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Posts Tagged ‘Green Lantern’

Yes, I know, regular readers are probably just used to me coming here and writing about films; and yes, I know, I should really be revising for the final exam of my diploma course. As far as the latter goes, thank you for your concern; and as far as the former goes – well, there should end up being a good deal more new non-movie material on here soon, so consider this an attempt to ease you into this gently, because I’ve been moved to write about something different tonight.

Normally I wouldn’t bother, but there are so many angles on this story I feel I’m going to need some space to address them all, to do with social attitudes and the nature of comic-book storytelling and the way they (often clumsily) intersect. As surely everyone is aware at the moment, the issue of sexual orientation is a bit of a live topic in the US currently, most prominently with Mr O coming out in favour of same-sex marriage. I don’t pay much attention to American social politics but it seems to me that Obama’s declaration seems to have raised a standard of sorts, which progressive media types are hustling to gather round.

That this movement had reached the comic book industry was indicated when it was announced that so-incredibly-obscure-he’s-never-been-in-a-movie gay member of the X-Men Northstar was to marry his boyfriend. I’m not really going to talk about this, except to say that if you’re going to use comics characters to comment on serious real-world issues, then a) you might want to think about using characters the average person has actually heard of, b) the whole ‘serious real world issue’ thing is kind of undercut when the character involved has previously come back from the dead at least once, and c) Northstar always seems to me to be an example of the worst kind of token character, required to personify the whole of the gay experience at the expense of depth and credibility (back in the 1980s, when AIDS was widely-perceived as the major gay-related issue, plans were afoot to have Northstar die of the condition – now that same-sex marriage is the hot topic, who else but the same guy should come racing forward at Mach 10 (oh yes, I’ve done my research) to help the publisher generate some topical publicity?).

Anyway, where Marvel lead, DC inevitably follow, and whispers have been doing the rounds for a bit that one of DC’s big-name capes was about to be retconned as secretly gay (I choose to use the word retconned rather than outed to reflect the rather cheap and shallow nature of this exercise in treating characters like playdough, to be mashed about and remoulded on a whim).

I feel obliged to point out, even though it should ideally go without saying, that I am not against diversity amongst superheroes (or indeed any other group of fictional characters), whether we’re talking gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, or whatever. I think the treatment of sexuality going on here has a lot in common with the handling of race in the 1980s, for reasons I will expand upon in a bit.

No one seriously expected it to be Superman, but there was a surprising, and arguably quite naive, belief in some quarters that it was going to turn out to be Batman. Personally I thought Steel might fit the bill rather well. But no: recently the word came out: DC’s gay superhero was going to be… Green Lantern!

Except it isn’t, quite. Well, it is and it isn’t. DC’s fictional world is not what you’d call metaphysically simple and contains a number of parallel realities. In the main one of these, where Clark Kent is Superman and Bruce Wayne is Batman in the present day (at least I assume they still are, I haven’t checked this week and DC does enjoy fiddling with these things), the Green Lantern is Hal Jordan and still pretty enthusiastically hetero, so far as I can make out. In one of DC’s alternate worlds, the Green Lantern is a guy called Alan Scott, and it’s this version of the character who’s been retconned.

There have been several major Green Lanterns in the character’s 70+ year history, and Alan Scott was the original, created by Bill Finger and Martin Nodell. He’s not an absolute favourite of mine, but he was always a likable, solid character, despite the hoops writers seemed intent on putting him through in the 90s and early 2000s. This is a character with a long and respectable history.

Except… the Alan Scott who’s gay isn’t strictly speaking the same one. The original Alan Scott fought in the second world war, was heroically active for well over half a century due to various kinds of magical intervention, had a wife and a couple of kids who were minor heroes in their own right. The Alan Scott in the news has a sort of vague similarity to this guy in all sorts of ways, but it’s clearly not actually the same character in any meaningful way: he’s a reboot in the same way the version of Captain Kirk in the most recent Star Trek movie, or Professor X in X-Men – First Class, were not the same people as the originals.

So, for ‘one of DC’s big-name characters is going to be revealed as gay’, read ‘an alternate version of one of DC’s big-name characters, who’s actually an essentially brand new reimagining of that character, is gay’. Not quite the bold step it’s being advertised as.

Then again, in terms of DC’s major characters, who were they going to choose? If they’d chosen a really big name character like Batman or Wonder Woman, that would have a serious impact on potential media uses of that character in future – you couldn’t have Batman gay in the comics and straight in the movies without drawing an absolute hurricane of flak from people rightly seeing the character’s sexual orientation in any given medium being dictated by commercial concerns. And, to be perfectly honest – and putting aside issues of continuity with the character’s previous relationships and behaviour – I think it would just be a tacky and insulting thing to do anyway – it would imply that sexuality somehow exists in its own compartment, the contents of which can be swapped out at any time with no impact on the rest of someone’s personality. Batman’s straight! Oh, look – now he’s gay! Don’t worry, it doesn’t make any difference to who he is! What, none whatsoever?

If only life were so simple. Well, it probably is if you’re written with the depth of some comic-book characters, but once again we’re talking about serious real-world issues here which deserve a little more contemplation.

As I said, I’m reminded of how racial equality was handled in comics in the 1980s. The big companies gradually became aware that their non-white readership was not as well-served for characters as it might be, and the result was to – ever so subtly – make some superheroes a bit more black. Dubious as it is to reveal a character has been gay, astounding revelations that a character is not of the ethnic group everyone believed are a complete non-starter, and so the preferred route was to create a new black character and palm an existing superhero role off on them. So, for Marvel, we had James Rhodes’ stint as Iron Man, while for DC it was once again Green Lantern’s role to fill diversity quotas – the existing character of John Stewart had his role in the book considerably bumped up. (There was also a black, female version of Captain Marvel in the Avengers for a bit.)

The 1980s exercise in tokenism seems to me to have primarily been driven by the profit motive, and I wonder if the same is true of its present day equivalent. One might wonder why they’re bothering at all, except perhaps on commendable ideological grounds, or if not that, then why they don’t just create some brand-new gay characters to show their solidarity with the cause. Well, think about it this way – which of the following press releases is going to get the most attention – Green Lantern is Gay or Brandnewcharacterman is Gay?

And the fact remains that the most recently-created comics hero to achieve any kind of traction and recognition-value with the general public as an individual is Wolverine, dating back to late 1974. Most new characters of any kind fail to make much impression even with the comics-buying audience – anyone else remember Xero, Aztek, or the Sovereign Seven? Brand new characters come and go like mayflies: the industry is dependent firstly on big names like Green Lantern, as they’re the only books that consistently sell, and secondly on profile-raising stunts like announcing a venerable and much-loved character is gay, because there is no bad publicity. DC’s support for equality may very well be commendable – but both this and the form it takes are both very firmly motivated by solid commercial reasons.

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The colour green, so my researches on t’internet have revealed, has many and various symbolic associations – with immortality, with nature, with love and with financial prosperity. Most significantly right now, it is also famously the colour of envy. Given the truly colossal revenues raked in by the various movies spawned by Marvel Comics over the past decade and a bit – and here I’m thinking of the legion of blockbusters based on X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and so on – it would be deeply surprising if their long-time rivals at DC Comics weren’t a striking verdant shade right now. The only successful movies DC have put out in the same time period are the two Christopher Nolan Batman pictures – massive popular and critical hits, to be sure, but even so…

Well, not surprisingly, DC are having another crack at big-screen success, in the form of Green Lantern, directed by Martin Campbell. Campbell, as you may know, directed two of the best Bond movies of all time, in addition to the brilliant TV thriller Edge of Darkness, so he can do the business – even if a SF-themed superhero fantasy seems a bit of a departure for him. I, as you probably don’t know but will soon be painfully aware, used to be a pretty hard-core Green Lantern fanboy. My search for a particular back-issue (the infamous #51 of the third series) is a running joke for my family. So this could turn into a bit of a bumpy ride. Oh, well, can’t be helped…

Green Lantern boils down to being the story of brilliant but irresponsible test pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) whose devil-may-care antics cause all kinds of problems for his boss and sharer of unresolved sexual chemistry Carol (Blake Lively – cripes, that actually seems to be her real name). But things change when a gobbet of green energy plucks Hal off the streets and transports him to the side of a dying alien cop (Temuera Morrison, briefly), recently crashlanded thereabouts. The cop is looking for someone to take over his job, to which end he bequeaths Hal a green lantern. Why? you may be wondering. Well, let the man himself explain, in the words of the original comic:

‘A green lantern… but actually it is a battery of power… given only to selected space-patrolmen in the super-galactic system… to be used as a weapon against forces of evil and injustice…’

Well, that’s that sorted out, then. (The dialogue in the movie isn’t quite as hokey as the stuff John Broome was writing back in the 50s, but it’s a close thing.) The lantern comes with a matching ring, the wearing of which gives Hal the power to summon up anything he can think of (in any colour he wants, as long as it’s green) as well as fly through space. All these powers will come in handy as the giant space nasty that mortally wounded the cop is heading for Earth, preceded by a scientist (Peter Saarsgard), whose exposure to the cop’s corpse gives him enormous psychic powers and a bit of a swelled head…

Well. From being green-lit to hitting the screen, the gestation period for one of these enormous summer movies – which this definitely is – is about three years, which means that Green Lantern got the go-ahead just about the time that the first Iron Man was racking up some serious revenue. It’s very hard to shake the suspicion that the latter is responsible for the former. All of these movies are very similar in their structure, of course, but the characters, their development, and relationships in this film are all terribly familiar.

Of course this shouldn’t matter, and it really wouldn’t if the story was involving and witty and well-played. One of Green Lantern’s main problems is that the script is trying to do too much. The fictional GL universe is a vast and complex one with a lot of detailed back-story, and to me the movie tries too hard to include it all. Rather than letting the story open with Hal so that audiences can learn about things just as he does, everything kicks off with a sonorous voice-over talking about alien immortals and the green energy of willpower, and the fear-monster of the lost sector… I knew all this stuff already and it still seemed a bit over the top to me. Lord knows what newcomers will make of it – the villain’s not the only one who’s going to end up bulging at the occiput, I suspect.

It’s a fairly busy plot with a lot of different threads and not all of them really pull their weight (I apologise for that horribly mixed metaphor). I suspect a lot of them are here just to tickle the happy buttons of the Green Lantern fanbase, who are a dedicated bunch: a previous attempt to make this movie was abandoned when news of the project was greeted with bared fangs online (but then it was going to be a comedy, starring Jack Black). So we get voice cameos from Geoffrey Rush as Tomar-Re and Michael Clarke Duncan as Kilowog, and a just-about-in-the-flesh appearance by Mark Strong as Sinestro, including three well-known comics characters when the film only needed to use one of them to tell the story. (The ultimate bad guy is Parallax, not the original version – obviously – nor, so far as I’ve kept up with these things, the retcon that replaced him. So they’re really just using the name, then.) That said, the movie focuses very much on the core iteration of the Green Lantern character. The power comes from the ring, which has been worn by many characters down the years: Hal Jordan is the highest-profile of the main Green Lanterns but also (I would argue) the least interesting. No sign of the Alan Scott, Guy Gardner, John Stewart or Kyle Rayner versions here; perhaps one of them will make it into the sequel which this movie takes some pains to set up.

For me, however, the biggest problem with this film is that – well, parts of it are set in California. Parts of it are set elsewhere in Space Sector 2514, in the Lost Sector, and on the planet Oa at the heart of the universe. But events most frequently occur somewhere close to that peculiar realm known as the Uncanny Valley. The what? you ask, again. Well, basically, you know when you see a CGI picture that’s just a little too perfectly rendered to actually feel realistic? When it looks so real it feels fake? That’s when you’re in the Uncanny Valley.

There are great chunks of Green Lantern where practically everything you see on screen is CGI, up to and including Ryan Reynold’s costume and mask. The film looks astounding even in 2D, but you never buy into it and forget you’re watching a movie. For a film about a fairly obscure character with a silly name (I once asked Garth Ennis and John McCrea why they cracked so many jokes at Green Lantern’s expense during his guest-appearance in Hitman #s 10-12, and they basically said ‘because he’s inherently ridiculous’) you need to ground everything in reality, not keep constantly kicking the audience out of the film by throwing a new improbable-looking alien vista or creature at them.

And spectacle does take place of story to some extent. A lot of the plot unfolds via the mechanism of characters making expository speeches to one another with vast CGI landscapes in the background. There’s relatively little ring-slinging action in the movie, and it’s certainly not what you’d call a breathless thrill-ride. The focus on character brings its own rewards, of course, and Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively do well (even if Lively does seem a tad decorative).

Green Lantern is amusing and aesthetically pleasing up to a point, and the story hangs together well enough, but it’s sprawling and talky and a bit too much in love with its own universe to really satisfy as a superhero adventure. And I say this as someone who already knows the mythos and was thus in no danger of suffering info-dump overload. Newcomers may just find it a very thin and rather familiar story, swamped by rinky-dinky visuals and too many characters with funny heads. It’s not actually a bad movie, it has nice performances and a certain visual novelty to it – but it’s not close to the standard of the best of the Marvel films. Not DC’s darkest night at the cinema, but a long way from its brightest day, too.

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Not that long ago I was writing about the seminal giant mutant ant movie Them! and took the opportunity to declare that it is, basically, not cricket to knock old pieces of SF on the grounds that their special effects are not up to scratch by modern standards. The thing about films like Them! and The Thing From Another World is that, generally, their makers were fully aware of the shortcomings of their effects budgets and engaged in all kinds of sleight-of-hand to tell the story with minimum use of monster suits and props and so on.

As we progress through the 1950s, however, we begin to encounter a new breed of SF movie, which in its own way has much more in common with the modern variety. A very good example of what I’m talking about is This Island Earth, made in 1955 and one of the first colour SF films.

The improbable Rex Reason plays Cal Meacham, an expert on nuclear electronics who finds a mysterious force beginning to affect his life – a strange alien energy saves him from a plane crash, and an unknown agency sends him inexplicably whizzy electronic components and instructions on how to assemble them. The finished result is an interociter, which for all Meacham’s declarations of wondrous omnipotence is basically just a videophone with a built-in death-ray feature. Via this device Meacham is lured into joining a secret scientific thinktank run by the mysterious Exeter (Jeff Morrow).

At the thinktank Meacham meets an old girlfriend (Faith Domergue) and learns that Exeter and his assistants are not above a spot of brainwashing to ensure the assembled boffins play ball in their quest to develop unlimited atomic energy for purposes unknown. Meacham and his girlfriend decide to do a runner, not unreasonably, only to discover the fairly obvious truth: Exeter and his friends are aliens, using human geniuses for their own ends. Exeter abducts the fleeing earthlings and whisks them off back home with him…

Hmmm. The thing about This Island Earth is that it isn’t really an alien invasion movie or a monster movie, though it contains elements of both. If anything, it is a close cousin to the modern blockbuster event movie, in that it’s all about the visuals and the effects and the gosh-wow factor. And the movie is packed with them, in garish, eye-popping technicolour: flying saucers sweep across the screen, comets streak by, spacecraft swoop low over the devastated and war-torn surface of the planet Metaluna, and so on.

The initial stages, concerned with the mystery of who Exeter is and what he’s up to, are moderately engaging. The problem is that, once the cosmic odyssey begins, the plot goes into a total flatline. Meacham and his squeeze make the spectacular voyage to another world, fall out with Exeter’s boss, decide they don’t like the place, and go straight home – all in a relatively short length of screentime. It all looks very pretty but at the end you’re left with a vague sense of so what? Spectacular as they are, all the visual effects are there telling an extremely scanty and actually rather uninvolving story.

Rex Reason is clearly a jock at heart and fully deserves to be third billed in the cast list. Doing his best in a part that’s still underwritten is Jeff Morrow as the initially rather ambiguous Exeter – Morrow clearly has a lot to offer this role but doesn’t get dialogue anything like as good as, say, Michael Rennie’s in The Day The Earth Stood Still.

If you dig for it there’s an anti-nuclear message at the centre of this film, with the destruction of Metaluna a vision of Earth’s own future – ‘thank God it’s still here!’ cries Reason upon returning to his home planet – but it’s very much implied. Also somewhat of interest to me are the signs that This Island Earth was a key influence on the relaunch of the comic book Green Lantern in the late 50s – the image of the jet influenced by a strange green ray, the concept of humans acting as the servants of enigmatic aliens, even the appearance of the Metalunans in one key scene – all of these, and the movie’s general sense of being an exhilarating cosmic romance, seem to me to recur in the version of Green Lantern which was launched only a year or two after this film’s release.

Either way, This Island Earth is striking enough to stay watchable, on the first encounter at least. It doesn’t have depth or wit or much to say for itself, but in this it surely has a vast amount in common with so many SF movies of the last thirty years. It’s wrong to knock old movies simply for being made when special effects were rather more primitive – but I don’t have any kind of problem with criticising films that attempt to use special effects and visuals in the place of a decent story and characterisation, no matter when they were made: and it’s in this category that This Island Earth really belongs.

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