some thoughts on Green Lantern
The big news in Hollywood this weekend is that Green Lantern “failed,” bringing in “only” $52.6 million. “Only,” here, refers to gross-to-expectation ratio.
The reviews were scathing, and when I took my son Sam, 10, to see it on Saturday afternoon, I was fully expecting to see a movie that is thin, noisy, incoherent, poorly plotted, silly and preposterous.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the movie is none of those things. Rather, it’s entertaining, fast-moving, articulate, and very faithful to its source material. If you are curious about the character and concept of Green Lantern, you will find no better introduction than this movie.
Is it perfect? No, it’s not. But, for some reason inherent to the genre, I find that very few superhero movies are. A movie like the original Spider-Man, for instance, I kind of have to push through the plot and character problems and take it for what it is before I can enjoy it, and then it’s very enjoyable. I can’t think of a single superhero movie, except perhaps The Dark Knight, that really stands up to simple tests of plot, character, motivation, chronology, plausibility, etc.
(Having worked on a number of superhero projects, I speak from experience — they’re really hard to get right, to keep all the elements in line and all the balls up in the air. A contemporary working screenwriter can only watch The Dark Knight from a position of awe.)
Why did the critics hate Green Lantern? I can’t say for sure, but I think it’s a matter of fashion. Marvel has done extremely well for itself presenting a brand of “grounded” superheroes, superheroes who work within a realistic, nuts-and-bolts world that people can recognize. “Grounded,” in fact, has become a buzzword around Hollywood, a town that loves buzzwords, that clings to buzzwords like magical talismans. Iron Man is “grounded,” and so now all movies, especially fantasy movies, must also be “grounded.”
Green Lantern, on the other hand, is not “grounded.” It asks us to buy, before the movie even starts, the concept of an intergalactic police force staffed by goofy-looking aliens and overseen by a bunch of ancient blue guys with see-through skulls who watch over the entire universe.
To a Green Lantern fan, this “buy” is easy — well of course the Green Lantern Corps exists, that’s what the whole thing is about. But to the average non-geek moviegoer, the response is, most likely, “Are you kidding me?”
Think about this:
Nine years ago, The Onion ran this editorial: “When You Are Ready to Have a Serious Conversation about Green Lantern, You Have My E-Mail address.” The piece, a classic, not only perfectly captures a certain type of comics fan, but also perfectly reflects what the average walking-around Joe knows about Green Lantern, which is: who cares?
Now, as if by magic, there is a $200 million movie based on Green Lantern, with a huge marketing campaign and all its attendant pomp and flourish.
(The Onion, not a publication to drop the ball, does it again with this lovely bit of video reporting.)
The fact is, Green Lantern is a hard character for the average moviegoer to “get.”
Why? Because Green Lantern isn’t a character, it’s a job. There is no audience response to the phrase “Green Lantern” because there isn’t any specific guy who is Green Lantern. Clark Kent is Superman, and Bruce Wayne is Batman, Tony Stark is Iron Man, but no one in particular is Green Lantern. My own son, who has no trouble with the concept, only really knows John Stewart as Green Lantern from Bruce Timm’s brilliant Justice League shows. It’s like WB made a $200 million movie called Intergalactic Beat Cop. Who would see that movie, without knowing who the character was? They didn’t make a movie called Hal Jordan: Green Lantern, they made a movie called Green Lantern and showed, on all the marketing, that this is a movie about a job, a job with thousands of other employees, with a headquarters in outer space.
That, in my opinion, is why Green Lantern underperformed this weekend. In order to sell the Green Lantern concept, you have to get the audience to understand that this is not a movie about “Peter Parker, who gets bitten by a radioactive spider and thus becomes Spider-Man.” Rather, you have to get the audience to buy the idea that there is a job, out there, somewhere, called Green Lantern, and this is the story of Hal Jordan, who gets called to fill an opening in that job.
That doesn’t sound like that much for an audience to buy, but that is what happened — the idea that Green Lantern isn’t a guy but a job make Green Lantern a tough sell for civilians. I should know, I’ve encountered this exact same problem in my own life. Sitting down to discuss superheroes with non-initiates, everyone knows who Batman is, everyone knows who Superman is, everyone knows who Wonder Woman is, everyone knows who Spider-Man is, but when you bring up Green Lantern, they draw a blank — there is no character there. And when it comes time to part with $35 for a 3D movie, the average couple will go for something they “know” over something they do not.