Why are superhero and comic book movies so popular? It may be the comfort of believing there is a clear distinction between “good” and “bad” people, that “good” isn’t such an abstract notion within one’s identity and bad, in itself, is an unchanging, sometimes unstoppable force. There is poetry in this oversimplified view, both in the way it calms the troubled minds of moviegoers and the very notion of an unchanging duality forever at war, one side “morally” representing the winning side, the other not.
“Green Lantern,” Warner Bros.' adaptation of the long-running superhero comic book, is the latest and most overt attempt to preserve this comic book poetry in a motion picture. We are told in a daunting opening narration that the Green Lantern Corps are an alien organization dedicated to policing the spaceways, divided not into galaxies, but sectors. Their skills are derived from willpower, visualized as a glowing ball of green light that the Lantern agents have manifested into rechargeable power rings, and the rings allow the wearer to conjure up whatever lies within their imagination.
We don’t know exactly what type of threats they face on a daily basis, but their current predicament involves their willpower snuffed out by fear, itself illustrated by computer generated graphics of a yellow hue. This fear takes the form of an intergalactic cloud named Parallax that has been traveling the universe devouring planet by planet, growing stronger from the fear of others. As our story begins, Parallax has broken free of the bonds of Green Lantern Abin-Sur, who is fatally wounded during battle. Abin-Sur will die, but the power of his ring will live on in the body of Earth’s most worthy warrior.
Ryan Reynolds, all smirks and biceps, is test pilot Hal Jordan, dealing with a contentious situation at work. Sleeping with the boss’s daughter will do this. Jordan has always been fond of steely young Carol Ferris (Blake Lively, contradicting her surname), but he has constantly disappointed her, shying away from commitment as she has embraced the corporate world. In our introduction to this rogue-ish hero, he is late to a flight simulation, engages in dangerous maneuvers that cost the company a military contract, and eventually arrives late to his sullen nephew’s birthday party. While he is meant to look reckless and irresponsible, perhaps the issue is with whomever scheduled a pivotal birthday party during Uncle Hal’s latest military gig.
As Abin-Sur crash-lands on Earth, the ring selects Jordan to be his successor, and he withers away as Hal is given a magical lantern with instructions to “speak the Oath.” The ring takes over from here, and soon Jordan is whisked away to Oa, a big, glowing orb made up of, we are told, over 3,000 Corps. A police state, for better or worse. With the oncoming threat of Parallax, Corps leader Sinestro (Mark Strong) pleads with the Corps elders to attack, though these diminutive bureaucrats try to weigh the pros and cons of allowing Parallax to rampage across galaxies, ending innocent lives on its way to Oa. In a film loaded with notions of good vs. bad, the elders seem fairly uninterested in what amounts to mass murder.
Of course, Abin-Sur is not totally out of the picture. The alien corpse is discovered by government agent Amanda Waller (Angela Bassett, getting paid), who cooperates with an off-the-grid investigation carried forward by government officials, primarily Senator Hammond (Tim Robbins), though what they hope to harness from the body remains unclear. Hammond does, however, see an opportunity to give his son Hector’s (Peter Sarsgaard) career a boost. Hector has allowed his passion for science to overcome any attempt at social engagement, making him a nerd shut-in who teaches high school science to disinterested, contemptuous kids. With the discovery of an alien body, the Senator, who clearly has contempt for his son’s failed potential, gives him the first chance to interact with the body as a professional scientist.
Unfortunately, particles of Parallax remain, and once they infect Hector’s body, he develops telekinesis. The film doesn’t take a stand as to whether Parallax has driven this socially-maladjusted dork mad (Sarsgaard has about eighty different ways to sarcastically curl his lips), but there may be a clue in Hector’s now-mutated throbbing head. What interests in an old-school matinee manner is how the ring makes moviestar-handsome Reynolds even more attractive, but the Power Of Fear turns the already-unlucky loner Hector into an eyesore. We gradually find out that Hector has always been in love with Carol, further complicating matters, as Carol is clearly in her early twenties, and Jordan seems to be thirtytsomething, with Sarsgaard appearing to be a good two decades beyond Lively. Simple explanation? Hector Hammond was a pedophile.
Director Martin Campbell seems to have taken full advantage of the fact that most of his characters can fly (and others are pilots), as “Green Lantern” casually slips from deep space and back to Earth frequently. But there is no identity to any real location -- Hal Jordan’s home city appears to be New Orleans (purists take note -- Coast City is never namedropped), but it’s a city devoid of personality, with airstrips, skyscrapers, a bar and a local wharf representing the only real-ish locations, the last one being the only one populated with actual humans. Back at Oa, it’s even less-realized than Asgard, the mythic land seen in last month’s “Thor” made entirely of hallways and thrones. What is there to do on Oa? Are Green Lanterns the only people that live there? Like Hal Jordan, are they all only visitors from their home planet? What is the point of Oa?
There’s an elegant moment in “Superman Returns” that provides that picture with a surprising amount of nuance, but also invalidating the very notion of a modern day superhero. In this sequence, Superman flies above the Earth, holding still and taking in the cries of the world, hearing their pain. After a moment of focus, he flies towards where he is most needed. Is it a third world country? Is it a case of child abuse? Oh, it’s a bank robbery. “Green Lantern” has a similar problem, as he uses the ring to sense “evil.” We are to assume that evil is relative, since, aside from saving innocents from an accident, Jordan first senses a Disturbance In The Force as Hector uses his powers to wail on his father. So global genocide, war, death, famine, suffering -- none of that deserves to be on the “evil” scale for the Green Lanterns. Who are these fascists?
One of the elements that has kept Green Lantern relevant over the years, and worthy of a movie, is the character’s ability to use the ring and create anything his mind can conjure. This opportunity to tap into the imagination is wasted, as Jordan seems to only have Spike TV movie marathons on his mind. With a chance to embrace the absurdity of the concept, the team of writers aboard this picture have him summon guns, brick walls and giant fists. These filmmakers have no human values and simply want to make toys, not tell stories. Even the most fertile mind in the film, that of overeager scientist Hector, falls into this trap. When he has a brief moment to wear the ring, all he produces is a green fireball.
“Green Lantern” could have been capable of that simplistic poetry had it featured a breakout lead performance. Instead, as these films move from “superhero films” (which could be about something) to live-action cartoons, we’re treated to films that shy as far away from heroism as possible, and that includes both Reynolds and this film’s incarnation of fan favorite character Hal Jordan. Reynolds is always ready for a brief quip, but his charm is muffled by the on-the-page snark of this insincere, unimpressed vanity plate. Initially not certain he merits the honor of the Green Lantern title, he mopes and pines for his lady love until his major character breakthrough: he isn’t afraid to admit he’s afraid, which he then brings to the fellow Lanterns as if he were a caveman introducing fire. Thank you for this therapeutic breakthrough, Mighty Human.
Reynolds has always seemed a little bit above the material he’s forced to work with, but here, he’s forced to be a cog in a machine, a man who learns the value of not being a jerk and instead being an action figure. It’s all in line with the inexplicably random reverence in these stories stemming from this genre’s all-accepting worship of institutions, no matter if they be flawed, or run by a man named Sinestro. The picture takes great pains to answer Jordan’s worries with, “The ring never makes a mistake.” Maybe they should have hired the ring to direct. [D+]