(I’m not quite done rewatching The Phantom Menace so instead we’ll be looking at Green Lantern today.)
This week we’re exploring a universal theory of bad movies. Some movies are good, some are okay, and some are labeled bad. All that separates the bad movies from the rest are three or four highly visible flaws that are obvious to a general audience. Today we will look at how that theory applies to one of the more notable big budget flops of the past few years, 2011’s Green Lantern.
I don’t envy the makers of this movie. They were tasked with some very difficult to adapt source material and a character who straddles the fine line between ordinary superhero and space cowboy. Ill received and financially unsuccessful, it was a mega-budget flop and quite a public embarrassment for the otherwise solid DC movie universe.
It’s not all bad though. It’s more of a mixed bag than anything else.
Things that work:
- Mark Strong’s excellent take on Sinestro
- Cross-cutting (aka thematic juxtaposition) of Hal Jordan and Hector Hammond
- Hal’s sweet dogfight ripped straight from Top Gun
- An ambitious confident Carol Ferris
- Some colorful supporting characters like Tomar-Re, Senator Hammond, and Hal’s friend Thomas.
Things that are neutral:
- Traveling by glowing green ball
- Hal’s self-awareness of being a hero and his oft-referred-to-greenness
- Hal’s constructs, which are functional but not quite cool or memorable
- Hal’s dad’s backstory
- Abin-Sur passing the torch
Things that don’t work:
- Starting the movie off with boring unhelpful exposition
- The intrusively cheesy techno soundtrack
- Using Kilowog once but for a bafflingly terrible training sequence
- Being too faithful to the source material by having the Guardians be huge secretive cosmic jerks
- All the relationship dialogue between Hal and Carol
- Making the main villain a giant yellow fart cloud of fear
So have some different stuff in there, some good and some not so good. But plenty of movies have faults. Are there three or four blatant flaws that might qualify as story tumors?
One Story Tumor To Rule Them All
Story tumors are the stuff people leave the theater talking about afterward. They are the flaws that sink the whole ship. And after thinking about this movie for a few days I can’t really think of anything that qualifies as story tumor in this movie. There’s plenty of missed opportunities and unfortunate choices but not one standout scene of badness. However I do notice one major recurring issue that plagues Green Lantern in a way that I haven’t seen many big blockbuster movies attempt: a completely unsympathetic protagonist.
Green Lantern doesn’t have three or four story tumors. It just has just one big fat one: the Green Lantern himself.
Hal Jordan never does anything heroic in the movie, except I guess at the end when the film finally demands him to. Let’s think about what Hal does during the movie:
- Rudely ditches the girl he just slept with
- Endangers other drivers on the road
- Shows up late to work
- Brags about himself
- Breaks the rules of engagement during a fight simulation
- Endangers his own life
- Accidentally crashes an expensive jet
- Brags about himself
- Loses an important business contract for his company
- Lies to his now traumatized nephew about his job being totally safe
- Gets carried against his will by a green bubble
- Infused not-by-choice with the power of the Green Lantern Corps
- Walks out on Carol mid-conversation for no real reason
- Accidentally beats up guys in a parking lot who were beating up him
- Doesn’t use his powers to help anybody
- Carried to Oa against his will
- Gets a terrible CGI costume with freaky unnaturally green eyes
- Gets beat up by other Green Lanterns as a part of a ritual Lantern Corps hazing
- Gets told how pathetic he is by Sinestro
- Saves the girls he already likes from a helicopter crash
- Gloats about it
- Doesn’t use his powers to help anybody
- Goes after Hector Hammond because the ring tells him to
- Lets Hector kill his own dad
- Gets beat up by Hector and then lets him getaway
- Decides he doesn’t want to be a Green Lantern
- Gives up
- Lets Carol get captured by Hector
- Fixes everything and save the universe
It takes over an hour into the movie for Hal to do anything vaguely heroic. He’s not likable. He’s super arrogant. He’s boastful. And then the movie rewards him for it.
Hal is a shallow person who doesn’t really change by the end of the movie. He’s still shallow. He never overcomes his essential nature: he’s a jerk, then he’s a jerk with powers, then he’s a jerk with responsibility, then he’s a jerks who saves the universe in a momentary burst of willpower. His climactic breakthrough is finally admitting he feels afraid sometimes to Carol, even though everyone and their mom already knew this. The whole time he is still a jerk and we’re supposed to like him because he’s outwardly charming and handsome and a famous movie star. But the fundamental problem is that he’s not likeable.
Outwardly he is arrogant. Inwardly he is cowardly. Both sides of him are unpleasant. His childhood trauma from his father’s accident has no meaning to us because we never got to meet his father. We see pictures of dad, watch him get blown up, hear about what a great man he was, but he’s just an old photo to us. We don’t know dad. But we do know his son and he’s a real jerk.
Essentially the ring chose the wrong guy.
A huge part of the problem is that a hero absolutely must choose to become a hero. But in this story there is no choice. A green bubble whisks Hal away. A magical ring endows him with power. A couple of aliens beat up Hal and suggest that the ring probably chose wrong. Hal does nothing heroic and doesn’t want to do anything heroic. And then he saves the universe.
We know this is not how it works, even in a fantastical story about aliens wielding uber-powerful energy rings. At some point, the hero must choose. They must show evidence of that choice. They must follow through on that choice, even if they stumble along the way. They must carry that choice to its logical conclusion no matter the personal cost or collateral damage. But Hal doesn’t do that. He’s busy being himself.
Does The Theory Hold Up?
This film tested me. There’s not a handful of story-wrecking scenes that I can point to that fully match the theory. As bad as the opening exposition is, I don’t think what people walking out of the theater remembered was the weird opening. I think what they remembered was that this was not the superhero movie they expected. It was missing a hero. And that single crime was severe enough to throw it into the “bad movie” category.
They just messed this one up. Compare Superman’s suit in Man of Steel to Green Lantern’s suit. One is majestic and reeks of awesomeness. The other is flashy and fake. They couldn’t even manage to dress the guy right, much less give him a personality. Green Lantern fails to give us someone to root for and instead gives us an unlikeable protagonist who never fundamentally grows or changes.
The theory can be amended as such: usually it takes 3 or 4 memorable story tumors to bring down a story, but on rare occasions all it takes is one huge genre-breaking flaw to kill a movie. In this case, it’s a forgetting to put a hero in a superhero movie.
Join me on Friday as we take a look at biggest disappointment in movie history: The Phantom Menace.