The question for thought today is not, perhaps, as simple as it might first appear. Is it possible to have a comic book film that’s actually a good film? Or, is the best you can hope for is that the result is a good comic book film?
Let’s start the answer by listing what’s silly in this latest offering into the summer season. Green Lantern contains two comic book elements that reduce scale to manageable proportions. The first is the ability of individuals to travel vast interstellar distances in a few minutes. In the first stages of the film, we seem to have travel essentially based on the old-fashioned notion of spaceships. Yes, I know this is distinctly stone age technology but, when we first meet Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison) he’s jaunting around in a spaceship. That may explain why Parallax is able to make such a devastating attack before Abin Sur can defend himself. Yet, when Hal Jordan is first transported to Oa, the journey is effectively instantaneous. Perhaps the ring opens a worm hole for long distance travel. For “local” travel, Sinestro (Mark Strong) leads (from behind) a team of the elite Lanterns against Parallax who all fly through space to confront him. It’s a useful ability to be able to survive in space without a suit, breathing in a vacuum without apparent assistance but, again, this is a necessary suspension of disbelief so we can get on with the story. Unlike Star Trek, which does accept physical limitations on the speed of travel, this story requires us to zip around the galaxy, defying distance to maintain the pace of the story.
Second, we have the physical nature of Parallax itself. It starts off small, presumably running low on supplies while imprisoned on this remote planet. But it grows as it consumes the energy released by the fear of those under attack. After eating the population of two inhabited planets, it should therefore be of considerable size. More to the point, if it’s to consume all life on a planet, it must either take it a long time to suck the life out of everyone, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, or it must be able to spread itself around like a gas cloud and do the sucking on a more industrial scale. Yet when we finally see the size of the thing on Earth, it’s only the size of large aircraft hanger or a small city block. But for the story to work, our hero has to be able to confront the thing as a monster. That’s how it would be shown on the page of a comic book and, in cinema terms, it’s not an unreasonable choice to keep the beast small enough so that Hal can appear physically outmatched, yet have the wit and the will to defeat it.
So, rather as the comic book replicates the Golden Age pulp conventions of science fiction, this version of Green Lantern “respects” or possibly pays homage to the early “wow factor” approach to constructing stories. It’s typical of the work first appearing in Astounding in which heroic stereotypes policed the galaxy (as with the Lensman series by E E Smith). In fact, taken in that spirit, Green Lantern proves to be a good comic book film, mixing fantasy and goofy science fiction in equal measures to give us all 114 minutes of fun. Yes, it’s fun. Indeed, there are even a couple of jokes that made the cinema audience laugh out loud.
Director Martin Campbell, taking a holiday from Zorro and the James Bond films, has contrived to take an unpromising origin story and make it feel quite reasonable in its own terms. I like the gentle introduction to Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) and Carol Ferris (Blake Lively). Of course, I’m using the word “gentle” to mean the dog fight with the next generation of AI fighter aircraft (think Icarus in a prophetic way). It’s an effective way of introducing the hackneyed backstory about his father, and meeting his somewhat dysfunctional family and friends. Once established, we have his selection by the ring and, after a drunken encounter to show he has the will (hopefully, he paid the hospital bills of those injured when he got back to Earth), he goes through his first round of training on Oa. Never mind he can take to flying as easily as stepping off into the air or quite quickly get the hang of how to use the ring for attack and defence. This is all part of the gonzo approach to the storytelling where he assimilates what he needs to know to be able to win through in the end.
I also like the way in which the “only too human” hero is able to joke about his own insecurities. It’s not so much that being fearless is part of the job description. It’s being brave enough to work through the fear to get the desired results that counts. Although coming to a better understanding of the real nature of courage is a well-worn trope, this does it as well as many other films. It’s not a question of having responsibility because of the great power you wield. It’s being able to access the great power despite your lack of confidence. Lots of déjà vu moments in there somewhere to enliven the passage of cinema time. The human threat from Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) is also nicely measured. The two transforming humans are both learning about their abilities, so it gives the emerging Lantern time to grow comfortable with the use of his powers. If he had met a fully formed enemy too early in his journey, Hal would have lost the fight. As it is, Hector gives Hal the chance to believe in himself — it’s surprising he never feels the need to practise using his new powers. Being a pilot, he just wings it. In this, Carol Ferris is allowed to play a proper role. This is not just an eye-candy, token woman. She has a brain and is not afraid to use it for thinking, flying jet planes and other stuff.
So this is another enjoyable popcorn film for the summer season. It’s not pretending to be something greater than it is. Unlike the latest outing from J J Abrams, which is rather self-important, this takes simple pleasure in telling a Golden Age science fiction story. Although it began its life in a comic book, all concerned keep a straight face. One of the dangers in making films like this is that the director and crew start taking the mickey out of it, allowing too obvious mockery of the inherent stupidity of the ideas. This just keeps the pace going, making intelligent use of CGI to create modest effects from the ring and some quite impressive interplanetary scenes.
Answering my opening question, there have been one or two very good films that just happened to be about superheroes. Sadly, this is not one of them. As long as you’re only expecting a goodish comic book film, you won’t be disappointed. It’s just fun, albeit with intensely silly overtones.