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Green Lantern: The Animated Series (2011 – 13)

November 3, 2013 Leave a comment

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I suppose I should not be even faintly embarrassed to admit watching animated versions of the superhero stories. I read the comics decades ago when I was a child (and sometimes later). Seeing traditional characters in animated form is a pleasing way of updating and developing old ideas. For, yes, when you only have a few pages in illustrated form to play with, the ideas tend to be superficial when the edition is a stand-alone. Even when the narrative arcs stretch over multiple issues, there’s no real chance to go into the character development and plotting sophistication possible in novel form. This makes the “half-hour” animated format more appealing because seeing the characters interact offers more scope than a static drawing with speech bubbles.

Green Lantern: The Animated Series is a case in point. This comprises two narrative arcs of thirteen episodes which show Hal Jordan and a team come together to meet a variety of different challenges. The structure is a balance between the broader development of character and plot, and the immediate need for an “adventure” subplot for the individual episodes. I’m not going to go through the individual episodes but there are a number of elements that are worthy of comment.

Kilowog

Kilowog

When the first episode kicks off, we have Hal Jordan, Kilowog and an advanced AI to control the systems of the ship called the Interceptor as the core team members. The AI who’s addressed by the name Aya becomes pivotal to the major emotional narrative arc. Although this is a rerun of Pygmalion, it manages to set up and then develop the trope in a particularly pleasing way. The original myth was first committed to paper by Ovid in Metamorphoses. The point of the story is that the inanimate can become animate. In the first version, a statue comes to life. In this animated version, the onboard ship’s computer becomes self-aware and, later, creates a body for herself. Her “mistake” is to base her physical appearance on Razer’s dead wife Ilana. Aya believes this likeness will be more appealing to Razer, not understanding that successful long-term relationships are based on personalities, not on simulated external appearances. This departs from the traditional story in which artists create a representation and then animate it through their love. Obviously a team of individuals would have worked together to code the AI system, but this artifact is essentially intangible. The “person” is brought into being through interaction with the crew and the effect of exposure to the pure Green Lantern energy. Over time, the artificial “person” becomes increasingly “real”. This is drawing on the later idea found in Pinocchio where the wooden puppet becomes a real boy, except Aya retains an artificial body, later plugged into the remnants of the Anti-Monitor.

The second theme is the generality of human emotions, principally of rage, fear and love. It may be simplistic, but the culture of the Red Lanterns and Razer’s slow embrace of a more peaceful outlook on life represents the “teaching” element in the series. Insofar as any series of this type is able to influence the fanbase in its behaviour, the evolution of Razer into a potential Blue Lantern is making a peaceful worldview appear more cool. Similarly, although the imagery is annoyingly clichéd, the discovery of the yellow crystals in episode 8 offers the chance to consider whether fear is a positive or negative emotion. Some people are motivated to act because they are afraid of the consequences of inaction. This can lead to spectacular successes and we acknowledge those individuals as brave. Others are paralysed by fear and hide themselves away in the usually forlorn hope the threat will somehow overlook them. As we move into love, this dual nature of fear comes sharply into focus. People often fail to say what should be said if relationships are to be formed and maintained. Episode 9 therefore plays with the superficial world of sexual attraction, ignoring the reality of the emotions underpinning what happens in the long term when relationships mature.

Razer and Aya

Razer and Aya

It’s amusing to see Hal Jordan confront his replacement on Earth and his alternate when he travels into a steampunk dimension. Jealousy is just another way of addressing the fear that status or reputation has been damaged or lost. When you’re working your way into a role, you build up your self-confidence by telling yourself you’re the best. When you later come back and meet a young man doing exactly the same, it’s difficult not to feel threatened. That’s where humility comes in. The mature leader embraces the newcomers and helps them. Thematically, the steampunk version in Episode 16 plays this perfectly with Steam Lantern being almost excessively humble. It takes Hal Jordan to build up the man’s self-image so the alternate can accept himself a truly heroic. In a sense it also plays with the same idea at a societal level. The culture is doing its best to survive with only limited resources. The one scientific genius has saved the world by doing a deal with the Anti-Monitor, but then has problems in readjusting the scale of his thinking to meet the immediate needs of the people. With the fight appropriately led by a woman in an airship, democracy is restored and the world “saved”.

Steampunk meets superhero

Steampunk meets superhero

The relationships between Hal Jordan and Carol Ferris, and between Razer and Aya are developed in a particularly satisfying way. For the first couple, the problem is physical separation. While Hal was still based on Earth, they could see each other on a regular basis. Once Hal goes off to defend the galaxy, maintaining the relationship becomes more problematic. That makes the episodes featuring Zamaron, the Star Sapphire homeworld, fascinating. For the second couple, this is a “first love” situation for Aya. Neither of them come equipped with the usual emotional tools to make the relationship run smoothly. The tragedy of Aya’s overwriting her memory to erase painful emotions is therefore inevitable given both Razer’s inability to confront the loss of his first wife, and her literal mindedness. The moment in the fight against the Anti-Monitor when, in the heat of battle, Hal gives inadvertent relationship advice is a rerun of “Little Lost Robot” by Isaac Asimov. She loses herself for the greater good. The ultimate sacrifice in Episode 26 is the perfection of the cycle. It’s the only way to save the galaxy. For once, my literal mindedness sees this as amor vincit omnia except, this time around, love saves all except those personally involved.

I’m not going to say this series of twenty-six episodes is one of the best of its type. There are many problems with some of the individual episodes and times when I cringed. But this is a very good attempt at making a galaxy-wide threat scenario work at both a space opera and a personal level. Although the name on the shingle is Green Lantern, i.e. Hal Jordan, I prefer to see this as Aya’s story. She may start off as an AI system piloting a starship, but she ends up a very brave woman.

For a review of the film, see Green Lantern (2011).

Green Lantern (2011)

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.

Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan giving the Ring away

 

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.

Blake Lively as Carol Ferris looking bright enough to run a major corporation

 

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.

Peter Sarsgaard as Hector Hammond before his brain expands too much

 

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.

 

For a review of the television animated series, see Green Lantern: The Animated Series (2011 – 13).

 

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