Comic book fans are two for three in a summer loaded with hammers, rings, and helmets. Hopefully, what Marvel may have learned from the success of Thor is to please let the audience have some fun; does it take a Kenneth Branagh to inject a modicum of charm into something so patently absurd as a Norse God dustup? The new X-Men picture was an embarrassment of self-importance layered with special effects -- a mutant Dagwood sandwich, but flavorless.
Green Lantern, the movie, is much closer to Thor in that respect. For one thing, like Thor, it jumps back and forth between sad, quotidian planet Earth and the cosmic outback.
The story, which steers close to the original Silver Age comic that reintroduced the character to readers of the late '50s, is about a Tom Cruise Top Gun-esque test pilot who just happens to be badass enough to inherit a fantastically powerful ring from a dying Space Ranger. The difference between then and now is that it was enough to just be a test pilot back then. These days you have to have your character tested before you can qualify as an intergalactic warrior. In other words, Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) is Captain Kirk, not the William Shatner version of Kirk, but the Kirk of the recent J.J. Abrams picture: a reckless and irresponsible jerk with near-crippling daddy issues.
Jordan’s father, like Kirk’s, was a flyer who died in a blaze of glory, and in each case the kid is saddled with overwhelming insecurity issues mixed in with an excess of bravado and some kind of innate super-talent that everybody can see, even if they can’t. But even Thor has daddy issues, except that Thor doesn’t just think his dad is God; in fact, his dad is God.
And speaking of God, the Omnipotent Administrators of Green Lantern’s world, are huge-headed blue folk called The Guardians who sit in a circle high above the heads of their constituents in robes that flow 80 or 90 yards below their tiny little feet. They control the greatest force in the universe, the green power of Will. Somehow they have tapped the will of every species of animal, plant, and quasi-sentient mineral (Norse Gods too, I expect) and are using it to feed the battery that keeps the rings of the intergalactic police squad charged.
But like all gods, they have a fallen angel, Parallax , and he, or it, controls the yellow power of fear. It’s Parallax who escapes his prison and kills the greatest of the Lanterns, Abin Sur (played, fittingly -- and unrecognizably -- by Maori Temuera Morrison of Once Were Warriors), in Hal Jordan’s neighborhood. By the time he reaches maximum size, Parallax is a floating cloud of menace with a head in the middle, like an evil Wizard of Oz, only with wicked big dreadlock-tentacles. If he senses your fear, he can suck your essence right off your bones.
He has a human working for him on Earth, a biologist he infects with some evil yellow stuff, named Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard). Hammond has the worst daddy issues of them all, as his father is a blowhard politician (Tim Robbins), who hates him. Luckily for Hammond, as his yellow power grows, so does his mind-reading ability, so he gets to hear what his father really thinks of him first-hand. For the record, Hammond, his father, Jordan, Jordan’s girlfriend Carol Ferris (Blake Lively), and her father -- in other words all of the earth-bound characters in the story -- all seem to belong to the same extended family, which certainly makes it easy on the writers.
Hammond’s terrible insecurities about his dad and his looks are not eased at all when the Parallax whammy starts making his head grow huge and bulbous, so that he winds up looking very much like the Eric Stoltz character Rocky, in Mask. But at least Rocky had bikers who loved him and his dear Mama Cher. By the time the plot gets fully charged, it becomes a contest between the impossibly handsome Tarzan-bodied Green Lantern and the sad, sick hideously ugly Hammond, of good versus grotesque. Near the end, even Parallax snubs Hammond.
As I said, the journey of the hero is one in which Jordan, a talented loser with a pronounced death-wish, joins ranks with the Green Lantern Corps, on the planet OA, and he suffers indignities including a ten-minute martial training course and the utter disdain of Sinestro (Mark Strong), apparently a top-rank Lantern who thinks, like Sonny Corleone and Tom Hagen, that the Guardians ought to get some of this yellow power action before everybody else does first. As heroes must, Jordan gets whupped, finds his inner spunk, begs the Guardians to resist changing their color scheme, and takes on Parallax single-handed. Parallax, meantime, seems to think that sucking the life force out of thousands of terrified, fleeing humans will somehow set him up for the main course of the Guardians, so he blobs all over Coast City (California in the comics, but shot in New Orleans), which sets up the final act.
Some years back, it seemed to me that Green Lantern would have been the hardest superhero to do well. The power of the ring is driven not just by will, but by imagination; what the Lantern thinks is what the ring manifests, from cartoon mallets to roller coasters. The danger was always that a dearth of imagination, or insufficiently sophisticated special-effects technology, would be the movie’s undoing. On the other hand, there’s a risk of going all Tex Avery with something like this, of using too much imagination, thus making the toy the star of the picture.
Credit goes to director Martin Campbell and the writers for making it smart and keeping it so true to the book, and to the CGI crew -- it’s staggering that technology has caught up with the most demanding character in comics’ upper ranks. The acting is good, and Mark Strong is typically centered in a ridiculous red headpiece, but Reynolds has to be credited with carrying the picture. With terrific grace and good humor, he makes it look easy.
A final word about 3D: There are a few ahh moments in Green Lantern, but for the most part the 3D was completely unnecessary. It’s time filmmakers and studios realize that 3D can be put to better use in pictures that are less cluttered, and that means that it may be time to imagine using it for movies that aren’t always action pictures. Would that Stanley Kubrick might be alive today to take full advantage of a technology like 3D for a picture like 2001 or Barry Lyndon. 3D needs its first visionary, and it ain't Michael Bay. - Henry Cabot Beck
Mr. Beck straddles the coasts, contributing features on movies, music, books, comics and other cultural objects to the New York Daily News and many other publications.