'Green Lantern': 5 Lessons for Hollywood

24 BIZ Green Lantern
Warner Bros. Pictures/©DC Comics

Warner Bros.' film was to have launched a line of big-budget DC Comics films. But unlike Marvel, "Lantern" lacked a clear vision and became bogged down in special effects.

What Warner Bros. should learn from the disappointing launch of a wannabe superhero.

Warner Bros. and comic book  movie fans are reeling after the poor opening weekend performance of Green Lantern, which was to serve as a cornerstone for a line of DC Comics-based films to rival those of Marvel. Lantern collected a lower-than-expected $53 million domestically, and a 22 percent drop from Friday to Saturday indicated poor word-of-mouth. Warners insiders say that the $200 million-budgeted movie needed to open at least in the $60 million range for the studio to move forward with a sequel, for which it has already committed to a script by Michael Goldenberg. Even before the greenish dust has settled, here are five things that went wrong.

1. It's about a singular voice

Readers connect with comic books through original stories by writers and artists: For Green Lantern, it could be stories from the 1970s, by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams or, more recently, by Geoff Johns. These people offer a vision and direction. The same rule applies to movies. When you watch Christopher Nolan's recent Batman movies, or even this summer's X-Men: First Class or Thor, you feel like there is a singular vision behind them.

In contrast, critics pounced on the generic, paint-by-numbers feel of the Lantern movie, which played like dozens of people were in control. And they were. In addition to director Martin Campbell, producer Donald De Line and DC executive Johns, four separate screenwriters were credited, and insiders say that even Warners execs Jeff Robinov, Greg Silverman and Lynn Harris were heavily involved, especially in the editing stage.

2. Special effects can be your Kryptonite

A lot of blame is going to fall on Campbell. Having launched the stints of two James Bond actors (Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye and Daniel Craig in Casino Royale) and made the great adventure movie The Mask of Zorro, Campbell specializes in gritty, on-the-ground action. But Lantern is about a man who becomes part of an intergalactic police force, and Campbell has almost no experience in that sci-fi realm. A $200 million summer tentpole shouldn't be on-the-job training.

Plus, Warners underestimated the scope of the special effects, whose costs began to skyrocket when it was decided that the Green Lantern suit would be created digitally. The complex effects work, combined with the decision to convert the film to 3D, added months to the production schedule, preventing early marketing and test screenings, which could have helped to hone the film. 

3. Be like Marvel

Part of Warners' problem is the way it has structured DC Entertainment. The studio created the subdivision in 2009 to better plan its franchises. But DC remains subservient to Warners in many ways, with its execs being more "suggestors" than anything else.

Marvel, on the other hand, has an autonomous movie division in Marvel Studios. Run by Kevin Feige, it has continually demonstrated an understanding of its core audience -- the comic book fans -- and how to parlay that intense base into a broader audience of regular moviegoers. From Iron Man to Thor, it has made movies that appeal to fanboys and average moviegoers alike.

At Warners, it's the studio division that says yes or no to DC projects, and it can change them up however it sees fit. Last summer's Jonah Hex was a box-office disaster, and even Warners' quasi-DC movies Watchmen and V for Vendetta failed to lure more than hard-core fanboys. You don't have to be a geek to make these movies, but you need to know what geeks like and, more importantly, how to translate that into accessible themes.

4. Don't be like Marvel

Marvel has a clear plan: Take a core group of characters (Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America) and weave them into a series of movies that lead to one big team-up (next summer's The Avengers). It works for fans and allows moviegoers not familiar with the Marvel Universe to be indoctrinated.

Green Lantern was to have been the first step toward making a movie featuring the Justice League, DC's all-star collection of superheroes. But what worked for Marvel may not for DC, which in its publishing history established the connections within its universe only after Marvel had already done the same for its world.

DC should be blazing its own path. Heroes like Superman are more iconic, more primal and elemental, more akin to the Greek gods than their conflicted counterparts in the Marvel universe. DC superheroes are our modern-day Hermes, the god of speed, or Hercules, the demigod son of Zeus. They can stand alone.

5. Cloud villains don't work

Didn't anyone get the memo after 2007's Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer? That movie changed the long-standing comics villain Galactus from a giant humanoid into a big black cloud, and was ridiculed.

Parallax in Lantern looks like another demonic black cloud, and that design was a misstep. Neither audiences nor the Green Lantern can wrap their arms around him -- he's just another smoke monster escaped from the island on Lost. Superhero Screenwriting 101: If audiences don't care about the villain, they won't care about the movie.