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Down with the Sickness: In Defense of Green Lantern

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Down with the Sickness: In Defense of Green Lantern

It’s not like critics weren’t given plenty of ammo. There’s virtually no motion Green Lantern doesn’t go through, no superhero trope it doesn’t blatantly exploit (Daddy issues? Christ figure? Check, check). Ryan Reynolds, whose career has been built upon the wry delivery of cheeky cracks (the heartthrob doing the sidekick schtick, as it were), is downright demure as the hero, leaving the question of how to receive him hovering like a bad joke. Cast as his underwritten love interest is Blake Lively, a slinky Gossip Girl vet who’s more red carpet mainstay than scene stealer, not to mention one of the easiest targets in Hollywood (even with her name, she’s asking for it). Enveloping the actors is an absinthe bath of visual effects, which kowtows to the fiercely modern philosophy of, “why try to shoot it when we can make it out of ones and zeros?” And, of course, there’s the shopping list of shameless product tie-ins (wash down your avocado Subway sub with some green-labeled Lipton Brisk) and that grab bag of handy nausea puns.

But did this chlorophyllic blockbuster really deserve to be such a pummeled community punching bag?

Scott Tobias of The A.V. Club wrote, “here’s an adaptation that only the mouse-clicking digital artisans behind the effects shots seemed to give a shit about.” Taking a cue from the film’s swirling-cosmos intro (among other things), Dana Stevens of Slate wrote, “kind of like The Tree of Life, except it’s terrible.” In The New York Times, Manohla Dargis was quickest with her jab, saying curtly, “Green Lantern is bad.” In South Philly Review, I wrote, “Green Lantern is terrific entertainment…a mighty fine example of a genre film exceeding its preordained formula.” And no, there’s no Parallax venom swelling and clouding my head. As disclaimers, I’ll say that my prior exposure to the character was practically nonexistent, and that none of this summer’s movies have seemed more dreadful to me at the outset. So, I had a clean slate and abysmal expectations on my side. But the film’s ability as a smooth, superior, mark-hitting diversion—a highly digestible triumph despite a raging sea of drawbacks—is what won me over…and made me a lonely cheerleader.

If you can accept that not every comic book film is going to be a gritty game-changer like The Dark Knight, and that some are simply destined to follow the sausage-factory rules, a movie like Green Lantern becomes very embraceable, as it walks its set path but sidesteps audience-slapping insults. I’ll admit that the dead-dad backstory was awfully hollow, and that the training bit with the Michael Clarke Duncan character (cuz, you know, who else could voice a bullish racial stereotype?) had me squirming. But there was precious little else that tripped my eye-roll alarm, and frankly, I’m astonished that this flick took a greater whipping than Thor, with its infernal fish-out-of-water jokes, or X-Men: First Class, with its puerile treatment of themes and endless unintentional humor. For my money, Ryan Reynolds growling the Green Lantern oath before blasting his nemesis into the stratosphere is extravagantly more effective than Jennifer Lawrence reciting “mutant and proud” over and over like a blue parody of Harvey Milk. And say what you will about Blake Lively, but I was nearly as surprised here as I was by her turn in The Town, taken with her smoky delivery and firm determination to be more than her pretty face. Hers is a better love interest than Natalie Portman’s in Thor, which crippled its relationships with a far worse case of setting competition, its dual realms fighting for plot dominance.

Like Thor, Green Lantern features a gleaming interstellar metropolis tailor-made to court gamers, and it’s just a taste of the movie’s unapologetic glut of CGI. The trailer had me reeling with disgust but, in context, I found the effects plenty captivating, and I love how the all-green aesthetic gives the film a visual identity (it joins Ang Lee’s Hulk as another wrongfully-bashed emerald adventure). The fiber-optic veins of Reynolds’s super suit make for a nifty touch, the who’s-who of Lanterns has a certain Mos Eisley appeal (so long as you’ve already gotten over the film’s all-around aping of Star Wars), and the mentally-projected weaponry proves very setpiece-friendly. I hardly buy into the popular complaint that the weapons aren’t clever enough, as I hardly think it’s conducive to the plot for Hal Jordan to reach for the proverbial stars when dreaming up his defenses (What was he to manifest? An A-bomb? The Ebola virus?). In my mind, it’s a criticism as flimsy as that which derides the ugliness of Peter Sarsgaard’s Hector Hammond, the touched-by-the-devil scientist whose cranium balloons into a watermelon. Like the other characters (including the Spock-like Sinestro, played by the habitually awesome Mark Strong), Hector is deftly put to use and, ugliness and all, Sarsgaard makes him a vivid villain, keenly hamming it up with his scream-like-a-schoolgirl theatrics.

I’ll concede the contrasting argument that Green Lantern villainizes intelligence, and condemns an icky brainiac like Hector while glorifying cool kids played by chiseled babes like Reynolds and Lively. It’s a valid reading and, at the risk of upsetting my case, I’ll chalk up my breezing over it to a certain acknowledgment of Hollywood shallowness. Yet, in the same breath, I’ll say that the greatest success of Green Lantern is something far from shallow—something visceral that’s a basic requirement of all superhero movies, yet rarely realized. However finely hewn for mass consumption, there’s a spirit that this film captures, a pair of jubilant sensations that only SpiderMan and Iron Man have likewise achieved in this genre. They are flashes, these bookended bursts of heroic discovery and heroic triumph, but they work. One comes when Reynolds first takes flight on that key-lime planet (like I said, a flash), and the other when the movie hits its breakneck final act, which Martin Campbell directs with the same nimbly-paced precision he brought to Casino Royale. Reynolds—whom I hugely prefer with the humor dialed back, thank you very much—smites that damned diarrheal mass of evil right on into outer space, forcing it toward the sun for proper vanquishment. There’s a perfect opportunity for him to offer his version of “Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker,” but the movie avoids this pothole, like so many others before it. He merely throws a mean, green right hook, succumbs to exhaustion, and is carried into the film’s resolution. Disbelief suspended, imagination captured, I sat pleased and walked out happy.

The joke among my friends is that I saw Green Lantern the day I had my wisdom teeth pulled, chirpily under the influence of a healthy dose of Vicodin. Surely, the dope helped me deal with the 3-D glasses, and likely prevented a headache that would have been all but guaranteed after buzzing around galaxies and such. But I contend that my reaction is pure, that Green Lantern is a fine summer flick, and that I’m not just living proof that it’s best viewed on painkillers.

R. Kurt Osenlund is an editor and critic native to Philadelphia. His work has appeared in ICON magazine, South Philly Review, Bucks Local News, and online at TheFilmExperience.net. He blogs at Your Movie Buddy.

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Picture

The industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

“I’m hyperventilating a little. If I fall over pick me up because I’ve got something to say,” deadpanned Frances McDormand upon winning her best actress Oscar last year. From her lips to Hollywood’s ears. No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits.

But first, as McDormand herself called for during her speech, “a moment of perspective.” A crop of articles have popped up over the last two weeks looking back at the brutal showdown between Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare In Love at the 1999 Academy Awards, when Harvey Weinstein was at the height of his nefarious powers. Every retrospective piece accepts as common wisdom that it was probably the most obnoxious awards season in history, one that indeed set the stage for every grinding assault we’ve paid witness to ever since. But did anyone two decades ago have to endure dozens of weekly Oscar podcasters and hundreds of underpaid web writers musing, “What do the Academy Awards want to be moving forward, exactly? Who should voters represent in this fractured media environment, exactly?” How much whiskey we can safely use to wash down our Lexapro, exactly?

Amid the fox-in-a-henhouse milieu of ceaseless moral outrage serving as this awards season’s backdrop, and amid the self-obsessed entertainers now wrestling with the idea that they now have to be “content providers,” all anyone seems concerned about is what an Oscar means in the future, and whether next year’s versions of Black Panther and Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody have a seat at the table. What everyone’s forgetting is what the Oscars have always been. In other words, the industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again, and Oscar’s clearly splintered voting blocs may become ground zero for a Make the Academy Great Again watershed.

In 1956, the Oscars took a turn toward small, quotidian, neo-realish movies, awarding Marty the top prize. The correction was swift and sure the following year, with a full slate of elephantine epics underlining the movie industry’s intimidation at the new threat of television. Moonlight’s shocking triumph two years ago was similarly answered by the safe, whimsical The Shape of Water, a choice that reaffirmed the academy’s commitment to politically innocuous liberalism in artistically conservative digs. Call us cynical, but we know which of the last couple go-arounds feels like the real academy. Which is why so many are banking on the formally dazzling humanism of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and so few on the vital, merciless fury of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.

And even if we give the benefit of the doubt to the academy’s new members, there’s that righteous, reactionary fervor in the air against those attempting to “cancel” Green Book. Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: Roma or BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.

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BlacKkKlansman
Photo: Focus Features

Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.

Will Win: BlacKkKlansman

Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Original Screenplay

This season, Hollywood is invested in celebrating the films they love while dodging the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

You know, if it weren’t for the show’s producers effectively and repeatedly saying everything about the Academy Awards is terrible and needs to be changed, and the year’s top-tier contenders inadvertently confirming their claims, this would’ve been a comparatively fun and suspenseful Oscar season. None of us who follow the Academy Awards expect great films to win; we just hope the marathon of precursors don’t turn into a Groundhog Day-style rinse and repeat for the same film, ad nauseam.

On that score, mission accomplished. The guilds have been handing their awards out this season as though they met beforehand and assigned each voting body a different title from Oscar’s best picture list so as not to tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film. SAG? Black Panther. PGA? Green Book. DGA? Roma. ASC? Cold War. ACE? Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Even awards-season kryptonite A Star Is Born got an award for contemporary makeup from the MUAHS. (That’s the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, not the sound Lady Gaga fans have been making ever since A Star Is Born’s teaser trailer dropped last year.)

Not to be outdone, the Writers Guild of America announced their winners last weekend, and not only did presumed adapted screenplay frontrunner BlacKkKlansman wind up stymied by Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but the original screenplay prize went to Eighth Grade, which wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Bo Burnham twisted the knife into AMPAS during his acceptance speech: “To the other nominees in the category, have fun at the Oscars, losers!” In both his sarcasm and his surprise, it’s safe to say he speaks on behalf of us all.

As is always the case, WGA’s narrow eligibility rules kept a presumed favorite, The Favourite, out of this crucial trial heat. But as the balloting period comes to a close, the question remains just how much enthusiasm or affection voters have for either of the two films with the most nominations (Roma being the other). As a recent “can’t we all just get along” appeal by Time’s Stephanie Zacharek illustrates, the thing Hollywood is most invested in this season involves bending over backward, Matrix-style, to celebrate the films they love and still dodge the cultural bullets coming at them from every angle.

Maybe it’s just tunnel vision from the cultural vacuum Oscar voters all-too-understandably would prefer to live in this year, but doesn’t it seem like The Favourite’s tastefully ribald peppering of posh-accented C-words would be no match for the steady litany of neo-Archie Bunkerisms spewing from Viggo Mortensen’s crooked mouth? Especially with First Reformed’s Paul Schrader siphoning votes from among the academy’s presumably more vanguard new recruits? We’ll fold our words in half and eat them whole if we’re wrong, but Oscar’s old guard, unlike John Wayne, is still alive and, well, pissed.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: The Favourite

Should Win: First Reformed

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