Sunday, July 17, 2011

In Brightest Day, In Blackest Night, WB Does the Lantern Right.

Joseph Bellamy
I have been a comic book fan for literally as long as I can remember. I sport half-sleeve tattoos devoted to the Avengers and the Justice League, if that gives you a sense of the depth of my faith. Between the rising tide (some would say ‘glut’) of comic book based films and the recent opportunity to write about them in these pages, I’ve been a happy camper…mostly.
From the Batman, Iron Man, Hell Boy and X-Men franchises, to smaller scale books with big screen impact, like the Losers, 30 Days of Night, Kick-Ass and the now classic M.I.B., it is fair to say the comic-book-to-film formula has been perfected in Hollywood. Even less auspicious works (not necessarily Bryan Singers’ Superman Returns, Eng Lee’s Incredible Hulk, or the tailspins of the Fantastic Four and Spiderman properties…just less auspicious works), have proven to be the grist necessary to sharpen studios up on what the fans want to see in an adaptation. It is these questions of what fans want, as well as why they want it, and how they get it that shapes my following effort regarding WB’s the Green Lantern.

I saw the film opening night on a double date with friends. To the chagrin of my wife, I had elected to wear my glow in the dark Green Lantern insignia tee shirt and a not-quite matching green sleeveless hoodie, emblazoned on the back with a stencil of same. ‘Why?’ you might ask. I am a fan. I spent the twenty minutes before the film answering questions posed by my wife and our companions about the main character because I am a fan. I wrinkled my nose at the traces of palpable evil left on the screen by Tim Robbins and Peter Sarsgaard. I spoke along in a giddy whisper when Ryan Reynolds (the chief, if not sole reason my wife was attending), recited the oath of the Green Lantern Corps for the first time. I “oooohed” and “ahhhhed,” audibly at the galacti-gasm of digital effects (including the impressively accurate rendering of a number of non-human Lanterns) and cheered out loud when Reynolds applied his trademark ‘wide-eyed innocent’ face to Hal Jordan’s triumphant acceptance of his destiny. Why? Because I am a…well, you get the idea. 

My euphoria at seeing a lifelong favorite character and superhero master classman made real in big screen splendor carried me home and into the next morning. It was not until my daily look-through of favorite online media ports that my mood was destroyed. On page after page, review upon article upon sound bite, the flight into fantasy I had so enjoyed was being panned, pooh-poohed and generally written off as simplistic eye candy that fell short of the money mark demanded by its production cost. Worse were some of the judgments leveled against Reynolds, Robbins, and company.

My knee-jerk response was anger, rage even. Then I was struck by a simple and calming revelation: Most of the people judging this project don’t know what the hell they are talking about. They know studios and budgets and tag lines and demographic studies of responses to Ryan Reynolds’ abs. What they don’t know is what the Green Lantern is and was before getting the Tinsel Town treatment. I now understand that most of what I read or heard was born out of the sadly typical ignorance of the Hollywood media machine to source material. Much was said about ‘problems’ of the effects budget, the pace and complexity of the plot, and the casting of Reynolds’ was misinformed. I would like to take this opportunity to clarify these misconceptions and hopefully shed the light of brightest day before this moment in spandex green history goes quietly into the darkest night of film flop-dom.

Yes, the effects budget and proportion of screen-time devoted to spending it was extensive.  How else can a studio hope to bring to life the first truly cosmic hero of comics’ silver age? Truth be told, the Green Lantern has been left largely un-attempted on film because of the nature of his abilities and the sheer scope of his story. Until the evolution of CGI, the choice for production was to do it well with traditional animation (Cartoon Networks Justice League series) or serve GL up like a plate of nachos, extra cheese (1997 CBS Justice League/America live-action pilot). We are, after all, talking about a man with the ability to create whatever he can conceive of and is charged with using this ability to patrol and protect a territory measured in solar systems, as part of a peacekeeping force composed entirely of nonhumans. When you throw in a villain that is nothing short of planet-devouring evil, the Lantern is the definition of ‘go big or go home’. An approach, which incidentally, might have saved Marvel Entertainment’s treatment of their intergalactic hero in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.

If one’s objection is to the look of the energy creations, or the CGI costume, may I point out that in his earliest forms, GL used such ‘cool’ designs as giant boxing gloves, handcuffs, and old fashioned push mowers? The constructs presented in the film: a crude fist, to start, a rollercoaster rail, a big-ass machine gun, and various beams and force fields, are at least reasonable creations of a 20-something adrenaline junkie’s mind.  As to the costume, it is exactly what a Lantern’s uniform should have been all along, a creation of the ring. Who would sweat it in spandex when you can go with a stylish personal force field? Not me, especially not if I had Reynolds’ cut.

I return to the origins of the character in regards to the casting of Ryan Reynolds. It has been suggested that the intent was to update the character, trading Reynolds’ humor and charm for the stoic, conservative space-cop of the comics. It is more likely, or at least preferable to believe, that someone in the studios research department actually earned their pay that week. You see, in the beginning phases of his GL tour, Hal Jordan was an arrogant, thrill-seeking womanizer with a heart of gold, zero ambition, gallons of boyish charm and the body of a classical statue. Imagine, oh, I don’t know, National Lampoon’s Van Wilder in spande…oh, right!

It has only been since Denny O’Neil’s treatment of the character as a foil to the more liberal views of a character called Green Arrow, in comics published by DC in the 70’s, that GL has gone cold fish. Prior to this point, Hal Jordan was just the sort of character Reynolds plays to perfection. While Tim Robbins was doubtless brought in purely to add credibility, this does not diminish his portrayal of the devious Senator Hammond. Besides, am I the only one to see the gag in having a millionaire movie star with an aggressively liberal political bent play a scumbag politician who’s in bed with the defense industry…really? I have no other comments regarding the remainder of the cast save that Michael Clark Duncan was the only reasonable choice for Killowog, and Mark Strong IS Sinestro, period.

I accept that anything I say about the script or plot will be likely dismissed as biased lip service from a devoted geek. Nothing could be closer to the truth. It is in this vein that I urge anyone screening, reviewing, critiquing, or even writing a comic book based film to consider what comics truly are: bright, explosively fantastic pieces of mythology. At its heart, any myth strives to explore a basic truth or significant question of the human experience. In the case of the Green Lantern, we are asked to consider the strength of self-belief. The rules of operating the eponymous ring are the moral of the story; when you believe in yourself, you can do anything. It’s a clear message rendered without over-complication in an exciting, eye-catching adventure. This altruistic formula has worked on the pages of comic books for decades, thrilling and educating the young while reminding the older reader of the wonder and faith they knew in their youth. The same holds for the film as its news print counter part. If the plot is simple and the story moves a bit quickly, I submit it is to maximize the enjoyment of learning a tough lesson, a spoonful of green sugar, if you will. Ultimately, although comic books and their adapted films are not just for kids anymore, they are best enjoyed and understood when we allow for the childlike in ourselves. Also, it can’t be dismissed that the story is the opening chapter to a multi-film epic which may itself be part of a larger enterprise, the much-hoped for Justice League film.

I can’t claim that the Green Lantern was a perfect film.  I can say, with the definitive authority of a lifelong geek and perspective of a critical eye, that it was exactly the fun-filled, action-packed trans-galactic flight of fantasy I was looking for when I slid my credit card at the box office. My only regret is that others in my field seem to have been too busy picking at the bark of the trees to take in the emerald majesty of the forest. Perhaps some day, the popularity of the comic book genre will blossom into a fully realized sense of respect for the art form. Perhaps then, when the entire enterprise has been made a dry, dissected academic footnote to our cultural history, my peers will realize they missed the fun part.

Review written by Joseph James Bellamy
Editor: Deborah Bellamy
Published by Reel Zine
© Reel Zine 2011

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