It must be a difficult task to assemble an action-adventure fantasy, especially for this summer of superhero-origin movies, with Thor and X-Men already in theaters and Captain America following in July. Difficult, that is, unless the writers abandon originality and build their script with elements from other movies — all other movies. Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim and Michael Goldenberg, the concocters of Green Lantern, had 70 years of the DC comic-book character to use as inspiration, yet they borrowed enough tropes from old film fantasies to make an Identi-Kit of blockbuster clichés. Check off the punch list of items in this Green Lantern manifest:
1. A world governed by wise elders perched on high columns, with their desiccated faces in fishbowls; cf. Clash of the Titans
2. A backstory of interplanetary battle between the Green Lantern Corps and a malignant force called Parallax that destroys its foes through soul sucking; cf. Raiders of the Lost Ark
3. A magical ring that imparts great power to the wearer; cf. The Lord of the Rings
4. A bold, reckless hero, Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), who is traumatized by father issues; cf. Star Wars, Iron Man, etc.
5. A heroine, Carol Ferris (Blake Lively), who is meant to assume control of her father’s aircraft company; cf. Iron Man‘s Tony Stark
6. A nerdy scientist, Hector (Peter Sarsgaard) — also with pretty severe father issues — whose thirst for interplanetary knowledge makes him drunk with power, and whose exposure to a strange element turns him into a villain; cf. The Thing from Another World, The Incredible Hulk, etc.
7. An alien aristocrat, Sinestro (Mark Strong), with a mysterious agenda and pointy ears; cf. Spock in Star Trek
8. The catchphrase “With great power comes great responsibility”; cf. Spider-Man
… plus dozens of other examples we either didn’t notice or don’t care about, in a movie that abandons creative storytelling for manifest destiny. Apart from some spiffy visual effects, which create coherent, scary textures and architecture for outer space, Green Lantern is the most generic of summer time wasters. The tone chosen by director Martin Campbell is an uneasy mix of solemnity and jock joking, as the film hopscotches from deepest space to shallowest Earth.
Hal, a roguish flyboy with a tendency to freak out in the cockpit when he thinks of the plane crash that killed his dad, is chosen by the dying Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison), a stalwart of the galaxy’s guardian Green Lantern Corps, to represent planet Earth. His superpower: to imagine anything into reality, which impresses Carol to no end and helps him avert dozens of deaths when another plane, occupied by Senator Hammond (Tim Robbins), crashes at a garden party. Hammond has secretly enlisted his brilliant, dweebish son Hector to examine Abin Sur’s corpse, but the autopsy goes awry and the lad is infected by the yellow slime of the dark lord Parallax. He becomes a kind of Elephant Man mutant, instantly able to read people’s memories. Now he’ll do Parallax’s bidding to bring about the Apocalypse and, if he’s lucky, win Carol by default. For Hal, the big question is: Will he save the world — or his girlfriend?
Politically, Green Lantern could be a Tea Party recruitment video. It believes that the federal government is both omnipotent and inefficient, and that the country, nay the world, can be saved only by an individual hero — a Paul Revere out of Sarah Palin’s mythology, who uses his lantern to warn the enemy that we will not give up our arms, especially such muscular ones. Positing Hal against Hector, Green Lantern praises test pilots over scientists, the military over the university, brute force over knowledge. Granted, Hal was drafted into this galactic battle; he didn’t volunteer. But once he gets to exercising his Will, he’s nearly an Ayn Rand hero — less Luke Skywalker than Howard Roark.
The laws of the movie’s galaxy are also firmly right wing. They say that Will (represented by the color green) is good, and Fear (yellow) is bad. Really? Hasn’t the will to dominate been the trigger for wars and oppression? Doesn’t the very word summon uneasy recollections of Leni Riefenstahl’s Hitler documentary (Triumph of the Will) and the memoir of rogue Nixonite G. Gordon Liddy (Will)? Anyway, who thinks green is good? Isn’t it the color of envy, “the green-eyed monster” of jealousy, as Iago told Othello? And yellow, isn’t that the color of the sun, the source of all power in our universe? One other thing: What is the record for rhetorical questions in a single paragraph?
This semi-fascist scheme isn’t what torpedoes Green Lantern; the culprits are familiarity and ennui. Though the movie has plenty of eye candy, it’s mostly Snickers. Undressing or going topless three times in his first five minutes on screen, and outfitted in a superhero uniform that is little more than emerald body paint (genitals not included), Reynolds is handsome and ripped enough to be his own action figure; his trainer gets a closing credit, and deserves it. But Reynolds is so blandly amiable, so deeply Canadian, that the hallmark of a male movie star — the musk of danger — is something he doesn’t radiate; he only simulates it.
Sarsgaard has fun on a serious actor’s holiday at summer camp, but his scenes are the only instances of saving eccentricity. Geoffrey Rush shows up as a kind of fish god, and Angela Bassett, looking fine, drops in for a paycheck. Strong, who’s played bad guys in RocknRolla, Sherlock Holmes and Kick-Ass, telegraphs Sinestro’s ultimate malevolence by sporting a receding hairline and mustache worn mainly by villains in ’40s movie serials. Sinestro’s true nastiness is revealed only during the closing credits, as the promise or threat of further episodes. That’s a foolhardy tactic: similar teases in Prince of Persia, The Last Airbender, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The A-Team and Kick-Ass did not guarantee the popular success needed to finance a sequel. Green Lantern will have to hope that its luck with audiences trumps its deficiencies as speculative fiction.
When Hal is initiated into the powers of the Ring, he is told, “Its limits are only what you can imagine.” O.K., I imagine I’m watching a better movie.