I’ve never read a Green Lantern comic, but I’ve always liked the idea of Green Lantern. I’ve picked up a lot of the basics through popcultural osmosis, as I have with a lot of superhero IPs. I know it’s got a lot in common with E. E. Smith’s Lensman books, which are one of my literary guilty pleasures. I know the Green Lanterns are cosmic policemen with magic rings powered by willpower, and their greatest enemy is fear, and so forth.
I suspect a lot of people approach superhero movies from a similar position, and the makers of superhero movies know this. You might never have read an X-men comic but if you’re the movie’s target audience then you’d probably recognize Wolverine if you saw him. Added to that is the fact that there have been so many comics, with so many bewildering continuity reboots, and so many other adaptations, that there is no single definitive version of these stories. Superhero movies adapt the myth rather than adapting the story: there are characters and story elements that have to be present, but you expect the movie to put them together in new and interesting ways, to add its own spin to the telling as it passes it on to the next storyteller.
Anyway, if you’re not familiar with the Green Lantern myth, the movie’s opening narration helpfully explains it. Billions of years ago, the Guardians created the Green Lantern Corps, a magic space police force powered by Will, which is green. The voiceover sounds like it’s finished, but then starts up again, almost as if the next section was added in post-production, and tells us about Parallax, an entity powered by Fear, which is yellow. Parallax was imprisoned by Green Lantern Abin Sur. We then see some hapless space explorers stumble upon Parallax, who quickly eats their souls and goes off to conquer the universe. His first move is to attack Abin Sur in a brief but very entertaining sequence that ends with the mortally wounded Abin fleeing in an escape pod.
Then we cut to Earth and get our first glimpse of our Lantern-to-be, Hal Jordan. He’s waking up in bed with a pretty girl whose name we don’t know and whom we never see again. He realises he’s late for work and drives recklessly to get there in his sports car, at the same time wrapping up a box which we later learn is a birthday present for his nephew. At work his wingman is annoyed at his lateness, and he responds by flirting with her. They’re fighter test pilots, and today they’re up against some robot drones. Hal beats the drones by using his wingman as a decoy and then climbing to a higher altitude than the drones can safely reach. (It seems the drones aren’t smart enough to not follow him past their safe operational height.) On the way down, Hal has flashbacks to his off-the-shelf backstory about being in the shadow of his dead father.
I instantly disliked Hal Jordan. He’s an immature, arrogant prick; he endangered several people’s lives by driving dangerously, he doesn’t seem to respect his colleagues, and he invalidated the test by knowingly going against its rules. I started to dislike the movie, because it felt like this was the sort of person it was saying I should admire, the sort qualified to be a Green Lantern, and this Hal Jordan wasn’t even someone I could respect.
Why, I thought, did the Green Lantern have to be someone already traditionally powerful–someone who has a teenage boy’s dream job, someone who drives fast cars and gets girls and can act like an arrogant jerk and get away with it? Am I meant to regard that guy as heroic? Why not have it pick someone weaker, the bullied rather than the bully, someone less like a traditional hero. Someone…well, someone more like me?
As the movie progresses, though, it looks like the movie is thinking the same thing. A less traditionally heroic character appears in the form of Hector Hammond. He’s a scientist; a ‘thinker’, as someone puts it, whereas Hal is a ‘doer’. No waking up beside a beautiful woman for him: the first we see of him is playing chess against a computer and eating an instant meal. When some Men in Black appear to recruit him for his alien biology skills, his first thought is that it’s a practical joke. Later on, at a party, he comments that the female lead would never notice him, because she would only notice Hal. There are archetypes at work here: the winner and the loser, the hero and the other guy.
I started out finding Hector more sympathetic than Hal. Another quality I liked was that he wanted to succeed through his own merits or not at all: when he learned that he’d got the alien autopsy gig because of a family connection, he was angry that more qualified scientists had missed out. Then he tries to kill someone by crashing their helicopter, which robs him of that sympathy and pretty definitely puts him in villain territory.
Hector Hammond is, in fact, an exploration of one of the things that might happen if the other guy–the bullied, the unsuccessful, the weak–finds himself with superpowers, and it’s not heroic: it’s an ugly revenge fantasy. Hector’s got mind-reading and telekinetic powers from a fragment of Parallax that was lodged in Abin Sur’s wound. Hector glowers and engages in a campaign against the world. If Hal’s abilities are powered by will, Hector’s appear to be powered by resentment.
Meanwhile, it turns out that the movie knows that Hal Jordan is an arrogant jerk, and starts forcing some character development on him. Carol Ferris–the other fighter pilot from earlier, who has slightly implausibly ended up as Hal’s love interest–even calls him out on it. Life has given him all these opportunities, and he still walks away from them–or runs away.
It turns out that Hal’s weakness is the Green Lanterns’ Achilles’ Heel: fear. Green Lanterns are supposed to be fearless, but Hal feels fear more than he likes to admit. The arrogant jerk act is just there to cover up the fact that he’s insecure and frightened.
Carol brings about Hal’s character development by delivering everyone’s favourite stock platitude about courage. Courage doesn’t mean not feeling fear: it’s the ability to overcome your fear! Hal acts as if he’s never thought of that before.
I ended up quite liking Hal Jordan, certainly enough to be able to root for him while he’s saving the world. Perhaps I was wrong about him. Perhaps, I thought, that is the sort of hero the Green Lantern ring ought to pick.
Then I thought back to the start of the movie and remembered that he risked several people’s lives by driving recklessly and generally behaved like a child, and none of his character development has fixed that. He learned courage but what he really needed to learn was humility.
So, if I were a magic alien space ring having to pick the best new owner from all the people of Earth, I think I could have done better than Hal Jordan. But the person who would make the best space policeman wouldn’t necessarily make for the best story.
A few other miscellaneous comments about the movie:
- There’s no way that mask conceals Hal’s identity, even with the caveat that his close friends can recognize him when they get up close. I’m choosing to believe that the ring has a magical mind-clouding effect, and he domino mask is just a visual reminder that it’s turned on.
- The Green Lanterns appear to be able to fly all across the universe with just their rings, so why did Abin Sur need a spaceship?
- Why did Abin Sur imprison Parallax in the first place rather than killing it? Maybe the Lantern Corps has some absolutely-no-killing rule, but it’s never mentioned. Also, it was a pretty rubbish prison; you’d think they could have made it harder for random space people to stumble across it and get eaten. I’m wondering if Abin Sur was really all that competent. Come to think of it, all I ever see him do is lose a fight and run away.
- The Green Lantern Corps looks a bit like an all boys club. None of the named Lanterns are female (although there was a lady Guardian), and I only spotted one recognisably female lantern in the crowd scene; most are either male or so alien you can’t tell. I would have hoped for more diversity.
- I know this is space fantasy rather than science fiction, but the final space sequence still bothered me. They’re flitting around the solar system faster than light, which I can kind of accept since the rings let you travel at the speed of plot, but that asteroid thicket was unforgivable.
On the whole, despite my complaints, this was a very enjoyable movie, especially the scenes on Oa. Hal Jordan may be a jerk, but the Green Lantern Corps is great space fantasy that works on a mythic level.
Maybe once the DC-wide “you don’t need to know the continuity” reboot happens I’ll check out the new Green Lantern #1.