Friday, January 13, 2012


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, metaphysical*

When it's good, GREEN LANTERN is a dazzling rock'em, sock'em space opera that's true to the Silver Age comic series.

When it's bad, GREEN LANTERN is a minefield full of what Harold Bloom might call its "anxieties of influence."  Those anxieties include not only GL's relationship to other popular films, superhero and otherwise, but also to many of the influence-anxieties spawned by the many raconteurs who have worked on the comic book.

My initial viewing of GREEN LANTERN in the theater was relatively positive, so I was surprised to see such vehement dislike for the film, especially on fan-forums.  I decided to wait on reviewing it until I could find time to screen it on DVD.

The film's biggest problem is the hero himself.  The original Silver Age hero was largely a flat character with a few interesting "tics" (daredevil pilot, charmer with the ladies).  Over time, in response to greater demands for detailed characterization, Hal Jordan was eventually supplied with a backstory about a pilot father who died tragically.  The 2011 film takes this daddy-issue anxiety and essentially re-interprets the Green Lantern mythos in almost Freudian terms.  Not a half-hour of the film goes by that doesn't have someone fearing the loss of a father or mentor, fearing their lack of approval, or even-- in the case of subsidiary villain Hector Hammond-- hitching his star to an evil alien "god" who turns out to be a Satanic "devouring daddy."

Overt psychologizing should generally be approached with a light touch in superhero fiction.  It worked well enough in Geoff Johns' GREEN LANTERN: REBIRTH graphic novel, which in 2004 resuscitated the hero from a long period of over-involved continuity escapades (none of which are relevant here, except to note that Johns' star was so elevated by REBIRTH that it's reported he became an adviser on the film-script).  Similarly, the script for Sam Raimi's 2002 SPIDER-MAN made light use of the psychological idea of "sibling rivalry," briefly portraying Harry Osborn's frustation when his overbearing father Norman dismisses Harry and focuses his paternal approval on a young man, Peter Parker, to whom Osborn's not even related.

The film, unfortunately, does not take such a light touch.  Its Hal Jordan (essayed competently but not quite persuasively by Ryan Reynolds) is a self-absorbed "danger junkie" whose latent daddy issues mark him as closer to the "child-men" of Judd Apatow comedies than to any heroic archetype.  His relatives and his ex-girlfriend/boss Carol all worry about him incessantly: why can't Hal straighten up and fly right?  Carol even explicitly calls him a child, and the script's attempts to make Hal sympathetic through reference to his trauma at witnessing his dad's death don't pan out. 

Despite all this, the film tells us (even though Hal himself takes a overly long time to believe it) that Hal has the Right Stuff.  An introductory montage explains the origins of the Guardians of the Universe and their purpose to maintain order with the Green Lantern corps, who fight evil using power rings filled with the "green power" of the will.  However, in the film's metaphysical rewriting of the original comics-mythos, "green power" is opposed by the "yellow power" of fear, which saps the will and leaves one unable to function.  And just as the Lanterns incarnate the positive green power, a colossal entity named Parallax incarnates the power of fear.  It's eventually revealed that Parallax is a mutated Guardian who had the foolhardiness to break into a "forbidden chamber" with the idea of mastering the yellow power; instead, it mastered and corrupted him.

An outstanding Green Lantern named Abin Sur-- mentor to a younger Lantern, name of Sinestro-- manages to confine Parallax temporarily within a star-sector, but the monstrous creature begins to break free.  Abin Sur escapes but is struck by a poisonous yellow effluvium from Parallax.  Dying, he plummets to Earth and commands the ring to seek out "one without fear": Hal Jordan. 

Back in space, the Green Lanterns, having failed to keep Parallax confined, still find the time to summon their new appointee to the Guardians' planet to apprise him of his duties and give him some bootcamp-style training.  Sinestro-- whom comics-readers know as GL's perennial villain-- is a good guy at this point, but disdainful of his mentor's selection, for Sinestro senses the new hero's latent fears and goes out of his way to discourage Hal.  In a move that doesn't inspire the viewer with much confidence in the protagonist, Hal does temporarily give up and go back to Earth.  For some reason he's allowed to keep the ring and power battery, which comes in handy when he changes his mind in time to save Carol from danger.

Elsewhere on Earth, xenobiologist Hector Hammond assumes a role rather like that of Harry Osborn in the SPIDER-MAN films, in that Hector has a senator-father who treats his son like a loser.  To complete the Norman Osborn trope, the senator also extolls Hal over his son--in Hector's presence-- in no uncertain terms: "There are thinkers and there are doers, and you're a doer!"  To be sure, Hal himself arouses envy in Hector, in that Hector was in love with Carol but lost out to Jordan.  (Possibly the writers were building on the first comic-book Hammond tale, in which Hector competes with Jordan for Carol's affections.)  But surely it's Hec's "bad dad" who is most responsible for his son's travails: the senator uses his influence to have Hector assigned to examine the corpse of Abin Sur.  The yellow effluvia infects the scientist, who becomes a big-brained mutant with mental powers (a somewhat more grotesque rendering of the comics-villain).  He sells out body, soul and planet to aid Parallax-- whose first target, on escaping confinement, happens to be Earth.

In our Freudianized culture there's been so much emphasis of father-trauma that it is hard to do anything original with the trope, especially in a superhero adventure.  Still, the confrontation of Hector and Hal plays out as overly artificial.  In their second squaring-off, Hector captures Carol in order to neutralize the hero's ability to strike back. "I Ioved her from the moment I first saw her," says Hector. "But she could never see me, as you were always standing in the way."  Hal, having tried and failed to convince the enthralled scientist that they're both brothers under the skin ("I know what it's like to be afraid"), offers Hector a new temptation: to "be like me," implicitly to give himself an ultimate makeover if he'll trade Carol's life for the power ring.  (As a side-note, in the comics Hector Hammond was the first villain to ever gain control of GL's power ring, albeit temporarily.)  Fortunately GL's will proves superior and he orders the ring to vanquish the demented scientist.  A few moments later, Hector is killed when Parallax devours him for having "failed me".  Poor Hec; just couldn't stay away from demanding father-figures.

On top of all this father-anxiety and devilish temptation, at one point the Guardians themselves are tempted to follow the lead of Parallax: to tap into the yellow power in order to defeat Parallax.  Sinestro, mentor of the Green Lantern who first confined the fear-demon, yields to temptation as well, advocating use of the yellow power.  Green Lantern manages to talk the Guardians out of using the weapons of the enemy against the enemy, but then-- for reasons that weren't all that clear to me-- he's left to defend his planet from Parallax alone.  When Hal triumphs, the script repeatedly emphasizes that he does so not because he was free from fear, but because he manages to conquer his fears with his will.  Ironically, in a coda during the credits, it will be Sinestro-- who boasted of his freedom from mortal fear-- who goes against the Guardians and dons a ring of yellow, foreshadowing his conversion to outright villainy for purposes of a sequel.

As I said at the review's beginning, GREEN LANTERN is not a bad film in the least, but it may have been a mistake to rethink the concept in such strikingly Oedipal terms-- at least, if the scripters could only handle such issues in pedestrian fashion.  With SPIDER-MAN, the emphasis on good and bad fathers appears in that character's mythos from Story One.  But GREEN LANTERN in its conception had a more abstract appeal.  Temptation is a strong theme from the Silver Age stories, which moderns like Geoff Johns have elaborated into a complex comic-book mythology.  But Freud's "family romance" seems to have very little relevance to the Green Lantern mythology, and many of the film's overblown pronouncements on the nature of fear come off as mere truisms.

Nevertheless, the CGI here gave us a great-looking film, and was surely the only method by which the spectacular effects of the power ring could ever be rendered in live-action.  Rumor has it that a sequel will be made, if only because it'll be less expensive now that the CGI-programs have already been written.  I hope it comes to pass, for now that the producers have got viewers over the hump of "the origin," they may be really be able to cut loose in Part 2.   

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