Film Review: Green Lantern

Generic superhero movie, assembled with off-the-shelf narrative components and no authentic soul or emotion. 'Green Lantern' is colorless.

DC Comics' Green Lantern, along with the Flash, the Atom and Hawkman, were the four primary superheroes that ushered in the "Silver Age of Comic Books," reinvigorating the World War II-era character archetype into something sleek and streamlined for the space age. Yet where the upstart Marvel Comics would take this archetype into the 1960s with antiestablishment insouciance and irreverence—its vaunted "superheroes in the real world" approach—DC saw itself as a publisher of children's literature, and the company's bland stories and dialogue often rang no truer than those of 1950s mental-hygiene classroom films.

That tradition holds true in the generic superhero movie Green Lantern. Rote characters go through the motions of stock motivations, devoid of any real personality, quirks or wit. The hero lives in the shadow of his late, valiant father. The villain resents his successful father, who is disappointed in his son. The love interest scolds the hero, mother-like, urging him to live up to his potential. The hero gets a superpower, the guy in the drill sergeant role calls him a washout who will never live up to such-and-such and what did so-and-so ever see in him. The hero runs from his new responsibilities until some über-threat directly affects those he loves. And somehow, through his simple, Everyman pluck, he proves himself perhaps the greatest of the yadda-yaddas...

In that respect, casting Ryan Reynolds as cocky but dad-damaged test pilot Hal Jordan/Green Lantern was an apt choice. Despite a gift for fratboy farce in National Lampoon's Van Wilder, a poignant braggadocio in Adventureland and a believably colored range of terror in Buried, he nonetheless projects little depth in any of his roles (never more true than in his breakout film, 2009's The Proposal). In interviews, he seems like the nicest guy in the world, and that does come through onscreen. But here he's a shallow Hal, and while that may be in keeping with the late 1959/early 1960s comics, it really doesn't play today. Blake Lively is equally "Eh?" as Carol Ferris, a fellow test pilot who also manages her father's (Jay O. Sanders) aircraft manufacturing company.

To be fair, the actors have little to work with—you can see Tim Robbins trying in vain to squeeze whatever history and humanity he can out of his character, an oily senator who gets his surprisingly ungrateful son, professor Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), what you would think would be any scientist's dream gig: analyzing the first extraterrestrial (Temuera Morrison) found on Earth. Poor Angela Bassett gets only a walk-on role as a government scientist—and in her brief time onscreen gives a more dimensional and shaded performance than leading-lady Lively.

The recent Thor, based on the mythology-mashing Marvel character, likewise divided its time between CGI cosmic realms and Earth, with the outer-space scenes likewise hampered by a videogame-graphics look. Yet where Thor managed to eke out a grandeur and a solid sense of place that transcended its technical limitations (state-of-the-art I'm sure, but still….), Green Lantern's Oa, home of the Green Lantern Corps of intergalactic peacekeepers, is a perpetually dark, cratered hellhole that's hardly the epitome of enlightenment it presumably represents. Jordan's interactions there with humanoid head Green Lantern Sinestro (Mark Strong) and CGI alien trainers Kilowog (voice of Michael Clarke Duncan) and Tomar-Re (voice of Geoffrey Rush) feel rushed and insubstantial.

That also holds true back on Earth, where Hammond has become a big-brained telepathic/telekinetic villain—dividing and diffusing bad-guy duties with the evil cloud-octopus Parallax (voice of Clancy Brown), giving short shrift to each. The circa-1980s visual effects of the latter, who terrorizes unconvincing Godzilla-crowds of extras, feels particularly offhand, as if the four writers it took to make this mess couldn't come up with anything more specific than "Space Blob."

For the record, the Alec Guinness-soundalike narrator goes uncredited. There's also an extra scene—not post-credits, but mid-credits—in which a character who goes bad in the comics goes bad here, but in a way that's completely unmotivated by anything we've seen in the movie.

The first line of this review was revised on June 28, 2011, to include a fourth DC superhero, the Atom.