Just when you’re thinking how silly it is for anyone to expect a tiny green eye mask to disguise a superhero’s identity, a woman he has rescued looks adoringly into the Green Lantern’s eyes and says . . . “Hal?!” That recognition offers one of the rare sharp moments in Green Lantern. The film has Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan, an underconfident fighter pilot who gets an energy-filled ring and gains superpowers, but mostly it has a lot of hyperactive, glowing green light.
If you want a smart, sophisticated, comics-based action movie, I highly recommend X-Men: First Class, whose characters - James McAvoy as Professor X and Michael Fassbender as Magneto - are intriguing even when they’re not destroying or saving the world. Green Lantern, directed by action connoisseur Martin Campbell (Casino Royale), makes some good use of 3-D; we swoop into other dimensions, although the screen is noticeably darkened by the technique. And Campbell goes all out with the neon-green bolts of light, encasing Reynolds in them and flying him through the air. That surface energy may be enough for a summer action movie, but it can’t disguise the film’s soulless, by-the-numbers approach any more than the eye-mask obscures Hal.
The film smoothly lays out the Green Lantern story for people – that would be most of us – who don’t know it. Hal was chosen to be a member of the Green Lantern Corp, a peace-keeping group from other planets. He charges a special ring by putting it in contact with a lantern, but it’s really the power of his will that allows him to create anything he can imagine. Or, as the opening narration calls it, “the emerald energy of will power,” a line that gives you a good sense of the script at its most overblown and accidentally suggests that Ayn Rand is in charge of superheroes.
Like Peter Parker, pre-Spider-bite, Hal is an ordinary human who never expected superpowers. He should be endearing, but as appealing as Reynolds is in romantic comedies, he never gives Hal much of a personality.
The obligatory romance is between Hal and Carol Ferris, his sometime girlfriend who is also a pilot. Blake Lively pulls of that “Hal?!” recognition scene but otherwise is unusually stiff.
There are a few half-baked attempts at layering in themes, pretty much what you expect when there are four credited writers. A flashback conversation between young Hal and his fighter-pilot father, which the adult Hal repeats with his nephew, has the boy asking, “Were you afraid?” and the adult answering “It’s my job not to be.” Never mind Ayn Rand, now it sounds as if FDR were pulling the strings, warning about fear itself.
And Hal’s father-worship has a dark opposite. His boyhood friend Hector Hammond, now a brainy, socially inept scientist, has a dreadful relationship with his father, a powerful Senator (Tim Robbins.) Peter Sarsgaard is effectively creepy as jealous Hector, who starts with a snarly demeanor and receding hairline. When he becomes infected by an evil alien who carries the destructive power of fear, he grows a forehead that resembles The Elephant Man’s and gains superpowers of his own.
Despite those quasi-human moments, all the film really cares about are excursions to other planets, where the oddballs include a kindly creature who looks part walking fish and part parrot (voiced by Geoffrey Rush). Mark Strong is perfectly sinister as Sinestro, an alien with Spock-like pointy ears and angled eyebrows.
With his power to create anything he can dream of, you’d hope Hal would have a more vibrant imagination, but except for a big set piece in which he stops a crashing helicopter – it is a cool solution - he’s not an inventive guy. Green Lantern isn’t any more creative than its hero. X-Men might have been too smart for its own good, slightly underperforming at the box office. No one will say that about Green Lantern.