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 Spider-Man 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.