even see the San Diego Convention Center—home of the San Diego Comic Con, the Mecca of all geek-dom—in at least one shot!
  5. Stick around after the credits…: Yes, Green Lantern has its own stinger, too. We see the yellow ring being taken from a holding bubble… thing… and then watch as it’s slipped onto the spindly green finger of… SINESTRO! Bum-bum-BUM!!! Turns out he’s gone bad! … For some reason! … Even though it was never foreshadowed or indicated anywhere else in the movie, and he has no logical reason to want to try the ring on!
    … Ah, hell with it. This is probably the only time we’ll ever get to see Sinestro in his yellow uniform, so I might as well enjoy it.
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… (wistful sigh)…

NEXT TIME: Frank Castle and ‘80s action cinema should be a match made in Heaven, right? So let’s see how Dolph Lundgren faired in the 1989 shoot-‘em-up, The Punisher!