Friday, June 17, 2011

Signal Watch Watches: Green Lantern

So, okay.  Before I am accused of saying that Green Lantern is a good movie, just understand, we're not saying that.  But let's do a few things here.

1)  The fact that Green Lantern scored a 20% at Rottentomatoes is a pretty good acknowledgement that 4 of 5 people gave this movie an unfavorable review.  That doesn't mean they were wretching their guts out, but 80% of people who care enough about movies to write about them can all agree that, yeah, that could have been way better.  So lets get a handle on what that rating means.
2)  As someone who consumes a whole lotta superhero media, there are different scales of badness out there, and this movie is nowhere near, say, the un-aired JLA pilot in terms of being just unforgivebly bad.  As someone who has seen Santa with Muscles and watched Manos: The Hands of Fate three times, I will tell you when you've achieved true awfulness. 
3)  I don't know if people had high expectations for this movie or not, but there's a giddiness out there in the zeitgeist about wanting to dogpile on this movie that, and I'm not just saying this as a fan of the comics, but just from a movie-go'er's perspective, I'm not sure it deserves.
4)  The Green lantern mythology is somewhat convoluted even over 50-odd years of comics.  Cramming it into a movie was always going to be a trick.
5)  The CGI is actually quite good in this movie.  I don't know why it looked half-baked on TV and online.  But its pretty amazing, actually, in many parts of the movie.
6)  I can't imagine that 20-odd years of reading GL on an off hasn't given me something of a leg-up on understanding what the hell was going on.  So now you people know how I've felt in the last few Harry Potter movies.

This never happens in the movie

And, before we just dog on this movie, I feel compelled to make a list of comic movies that I think were genuinely worse than Green Lantern (especially before we start talking about how awesome a job Marvel does, because they don't.  They just throw a lot more stuff at the wall):

Ghost Rider
Fantastic Four
Fantastic Four - Rise of the Silver Surfer
The Phantom
The 1990 version of Captain America
The 1970's Captain America TV movies
Superman IV
possibly good parts of Supergirl
Return of the Swamp Thing
Jonah Hex
Batman & Robin (and likely Batman Forever, but I haven't seen that one in a decade)

This is somewhere between, oh...  Spider-Man 3 on the low end and maybe Superman 3 on the good end on my scale.

There are a lot of ways you can make a bad superhero movie, and the number one way (in my book) is to either chuck the entire original concept or so malform it in getting from comic to screen,that you have to figure the producers held either the comic itself or comics in general in such disregard, they were just looking to make a buck and get this over with (Elektra).  You can find yourself in the position (sort of a close cousin of the previous condition) where the entire production team decides they're going to try real hard, but they make something else up and in the process just ruin so much for so many.  Like Catwoman.  Or, you can make a movie that just feels kind of oddly incompetent, like the above-mentioned Steel.  Or mistake "kid-friendly" with "let's make a couple of painfully horrid movies" like Fantastic Four 1 and 2.

I'll give Green Lantern this:  they more or less stuck to what's in the comics.  For good or ill, and with some details changed to, I guess, tighten things up.  Its not like Hal Jordan isn't a pilot, that he doesn't have a complicated relationship with Carol Ferris, that he isn't a bit of a screw-up, that he doesn't meet a dying Abin Sur, etc...  Its close-enough, and certainly closer than the Nolan-helmed Batman flicks.

That approach doesn't always work.  It didn't work for Watchmen or 300.   But perhaps because there are so many different takes on Hal Jordan in comics, TV, etc...  its easier to be a bit flexible about Green Lantern.

This movie is a much more kid-friendly, mass-audience approach to the material, and I can't help but think that the zippy approach to the proceedings means that the movie never manages to manifest any substance (you'll see lots of reviews making a snide remark about the ability of Jordan to make something of matter out of his mind, but not the producers.  You'll not see me make that comparison here, even though its really good and I wish I'd thought of it first).  In telling the cosmic origin story, they want to also make sure folks in fly-over-country are still going to stick with them, and in that, they place the focus too much on (and I know this will sound weird) our protagonist.

So, anyway, Green Lantern wasn't very good, but it also was not the nightmare fest that a 20% rating had led me to believe.  At first I walked out of the theater thinking "well, it wasn't that bad", and maybe its not.  But its definitely a movie that, the more you think about it, the more you realize "gee, that really didn't hold together well at all, now that I think on it".  Yes, its a thrill to me as a GL fan of the past few decades to see Oa, Sinestro, Lanterns floating about, etc...  and I think I got a bit wowed by that.  What it didn't do was manage to just outright throw me into a rage by the end of the movie, wondering what the holy hell was wrong with people (see:  Fantastic Four 2, Catwoman).

But this is a movie that either suffers from too many rewrites, too many people making changes in editing, cuts for time, or any of the other tell-tale signs that this was a big, blockbuster movie with way, way too many people at the studio trying to have a say in the movie.  One sure indicator of such manhandling in any production is when characters make speeches or talk about things that, frankly, haven't really been shown on screen.  Green Lantern has two of these right in a row just as we're headed for the pivotal action climax of the movie, and all I could think was "oh, man.  They really cut this movie up, didn't they?"

So, bottom line, from a story perspective, somebody felt this movie had too much going on and tried to trim it down, but in doing so, either at the script stage or in editing, we ended up losing some of the story (or stories) that was there at one point, and I would offer that had the movie fleshed itself out a bit more and not count on summer-movie-shorthand to carry the story, it would have been a better flick.

It doesn't help that we have two villains, one in Hector Hammond and another in Parallax, and the movie cuts Hector's story so short that the backstory and proclamations about "always" loving Carol come out of nowhere, especially when its suggested that Hal was "always in the way" during some ill-defined past that makes no sense.

Our second villain, Parallax, is defined as this colossal cosmic threat that is never given a motivation other than angry malevolence,  and is treated a bit like a weather system, and maybe that's fine and appropriate.  But somehow, because Parallax is the Big Boss fight, we needed more in the way of building up to Parallax other than a general sort of feeling that "well, gee, this is definitely going to lead to the action packed conclusion". 

GL is a COSMIC hero, and too much of the movie wanted to forget that.  Despite the appearance of Tomar Re in the trailers, posters, etc... and the appearance of comic-nerd-favorite Kilowog in the movie, and lots of loving shots of Sinestro, the movie is entirely too Earth-bound.  I understand that creating that artificial world and those animated characters is expensive, but once you open that door, you've got to commit.  Those 3600 Lanterns are like a gun in a movie: once you show them, you need to use them.  Flinging Hal back to Earth after a brief stint in CGI-Oa isn't enough.

If one thing drove me nuts about this movie, it was how easy it was for Hal Jordan to defeat our Big Bad.  He literally had more trouble with Hammond.  Its mind-boggling to think about what opportunity the movie missed by not having the Corps appear and help Jordan save the day to build on the visuals that could have provided, define the threat, etc...  Or have Sinestro show up and try to sideline Hal, and its Jordan who STILL saves the day.  I don't know.  It just felt like a monstrously wasted scene, and something that you would do in a script only if you couldn't afford the Corps, and they clearly could.

Also - throw him into the sun?  Isn't that the most generic answer every 13 year old comes up with when thinking about how Hal Jordan and Superman could permanently deal with a major problem?


And if you're going to have Green Lanterns making constructs...  talk about it a bit.  That's one of the things Johns did just beautifully, especially in Rebirth, so talk about that.  Which, who knows, may have been in the screenplay or shot, but it just doesn't make it into the film.  The constructs are important, and they tell the other Lanterns (and therefore the reader) something about the Lanterns as each makes unique constructs that reflect their personality.

Mostly, though, if the movie fails its just death by a thousand cuts.  You're going to read a lot of reviews discussing what was wrong with the movie, and all of those reviews will be correct.  Blake Lively was mis-cast, as was Tim Robbins.  Amanda Waller should never look like Angela Basset, and who did they cast?   A clunky script.  Reynolds mugs too much by about 20%.  The Lantern mythos is laid out at weird times including a faux-Lord of the Rings-type opening. 

Its all correct, but its also a lot of the kind of stuff that goes wrong with any movie.  And had this movie not cost so much, had WB been painfully honest about hoping Green Lantern would save the studio, had they not been shoving GL promotion down our throats...  I don't know.

I will say, I don't really get what the problem is at WB and why they can't seem to make a decent adaptation of their own properties.  This isn't the same level of fiasco that I'd point to like Jonah Hex, nor another Catwoman.  Its maybe something you could take your 9 year old kid to, I suppose, without too much to worry about (and I suspect that kids will actually get the whole idea of being a Lantern much better than new-comer adults), and it may be less annoying than other kiddie-aimed faire this summer.  But one certainly gets the feeling that WB is a studio run by accountants and executives far more than anyone interested in making a movie rather than a profit.  And that's too bad.

Likely, this movie is going to crash and burn at the box office, and the fall-out is not going to be pretty.  Its going to make people ask the wrong questions at Warner Bros. about superhero movies and owning DC Comics.  Its going to make people make the wrong decision when it comes to something like The Flash when they consider the critical and commercial success of The Dark Knight versus what will likely happen with Green Lantern.  And its funny how many issues it seems people could avoid if they were given a week to just read the comics first.

There's probably a lot more to say about what didn't work (the script) and what didn't go well (try showing the Lantern constructs more than three times).  And it may be that Green Lantern simply works better in monthly installments than cramming it into one 2-hour block.

But what did I like?

-The set design was neat
-in the end, the costume was actually not a bad idea, even if I would have preferred it not appear as "skin".  I have no idea why they did that.  But the effects on it were really cool.
-This wasn't a story about a nerd.  Man...  its kind of nice to see a superhero origin about someone who started off willing to kick someone in the face.
-That actually makes Hal a bit more interesting and complex to me as a grown-ass-adult.
-They stuck to the basics
-Mark Strong was a very convincing Sinestro and the voices and looks for Kilowog and Tomar-Re were great.  But why no Salaak?

I'm not going to tell anyone to spend big bucks to see this in the theater, but it might be fun on HBO sometime.

Mostly, the biggest crime is that the movie is just fluffy and forgettable.  I know the comics leave me excited and looking forward to the next installment, I know I was buzzing about Dark Knight for a long time after it was released.  These days I no longer enjoy the feeling of anticipation as a movie comes closer to arriving, but I certainly savor enjoying a good movie, book or comic afterward.  And Green Lantern wasn't going to give me that.


picky girl said...

So glad you're NOT saying you liked it. Though I wasn't a huge comic girl when I was young, I am now (though obviously I don't have as much base knowledge). That said, I don't tend to like the really out there ones. I love Batman because he's a real dude who doesn't fight aliens or whatever the heck the villain is in this movie. Maybe I am woefully wrong. Maybe there is a strain of Batman comics where he fights aliens. Point is, this one just doesn't look like something I'd enjoy.

Kung Fu Panda 2, on the other hand, was so good. Just saw it this afternoon. But totally off topic.

The League said...

I hate to ruin it for you, but Batman doesn't just fight aliens, he hangs out with them all the time (ie: Superman). But keep on keepin' on. Batman can be a good read.

And may I say, it is fascinating and refreshing to hear a comic character like GL described as "out there". That doesn't happen much around here.

I guess if I were going to make a comment on the concern about the weirdness of aliens, etc... its that the stories generally treat the major characters as people. And when they don't, its usually to explore the humanity of the characters.

Think of it just like Kung-Fu Panda (I'm not kidding). They may not look like people, but often the themes and storytelling are still there for the same reasons were these real people in real places.

Hollywood and beyond makes a whole lot of different kinds of movies. This isn't a mediocre-to-bad movie because its about aliens. Its because its handled badly. (keep that in mind when you have students who ARE enthusiastic about fantasy, science fiction and other genres. Because I had plenty of teachers who I learned to ignore because I wasn't reading stuff that met their definition of what I "should" be reading.)

J.S. said...

Given how much you love you some GL, I'm holding off on this movie until you've had more chance to reflect on it (I'm not saying it's terrible, but some of us still remember Episode 1). I've said it since the first time I saw the trailer, and I'll say it again- I'm still wary of any GL movie that stars Ryan Reynolds.

The League said...

Wow, if you're taking this as an endorsement of the movie, I don't think you actually read the above.

Reynolds, who was my primary concern in the months leading up to the movie, isn't quite as bad as you'd think. But he's also not who I would have cast.

Anonymous said...

Who would you have cast?

The League said...

Someone less goofy who didn't think the answer to every scene was the "I'm harmless!" smile. Frankly, you can get through two years' worth of GL comics without seeing Hal Jordan smile.

It is a shame Sam Shepard is too old for the role.

Anonymous said...

Well, Christian Bale can't play every DC superhero.

The League said...

That's pretty narrow thinking.

Jake Shore said...

So I just saw Green Lantern and I didn't think it was that bad at all. It's not great, but it's not bad either. I mean, until first X-Men movie, GL would have been the best superhero flick since Superman (yes, GL was better than the Michael Keaton Batman).

I've only read a handful of GL comics, So I'm no expert on the mythos, but as a layman, I enjoyed it. I loved that they went full on cosmic with the GL Corps. I just wish the climax had the epic scale and feel that was evident earlier in the film.

I'm generally pretty picky about movies, but I just don't get why this has gotten so trashed.