While Green Lantern opens this week, please note that I could be writing pretty much the exact same general thoughts about X-Men First Class or Thor or Fantastic Four or Batman Returns or Spider-Man 3 … Also, this is not a blanket dismissal of the sub-genre delivered with a snob’s condescension; the first two Raimi Spider-Man films, The Incredibles, Nolan’s Batman films, Singer’s X-Men … these are well-made super-hero films, and indeed, well-made action films and often well-made science fiction films. But Green Lantern in many ways exemplifies all of the problems of the bad current comic book adaptation, as if it were the tip of an iceberg made of rancid water. These problems also blur into each other — they’re interlinked and interdependent — but like the blind men circling the elephant, every slightly differently-perceived part is connected to the same diseased money-bloated beast.
1) Too Much History, Too Little Story
Like many comic book characters and mythologies, Green Lantern represents over 50 years of comic-book history. The problem is trying to get it all into one film. Do we need to see all 3600 members of the Corps? Do we need to see the Guardians, who would work far better as an absence spoken of in legend than as little blue men and women? Do we need to see the fantastic planet of Oa? Every minute you spend on detailing a universe, and a history, is time you spend away from creating a clear line of character, plot and consequence — the basic storytelling trinity of “Who are these people? What do they want? What happens if they don’t get it?” And if you don’t have that, no amount of world-building or continuity connecting to a fictional pop-culture history can make up for it.
This will be a torturous analogy, but bear with me. A great burger is not one loaded and festooned with toppings until it is a huge, dripping moist mass; a great burger is one with not merely clean flavors but, more importantly, one which you can lift, hold and get in your mouth. Super-hero films, like science-fiction films, are so full of concepts that the audience has to swallow — a ring that creates objects from the user’s will, a corps of galactic cops, alien civilizations — that giving the audience too much makes it impossible to get their minds cleanly and pleasantly around the world. If you weren’t motivated by over-eager greed and insecurity — “Oh, my God, we have to give the audience everything instead of leaving anything in the chamber for later …” — you could do a version of Green Lantern where the hero, as part of a simpler and more cleanly constructed plot, doesn’t leave Earth until the last shot. But instead of building clean storytelling foundations, the modern superhero film looks at an empty plot of storytelling real estate and wastes time thinking of the wallpaper and placemats of the franchise-to-be.
3) Too Many Characters
I know that fans of Green Lantern ostensibly want to see members of the Green Lantern corps; I cannot, on the other hand, think that they want that more than they want a good movie. Again, there’s redundancy here — too many characters representing both over-stuffing and the over-reliance on comic-book history — but let us look at one example. When the villainous Hector Hammond reads Amanda Waller’s past telepathically, we see her tragic circumstance flash before our eyes. But the better question is as follows: What purpose does that moment serve in the film? Do we need to know that information about that character for the plot? No. Do we need to establish Hammond’s abilities? We already have. It’s an unnecessary moment, and an unnecessary moment in any script is like a hole in a boat, with disastrous cumulative effects.
4) Throat-Clearing World-Building
Of course, you want to set up Waller’s back story if she’ll figure in other DC-comics adapted films, but audiences by and large do not care about setting up films number two, three and four; they care about the film they are watching. Iron Man 2 was a chore because it felt like throat-clearing for future Marvel films; the Jeremy Renner/Hawkeye cameo in Thor is a lovely nod to fans, but it makes no sense and in many ways is an inadvisable theft — stealing from the limited time you have to tell a simple, clean story in your film for the benefit of hypothetical future films that don’t exist.
5) Too Much Money For Effects
To quote a movie-loving friend of mine, “Special effects often show you where the state-of-the-art isn’t.” Modern special effects are all too often thrown into a film to be ‘awesome’ or ‘cool’ — and not, bluntly, to be good. Why show us thousands of aliens if they look like nonsense? Why force the audience to try to swallow a CGI energy-costume when a simple suit made of real fabric would not only be cheaper but look better — or at the very least, not be distracting? (It should be noted that Green Lantern also suffers from dubious taste — not just the decision to do the CGI suits but, just as embarrassing, the decision to give the film’s energy-being villain a face. I hate to extend any credit to Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, but that film’s handling of Galactus — not the comics version of a huge humanoid but rather as a more abstract force — was a smart play.) Putting an image from a comic book on film is not the same as making a viable, interesting or compelling film image, and a version of Green Lantern that cost 2/3 as much but was better thought-out — giving us some things that look great rather than a bunch of things that do not — would have been far more interesting.
6) The Generic Over the Unique
Too much of Green Lantern feels cobbled together from other films in the genre, as if the script were a series of Madlibs: (HERO) meets (GIRLFRIEND) on balcony in his costume. (HERO) stops (VILLIAN) at event held at (CORPORATION/LANDMARK). We have seen these scenes in Superman, we have seen these scenes in Spiderman, and they are familiar. Which is deadly. There’s one simple thing you can say about any and all great superhero characters that a film has to support — Superman is the ultimate immigrant, Spiderman the ultimate metaphor for the challenges of teen life turning to adulthood, the X-Men identity politics with eye-lasers — and Green Lantern doesn’t really dig into its ‘space cop’ trappings, preferring instead to repaint other iconic scenes from other films with a light shade of green. Thor may be over-stuffed and a clear whiffleball set-up for other Marvel films, but it tried to get the unique Wagner-meets-Warhol feel of the material right, and that helped a lot.
7) Over-Written and Under-Written
A lot of people are credited on the scripts of these films, which is how movie studios say that they don’t want to trust the very film they’re making, turning interesting or simple films into featureless McKee-style machines that slide onto 3,000 screens in their opening weekend and drip off as a friction-free mess of blandness. If studios were to hire one writer (or writing team) for these things, they’d make more interesting movies — but they almost never do that, primarily because they really don’t want to be making these $200-million dollar films at all, and hedge every story decision that can be made by one writer with a counter decision or embellishment from another writer so they can make a safer, boring bet. And the people who write these films don’t know how to tell the basic story of these films — how a group of distinct characters comes together and shares in a struggle towards what is gradually seen as a common aim. A Bridge Too Far, The Great Escape, Silverado, Army of Shadows — these stories of adventure take large groups of characters and put them in big circumstances with high stakes while always conveying, as said above, who these people are, what they want and what happens if they don’t get it. Green Lantern is just the emblem of the general problem with the comic-book sub-genre, but it does seem ironic that a film about the need for individual willpower and the force of imagination winds up being dragged down by corporate group-think and completely unimaginative.