Saturday, February 2, 2013

Thoughts on Green Lantern

While recent years have seen comic book superheroes perhaps the single biggest trend among box office hits, Hollywood's treatments of the theme have also produced their share of flops. Perhaps the biggest from a financial perspective was 2011's $200 million-plus Green Lantern.

The film certainly had its weaknesses - a miscast Ryan Reynolds in the lead (as might be expected, he proves far more convincing as snarky jackass than galactic hero), the astonishingly underwritten backstories of the characters, particularly Hector Hammond (which makes the connections of many of them to one another a surprise), the lack of freshness about the whole (too much of it seeming overly familiar, even where strictly speaking it isn't, this being the Green Lantern's first live-action film). Yet, the films' biggest liability with mainstream audiences and critics was not the execution, but the material itself, which was very much of comics' long-ago Golden Age, and E.E. Smith-vintage pulp space opera.

As those who have noted the difference between science fiction's financial successes on the big screen, and its marginality on the small, have often noted, science fiction blockbusters sell on spectacle rather than concept, which tends to be a liability. From a commercial perspective world-building is best kept to a minimum, and the dubiousness of those not ordinarily interested in this kind of subject matter avoided rather than challenged. (Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings have been the exception, not the rule.)

Relatively grounded films, relying on pseudo-science or technobabble (about which audiences can be surprisingly credulous) rather than out-and-out magic (or pseudo-science and technobabble that look too obviously like magic), and preferably not too much of any of these elements, have tended to be the easiest sell, especially with the generally Earthbound, generally contemporary superhero genre. Brian Singer's take on the X-Men and Christopher Nolan's Batman films (a far cry from where the earlier Batman series had wound up by the time of Batman and Robin) exemplify this approach. So too the Spiderman and Iron Man series, which together make up almost the entire list of the most successful superhero-based films.

By contrast, this probably worked against the Hulk, and the Fantastic Four with its rubbery Reed Richards. Thor was clearly a real hit, but more idiosyncratic, split between sword and sorcery-like spectacle in Asgard and a very grounded central hour on Earth, and the magic covered over by a patina of pseudo-science - and at any rate, a much more modest earner than the films named above.1

Green Lantern, with its rationales about the significance of the Lantern Corps' color, Hal Jordan's use of his ring to save the day (preventing a helicopter crash from taking a massive toll of human life by putting it on a race track conjured through his powers), its CGI galactic empire - even the Corps' uniform - was simply too much for skeptical viewers. (It may even have been too much for the filmmakers, who never quite seem to believe in what they're doing, which certainly didn't help.)

The result of all this is that a Green Lantern 2 seems a longshot. And while the point rarely gets acknowledged, I suspect that this same issue of concept has been a major factor in keeping the long-planned movies about the magical-mythological Wonder Woman and the deeply space operatic Silver Surfer eternally in development.

1. Catwoman (2004) and Jonah Hex (2010), of course, also rooted their heroes' abilities in magic, but the failure of those films was already overdetermined in other ways. Catwoman offered the silliness without the spectacle, while Jonah Hex had the additional liability of playing like a sharply scaled-down and much more serious version of Wild Wild West (1999).

My Posts on Superheroes
The Cancellation of Terra Nova
On the Eureka Paradigm

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