When I was a kid, Superman was the only super-hero you could see on the big screen. On TV, there was Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk and maybe a rerun of the old Batman show, none of which were terribly accurate reflections of the comic books. If you were to suggest that super-heroes would one day become the dominant genre in Hollywood, especially after “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” (1987), people would have fitted you for a straightjacket.
Now, you can’t turn around without running into yet another super-hero making the leap into cinema in a single bound, but Hollywood hasn’t proven it does any better turning them into movies than anything else. For every resounding success like “Iron Man” (2008) there’s a disappointment like “Iron Man 3” (2013) and a disaster like “Hulk” (2003).
What separates the four-color good from the bad and the ugly? That’s what this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown will attempt to answer as one of the biggest super-hero bombs squares off against a subversive flick that practically needed a miracle to get made. It’s “Green Lantern” (2011) vs. “Deadpool” (2016) in a demonstration of the difference between doing something for money and doing it because you love it.
Green Lantern is a character born in the Golden Age of the 1940s, rebooted (before anyone knew what that word meant) in the Silver Age of the 1960s and revitalized the digital age of the 2000s. Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) is a fighter pilot who seems bold and cocky on the surface but is really haunted by witnessing his father’s tragic death as a boy. After behaving so irresponsible during a test of some remote drone fighters that it’s amazing his boss didn’t shoot him in the head after landing, Hal is whisked away by a globe of green energy and lands at the crash site of an alien ship. The pilot, Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison), gives Hal a green ring and a steampunk version of a railroad lantern before he dies.
Hal flees from the scene with ring and lantern instead of turning them in to the authorities because that’s what you do in a poorly written super-hero movie like this and eventually discovers the ring gives him the power to create energy constructs with his mind. That’s when he’s zapped away to the planet of Oa and a talking parrot fish named Tomar-Re (Geoffrey Rush) explains to Hal that he’s been selected to be part of a universal police force known at the Green Lantern Corps. Tomar-Re trains Hal for about 45 seconds, then another big alien named Killowog (Michael Clarke Duncan) takes over for five minutes until a third purple douchebag named Sinestro (Mark Strong) completes Hal’s training by beating him up until Hal quits and flies back to Earth.
Meanwhile, an evil space monster name Parallax, who looks like what would happen if you were to shart in zero gravity, escapes from its prison and vows revenge on the Green Lantern Corps. Also meanwhile, a nerdy biologist named Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) is recruited by the government to study the corpse of Abin Sur and gets infected by the Parallax entity and turned into an evil, Elephant Man version of Professor X.
About an hour into the film, the viewer finally learns that Hal and Hector are old friends and that Hector always felt like a third wheel around Hal and Carol Ferris (Blake Lively), Hal’s former girlfriend and now boss…who I didn’t mention before because she’s the classic two-dimensional female in super-hero flicks who only exists to give the hero someone to long after/bicker with/save from the villain.
When Hector goes berserk in a secret government lab, Hal flies to the rescue only to arrive too late to actually save anyone. They fight and Hal learns that the Parallax monster is heading to Earth. Hal flies off to Oa to ask the creators of the Green Lantern Corps, the Guardians of the Universe, for help. They essentially tell him to screw off and then, and this is one of the worst bits of screenwriting I’ve ever encountered, Hal asks them for permission to fly back to Earth and fight Parallax himself.
HE ASKS FOR PERMISSION. Hal is supposed to be the hero the audience likes and is rooting for and he acts like a 4th grader who needs to get a hall pass from the teacher so he can go to the bathroom. No super-villain has ever more effectively emasculated a super-hero than the screenwriters of “Green Lantern” did with that awesomely tone deaf scene. The rest of the film is such a honking catastrophe that it might not seem like a big deal but what kind of alleged hero asks for assistance to save his home planet and when he is refused, doesn’t storm off in a righteous huff and instead meekly begs to be allowed to do it on his own?
Hal returns to Earth, saves Carol from Hector and finally battles Parallax after the audience has sat through an hour and 45 minutes of build up, so of course the fight lasts about five minutes and Hal wins with a silly trick that was foreshadowed earlier, though it’s so simple and obvious it makes everyone else look like total morons for not thinking of it first.
“Green Lantern” may be the single greatest failure of this era of super-hero cinema. Comic book fans didn’t like it. The general public didn’t like it. Critics didn’t like it. Ryan Reynolds doesn’t even like it. It was a huge bomb at the US box office and did even worse overseas. DC Comics and its parent company Warner Brothers were hoping it would be their version of “Iron Man” and kick start a new generation of DC super-hero flicks. What they got was their version of “Blade: Trinity” (2004), something so awful it not only killed itself as a franchise but forced them to take the plans for an entire super-hero cinema universe back to square one.
And this isn’t a case of a unique or challenging film that is rejected by the public initially, only to gain greater acclaim as people rewatch it over time and grow to appreciate what it has to offer. “Green Lantern” is even worse than people say. Its plot manages to be both overly complicated and intensely boring. The special effects are simultaneously ugly and thoroughly generic. It feels like Reynolds is being held prisoner by the script and only escapes for a few seconds now and then to flash a bit of charm before he’s dragged back and thrown in narrative leg irons. The whole “Hal has to overcome his childhood trauma” stuff feels like something out of an Afterschool Special. And Reynolds and Blake Lively have so little on screen chemistry it is genuinely astonishing they wound up married in real life.
When people say they’re sick and tired of super-hero movies, garbage like “Green Lantern” is the #1 reason they feel that way.
Flash forward five years and following a remarkable series of events that stretched over a decade and included the unauthorized release of some test footage that garnered an enormous positive reaction online, Marvel’s Merc with a Mouth made his silver screen debut.
“Deadpool” (2016) is about Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), a violent smart ass who gains super-powers and becomes…a violent smart ass. A mercenary with a heart of fool’s gold, Wade meets the hooker of his dreams in the equally dark and twisted Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) and they’re about to live as happily ever after as Wade can afford on his income of hurting and killing people for money when Wade develops cancer. Like, so much cancer he has to legally change his Zodiac sign to Cancer. Vanessa hopes to make the best of it but Wade decides to take a mysterious offer to cure his cancer and give him super-powers.
Wade lands in the lab of Ajax (Ed Skrein), whose experiments do wind up giving Wade the ability to heal from any injury but forces Wade to endure horrific torture and full body disfigurement, as in he winds up looking like a burn victim who then got skin grafts from another burn victim. Ajax’s plan is to turn Wade into a super-powered slave to be sold to the highest bidder but Wade avoids that fate, then sets out to track down Ajax and force him to fix his appearance.
That whole “track down” thing involves Wade suiting up, adopting the name of Deadpool so Ajax doesn’t know he’s still alive and slowly working his way through flunkies until he ambushes Ajax on the highway. His revenge is interrupted by the arrival of X-Men Colossus (Stefan Kapicic and Greg LaSalle) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), which allows Ajax to escape. The bad guy then kidnaps Vanessa and Deadpool recruits Colossus and NTW for the rescue.
If that seems like a simple plot…well, it is. But screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick do a marvelous job of taking the now-standard super-hero origin story and giving it a new spin. Most of the origin stuff is told in flashback while Deadpool is in the midst of combat, which is a truly clever way of inserting plenty of action in the first half of the film. A lot of super-hero flicks either give the origin short shrift so they can get to the punching and exploding or the viewer has to sit there for 30 or 40 minutes watching something very much like what they’ve already seen in umpteen other super-hero flicks.
What makes “Deadpool” one of the most fun motion pictures I’ve seen in a long time is a hard “R” sense of humor that bombards the audience with profanity and jokes about certain parts of the human anatomy that would get you hauled into Human Resources if you told them at work. If you love Ryan Reynolds, this is the most Ryan Reynoldsy performance he’s ever given in a perfect union of character and actor. Throw in some sharp satire of the genre and a lot of fourth wall-breaking moments and this might be the best super-hero comedy ever made.
The only possible weakness to the production is that the action scenes, while enjoyable, don’t quite live up to the over-the-top tone of the rest of the film. That’s because they only spent about $58 million to make “Deadpool” and I realize the words “only” and “$58 million” should never appear in the same sentence but they spent $200 million on “Green Lantern” and even “Ant-Man” (2015) cost $130 million to make. While director Tim Miller gets the most he can out of every last cent, “Deadpool” just doesn’t have the money to go as totally bonkers as it wants to. On the other hand, costing such a relatively small sum is likely what gave Miller, Reynolds and company the freedom to make the wickedly funny film they did.
And that gets to the heart of why “Deadpool” is something everyone old yet immature enough should see and “Green Lantern” is something you shouldn’t even show to babies whose eyes can’t yet focus. One was made by people with a deep affection for the character and the world in which he lives. The other was cranked out by people looking to make a buck. It’s not that Wade Wilson is a better character than Hal Jordan. Deadpool isn’t much more than every hormone-crazed teenage boy’s dream of being a super-hero, with all the nudity, obscenity, killing and irreverence that implies. Green Lantern is basically a guy in a suit with a gimmick in place of a personality. And the classic origin of Green Lantern, where Hal Jordan is trained by Sinestro, only to find out his alien friend has used his power to make himself a tyrant on his home world and must be brought to justice, is more emotionally compelling than anything that’s ever been in a Deadpool comic.
But the people who made “Green Lantern” didn’t use that origin because they didn’t care enough to notice what was best about the character. They didn’t concern themselves with why people had loved Green Lantern comics for decades. They just grabbed a punch of stuff from the comic and smushed it together without worrying if any of it made sense. They didn’t really want to make a movie about Green Lantern. They only wanted to make a super-hero movie because they thought super-hero movies are always highly profitable and the character of Hal Jordan was what they could get their hands on.
On the other hand, the people who made “Deadpool” really, really, really wanted to make the best “Deadpool” movie they could. And they did. They didn’t try to make him something he’s not or more than he is. They didn’t tone him down so the film could be PG-13 because PG-13 movies usually make more money than R films. And they didn’t obsess over stupid Hollywood crap like the original “Spider-Man” trilogy where Spider-Man’s mask is either being taken off or ripped off every 30 seconds because they were convinced the audience needed to see Tobey Maguire’s face. Reynolds spends at least half of this flick in a full-face mask where you can’t even see his eyes and gives one of the most entertaining performances of his career.
“Deadpool” takes this Throwdown like Ulysses S. Grant took Vicksburg while every digital copy of “Green Lantern” should be deleted and every physical copy recycled into that goop you use to seal the foundation of your house. Doing something you love doesn’t always lead to fame and fortune like it has for the folks behind “Deadpool,” but I bet they would have been proud of their work even if it had failed. Isn’t that what all of us should strive for?
Green Lantern (2011)
Written by Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim and Michael Goldenberg. When people complain that movies with multiple writers suck, this is exactly what they mean.
Directed by Martin Campbell.
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Blake Lively, Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong, Tim Robbins, Jay O. Sanders, Taika Waititi, Angela Bassett, Mike Doyle, Nick Jandl, Dylan James, Jon Tenney, Temuera Morrison, Geoffrey Rush, Michael Clarke Duncan and Clancy Brown.
Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick.
Directed by Tim Miller.
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Ed Skrein, Morena Baccarin, Karan Soni, Michael Benyaer, Stefan Kapicic, Brianna Hildebrand, T.J. Miller, Jed Rees, Gina Carano, Lelie Uggams, Rob Hayter, Greg LaSalle and Stan Lee in possibly the greatest Stan Lee cameo ever.