The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Green Lantern

Written by Martin Zeller-Jacques.

Photo from the article No one seems to remember what a bad film Superman: The Movie (1978) really was. Sure, Christopher Reeve made a brilliant Clark Kent and Gene Hackman an entertainingly camp Luthor, and the film’s Metropolis was vibrant and lively. But did we really need half an hour of Marlon Brando strutting around in a glowing silver jumpsuit? The whole section of the film set on Krypton is dull, portentous rubbish, and the worst part of it is that the perennial influence of Superman: The Movie has legitimised every two-bit imitator which wants to show off its protuberant 3D digi-muscles with a bit of otherworldly inaction. Mark my words: Richard Donner, saint of the superhero movie pantheon, is directly to blame for Thor and Green Lantern.

In their infancy, superheroes essentially emerged as naïve power fantasies, showing the good which could be accomplished by ordinary, decent men and women with the powers of gods. Over the years, superhero stories have become more complex, particularly during the 80s and 90s, when the work of writers like Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Grant Morrison began to ask mature and challenging questions about the nature of power and the people who exercise it. Sometimes in standalone meta-comics like Moore’s Watchmen, but just as often in regular print runs like Morrison’s work on Animal Man or The Justice League of America, superhero comics grew brains to match their muscles. At the same time they became much bigger in scale, incorporating hundreds of characters in universe-spanning stories which presented the moral dilemmas which faced early superheroes inflated to a cosmic scale. These stories ask the cost of all-embracing protective power, wondering whether something of our freedom, or of the value of humanity, isn’t lost when we are ‘saved’ by omnipotent beings. Moreover, tales of galaxy-spanning superheroics also lend themselves naturally to spectacle, giving artists and writers a chance to show off their talent in epic splash-pages and labyrinthine stories. Finally, they make use of the depth and detail of years of comic book continuity to reward the detail-seeking eyes of longtime fans.

Yet if the big moral questions and bigger visual spectacle of such narratives makes them attractive fodder for blockbuster superhero adaptations, the movies have a much tougher time tapping into the vast stores of criss-crossing narrative detail which fans often (mis)name ‘continuity’. For comic book readers, every time a hero like Green Lantern goes into battle with a giant space-entity like Starro the Conqueror, or tangles with the near-omnipotent New Gods, he is supported by a history of a thousand foiled purse-snatchings, bank robberies and subdued supervillains. The giddy, outlandish highs of Green Lantern’s cosmic adventures are counterbalanced by his decidedly earthbound 70s parternship with Green Arrow (scripted by Denny O’Neill and including the ground breaking drug abuse story ‘Snowbirds Don’t Fly’) and his pop-sci-fi 1950s roots. However outlandish the time-travelling/dimension-hopping/universe-ending implications of a current Green Lantern storyline, fans versed in his more mundane (and humane) exploits are still able to read them as stories of a recognisable and sympathetic character. However, movie audiences, by and large, have no such weight of narrative significance on which to draw when faced with absurdity.

This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to tell stories with cosmic weight and heft, but it certainly makes it harder. If Superman: The Movie gets away with its Kryptonian opening act, it does so only because it’s a film about Superman, the 20th Century’s most famous fictional character, and one continuously represented in various media adaptations since his creation in 1939; even someone who’s never read a comic book is likely to come to the theatre with a prior understanding of who and what Superman is. However, films like Green Lantern and Thor don’t have the luxury of a universally recognisable protagonist, leading to their Lord of the Rings-lite montage openings, which introduce whole mythologies in minutes of screentime, stretching credulity and comprehension. Scenes like these beg to be taken seriously, and seem to be rooted in a fear on the part of the filmmaker that at any moment someone will stand up, point, and say, ‘Ha! You’re making a superhero movie! Is this what you went to film school for? What happened to that intense domestic drama you've schlepping around Hollywood for the past five years, you sellout?!’ The irony, of course, is that every moment you spend exhorting your audience to realise that there are hidden depths to the characters pounding each other on screen, you risk revealing that there really aren’t.

What superhero movies need, then, is either a less cosmic, more human scale, exemplified by recent successes like The Dark Knight (2008) and Kick-Ass (2010), or else they need to actually spend some time developing a context and continuity on which they can effectively draw. Perhaps the first film to have the chance to do this is the most recent entry in the Avengers prequel stable, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). A tightly scripted, nostalgic matinee romp which repeatedly invokes The Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) without looking the poorer for it (n.b.: few higher compliments can be paid by this author.), it is not shy of delving into the arcane. The plot revolves around a stolen Norse artefact, Nazi superscience and the retconning of 20th century history, all of which might be a stretch, except that it’s firmly grounded in details seeded in a whole slew of earlier films. Many of the plot points introduced in Iron Man 2 and Thor, two of the weakest Marvel films of recent years, come to fruition in Captain America, helping to underpin the plot in a way which enriches, but is not intrinsic to enjoying, its plot. In short, it’s not that Captain America’s MacGuffin is any less guff than that of Green Lantern (or Thor), just that it’s earned its guff, in part through the laying of solid franchise groundwork, and in part through a crisp, effective approach to storytelling entirely absent from Martin Campbell’s film.

With more and more superhero movies crowding the screen, the chances for these kinds of crossovers and intertextual references (the sort of narrative tricks comic books have been pulling for decades) are only likely to increase. With any luck it will mean that future films won’t be so anxious as Green Lantern is to justify their own existence, but will be able to draw on something like a superhero continuity in order to ground their outlandish stories, and be better films for it.

This Alternate Take was published on August 16, 2011.

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