Friday, August 5, 2011

At Da Moofies: Green Lantern is the Best Comic Book Adaptation of All Time

Bet that got your attention, didn't it?

So here we are, Green Lantern, the bastard black sheep of this summer's hero-fest. You don't need me to tell you that Green Lantern is a terrible movie. You don't need me to tell you it's a travesty of a superhero film. If you noticed the horde of marketing tie-in commercials (look Subway costumers, we have avocados now! They're green! GREEN LIKE GREEN LANTERN!) that mysteriously vanished two weeks after its release, or saw its box office results, or read any of the reviews for it, or know someone who saw it and engaged in awkward small talk with them, or (God help you) saw it yourself, you already know how relentlessly, hideously, mind-assaultingly bad it is. The first time I saw it, my friend Theo and I were so overwhelmed by the sheer cringe-worthiness of it all that about an hour in we resolved to leave if there was one more major groan-inducing moment. Less than five minutes later we walked out. I haven't walked out of a movie since Norbit. SINCE. FUCKING. NORBIT.

Interestingly, some of my close friends had dissenting opinions of the film. My habitually absent co-blogger prooker thought it was adequate for reasons I'm still not entirely clear on. I think it's something along the lines of Green Lantern being one of his favorite heroes and starring in a major motion picture. It could've been Hal Jordan sitting on an emerald toilet taking a two-hour shit in the middle of space - which isn't that far off in the first place - and he would've been satisfied. My buddy Dom, who I'm sure remembers he said he wanted to write a post on Thor for here, thought it was passable too, but I'm pretty sure he just wants to fuck Ryan Reynolds. And who can blame him?

I mean damn, look at him. The man is cut, ladies and gentleman. And funny too! OH GOD HE'S A DREAMBOAT. But alas, Ryan's rock hard abs and glorious pecs couldn't do shit to save this trainwreck of a movie. Nor could Blake Lively's (wait for it) lively assets. Get it? GET IT?!

Look it's four in the morning here and I am in no state to write puns. At this point all I can do is type something in all caps and pray that it even makes sense.

I'm not here to tell you how appallingly, insultingly awful this movie is. I'm not here to complain about how rotten the performances are, or how stale the dialogue is, or how sub-par the CGI the film hedged its bets on ended up being, or how poorly paced it is, or how it couldn't settle on a tone, or how utterly goofy and ridiculous everything they tried to make serious actually was, or how there's no character arc, or how irksome the exposition is, or how fucking horrible every aspect of this movie and everything involved in its creation from the first goddamn letter typed on its asinine script to the last day of post-production turned out. I'm here to argue that Green Lantern is the best adaptation of a modern superhero comic we've seen on the silver screen.

To understand what I mean, we need to take a brief history lesson. Superhero comics have been published for over 70 years. The history of these comics are categorized into a series of "ages," each roughly 15 years in length, based on the prevailing narrative and formal properties of comics during that time. The Golden Age of Comic Books lasted from the creation of Superman in 1938 until the early '50s; the Flash began the Silver Age in 1956, which lasted until the beginning of the Bronze Age in 1970; the Bronze Age would last until The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen were released in 1985; the Dark Age, which hasn't been formally separated from the catch-all "Modern Age" taxon yet (I assume these things are decided by a shadowy council of comic book nerds from inside their moms' basements), went on until let's say, JLA: Earth 2 and JSA both came out in '99. The period we're currently entrenched in probably won't be delineated for at least another two decades, even though we've already mapped out its fundamental attributes so far - attributes that reflect themselves in Green Lantern.

The two giants in the current era of mainstream superhero comics have been Brian Bendis (at Marvel) and Geoff Johns (at DC). Seemingly independent of each other, the two developed a remarkably similar writing style, one that quickly became the defining lexicon for how superhero books are written as of 2011. Most writers working at the Big Two derive their storytelling methods from the Bendis/Johns school (which is definitely too formal a term to describe it but, again, 4 am and all that); those few that do not are usually copyists of Grant Morrison and his kind. Good luck with that.

So what are the formal characteristics of a Bendis or Johns comic? For one, both are marked by heavy use of exposition and a belabored pacing. Bendis, for instance, makes excessive use of an artistic technique called "decompression." It's a stylistic choice - pioneered in American comics by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch in The Authority - where panels are allotted to portray subtle visual changes and character movements/interactions, in turn creating a slower-moving story. Decompression can be used to great effect, creating poignant moments that can just make a comic, such as throughout Joss Whedon (*squeal*) and John Cassady's run on Astonishing X-Men.

And then there's the way Brian Bendis uses it: as a vehicle to cram as many lines of dialogue as humanly possible into a single page. Bendis, you see, is the God of Verbose Exposition. I'll let his work speak for itself. Here's a scan from New Avengers #5:

I don't know how people can get through that. Reading this made me feel like I was cleaving my way through an Amazon jungle of exposition without the help of my trusty Bantu guide. Indeed, Bendis doesn't write characters so much as he does talking heads. Here's a two-page splash from the same issue:

For reference, splash pages are typically reserved for cool dynamic shit worth devoting an entire 1-2 pages to. Something like this:

Now which would you rather read? Which is infinitely more interesting than the other? Which conveys something actually happening?

Here is the second of a two-page conversation from Bendis' run on Daredevil, an example of decompression gone horribly wrong:

This one seated conversation takes two pages out of a 22 page, $2.99 superhero comic and I still have no goddamn idea what the fuck Ben Urich is trying to say. He sounds pretty cool saying it, I guess, but if there's something of genuine substance being discussed there I may have missed it amidst the sequence of slightly tilting heads and massive word balloons.

Bendis writes as if he were writing a play or a film script. He wants to be a Mamet or a Tarantino or a Sorkin. But he's writing a comic book script, which by the nature of the medium operates under completely different aesthetic parameters. Text and still image must be balanced to tell a complete story (or at least a complete chapter of a story arc) in a limited number of pages. It's all about synergy. Much more so than a film or play, comics are a "show, don't tell" medium; if anything, image is favored over text. Aaron Sorkin's breakneck conversations and lengthy monologues work magically in walk and talk motion, but they don't translate to comics, something Bendis simply fails to comprehend.

Over at DC Comics, Geoff Johns wields exposition like a Green Lantern ring. Johns made his career out of referencing, reviving, re-appropriating, or outright rewriting elements of the DC Universe's history. Retroactive continuity isn't a new thing - I mean there's even that term for it - but it has never been done to the absurd, wildly unrestrained extent that it has under Johns' pen. He's a history nerd - a made-up history nerd - and all his stories dig deep into the most obscure pockets of continuity. He loves that continuity with the obsession of the world's queasiest fanboy, even as he completely changes its convoluted timeline to suit him - to what he specifically wants it to be. To get what's going on in his comics, you would need an encyclopedic knowledge of the DC Universe's 70+ years of stories, so Johns goes through the trouble of detailing the forgotten events and situations his comics refer to. Through lots of expository dialogue.

Here's a page from Flashpoint #1, where a Flash villain has rewritten the history of the DC Universe and it's up to the Flash (Geoff Johns' favorite hero) restore it to his (Geoff Johns') vision of how things really are. In what is probably a poorly thought out apology for killing off most of DC's minority characters and replacing them with white folk during Blackest Night, in this alternate reality Johns makes Cyborg both the superheroes' token minority and their leader. Here we go.

Even in a tale where all the history was invented on the spot, Johns must go the whole nine yards to fill us in. So I guess the question here is "Cyborg, if, uh, if you say we all know why we're here then, um, why are you telling us why we're here?" It probably would've been kinda cool for us to see all that stuff Cyborg describes go down, but that's not how Johns runs his operation. Why show when you can just tell? That way it's so much easier to write!

Also, Africa is now "ape-controlled." Yikes. I guess Cyborg has too much good taste to touch that issue.

What I mean when I claim that Green Lantern is the best adaptation of a modern superhero comic book is that, uniquely among its genre brethren, the film recreates the formal aesthetic qualities of contemporary superhero comics for the big screen. Like a Bendis or Johns comic, Green Lantern is bogged down by heaps of unnecessary exposition and suffers from wildly uneven pacing. The movie begins with a shot of outer space as Geoffrey Rush narrates us a crash-course on the Green Lantern Corps. He goes on and on and on for what feels an eternity, and the only thing we see throughout the entire thing is that one shot of space. It's just agonizing from the audience's perspective. We're at the beginning of the film and already the writers are throwing their hands up and saying "ah, fuck it!" About 45 minutes into the film, when Ryan Reynolds is transported to the Green Lanterns' home planet, Rush gives him a tour packed with all the excitement of the Epcot Ball ride, all while re-explaining everything he already told us in the film's beginning down to the very last detail. It's a slow, excruciating experience, one of many trials that test the audience's willpower (HERPADERP SEE WHAT I DID THERE) to endure through the movie. By the time I left an hour into my first attempt at seeing it, not much had actually happened - Hal was just getting introduced to his future-Lantern buddies - but I felt like hours had passed since we took our seats. Such is the vacuity of Green Lantern.

There's another overriding quality that defines modern superhero comics, one again made fashionable by Bendis' and Johns' work: exploitation. The sensationalist portrayal of lurid subject matter that is A) unconcerned with exploring said subject matter and B) bereft of a discernible literary or artistic sense. Now exploitation has obviously been a prominent element in comics storytelling for ages, but it was never truly essential to the fabric of a comic book story. Until the past decade, that is. As expected from one whose influences include David Mamet and Quentin Tarantino, Bendis gleefully indulges in extravagant, borderline ridiculous excess. Mamet's over-the-top, fuck-ridden dialogue expresses an enormous vitality, reaching highs of sweeping triumph and lows of hopeless despair; the sadness belying our routine, obscenity-filled everyday speech becomes grand drama exploring the American working class. Tarantino uses an exploitation atmosphere in his movies to simultaneously homage, analyze and deconstruct the precepts of genre and structure, the distinctions levied between high and low culture, and the nature of cinema.

In contrast, Bendis' work isn't too concerned with anything other than, well, exploitation. He's trying to sell as many comics as possible, because he knows people line up in drones for bullshit like Final Destination 12: This Time Everybody Dies Again and Saw XX: DAYUM Lookit All Dat Blood. Accordingly, Bendis has no qualms with crossing boundaries that his inspirations would never dare tread without a damn compelling reason. So in Avengers #12.1 it's only natural that Bendis gives us some completely arbitrary torture-porn of Spider-Woman that doesn't factor into the plot at all: ladyparts sprawled out for us in the most graphic way imaginable for sexploitation's own sake. It's only natural that in Siege #2 he has the Sentry, a character who is in many ways representative of everything wrong with today's superhero comics, ripping Ares in half before our eyes.

It's supposed be a shocking, appalling, intensely visceral moment, as evidenced by the reaction shots. It is. That's the point of exploitation. That's how it works. It's also supposed to establish the gravity of the situation our heroes are in, to accentuate the enormous power and depravity the threat before them possesses. It doesn't, because this kind of thing is the status quo. The previous issue of Siege begins with a football stadium full of people getting incinerated, an event that is never dwelt on or even brought up again in the rest of the story; gory dismemberment is just business as usual in today's superhero fare.

For his part, Johns rivals - and often even surpasses - Bendis at his most shameless on the exploitation front. Johns rose through the ranks of DC Comics writing epic, blood-soaked killfests between the Green Lantern Corps, their allies, and legions of baddies who seek to defile (in all the term's connotations) the memory of a simpler time where superheroes were the pinnacle of innocence and sanctity. Of course, through his extensive rewriting of DC Comics' history, Johns has made it so that simple time never existed in the first place - it was always the festering pool of idea-barren grim-n'-grit he's currently writing. His work nostalgically fetishizes the brightly-colored days of superhero comics, even as it drags them further away from those days than ever before. Johns' work is entirely devoid of any greater meaning, the countless mutilations within it are purely for entertainment. Sound and fury signifying nothing, like this space kitten who liquefies people with its acidic blood vomit in Green Lantern #54. I kid you not.

Or Infinite Crisis #6, where a villain dies by getting his metal face mask pushed through the back of his head by the eyeholes:

And of course we can't have a modern superhero book without a staggering amount of sexploitation, so on top of all this Johns gives us an army of Star Sapphires (the one whose costume is magenta goop covering her double-E nips and a star insignia over her cooch, for those not in the know) who harem-worship a man called "The Predator." Matt Seneca has written two fascinating posts on his blog - here and here - that investigate the relationship between Johns' work and exploitation in far greater detail. He tells it better than I ever could.

While gratuitous violence is absent from Green Lantern (the film borrows more from the form of modern comics than their content; Bendis and Johns revel in oppressive bleakness while Green Lantern is trivial, lighthearted fare), it is no less indebted to an exploitation film aesthetic. One of the biggest formal hallmarks of exploitation movies is that they have very low production values - they look poor-quality. In spite of a $200 million dollar budget, the film looks very, very cheap, something many critics have gleefully pointed out as they collectively tore it a new anus. One remarks that our protagonist's stomping grounds is a "flatly generic city...pasted together from random urban skylines." Others variously called the production "tacky" and "chintzy-looking," describing the earthbound scenes as "stilted" or "cardboard" set-pieces with the "staid artificiality that comes with extensive soundstage shooting." The CGI that would make-or-break the film has been even more harshly bemoaned, criticized as "a big bore...blandly digitally rendered, "not so special effects," "ludicrous, in an intricate, painstaking, seriously over-the-top way," "more like screen-savers than inhabited environments," "failing to take on the gravity and substance of real events," etc. Put bluntly, the CGI looked like something that would have been acceptable - just acceptable - half a decade ago. How do you blow all that money and end up with a product so schlocky?

Furthermore, Green Lantern indulges in the same over-the-top shock tactics employed in exploitation cinema, the kind that are so absurd they verge on self-parody. One example is the abrupt, out-of-place flashback where we see Hal's dad die in a plane crash. Little Hal asks his dad if he's afraid something will go wrong with the experimental jet he's test-piloting. Dad Jordan responds, "It's not my job to be." GROOOOOOAN. So here's how they filmed the inevitable crash: the plane goes up, then spends the next thirty seconds wobbling around as electronic stuff presumably malfunctions. After a precipitous fall, the plane lands...completely intact. Lil' Hal runs to the dud jet as his dad gets halfway out. Dad Jordan gets out a brief, melodramatic "Hal--" before BOOOOOM!!!! The whole fucking thing explodes right before lil' Hal in a fiery inferno about thirty times larger than the jet itself. I guess it was painted in several coats of rocket fuel or something. And of course neither the crash itself nor the implications of it are ever brought up again, save that, by virtue of the scene's inclusion, we are to believe Hal's reckless douchebaggy behavior throughout is somehow the result of undefined daddy issues. Ridiculous moments like this occur over and over again until movie's merciful end. Exploitation cinema at its cheesiest.

The film's script was co-written by two second-string comic book writers, both copyists of the Bendis/Johns style. It's content is heavily indebted to Johns in particular, whose work on the Green Lantern franchise for the past sevem years has propelled the writer to superstardom and made the character one of the most talked-about things in mainstream comics (though clearly he's still B-list to the general public). The film's plot is adapted from Johns' 2009 retelling of Hal Jordan's origin, while its main villain was conceived by Johns as a "space parasite" in a contrived explanation why Hal really turned evil in the early 90s. Johns was a producer on the film, and described his duties as being its resident "Green Lantern guru." Whenever the filmmakers had a question about any aspect of the mythos, they turned to him as the ultimate authority. So its no wonder that, like the material it's based off of with its harebrained Emotional Spectrum cosmology, Green Lantern revels in shallow meaninglessness. No matter how aggressively it alleges a good-vs.-evil duality between abstract "will" and "fear," its attempts at a moral message amount to literally nothing. It's all dressing so our guys in green can fight a yellow cloud monster with just as hazy motivations.

If I were to summarize the enormous appeal of Bendis and Johns' work, I would say this: Bendis' audience is the kind person who loves Tarantino movies because they have a lot of badass violence and their characters say "fuck" a lot, but doesn't know what they're actually even about, what truly makes them great films. Johns' audience is the foregone fanboy, hardcore continuity nerds like himself. The kind of people who will gladly overlook a story's quality because HOLY SHIT he brings up that one plot point from the 90s and re-introduces Vibe, those are insider things I know about and now I feel validated. Far removed from the brilliant work of their early Halcyon days*, both writers now get by appealing to the lowest common denominator, to separate aspects of the superhero fandom at its absolute worst and most stereotypical. They're both the most popular writers working in comics.

If Green Lantern was a comic book it would be one of the industry's best-selling titles.

Oh wait.

*Both Bendis and Johns produced some consistently fantastic work during their early careers, from ca. 2000-2003. On the Bendis side of things, Powers and Ultimate Spider-Man were revolutionary ideas that to this day remain influential for all the right reasons. Alias is his closest thing to a masterpiece and his run on Daredevil, for all its faults, still has many phenomenal moments. Johns produced some truly great - and vastly under-appreciated - work during this period as well. His stint on The Avengers and his relaunch of Teen Titans were both exemplary; his work co-writing JSA with James Robinson and, after the latter's departure, writing it himself unquestionably deserved every bit of acclaim it received. Hell, I even got a pretty big kick out of "Sinestro Corps War." For both Bendis and Johns, it seems as though it wasn't until they were given the keys to the kingdoms that everything went to shit. A pity.

I should also take this opportunity to point out that while Green Lantern is a hot steaming pile of shit, it ain't the worst superhero movie by a long shot. Elektra, Catwoman, Superman IV, Steel...there are quite a few comic book flicks that sit above (below?) Green Lantern in the echelons of bad cinema. Still, to see Hal Jordan and his pals suffer such a fate is a fucking bummer, man.

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