Monday, August 3, 2009

Bored of the Rings: Green Lantern's Bumpy First Flight

[Other titles considered for this post include "Green With 'Meh-nvy" and "It's Not Easy Seeing Green."]

This past weekend, I had some of my nerd-friends over to watch Green Lantern: First Flight, the latest release from DC Animation. First Flight is the follow-up to two excellent animated DC films: Wonder Woman and Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier, and I'm already excited over previews for the next film in the line-up, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, which is a direct adaptation of a fun, cartoony romp by Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness. And the Green Lantern comic is one of my current favorites, thanks to more than two years of carfull plotting and planning by writer Geoff Johns and a renewed interest on DC Editorial's part to make sure the Emerald Enforcer gets the A-list attention he deserves leading up to the planned live-action adaptation (currently set to star Ryan Reynolds).

A little catch-up: Green Lantern is part of the Green Lantern Corps, an intergalactic police force that wields special rings that manifest pure willpower into force shields, flight, and energy constructs. The GL Corps get their power from an energy battery on the planet OA--the true center of the DC Universe--and their marching orders from a tribe of tiny blue elders known as the Guardians, who claim to be the first beings of power in the cosmos, older than time itself, and definitely older than our speck of a planet. There's a rich, deep mythology surrounding the Guardians and the Green Lanterns, as well as several other groups built around the emotional spectrum. The Green Lanterns are powered by willpower, but the spectrum expands tying red to rage, blue to hope, yellow to fear, and so on.

Yellow, in particular, is a huge part of the GL story, as the color used to be the only weakness of the green power rings. The villain Sinestro, formerly a Green Lantern himself, would go on to weild a yellow power ring and battle the Lanterns for decades, until a recent storyline where he built his own power battery and started his own Sinestro Corps, a virtual army of equally villainous beings all devoted to the cause of spreading fear across the galaxy. It was a huge development when, in order to defeat the Sinestro Corps, the Guardians lifted a restriction on the Green Lanterns regarding lethal force--essentially giving the GLs a license to kill for the first time in their history. Sinestro claimed that this move, even though it helped the Lanterns win the battle, was a victory for him in the war, as it was an act of fear on the Guardians' part. Fear versus willpower is an important theme in the long-term Green Lantern story.

While the yellow weakness predates him by several decades, Johns can take credit for most of the GL mythology at play today. He created the expanded emotional spectrum groups, ressurected the main (and best known) Green Lantern Hal Jordan, and re-imagined his origin to tie it to the current continuity. And the current storyline, Blackest Night, is the culmination of all of Johns' efforts. The villains of the piece, the Black Lantern Corps, are the final group powered by the emotional spectrum, basically zombies--their ranks culled from the fallen superheroes of Earth and the rest of the universe. Their mission is to eradicate all life and light. It is definitely the biggest thing going on in DC Comics, overshadowing even the death of Batman. It may be bigger than anything Marvel is doing at the moment, as well!

The reason I am relaying all of this information about the comics is because all of this mythology and backstory has been handled so well, has been such a vital part of the greater DC Universe since even before Johns came onto the book, and is exactly what the people in charge at DC Animation got wrong that made me hate the cartoon First Flight.

Hal Jordan's backstory, Earth-based supporting cast, and any exploration of a personality beyond glib bravado are reduced to about 3 minutes at the top of the film. From there, something vaguely resembling his comic book origin story begins. A dying Lantern, Abin Sur, crashed to Earth, and his ring is drawn to someone worthy to weild the ring. In the comics, this is all tied to the strength of will of this potential carrier, but in the cartoon, willpower is never even brought up as a factor. Neither are the yellow weakness, the concept of fear as the ultimate enemy, or the restriction on lethal force. This last bit is pretty big, since Lanterns are shown killing enemies left and right in order to drive the convoluted and wholly invented plot of First Flight along.

The animation--both the character design and the attempt tp blend traditional artwork with CGI--is uninspired and, at times, downright sloppy. The voice acting isn't distractingly bad, but none of the main characters sound quite right either. The dialogue is either crude (eg, Still-Green Sinestro's line to Jordan after volunteering to train him: "Your ass is mine." That is not something the pompous, sophisticated villain would ever say in the comics) or dull. There is very little explanation or background given for the Guardians or the Corps, no regard given to Jordan's life back on Earth, and seemingly no thought put into the Whys and Hows of the climactic battle at the story's end. The power rings don't communicate with their wearer. The "Green Lantern Oath," which GL is supposed to recite when he charges his ring, and which sums up the mission of the Corps, isn't even mentioned until the very end of the film...and again, with no introduction or explanation.

I was ready to turn the thing off after 40 minutes of bored frustration, but I powered through because my friend's seemed to be enjoying it more than me. Of course, they gave a collective "meh" when I asked if they actually liked it. Actually, I think the official review was "It wasn't that bad." I promise you, it wasn't any good.

I really wanted to enjoy this, and I worry about a live-action Green Lantern, knowing how poorly this cartoon came together. The best part of the DVD was the collection of featurettes and previews about other DC Animation projects and about the Blackest Night comic series.

The good news for DC Animation is that we were happy to use the feature-length Wonder Woman cartoon as our palate cleanser. That movie is smart, funny, action-packed, and superior to just about anything that has happened in the Wonder Woman comic for years. Also, my other DC Animation favorite, New Frontier actually has an excellent take on Green Lantern, so all is not lost when it comes to adapting "Highball" Hal and his gang in green.

More good news for Green Lantern fans is that Blackest Night is underway right now, the early chapters to the series in stores now, and the rest of Geoff Johns' run on the character has been collected so you can catch yourself up on one of the best, most consistent and satisfying superhero comics DC is putting out.

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