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Non-Review Review: Green Lantern – First Flight

This post is part of the DCAU fortnight, a series of articles looking at the Warner Brothers animations featuring DC’s iconic selection of characters. This is one of the “stand-alone” animated movies produced by the creative team that gave us the television shows. 

In case you weren’t aware, director Martin Campbell (the man who saved the Bond franchise twice – with both GoldenEye and Casino Royale) will be bringing a big screen adaptation of DC comic’s Green Lantern our way next summer. I am really looking forward to it, which might seem odd – Green Lantern has never really had the popular exposure that Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman or even Flash has had. Of course, that might be down to the fact that nobody has produced a television show based entirely around the character – hell, even Aquaman had that aborted Ving Rhames pilot and that fictional movie. So, it’s understandable if Green Lantern isn’t exactly lighting up the radar in the same way that, say, Kenneth Branagh’s Thor is. That said, if you’re looking to get a taste for the character, you could do a lot worse than checking out Green Lantern: First Flight.

Shoulda put a ring on it, indeed...

Okay, Green Lantern hasn’t had the easiest time as a superhero. He’s never had the pop cultural presence of Batman or Superman. Of course, there’s a whole host of reasons why that might be. He’s essentially a “space cop” – which is a bit of an establishment position for character in a genre that celebrates individual and revels in rebellion against society. Given his power is to construct objects with his mind – and the ridiculous special effects budget that would incur, even compared with a man who can fly – it’s understandable he’s never really been seen too much outside of comic books. Or even the fact that he belongs more firmly in the science fantasy genre than the superhero genre – when most people seem to just expect a superhero who can fly and punch things. And then there’s the simple fact that he has a secret shame that makes even Aquaman (who can talk to fish) seem cool: the Green Lantern’s weakness is yellow. Yes, the colour. A Green Lantern is completely useless about the colour yellow.In case you were wondering if this is as ridiculous as it sounds, the answer is yes. Very much so… I mean, note how Batman outwits him in this scene from All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder below:

Simultaneously a low point for Batman AND Green Lantern (click to enlarge)...

.. yes, he painted a room yellow, wore a yellow costume, drank lemonade and had Robin eat lemon ice cream to wind up Hal Jordan.

If that sort of thing is all you need to defeat a superhero, there’s something wrong with the superhero.You can understand what the big problem was that prevented the character from being taken seriously. In the past decade or so, authors have moved away from the idea of Green Lanterns being entirely powerless against yellow (and the recent revised mythology by writer Geoff Johns offers a fairly decent explanation), but that’s the kind of subconscious association that will stay with you.In recent years, the character has begun an ascent to fame. Geoff Johns’ run on Green Lantern has been one of the most consistently excellent books at DC for a number of years now – and has even formed the cornerstone of its more recent big crossover events. Coupled with the fact that the character has been chosen ahead of the Flash, Wonder Woman or Aquaman as the next live action DC comics adaptation, it appears to be a very good time for the character.

Christopher Melonis Hal lights up the screen...

Green Lantern: First Flight is an animated movie which appears to have been designed to whet your appetite for a live action adaptation. It’s perhaps the most visually stunning of the direct-to-video (do we say that anymore, or is it “direct-to-DVD”?) releases that Warner and Bruce Timm have been putting out over the past few years. It’s a stunning array of set pieces and bright, clashing primary colours. It looks (and sounds) great. Sure, there’s some conspicuous CGI, but the film creates a thriving space opera wonderfully effectively.

The story essentially brushes over the superhero origin of Hal Jordan. He’s wearing the familiar costume within the first four minutes. He has been whisked away to the centre of the galaxy within another four. His earthbound supporting cast, including Carol Ferris, barely get a look in before he’s hanging out in alien bars or flying through hyperspace. Part of the reason the film skips is the origin is perhaps because of the film’s length: it breezes by at seventy-odd minutes, and literally doesn’t have a moment to spare. Also, the logic seems to have been that the prior animated film – Justice League: New Frontier – offered an extended Green Lantern origin and Martin Campbell’s film will offer another one next year: the film really doesn’t need it from a storytelling perspective.

This is the fifth dramatic entrance that Hals poorly-planned laundry day has ruined this week...

The movie is literally gagging to get Hal Jordan, test pilot, into space so it can start playing with the “space cop” element of the mythos. This iteration of the character isn’t playing superhero with a bunch of lousy supervillains on Earth (because, let’s face it, bad guys like “Goldface” and “the Shark” are kinda lame), he’s playing Training Day as a rookie officer on his first patrol with a seasoned – and, perhaps, morally compromised – superior. In this case, that seasoned superior is Sinestro. Yes, with a name like Sinestro (and the fact he looks like a devil), you don’t get any bonus points for guessing this won’t end well.

However, here lies the film’s fatal flaw – and it’s one suggested by the lack of an introduction. We are never properly introduced to these characters. We don’t know Hal before he gets the ring, and once he has it he falls into the “perfect hero” mold – albeit with Christopher Meloni’s wonderful delivery of his wisecracks making him a little bit more than a generic lead. Although the casting of Meloni screams “Elliot Stapler… in space!” The movie uses the always excellent casting work of Andrea Romano as a shortcut to bypass the fact it never makes any of its leads unique.

Um... so what were the Guardians thinking giving a guy called "Sinestro" a power ring?

Michael Madsen voices the seasoned veteran, and we can tell from his voice that he’s worn down and tired (although his delivery of the line “eh, knock me out, will ya?” is worth the price of admission alone). Victor Garber lends Sinestro a smug superior attitude and perhaps more depth than the script does. Kurtwood Smith gives a generic alien smuggler a hint of sleaze. And Tricia Helfer hints that the possible romantic interest may be a bit more complex than initially appears. The problem is that the movie leaves a lot of heavy lifting to its cast – the fact that they do so well is an accomplishment. However, the simple fact is that movie feels more than a little shallow.

Take Sinestro, for example. He seems intended to walk the line between anti-hero and anti-villain – he’s a character who should be more morally complex than he seems. The script repeatedly states that – despite the fact he’s “pretty damn arrogant” – he might have a point about the role that the Green Lantern Corps play. However, the movie removes any hint that his perspective is anyway rational. He’s practically foaming at the mouth when he takes Hal under his wing, remarking that the Guardians don’t trust humans with their power, “not that it’s in the best hands at the moment”, and accusing the Guardians of having “grown soft” with every second line.

Hal Jordans relationship with the Guardians was under strain from the moment he referred to Ganthet accidentally as "Papa Smurf"...

The bulk of his character is delivered in one monologue which – while it works well – might have been better served if Sinestro had been presented as relatively even-handed beforehand:

Let me tell you, friend. The only way to operate out here is by fear. They hit, I hit harder. They attack, I annihilate. I am the one constant, unassailable force against their chaos and you made them forget that. You think I enjoy this? Look at the universe the Guardians have created. We have the greatest power in the cosmos and what have they made us? Garbage collectors! We pick up the trash. A thief here, a killer there. Scum, dirt, filth! There’s no end to it, but there could be. It’s my dream that one day all of this rot will be wiped away. A new order will prevail, one that will end the chaos but it won’t be built by the faint of heart. You got soft on me back there, Earth boy, and that I will not tolerate.

Instead of a moment of honesty from a man trying to rationalise violence to himself, it comes across as the type of shouting match Sinestro must have had with every partner. And yet we wonder why he hasn’t been ordered to talk to the department’s psychiatrist.

The problem might be the sheer volume of exposition that the plot requires. It’s quite a complicated science fiction tapestry we’re presented with – from the origin of the Guardians to police protocol to space pirates – even with a relatively straightforward story. it’s easy to see how an audience member might get lost in one of the countless expository dumps from a character during the first twenty minutes. “Should I be taking notes?” Hal asks at one point, perhaps voicing the viewer’s concern.

"Hmm... I think I found one of these in a Christmas cracker last year..."

One can’t help but get the sense that the proposed sequel – which was planned before this movie didn’t sell particularly well – would have moved a lot more fluidly. In fact, once the exposition from the first twenty minutes is over and done with, the movie can really take off.

That said, the film is wonderfully easy to follow – despite the fact that the material might be rather abstract. It frames itself as your standard cop movie, but it draws a whole host of elements from our pop culture stew. There’s an early cantina scene which was clearly intended to bring Star Wars to mind. It’s hard not to hear the sound of Star Trek in the movie. It’s wonderfully new, but yet comfortingly familiar at the same time.

Still, the movie is efficient with its lean running time. Everything is set up and executed well. There are a series of stunning looking set pieces, from a search of a space port to a confrontation on Oa. The animation is top notch, a wonderful fusion of anime styles with more Western designs – with nothing ever appearing quite as strange as it did during, say, Gotham Knight. There’s a great deal of fun to be had with the film, and perhaps that’s the role which the film plays in the scheme of these direct-to-video adaptations.

For one thing, the film displays a fair amount of imagination with Hal’s light constructs. During Justice League and even Justice League Unlimited, the team’s resident Green Lantern offered up surprisingly conventional constructs. Here they are a lot more out there – even in the little things, with Hal entertaining himself with a yo-yo while bored or Kilowag’s method of easing Hal’s fall. It’s “very creative” indeed.

Hal learnt the hard way not to make fun of Sinestros tasche...

Unlike the direct adaptations that have been produced as some of the other films in the line – Superman: Doomsday, for example – the storyline itself is actually original, though it obviously draws from the mythos. I have to admit that I’m surprised that there wasn’t more emphasis on Geoff Johns’ modern reinvention of the story, as it’s perhaps the most efficient version I’ve ever heard, explaining a lot of the more abstract ideas of the Green Lantern Corps in a straightforward and almost logical manner. There are nods here, of course – from Sinestro’s uniform coming directly from Sinestro Corps War to a cameo from Johns’ Alpha Lanterns – but not more than any other iteration of the character’s history. Given the major influence that Johns’ version of the tale will have on Campbell’s big screen version, I don’t feel like I should complain, but I did find it odd.

Unfortunately, Green Lantern: First Flight isn’t one of the stronger films in the line, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth checking out. It’s a well-made animated action movie with a superb cast and production values, it’s just a shame that there was very little room left in the end product for characters. Still, you could do a lot worse.

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