Let’s actually dissect a good character that has withstood the test of time, and examine why their live-action movie didn’t work. I’m going to use Green Lantern for this.
The live action movie really stank up the theater, but Green Lanterns, as characters, are actually ridiculously cool. They are the Paladins of the DC Universe: they are sworn to an Oath, follow a Code, and are ridiculously awesome… when they’re written right!
I love Green Lanterns. One of my first toys as a kid was the Super Powers collection Hal Jordan/Green Lantern; my twin got him, and I got The Flash, so the two heroes have been near and dear to me pretty much my entire life.
But as a I grew up, I fell in love with the concept: Green Lanterns were space cops, but even more special… more like Paladins. They were chosen by a higher power, they swore an Oath of allegiance to the Guardians, the Universe, and to Good, (one of the most popular and oft-recited Oaths in fiction!) and they live by a Code.
“In brightest day, in blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight. Let those who worship evil’s might, beware my power, Green Lantern’s light.”
But most of them don’t have super powers of their own, and instead, have indomitable will.
Even the dorkiest, lamest sounding Green Lanterns will end up surprising you. Even if they are abrasive, even if they don’t seem to take things seriously, or have a massive ego, at the end of the day, they will fight till they want to drop and then fight some more to save lives and combat evil.
No matter how hard the challenge, how the deep the personal anguish or sacrifice, they rise to the call.
Because it’s not about them. It’s not about their personal mission of vengeance or well-placed sense of gratitude for an adoptive home. For Green Lanterns, it’s a calling; a calling to duty and adventure beyond anything anyone could imagine on their own world, or beyond.
It’s a calling to be exceptional among the mediocre. To be brave among the fearful. To never give up on behalf of the weak, the oppressed, or the imperiled.
Green Lanterns answer the call from every species, every walk of life, from every corner of the universe.
THIS IS ONE OF THE COOLEST IDEAS DC HAS TO OFFER!
These are not supposed to be the tales of common men and women. These are the uncommon among us… the rare few who use their rings in the same way they’d shape the world around them using nothing but their wits, skill, and will.
These are the people who climb into planes knowing it could mean the end of their life but do so anyway just to see if they can brave a new frontier. They run into burning buildings like firefighters, but have the will to keep pulling people out until they are burned to a crisp. They look at the ocean daring them to cross and make the ocean submit to their daring.
They make the impossible, possible.
That… is AWESOME! When the stories and characters are written right, Green Lantern can be one of the most awe-inspiring heroes in fiction!
So where do these stories go wrong?
I think the Green Lantern film is a great example of how a Green Lantern story can be done poorly, and turn people off.
Hal Jordan, the Silver Age Green Lantern that set the stage for the modern Green Lantern tales, was based off of test pilots just before the Space Race.
I highly recommend watching, “The Right Stuff”, and specifically, Chuck Yeager, (played by Sam Shepard, above), to understand who Green Lanterns were meant to be. These were highly competitive, highly skilled, highly daring men who didn’t know how to quit, and hated losing… to anyone, or anything. And they were 100% willing to pay the price of failure with their lives in a way people a generation or so later don’t really understand because the fruits of these efforts are felt daily in our lives. We routinely travel on supersonic jets, we grew up in a world where men had been to the moon. These men did NOT grow up in that world… they MADE that world!
That’s Green Lantern!
The movie messed up because it was trying to emulate the Marvel formula of “fish-out-of-water” origin story. The character in question is in over their head and struggling to learn how to use their powers and overcome their self-doubt.
That’s fine for 98% of all origin stories. That’s pretty far off the mark for Green Lantern, though, and everything that makes the character cool.
It was a surprising mistake to make, especially because Green Lantern: First Flight had come out a couple years before and absolutely NAILED exactly what a great Green Lantern origin story looks like!!!
It’s not a story about a character dealing with nerves. Instead, we have a hero pulled into a “Training Day” situation and is caught up in a battle between the Guardians of the Universe and one of their chosen who goes rogue.
98% of the time, a good origin story shows the hero struggling to learn their powers, but Green Lantern SHOULD be the exception to the rule; the people who get these rings aren’t AFRAID of their powers or responsibilities. They are the people who dive in, are eager to learn, and have the fortitude already to make mistakes and keep climbing straight through it.
Instead, the conflict should come from a different source: in First Flight, it’s an ideological fight between the Status Quo and how it’s possibly failing, (represented by the Green Lanterns and the Guardians), and trying a ruthless new path paved in fear, (led by Sinestro). Hal’s personal conflict isn’t about overcoming self-doubt, but overcoming the doubt, (read: space racism) against the Lanterns and Guardians who think humans are only capable of violence by proving through his actions that humanity has great goodness in them, too.
It’s a FANTASTIC film, FAR superior to the live action one, and I highly recommend it.
The follow-up, Emerald Knights was also pretty darn great, although it’s more of a collection of short stories. Still, each tale is led by a different Green Lantern, and shows the right stuff of why the Green Lanterns are so damn cool!
It’s not just because they have fancy rings… it’s because of the people who wield them!
Green Lantern is an amazing concept and a great collection of characters! It’s a well with a lot of untapped potential; DC blew it with the live action film, but the comics, the stories, and the animated films show lots of examples on why Green Lantern isn’t just one amazing character, but why there are MANY amazing characters who bear the name!
Part of great story writing is understanding what is actually working about what you’re writing, and understanding that when you struck gold, you should keep mining it. Sometimes, borrowing ideas or a successful formula from someone else’s good ideas, (like the Green Lantern film tried to do), you actually miss out on what actually makes the character and stories you have so terrific!