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Something Sinestro This Way Comes…

Note that this article contains spoilers for Green Lantern. So I waited until the movie was released to post it. They aren’t exactly huge spoilers, but consider yourself warned.

It really doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell that Sinestro is going to end up evil. Created in the sixties, the character was introduced to fans as a rogue Green Lantern, so he wasn’t ever designed to be seen as a good guy in four-colour style. In fact, the guy is red, has an evil moustache and is played by Mark Strong. Although the name Sinestro could arguably refer to the fact he wears his ring on his left hand, it isn’t exactly a name that inspires implicit trust. So his path to the dark side in the intended-franchise-launcher Green Lantern shouldn’t be a surprise.

However, it really demonstrates a lot of the key flaws with the movie.

Not quite mellow yellow...

It should be said that Mark Strong does a great job with the material given. He’s quickly turning into one of my favourite character actors and, like Peter Sarsgaard, he seems to be trying his level best with the material offered. However, the problems with the character stem not from Strong’s portrayal of the red-skinned alien cop, but from the rather bland way the movie handles what really should be its ace-in-the-hole. Sequel hooks are supposed to promise more development and keep us interested, but – outside the context of the character’s comic book backstory – this one makes little sense.

Unlike his comic book counterpart, Sinestro is introduced to the audience in Martin Campbell’s big-screen action movie as a Green Lantern, friend to Hal Jordan’s predecessor Abin Sur and trigger-happy individual. The movie is clearly intended by Warners to launch a big-budget franchise, as seems to be the style. Single movies are so nineties, trilogies seem to be Hollywood’s new default motion picture model. Indeed, one might argue taht the great weakness of Iron Man 2 was the manner in which it seemed to divert for half-an-hour in order to set up a film that was two years away.

The dude is left-handed, but the name Sinestro should be a dead giveaway...

In this context, Sinestro’s appearance in the first film makes sense. It’s clearly an attempt to establish the character, so that his flirtation with the dark side (or the yellow ring) carries more dramatic heft down the line. Portraying him as a Green Lantern, and a good one, before making him a bad guy adds a layer of pathos and depth to his character arc, and helps tie the two films together. That’s the way it works, right?

The problem, however, is that the inclusion of the character of Sinestro and his major scenes feel like they’re intended to evoke that sort of depth by their mere presence. The character’s fairly limited arc seems to exist in the belief that having him in a few scenes and having him turn evil at the end immediately grants the character depth and makes the movie better. It’s as if the writers looked at a bunch of movie trilogies, noted how the presence of characters in earlier films who became important in later instalments was the sign of a good trilogy, and immediately seized the idea, without asking why that generally led to a more satisfying film.

Sinestro shoots daggers at his mentor's successor...

It’s a systemic problem with the movie. It seems that the film was built purely to look like what a sumemr blockbuster should look like, rather than in the pursuit of a good film. Huge sections of the film seem to be lifted wholesale from the blueprint for a studio film, from the clumsy juxtaposition of Hal and Hector through to Hal’s ten-minute retirement in the middle of the film. There’s no sense of enthusiasm behind any of it.

Indeed, the reason that foreshadowing character development like this in earlier movies is typically the sign of a quality trilogy is because it represents very clear and defined character development with an apparent long-term plan for the hero or villain in question. The entire point of setting up a key player in an earlier movie is to give them more depth, and to help them seem more developed than if they just turned up later on as a baddie, and we never met them in the first place. The idea is that the audience can emotionally invest in the character and their journey, and perhaps understand them a bit more than they would otherwise. Indeed, gradually developing a character over a trilogy allows for more space for organic growth, rather than shoehorning motivations and attitudes and vendettas into a single film.

Sadly, this is more foreshadowing than we got in the actual movie...

In this case, the idea is that we came to care more about Sinestro as a baddie next time around because we know him from the first film. However, the problem is that we don’t know him. We’re introduced to Sinestro as a holographic communication to his old friend, while we first meet him in person asking the Guardians for permission to lead a squadron to challenge the new foe of the Green Lantern Corps. We don’t learn anything about Sinestro, apart from the fact he seems to be good at his job and a tad aggressive. We don’t know anything else about him.

The bulk of his scenes are spent arguing with the blue Guardians, who sit atop their pedastals and seem to be deliberately obsfucating for the sake of it. One gets the sense that Sinestro might be getting a bit tired of all that, but it’s not really addressed. When his attack on Parallax, the great big yellow fear entity, fails massively, Sinestro (the only member of his squad to return) starts begging the Guardians to forge a yellow ring, powered by fear. This is directly after he’s confronted Parallax, an entity which was formed the last time somebody tried to tame the yellow power of fear, and yet not only does Sinestro think this is a good idea, it seems nobody is going to try to stop him.

Not quite mellow yellow...

Indeed, the end of the movie, where he sneaks the yellow ring on and adopts an iconic comic book appearance seem to make no sense in context. Sinestro questions the Guardians, but he’s portrayed as a heroic character. He’s one of the three Lanterns who show up to save Hal at the end of the movie’s climax. Hell, his confrontation with Hal over the human’s fitness to wear the ring never seems so out-of-control that either the mellow Tomar-Re or the gruff-but-fair Kilowog consider Sinestro’s actions out of line. In fact, Sinestro seems to have a newfound respect for the character of Hal when the latter shows up to plead his case to defend Earth. Which is, admittedly, a kinda pointless scene – Hal had just absconded to Earth with a ring, so I doubt he needed the permission of the Guardians to defend it.

Sinestro’s character arc, as faint as we can trace it out from the collection of scenes in which he appears, is literally the exact opposite of what it needs to be for that final scene to make sense. He starts the movie cynical, aggressive, weary and resentful of both Hal Jordan and the Guardians, but he ends the movie accepting Hal as part of the the Corps and seemingly happy that the foe has been vanquished. If anything, he’s a nicer guy then when we first meet him.

It'd be a Sin to waste a character like this...

The disappointing thing about this is that it’s easy to see how Sinestro’s arc could work, with just a few slight tweaks. Had the movie been willing to invest a little energy or enthusiasm, his descent could at least have seemed like an organic development rather than a studio-mandated sequel hook. Perhaps we might have seen some of Sinestro’s personality outside his interactions with the Guardians. His arrogance comes across as common sense, and his concerns seem well warranted when faced with rulers so intent on doing nothing. What must his home planet look like? Is Sinestro aggressive and arrogant in the way he dispatches justice?

The movie evokes the tried and tested imagery of Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will as Sinestro addresses his fellow Lanterns to deliver a patriotic address. There’s something vaguely fascist in the Green Lantern oath, “beware my power,” and it’s easy to imagine Sinestro is tempted by it. While “will” is a tool that can be used by democratic politicians and despot dictators, one imagines that only tyrants seek to control “fear”in order to rule. Is that why the yellow ring appeals to Sinestro? Does the idea of controlling his sector with fear register with him on some subconscious level? He doesn’t need to be a cookie-cutter villain or anything, and his belief in fear as a tool of government might actually help to make the movie relevant.

Pointy-earred bastard?

Or perhaps it’s something more than that. Perhaps the rings wants Sinestro as much as Sinestro wants the ring. Is this heroic Lantern afraid? Does he feel a fear he can’t overcome? Such an idea is suggested in the film, when Sinestro survives the attack on Parallax. We don’t see how he survives, but one assumes he retreated – an expression of fear that he probably never even thought he was capable of. Perhaps that’s how he knows fear is a potent weapon. However, this never really elaborated on, which is a shame – it would make him an interesting counterpoint to Hal, who overcame his acknowledged fear, in contrast to a Sinestro who fell to a fear he couldn’t dare admit to.

Hell, the comics suggest that Sinestro was the “greatest” of the Green Lanterns, until Hal Jordan joined. It might have made sense for Hal’s single-handed victory over Parallax, who killed a squadron under Sinestro’s command, to perhaps make the red-skinned character feel a little insecure, a little fearful of his own status in the Corps now that a human has proved to be a far better ringslinger than he can be. Any of these approaches (and there are countless others) would anchor Sinestro’s fall in tragedy, having the character turn against the Green Lantern Corp out of what amounts to pride, or a moment of weakness in a long and decorated career. It would add a level of depth to his decision to wear the ring, rather than treating it like he’s just accessorising.

In fact, I feel like the handling of the relationship between Hal and Sinestro is a wasted opportunity. After all, he barely interacts with Hal over the course of the film. Any number of heroes fight any number of villains they barely know, but one fighting a bad guy who he respects and even harboured a close friendship with? That’s the stuff of good drama, right there, and that’s an edge for any hero/villain dynamic. Especially fi the audience actually gets to see the relationship, rather than being told about it afterwards. And yet Hal and Sinestro dislike each other, then have one scene of mutual respect and then Sinestro is evil. That’s a bit anticlimactic.

Of course, this means war...

Christopher Nolan did more to establish a relationship between Bruce and Harvey during the first half of The Dark Knight than Campbell can do over an entire movie. Having Sinestro deciding to stand with Hal to protect Earth and defending him against the Guardians might have built a connection, but instead he seems more like that guy Hal met at a work social once rather than a colleague or a friend.

The movie’s handling of Sinestro is literally just a microcosm of the general problems with the script. Things happen and exist purely for the sake of advancing the movie and getting to a later point, rather than flowing with a sense of vigour or energy. The movie is built on the plans for a blockbuster movie, but with little genuine soul, which is what makes it especially sad. The Sinestro element is clearly intended to whet the audience’s appetite for a sequel. It’s a sad irony that it winds up serving as a perfect illustration of how disappointingly by-the-numbers the movie turns out to be.

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6 Responses

  1. Yeah, it was disappointing. I did like Reynolds as Hal Jordan and Strong for Sinestro, though. I wonder if the studio’s huge hopes for this one created this blandness by overstepping Martin Campbell’s usually deft filmmaking. I’m hoping for a director’s cut when the disc is released, perhaps. Fine look at this, Darren. Thanks.

    • Thanks man. Yep, maybe some good stuff ended up on the floor, but I really get the sense it was more fundamental than editting. I think it was a flawed script to start with.

  2. The mythology is nonsensical and the plot takes forever to get going. But once it does, the movie takes advantage of a strong cast and a director who knows what he’s doing. Good Review! Check out mine when you can!

  3. I agree with your opinion on the script being the fundamental problem with the film. I remember reading a review of the script as early as 2008 on io9, http://io9.com/5065282/green-lanterns-epic-space+hero-script-gets-a-b+minus (found it), that basically laid out the issues with the film that were there even from the beginning. They more or less melded Geoff Johns influence into subsequent drafts, but never solved the bigger problems (lack of characterization of Hector and Sinestro), too much earth-bound action. All they seemed to change was the elimination of the Alan Scott and Clark Kent cameos.
    Now I say this as someone who really liked the movie, but since seeing it, I re-read Secret Origins and re-watched First Flight…I have to say, if they had just done more space-faring, I think this film would have been far more successful. Imagine if it had been a movie just about how corrupt Sinestro was becoming, a true “outer-space Training Day”, and just WHY the Guardians weren’t working anymore…though it would have been as CGI laden as one of the Star Wars prequels, perhaps audiences would have been more attracted to that kind of story….we’ll probably never know, since surely a sequel will not be green-lighted, and reboot talk this early is just silly.

  4. Awesome review. Like, totally spot-on.

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