Welcome back to We Can Fix It, the series that looks at disappointing movies and, with the power of hindsight, figures out what went wrong and how it could have been averted. We may be too late to save the movie in question, but we can learn valuable lessons about how not to repeat those mistakes in the future.
This week: Green Lantern. The adaptation of the popular DC Comics superhero which earned a measly 27% fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes and a fairly disappointing $53.2 million at the box office on its opening weekend. Even the audience rating at Rotten Tomatoes only gives the film a barely-acceptable 61%. While there are some ardent fanboys who support the film, the general consensus is that Martin Campbell’s movie was pretty darned disappointing. What went wrong?
There are those who argue that Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively were miscast, which may be fair but frankly, even if they had cast a young Paul Newman and Rosalind Russell in those roles their performances would have been impeded by a much bigger problem. Green Lantern tries to do too much, too quickly.
A look back: The original Green Lantern was created by Bill Finger and Martin Nodell in 1940, and under the name of Alan Scott he wielded a magic green ring that gave him spectacular powers. That the energy derived from a lantern of all things had more to do with the mystical element of the series (i.e. lanterns are spooky). When DC Comics rebooted Green Lantern in 1959 under the direction of John Broome and Gil Kane, they re-envisioned him as an intergalactic space cop named Hal Jordan. The ring and lantern were a holdover from an existing character, kept in place in order to connect the new character to an existing predecessor. Why else make the power battery look like a lantern? Why would even the most alien of species share the concept of a lantern (a question Alan Moore admittedly tackled head-on in Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Annual #3 in 1987)? In this new context, some of the core ideas behind the Green Lantern now made, at best, arbitrary sense.
As the universe expanded over the following five decades so too did some of the wilder concepts. The ring, which created green solid energy constructs, developed a weakness to the color yellow for some reason. The action frequently moved to the center of the universe, on the planet Oa, where little blue guys with no emotion decided the fate of every life form on every planet, under no one’s authority but their own. New color-coded rings were discovered, each hue corresponding to a different aspect of the emotional spectrum (Yellow = Fear, Red = Hatred, Indigo = Compassion, etc.). The rings became tied to godlike beings representing the power of each emotion. And increasingly strange characters with names like Sinestro, Tomar-Re, Salaak, Guy Gardner and Sodam Yat were introduced. (For the record, ‘Sodam’ is pronounced exactly the way you hoped it wouldn’t be.)
But it’s most important to remember that none of this made a lot of sense until Green Lantern: Rebirth, the mini-series by Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver that DC published from 2004 to 2005. Johns played an admirable role in making all the strangest and apparently disorganized elements of the Green Lantern comics seem like they’d been planned all along. Decades of faulty continuity and flimsy concepts suddenly made perfect sense (read the series, it’s true), and Green Lantern suddenly became one of the most respectable superhero comic books in publication today.
So if all these crazy ideas worked in Green Lantern: Rebirth, why don’t they work just as well in the Green Lantern movie? Because you can’t introduce them all at once. Green Lantern: Rebirth took decades of storylines and successfully explained them, but that only worked because the character had actually been on the readers’ radar that whole time. We accepted the explanations for weird stuff like a ‘yellow impurity’ because we had already accepted the existence of a ‘yellow impurity.’ The Green Lantern movie tried to introduce all of the quirky concepts and explain them and introduce every single character and take place all across the galaxy and give a brief history of the universe that no casual observer understands and – and this is the kicker – use each of those elements to tell a single, cohesive storyline with franchise potential. In about two hours no less.
It was too much to ask of anybody. Which is why they shouldn't have tried to do it.
Basically, what Green Lantern needed was to scale it back a bit. Don’t introduce every damned thing in a single film, distracting from character development, plotting and the ability to expound on whichever wacky ideas do make the cut. Here are the ways we would have fixed Green Lantern.
1. DITCH THE PARALLAX CRAP
To clarify: We like Parallax. After all, Parallax is a key component of the Green Lantern mythos, and if the Green Lantern movies are going to follow that mythos – as we hope they will – then Parallax will be an important part of it. Next time. Making the villain an all-powerful ball of energy the first time out, however, is too broad in scope for a film that must first and foremost introduce the key characters. That’s not to say that Green Lantern must wallow in origin story clichés in order to work, but it does have to introduce the world in one way or another. Having a villain who is tangible and even sympathetic simply makes the plotline go down smoother. That’s surely part of the reason why they included Hector Hammond in the movie to begin with, but by placing his tragic story parallel to Parallax’s he seems less significant in comparison.
Giving Hector Hammond the center stage would not only keep the story just a little more grounded for first-time Green Lantern fans but also give the story room to breathe. What happens on Earth will matter more, since we won’t have the Guardians of Oa repeating over and over again how insignificant our planet is. Without that degree of context our hero will seem all the more significant, and with an added focus on character development rather than universe development bizarre notions won’t seem so overwhelming. Batman Begins went to great lengths to both incorporate arbitrary Batman elements we’ve come to accept (like the spikes on the side of his gloves or even his pointy ears) while keeping them rooted in the development of the actual protagonist. Contributing an ancillary, minor alien menace – one taken from the Green Lantern’s extensive rogue’s gallery – would have fulfilled the action sequence quota without distracting too much from the A plot. Having that ancillary menace be a ball of energy based on concepts the film didn’t have time to properly introduce was too much to focus on, particularly when the film didn’t have time to do so.
2. KEEP THE ACTION ON (OR AT LEAST NEAR) EARTH IN THE FIRST FILM
Like our first suggestion, this is partially to simplify the narrative and partially to prevent the film from having to introduce every single element of the weird Green Lantern universe at once. In the film that was made, Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) finds the ring and is soon rocketed millions of light years into the heart of the universe where he briefly meets the Green Lantern Corps, has approximately five minutes worth of training and barely interacts with any of the other Green Lantern characters. It divides the narrative’s attentions and prevents the characters on Earth and Oa of the screen time necessary to craft full character arcs that allow the audience to really care about them. By keeping Hal Jordan on Earth for his first adventure, we could focus on the protagonist himself and one half of his supporting cast, so they don’t get the short shrift. Next time out, when Hal Jordan spends more time in space, we’ll be able to leave the old cast behind for long periods of time without ruining their rooting interest (because they will already be a part of the story), and introduce even more members of the Green Lantern cast.
So we leave the action on Earth. The story only takes place over a few days anyway, so postponing Hal’s trip to the stars isn’t too much of a stretch. He has the ring but will have a justification to be poorly trained, keeping him the underdog despite his Godlike powers. And by ending the film on Hal’s journey to the stars you not only conclude the character arc – he is worthy of induction into the Corps – but you establish a sequel without the rushed and ham-fisted mid-credits plot point they ended up utilizing instead. The only problem with this is that there would be nobody to explain his powers to him (and by extension the audience), or to establish that there is in fact a broader story being told, which will be revealed in future sequels. But that’s also easily solved if you…
3. MAKE SINESTRO A MAIN CHARACTER
Sinestro is more than a cameo in the first Green Lantern, but not by much. He gives a few impressive speeches and justifies his doubt in Hal Jordan’s abilities, but he does so quickly, without having much direct impact on Hal’s actual life. Sinestro, as fans of the comic book know, is a variation on the old Lucifer archetype. Once considered the greatest of all Green Lanterns, he eventually falls from grace and becomes their greatest enemy. Green Lantern introduces his storyline but by keeping Sinestro at arm’s length from the protagonist the film completely fails to make him meaningful.
The solution, if we follow our second suggestion, is for Sinestro to come to Earth and team up with Hal Jordan. In fact, this version of Hal’s origin is now accepted canon, as introduced in Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis’s storyline Secret Origin in Green Lantern (vol. 4) #29-35. Actually, Secret Origin would have been an excellent basis for the film in the first place, since it keeps Jordan grounded on Earth, gives appropriate screen time to all the significant characters, successfully makes Hector Hammond one of the main villains and introduces Sinestro as a disapproving father figure (something that keys into Hal’s existing Daddy Issues) as opposed to ‘That Guy on Oa.’ Hal and Sinestro would overcome their differences and a common enemy, so when Sinestro goes bad in the sequel an actual bond is broken, as opposed to a rivalry merely being heightened. Bringing Sinestro to Earth throughout the film would also provide the context needed to expand on the Green Lantern universe without actually delving too deeply inside of it. Sinestro’s outsider mentality and indeed his very existence would be enough for it all to come across via his interactions with Hal and his supporting cast.
The Straight-to-DVD DC Animated movie Green Lantern took a similar tack with this, but only got it half right. The film’s Training Day storyline found Hal Jordan under Sinestro’s wing, only gradually becoming aware of his mentor’s corruption. The relationship was well dramatized, but the film spent so much time in the stars that a relatable Hal Jordan and indeed any sense of human connection was quickly lost. Only by enacting #2 and #3 together can the narrative be fully mended.
There are other, little problems with Green Lantern that deserve to be addressed, but if they were the only problems to be found then Green Lantern would have been strong enough to ignore them. Oa, for example, is one of the most sterile CGI-environments ever crafted outside of the Star Wars prequels. Although visually interesting, there is no genuine interaction with the alien world. All the characters merely stand on platforms and talk to each other. There is nothing to be touched or observed by the protagonists, leading to a pretty on-screen image that doesn’t feel like an actual location. But again, if that was the film’s biggest flaw then Green Lantern would be aces.
If Green Lantern ends up getting a sequel – which seems doubtful at this point, but not outside the realm of possibility – it’s certainly possible for the rinky-dink groundwork laid down in this first film to inform but not undermine a superior follow-up film. But had the footing been sound, the first film would probably have been more popular with critics and audiences alike and would have actually guaranteed interest in a second, third or even tenth film. Unfortunately, Green Lantern tried to be a jack-of-all-trades, and in doing so presented no mastery at any of them.
We’ll be back next week with more We Can Fix It!
Did you think Green Lantern was perfect? If not, how would you have fixed it?