The thing about origin stories is that they are only as compelling as their protagonist(s). Take X-Men - First Class (Vaughn 2011) from a few weeks ago: the film is filled with compelling characters, with flaws and passions that drive them in a time of social and political change. It is great stuff, and embraces its comic book mythology without letting it dominate the characters of the story.
Unfortunately for the Green Lantern comics, its protagonist is Hal Jordan, one of the blandest superheroes around. Devoid of depth and personality, Hal Jordan’s story is one of how a cocky hotshot pilot goes from being something of an insecure ass to having absolutely no personality at all. The comics supporting cast includes a love interest whose personality consists of being angry at almost all times, and a friend who was little more than a racisit stereotype in the earliest comics. Hal also happens to belong to a large intergalactic organization that polices the cosmos, filled with interesting characters that can thankfully be read in a title that does not feature Hal Jordon.
Sadly, film audiences are stuck with Jordan and his uninteresting supporting cast for the running length of Martin Campbell’s Green Lantern (2011), a film in which the worst elements of the source material get to come out to play, which include, but are not limited to: endless speeches about will power; endless speeches about fear; Hal sitting around feeling sorry for himself; people standing around telling us that Hal can be/is a great Green Lantern; Hal failing to actually do anything to convince us he is all that impressive; interesting characters pushed to the margins so time can be wasted on Hal and his uninteresting love life; characters standing around talking about how great the Green Lantern Corps are; the Green Lantern Corps failing to be impressive; and so on.
Ok, as you have likely guessed, I am not all that taken with either the comic book version of Hal Jordan, nor the film adapted from the comics. While I in no way hate the Green Lantern concept and universe, I have always felt that mythology of the Green Lantern universe was interesting in spite of its lead character. The idea of an intergalactic police force with rings that can create whatever the user wills is a fantastic concept, and when Hal Jordan disappears into the background, as he has in the past, the comics have been all the better for it. However, for some reason that continues to escape me to this day, the hardcore fans of Green Lantern are taken with Jordan, and since 2003 there has been an all out attempt restore Jordan as not only the main protagonist of the title, but also to hard sell readers on how great of a character he is.
The Green Lantern film is, in some ways, the culmination of those efforts. A $200 million plus dollar effort to launch the Green Lantern as a film franchise, and quite possibly launch the whole of the DC universe on film, the film is tasked with both introducing Hal Jordan and introducing the larger mythology of the Green Lantern Corps to a broad audience. In theory, these two tasks should have complimented one another perfectly, with Hal’s journey into becoming a full blown member of Corps providing plenty of opportunity to show off the Corps and explore the larger mythology. For some baffling reason however, the filmmakers behind Green Lantern did not see this as the case, as the Corps and overall mythology is put to the side to allow plenty of time to focus on Hal and his uninteresting adventures on Earth.
The film starts off well enough, as we witness the release of the film's supposed villain, Parallax, a entity that feeds on fear. Parallax quickly attacks and mortally wounds Abin Sur, the Green Lantern whose sector happens to include Earth, the planet he escapes to. Upon crashing to Earth, Sur has his ring seek out a new recruit to replace him, and it selects Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), a test pilot whose cocky ego has jeopardized the employment of hundreds of employees at Ferris Aircrafts. Handed the ring and the power battery to charge it with, Hal is quickly taken to Oa, home of the Lantern Corps and the Guardians, the ancient race of aliens who created the Corps, in order to receive training in how to operate the ring..
Till this point in the film, almost everything works. The opening scenes are energetic and set a sense of the scale we can assume the rest of the film will involve, and while Jordan as a character is still little more than a cookie cutter hero, Reynolds does manage to bring a bit of charm to the role. However, once on Oa, the film goes south quick: the film barrels through these scenes, as if the filmmakers were not interested in the Corps at all, or embarrassed by them. More likely, the visual effects required to pull of Oa and the other Corps members was far too expensive to include for extended periods of time, even with a $200 million dollar budget. Given how quick these scenes flyby, Hal’s “training” comes across as being little more than an afternoon workshop, one followed by Hal giving up and returning to Earth after a one scene encounter/smack down with Sinestro (Mark Strong). This quick lapse into self defeat on Jordan’s part does nothing to endear him to the audience, and one wishes that when Hal bolts, the rest of the film would be spent following Sinestro actually trying to deal with the crisis at hand. Sadly, this does not happen.
The film pretty much falls apart from this point on, as a pointless secondary plot involving a scientist (Peter Sarsgaard) becoming infected by Parallax is introduced in order that Hal has a traditional Earth based villain to face, and endless time is spent with Hal and his angst about whether to quit the Corps or not. Reynolds tries his best to make these scenes work, but his charm only goes so far in covering up how uninteresting Jordan and his situation is. This problem is only made worse through the inclusion of rather predictable scenes that drag the pace of the down, including the typical “superhero public debut” moment, and a clumsy scene where Hal admits to a personal flaw the audience figured out sixty minutes earlier in the film.
Even though we are stuck with Jordan for the rest of the film, the failure to establish the Corps as a group of impressive heroes earlier in the film has major ramifications in the second and third acts, particularly with regards to Parallax. In every scene with the Corps, all we ever is them doing is standing about listening to Sinestro give speeches, or receiving a beat down from Parallax. Since we never see the Corps as an effective peace keeping force, Parallax easily defeating various Green Lanterns has no impact as far as establishing him as a credible threat. (SPOILER) In turn, Hal’s inevitable defeat of Parallax has no impact because the Corps earlier in the film are built up as straw men to make Hal look good. It all comes across as lazy and false, and does nothing to sell a larger audience on the Corps as being an interesting group of characters worth following. (END SPOILERS).
So far, I have primarily slammed the film in terms of overall narrative, but that is because the failures in these areas make some other aspects of the film harder to evaluate. For example, many critics have slammed Blake Lively’s performance as Carol Ferris, but I am not sure that such criticism is deserved when the actress is given nothing to work with on page. Likewise, the visual effects work is fantastic, but its impact is limited given how hollow the rest of the film is. Campbell's work as director here seems unsure and unfocused; more often than not, he seems to be mimicking prior superhero films rather than bringing his own sense of style to the film.
At the end of the day, Green Lantern is a mediocre film, but one that is faithful to its source material. It simply fails to make the the core mythology of the comics interesting, and has likely killed any possible film franchise for the character. Should a second film ever go into production, hopefully Warner Brothers will learn from their mistakes and perform a soft reboot of the films, with one of the other Green Lanterns at center stage in a tale that ditches the typical tropes of the superhero films.
But I am not holding my breath.