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.


14 Responses to “some thoughts on Green Lantern
  1. Regis says:

    Yeah. “Men in Black” was a job description, but had a pair of bankable stars to hang the job title on.

    • Todd says:

      It was also, dare I say, “grounded.” Will Smith is Ordinary Guy who gets inducted into Secret Society.

  2. like WB made a $200 million movie called Intergalactic Beat Cop.

    Yeah, but with the right names on the credits, I’d see that movie. Ron Perlman as the grizzled alien veteran, Chris Evans as the rookie straight from the Academy. Internal affairs, interplanetary drug rings, glider chases through cosmic dust clouds. “Things operate a lil’ different off of Earth, kid.”

  3. Rootboy says:

    Superheroes seem to work a lot better in TV than in movies, and I think that’s because they’re perfectly designed for a *serial* medium, namely comics. The template is that a villain disrupts the natural order and the hero stops him by the end of the issue or episode. Characters can change alliances and situations over long story arcs but things never drift too far from the successful central formula. A movie usually has to have the status quo be different at the end then at the beginning. This makes them well suited to superhero *origin stories*, at least until the disconnected, action-filled third act. (e.g. the first Iron Man). But it seems hard to adapt this serial don’t-deviate-from-the-long-term-status-quo universe into film.

    The Dark Knight seems to get around this by giving Batman a long-term project he’s working towards: to end crime. For comparison, Spider-Man just kind of wants to get a girlfriend and does the superhero thing out of guilt. And as you say, Green Lantern is pretty much just doing a job.

  4. Marco says:

    There is a panel in Neil Gaiman’s final Sandman novel (the wonderfully titled The Wake–dealing with the death of the title character) wherein some of the character’s from DC’s universe (who sort of uncomfortably co-exist in the Gaiman-Sandman-verse) are attending the dream party.

    Superman is talking to Batman standing next to the Martian Manhunter and one of them says something like “Ever have the dream where there’s this badly made TV movie of your life? I get that all the time!” and the other one says “Yes” and Martian Manhunter says “No.”

    You are right that everyone knows who the iconic characters are and knows what to expect. The Green Lantern probably /does/ have high enough name recognition to pass the bar in terms of getting the movie made but I think you’re right that few people know his story and there’s probably a low comfort level in dealing with him on a mass-market basis.

    I think Thor probably had some of the same problems but (a) had a better trailer–the F/x choices for GL are a bit baffling for me–the uniform is either CGI or else doesn’t ‘look right.’ And (b) I think Thor hit some of the right notes with its casting that GL maybe didn’t (I understand there was serious interest in Chris Hemsworth’s physique that maybe Ryan Reynolds somehow failed to generate–it’s all kind of lost on me …)


    • Chris Adams says:

      THOR also has the advantage of two extremely famous actors (Hopkins and Portman) supporting a relatively unknown lead in Hemsworth, whereas GREEN LANTERN has Reynolds, its most recognisable actor, in the lead role with a couple of good-but-not-exactly-famous actors (Sarsgaard and Strong) in supporting roles, *both* of whom are heavily disguised with makeup in the trailers.

      If you were Jane Public trying to make a decision about which cosmic superhero movie to go see, you might pick the one based on a mythological figure you’ve recognised with some excellent actors you know about, rather than the one based on something you’ve never heard of with only one recognisable actor.

  5. Curt_Holman says:

    I was disappointed by Green Lantern, but didn’t feel hatred for it, like I did with ‘Fantastic Four,’ say.

    But I did feel the story was overly complicated in ways that didn’t make sense to me. For instance, does Hector Hammond need to be in the movie? Isn’t it enough that there’s this threat called Parallax that kills Abin Sur, necessitating that Hal Jordan step in as Green Lantern, and thwart Parallax who’s bound for Earth for some reason? You could have a random human possessed by Parallax, like Vincent D’Onofrio (sic) in ‘Men in Black.’

    Peter Sarsgaard’s performance was one of my favorite things about the movie — he made me imagine Zack Galifianakis as a supervillian — but we just sort of take it as a given that this xenobiology professor has some kind of prior relationship to Hal and Carol. How do they know each other? Did they grow up together? All three of them have issues that involve living up to the expectations of their fathers (or his posthumous example, in Hal’s case.) It seems like there’s an interesting father-grown child dynamic at play, but I can’t figure out how to connect it to the fear vs. willpower theme that seems to be the main motif of the movie. Unless the Guardians of the Galaxy are also “fathers,” I guess.

    I also don’t really get Hal Jordan’s fear/freezing up hang-up. But then, I’m a big fan of Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern, and I don’t really understand that in the comics, either. Ryan Reynolds is charming and all, but I don’t know if I see the Hal Jordan’s internal struggle over his fears in the film, which is supposedly what the showdown with Parallax hinges on.

    I felt like Green Lantern could’ve had a perfectly fine, ‘grounded’ film with, say, one trip to Oa that saved more of the Parallax/Guardians/space opera stuff until later. Certainly would’ve cost less.

    • You could have a random human possessed by Parallax, like Vincent D’Onofrio (sic) in ‘Men in Black.’

      I don’t think that would have improved anything. If the person possessed is actually random, then we have no reason to care about him, and either he shows up out of nowhere near the end or you have to put in scenes whose only purpose is to develop that character. By making the victim somebody Hal and Carol know, there can be some overlap in terms of character development, killing more than one bird with a given stone. Randomness, to my eye, works better in comedy than drama, where “why do I care about this guy?” can be answered with “’cause he’s funny.”.

      I definitely agree that they didn’t develop the “fear” theme nearly as well as they could have, though; I didn’t think Hector’s problem was fear at all. (Rejection and anger and despair, yes.)

  6. Kilowog says:

    I have to agree with you. I was actually quite impressed with the movie. Maybe it does have something to that I am a comic book guru. And no I don’t love every comic book movie. In fact I wasn’t fond of either of the Spider-man movies and I’ve found the recent Batman films very entertaining yet way to dark for my liking. I’ve been waiting for this movie all my life and it was worth the wait.

  7. Just saw it last night, and I’m there with you. It certainly had flaws I would have patched, but it was entertaining enough. And can I just say how pleased I was with Carol Ferris? Not the actress — she was fairly forgettable — but the way the character was written. As I said over on my LJ, she’s smart, competent, and not terribly interested in Hal’s bullshit (though she’s interested in him sans bullshit), and she does actual useful things. If you could just fix her last three lines or so before Hal runs off to fight Parallax, I’d be entirely pleased.

  8. Micguar says:

    Haven’t seen Green Lantern, nor am I interested in doing so, but I was wondering, Todd, if you had any interest in writing analyses for the Spider-Man films, as you have an obvious interest in the films (at least the first two) and have written some great stuff concerning the superhero genre, including right here. I’d love to read that.

    • Todd says:

      I’d like to analyze the Spider-Man movies at some point. They’re on my list.

  9. sakinnuso says:


    Just discovered your website! Green Lantern was an enjoyable and simple movie that the critics unfairly crucified, but i think that the problems with the movie has less to do with casting and concept, and more to do with pacing and tone. GL could’ve been a star-making turn for Reynolds, but WB (and most modern movie studios) forget that to treat the properties like modern mythology and less like 2 hour toys commercials. Reynolds/Hal never got to really grow into being GL. I was hoping for a movie that felt like the Donner Superman 1 – PRE-Metropolis. All character building and AWE, because, well, that’s what we’re seeing, right? The power to create anything is amazing, and neither the audience nor Hal never got the chance to feel that. The training sequence was, what? five minutes? Hal pretty handily beats Parallax by his lonesome; a feat that inexplicably impossible from even senior members of the corps.

    However, biggest crime of all – and this really bugged me – is that a lot of a movie’s plot failures can be softened with a fantastic score. GL was positioned to be the Star Wars of super hero flicks, and there wasn’t a single memorable cinematic musical beat to be found.

    The Dark Knight was great, sure. So was Batman Begins. However when you recall any scene from ANY of those movies, I can guarantee that you remember the music first, then the drama. Thor was another disposable flick that suffered the same ‘send it through the machine’ problem. Two totally vanilla movies, which didn’t take much to be better than they were.

    • Todd says:

      I would extend your comment to both the Tim Burton Batman and the Adam West Batman — Batman, for some reason, has always been blessed with memorable scoring.