I’ve always liked Green Lantern in theory, but I’m one of those annoying bastards who only started paying attention to the title after annoying bastard de jure Kyle Rayner began leaving a trail of dead and depowered girlfriends across the DC Universe. For the longest time I only knew Hal Jordan, the Silver Age Green Lantern of the 1960s and still (apparently) a fan favorite to this day, in his Darth Vader persona, Parallax.
Then Hal died and came back to life again, as popular characters are so wont to do, and by 2005 he’d returned to his former role and his own book with nary a “Sorry about that little attempted genocide.” Gotta love those Cosmic Reset Buttons. Couldn’t have happened at a better time. Back in 1994, when Hal first went power-mad, superhero movies were a punch line…especially if they stared Alec Baldwin. The year after Hal died (that first time) Joel Schumacher killed Hope itself with a little atrocity called Batman and Robin. Ah…but today…
Today the American superhero film is a regular stable of the Hollywood Summer Blockbuster Season. It’s damn-near become an American institution, the way Action films were back in those halcyon days when all our Twilights were Emerald. So why not make a big-budget, live-action, Green Lantern film? And why not make a quickie Straight-to-DVD animated movie to tide the True Believers over until the live action studios get their heads out of their asses?
One reason might be, Because we’ve already told Green Lantern’s origin story in 2008’s Justice League: New Frontier. But I needn’t have worried. It’s almost as if First Flight is hyperaware it’s covering ground New Frontier already rain danced into a fine layer of grit. Things get going almost immediately, and once they go they stay gone, giving me no time for my usual nit-picking and humorous asides.
It’s an old story, but I’ll tell it again: Once upon a time, Hal Jordan (Christopher Meloni, who’s no David Boreanaz, let me tell you), hotshot test pilot for Farris Aircraft, got ripped right out of his flight simulator and spirited to the side of a dying alien, Abin Sur (Richard McGonagle). Before expiring, Abin Sur passed a magic, emerald ring (apparently “the most powerful weapon in the Universe”) onto Hal…who (for reasons known only to him) decided to keep all this secret from the rest of his supporting cast and become (to quote Stanly Ipkiss) a superhero! After all, the ring already conjured him up a costume. Might as well fight crime, protect the innocent, and work for world peace. But first…
Assuming all you fans of the Lantern books can grit your teeth and remind yourselves of those less fortunate than we…those who haven’t seen this origin story depicted approximately 1.5 bazillion times in various forms over the years…and who aren’t lucky enough to live next to a library full of old Showcase Presents editions of Jordan’s adventures…you’ll survive unscathed. And you’ll enjoy what’s probably the best depiction of this story in a visual medium we’re likely to get.
It didn’t pull me in right away. In fact, the opening almost lost me completely. It felt abbreviated and rushed, rather like Kyle Rayner’s introduction in that old episode of Superman’s late-90s animated series. Like those small-screen cartoons, First Flight doesn’t feel the need to waste time on little things like establishing Hal as a character. Characters have annoying things like backstories and supporting casts that tend to get in the way of those superpowered fight scenes which are the yeast in a comic book movie’s daily bread. So Hal gets his ring even before we get our opening credits, and by the other end of the title sequence he’s tooling around the night sky, happy as a clam. If the rest of the movie’s this rushed, I thought at the time, I’m gonna need a speedball just to keep up with things.
Thankfully, a quartet of alien Lanterns ambush Hal. Three of the four are none-too-pleased to find him wearing their dead comrade’s ring. These four are (in no particular order) Sinestro (Victor Garber), Boodikka (Tricia Helfer), Tomar Re (John Larroquette), and Kilowog (Michael Madsen). And if those names are all Greek to you, this probably isn’t your film. Sorry.
Sinestro explains the whole business about the corps being “an elite, intergalactic force from the planet Oa” led by “a group of immortals called the Guardians” and before you can say, “Off to see the Wizard” we’re on Oa itself, a planet with more floating cities and picturesque waterfalls than you’re likely to find this side of a freshman dorm. (Thought not nearly as many Pink Floyd album covers painted onto girl’s backs.)
Within their Council chambers, the Guardians of the Universe debate Hal’s overall fitness for the Corps. Keep an ear out for some greatest character actors of our time, voicing the Guardians admirably. The anti-human racist Ranakar is played by Malachi Thorne. The Guardian’s apparent-chairperson, Appa Ali Apsa, is played by William Schallert. The more-reasonable Ganthet once again becomes my favorite Guardian of the Universe by virtue of being voiced by Larry Drake. And if those names mean nothing to you, you haven’t watched anywhere near enough TV.
Sinestro offers to train the impudent “earth-boy” and the Guardians are more than happy to pawn Hal off on a senior Lantern. There’s apparently some “deepening crisis at hand” or something. “A small matter of who’s going to control the universe,” Sinestro tells Hal, and thus us. “Not that it’s in the best hands as it is.”
The two Lanterns depart for the planet Cadmandu, a “breeding ground for criminal scum,” and likeliest place to find Abin Sur’s killer…according to Sinestro. Once there, they basically (by director Lauren Montgomery’s own admission) reenact the first half of Training Day, with Hal as Ethan Hawke and Sinestro as Denzel, right down to the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” ominous facial hair, and tendency to Monologue.
Sure, they capture Abin Sur’s killer…and, of course, he’s only the pawn of a space warlord called Kanjar Ro (Kurtwood Smith)…but by then, Hal’s faith in Sinestro’s stability’s a mite shaken. As well it should be, since at this point Sinestro’s tormented Green Lanterns for over fifty years. But the Less Fortunate won’t know that…unless smartypants reviewers spoil it for them.
Then again, it’s not as if the script tries to keep things on the QT. All DC’s animated features turn into pumpkins if they run longer than ninety minutes. That’s fine for one of Batman’s or Superman’s adventures…but here we have a story about as far removed from their environs as they are from our world. So First Flight takes the Star Wars route, allowing its galaxy of alien races and locales to become background noise for a relatively small story about intergalactic power politics.
In this case, as with Star Wars, First Flight succeeds through the deft employment of stunning action sequences. Thank you, Lauren Montgomery. She is a director who knows a superpowered fight scene like the back of her hand, and First Flight dispells any doubt I once had about her abilities. Montgomery’s movies can be good provided she has a decent script. I know. What a concept, right?
No surprise that script comes to us from Batman/Superman/Batman Beyond/Static Shock/JLU scribe Alan Burnett. This is one of the men who wrote Mask of the Phantasm, the greatest Batman movie ever made. Before that, he put the “Darkwing” in Darkwing Duck, wrote DuckTails, Tail Spin, and Chalange of the Motherfucking GoBots. He even wrote some episodes of the original Superfriends back before my conscious memory kicks in, making him a walking wellspring of late-20th century cartoon storytelling, a veteran of trenches I can’t even imagine at this point in my paltry excuse for a writing “career.” Monuments should be raised in his name, and we’d better hurry the hell up if we want him around to ooo and ahhh over them.
But before Death’s cold embrace takes us all, let’s enjoy First Flight for what it is: a balls-to-the-wall rollercoaster of pulp sci-fi fun. It’s the kind of thing the mainstream hasn’t even seen since that Flash Gordon remake (if they’re lucky and avoided the Star Wars prequels). Hal’s little training day should blow most people’s minds, so I can easily see them hating it for being too confusing, too kenetic, too “out there.” As if a good Green Lantern story could be anything else.
Me, I loved it. This is exactly what a Green Lantern story should be: fully, full-on Space Opera, where you never know when a giant robot might lurch out of the shadows. And I’m especially glad the film takes such a mature attitude toward mortality. I remember the days when even one on-screen death would cause controversy and studio censorship. Now, Abin Sur can bleed out, people’s (well, alien’s) necks can snap with a deft twist, and henchpeople can get run through with medical instruments…or sucked through holes in the hull of a starship, a la Alien Resurrection.
Yes, it’s a smorgasbord of animated violence, deftly written, well-directed, and with a great voice cast. Especially Victor Garber, who owns his role as Sinestro, evoking the calculated, fanatical menace of protofascists everywhere, whatever their species of origin. This is his origin story as much as it is Hal’s, which is only fair and natural, considering their history. This is also the most time we’ve ever spent with the Guardians and the wider Corps (in a visual medium), and my fanboy heart couldn’t be happier. It’s all-too-briefly realized, but at least it’s realized well by a writer who knows how to let dialogue characterize.
My one complaint, the one weak link in all this, is Hal Jordan himself. I’ve seen plenty of protagonists fall down plenty of rabbit holes but none of them have reacted with quite as much dull equanimity as Hal does here…unless they were played by Keanu Reeves. I’d go so far as to give Hal the Keanu Reeves Award for Dull Surprise in the Face of Pure Awesomeness. Even after he finds himself hobnobbing with immortal aliens Hal reacts with all the elation and surprise of a chipped brick. I guess that’s just my prejudice talking, since I never liked Hal as a character, and Chipped Brick seems to be his default emotional setting no matter who’s writing him. Where are his dead parents? His dead planet? His life outside the mask?
That’s part of why I supported the decision to turn his home city into a smoldering, radioactive hole in the ground (and, after that, a giant memorial garden, thanks to Swamp Thing). I still do. But before a film can do that we have to establish his city, his story, and his…um…self. At least then he’d have some kind of character arc. Here, he ends pretty much the same as he begins: a Heinlienian Hero in an E.E. “Doc” Smith story. Some people like that. I never have.
And yet First Flight still managed to draw me in. It gave me a fun ride and didn’t let me down. What more can you hope for? Nothing. Hope keeps us chained to a system that threw us overboard long ago, before most of us were even born. So gird your loins for Green Lantern‘s live-action adventure but don’t hold out hope for it. That way, should it surprise you, at least the experience will be a pleasant. [Unless, of course, it surprises you by sucking far more than you ever imagined, as proved to be the case with that Green Lantern…damnit. – Future Dave.]