Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ring of truth

All right, ONE more thing about the Green Lantern movie and then I’ll shut up about it. For a while, at least. It’s kind of a slow week (which, given the incipient madness of my mom coming to visit for all of next week and brothers coming for shorter visits overlapping with mom’s but not with each other, plus the little girl finally starting daycare the week after that, I am really and truly fine with a slow week now). Spoilers, again!

I mentioned yesterday that the movie tried too hard to encompass too much continuity-driven world-building and too many themes, but even more fundamentally I think the movie’s biggest sin was in trying to have things both ways in certain cases. On the one hand, it’s very cool to show Hal Jordan’s wonder and awe as he is inducted into a Corps of Green Lanterns comprised of thousands of aliens and their cosmic-immortal benefactors. But the movie is called Green Lantern, singular not plural, so after one elite squad of Lanterns fails to stop Parallax, Hal Jordan ends up facing the fear-monster all alone to save the Earth, because Hal’s the hero and he’s the exceptional human destined to become the greatest Corps member of all &c. Arguably Hal learns just enough from his interaction with the Corps to be able to defeat Parallax (and of course his own inner demons) but, seriously, if the ring could talk (and in the comics, they can!) then Hal could have gotten the requisite info dumps from the jewelry’s AI and never met another Lantern, and still followed the same basic storyline, just with more time on Earth being a self-taught superhero and less time on planet Oa as just about the least-respected recruit the Corps had ever seen. Kilowog and Tomar Re (the two aliens in the screen grab I used yesterday) could have showed up in the last five minutes, and set up the sequel, which would have expanded the Green Lantern world a little more organically; they even could have simply called the second movie “Green Lantern Corps” and that would have been pretty cool … but I digress.

The real missed opportunity, I thought, was in the characterization of Hal Jordan himself. I thought the movie really got a lot of aspects of him absolutely right, and one aspect in particular I was impressed with because it was meaningful and consistent and the audience wasn’t beaten over the head with it. Maybe I’m setting the bar low because I’m an indulgent fan of the genre, but superhero movies aren’t usually known for their subtlety, and Green Lantern’s no exception. There are lots of exchanges where characters say things that are slightly to very much more on-the-nose than people tend to talk in real life. And so it goes, but as I mentioned, there was one pattern that started to emerge that wasn’t ever announced and underlined by someone on screen.

Hal (in the movie as in the comics) is a bit of a mess, a cocky and arrogant showboat, a bit of an overgrown kid who is good at flying planes but bad at relationships, deferring to authority, and lots of other grown up stuff. That’s not an inherently bad thing at all for a protagonist, because flawed and interesting often go hand in hand. And it’s especially apt for the wish-fulfillment mechanics of Green Lantern, a character literally built around the notion of a magic (by way of sci-fi so advanced it might as well be magic) ring that allows the wearer to create and manipulate anything they can think of. And it’s the standard covering-for-insecurities template which in turn serves the whole “fearlessness versus courage in the face of fear” motif that the entire movie turns upon, so, fair enough. Except that another way of encapsulating Hal’s character is to say he’s kind of a dick.

And in fact, there are a couple of moments in the movie where he’s a mega-dick. At one point in a scene between Hal and his love interest Carol, he confesses to her that he was being trained by aliens on another planet but he quit. Carol asks how he could possibly walk away from something like that and he answers, “I think we both know I’m pretty good at walking away from things” referencing their romantic past. Which … who does that? There’s portraying Hal as conflicted and a heartbreaker, that’s one thing, but then there’s making him seem borderline cruel by the way he brings up painful things from the past. How bizarre.

I was trying to chew my way through that formulation in the movie theater when it hit me that Hal was being written with the capacity for “brutal truth” as part of his overall messiness, and that was actually a really solid idea. In one of its rare instances of restraint, the movie repeats over and over that the singular criterion for being selected as a Green Lantern is fearlessness. (Then everyone proceeds to split hairs about what that really means. But anyway.) But in the comics there are actually two criteria: fearlessness and honesty, which helps shorthand in a little more nobility for the warrior-cops serving the Guardians, and cut off the obvious question “but couldn’t a ruthless, evil alien be fearless and get a ring and cause all kinds of trouble?” The point being, no word of this is mentioned in the movie, but as I thought back over all the preceding scenes I detected a definite pattern of Hal being honest to a fault. He says inappropriate things, but they’re funny because they’re true. He all but ruins a demo his bosses are giving to military brass because rather than make the product look good, he shows its limitations. When people ask him personal questions he’s not comfortable with, he changes the subject or walks away rather than dissemble. There’s the aforementioned bluntness with his ex. All in all it seemed pretty clever, getting to the heart of who Hal Jordan is supposed to be in a fairly understated way. I was impressed.

I was, that is, until the first of the two major climaxes in the movie, when Hal has to take down Hector Hammond before moving on to taking down Parallax. Up until now, Hal and hector have been cast as opposites: Hal loves and misses his dead dad; Hector disdains and is reviled by his own living father. Hal’s a good looking ladies’ man with an action hero job; Hector’s a nerdy, ugly, socially awkward scientist. Hal becomes a cool superhero; Hector becomes a monstrous supervillain. So the showdown should be good, as Hector takes Carol hostage and Hal, in order to save her, offers to surrender his power ring to Hector. “You can do anything, be anything,” Hal promises. Hector takes the ring, but when Hal asks him to let Carol go, Hector just laughs. “I lied!” Hector gloats. To which Hal smirks back, “I lied too” and admits the ring has to choose its own wielder, and the ring then blows Hector’s brain (or something) and Hal gets it back and just in time because it’s on to the next showdown anyway.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of the lovable (or even not-so-lovable) rogue archetype and I totally get and identify with the “Han shot first!” camp. I enjoy a good hero’s bluff as the means to thwart a villain as much as the next guy. But, gah, the disappointment in hearing Hal Jordan utter the words “I lied”, especially after everything they had (seemingly, maybe I was just geek-projecting) put in play before that! Not to mention it would have been fairly easy to get essentially the same net effect without ruining the honest-Hal vibe, just by tweaking some of the dialogue. Hal could have said “Take the ring, it can do anything” instead of “You can do anything” and once Hector took the bait Hal could have said “I never said it would work for you” or, I don’t know, something a little less clunky but my point remains the same. There’s misdirection and omission and allowing the bad guy to make his own short-sighted, power-mad assumptions about things, and there’s “I lied.”

I’d be willing to bet cash money that the resolution of the Hal/Hector fight was written by one script doctor and the honest-to-a-fault stuff all came from a previous version of the screenplay. Because they just don’t go together at all. But whichever writer it was who decided to go the brutal truth, kind of a dick route with Hal Jordan in the movie, I thank you, sir or madam. Nicely done.

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