'Green Lantern' Revisited: The Last Time Warner Bros. Tried to Launch a Comic Book Universe

The 2011 title was an ambitious movie — it didn't just try and introduce a whole host of Green Lantern comic book mythology, it also tried to set up deeper DC Universe material.
Courtesy of Photofest

This month's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice will open up the DC Universe and lay the groundwork for next year's Wonder Woman and Justice League movies, but this isn't the first time Warner Bros. has tried to pull a Marvel. Can BvS succeed where 2011's Green Lantern failed?

Revisiting Green Lantern today is a strange experience. For all of the movie's flaws — and there are many; this is not a particularly good film — something about it feels very in keeping with the CW's The Flash series, which in many ways feels like it manages to stay true to comic book roots in a manner that is more enjoyable, and less embarrassing, than GL. Notably, the movie was co-written and co-produced in part by Arrow's and The Flash's Marc Guggenheim and Greg Berlanti, which might explain the crossover; perhaps The Flash was a distillation of lessons learned on Green Lantern.

Green Lantern was an ambitious movie — it didn't just try and introduce a whole host of Green Lantern comic book mythology, it also tried to set up deeper DC Universe material (Amanda Waller of Suicide Squad shows up at one point, played by Angela Bassett) as well as the bad guy for a potential sequel that never came to pass.

That wouldn't be a problem in and of itself, if the execution made everything seem organic and as natural as a movie about a man with a magic wishing ring that makes him into a space cop if only he can get in touch with his feelings can be — the problem is, of course, that it doesn't.

Part of that problem is the casting — these days, we've had a chance to see Ryan Reynolds find success as snarky merc-with-a-mouth Deadpool, which only makes his test pilot Hal Jordan seem more awkward and unconvincing, a mess of cliches (He's irresponsible and a maverick! Because he's frightened deep down! But he's a hero! etc.) that Reynolds, working hard, can't bring to life.

It doesn't help that other actors — Mark Strong as Sinestro, Peter Sarsgaard as Hector Hammond and Blake Lively as love interest Carol Ferris — all appear to be acting in different movies from each other.

Tellingly, in light of Deadpool's success, it's notable that the scenes in which Reynolds gets to play with and make fun of the series' concepts — guessing at the oath he's supposed to swear, or freaking out about his superhero costume — are some of the most enjoyable and believable of the whole thing; if only the entire movie had the ease of moments like this.

The mismatch of performances align with the writing, which is equally uneven and disjointed: Why does Hal go to space? Because the plot demands it. Why does Hal return from space? Because the plot demands it.

Worse yet, why do the Guardians forge the yellow ring? Because the plot of a future film — which, it turns out, was never made — demands it. While the mechanics are technically in place and working, there's never a sense that this is anything more than checking off boxes, instead of telling a coherent, enjoyable story.

So much of the movie is CGI-generated, and so much of that fails to convince. Perhaps it's the uncanny valley coming into play, or simply the eye being overloaded by so many unrealistic elements at once — although the subsequent Guardians of the Galaxy, three years later, doesn't seem to have suffered from that ailment.

None of this means that Green Lantern couldn't have worked as a DC Universe launch movie, of course — had Warners wanted to push forward, it could have done so. No, the problem in that regard is that Green Lantern's focus is already too big — almost immediately, the universe is at peril, giving any future SupermanJustice League or similar movies nowhere to grow in terms of scope.

What threat could be too big for a universe-scale space police force with magic rings that obey their thoughts, requiring the Justice League to be formed?

In this respect, at least, Warners appears to have learned its lesson with Batman v. Superman; as destructive and action-packed as the trailers have seemed, it's still being presented as a relatively small-scale conflict that will threaten Gotham and Metropolis, perhaps, but not all of existence. There's an "up" to head toward for the next installment.

In fact, much of Batman v Superman appears to have learned from the failures of Green Lantern (not to mention, the more successful examples of Marvel's output in the last five years). Compare the teaser trailers for each movie, and see how clearly the tone and intent of the more recent movie comes across, compared with the generic Green Lantern teaser.

And about that tone: With Batman v. Superman — following a lesson learned with 2013's Man of Steel — Warners is offering a superhero movie that is obviously not a Marvel movie.

In retrospect, Green Lantern's mix of comedy and heroics, and Ryan Reynolds' wisecracking-in-the-face-of-stress hero, appear all the more apparent, and all the more clearly influenced by the format and voice of Marvel's output, now that we've seen the more grandiose, overblown and operatic offerings of Zack Snyder's DC movies. It might not be a tone that's to everyone's tastes — especially in a market shaped by eight years of the competing product — but any differentiator feels like a plus.

The fact that Batman v. Superman has been clearly advertised as "the start of the DC Cinematic Universe" — to the point where it was promoted in a TV special titled The Dawn of the Justice League — feels important, as well; displaying both an awareness that Warners is playing catch-up and an indicator that there's a plan in place for the audience to trust in.

The extent to which Marvel's sense of confidence has appealed to audiences (Consider the "Phase 1, Phase 2" terminology, as well as the tagline "it's all connected") shouldn't be underestimated; compare that to Warners delaying the marketing rollout for Green Lantern while telling reporters that "the big-scale sequences weren't ready to show," and that the studio is "on a learning curve." 

Ultimately, though, all of these were secondary concern when it came to Green Lantern being the cornerstone of a future movie universe. The primary problem was far more basic: after a botched rollout and a lackluster movie, given how few fans were genuinely excited about the movie after its release, there wasn't enough interest in future installments. 

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