Recently, Time Warner announced that they were ramping up their slate of DC Comics-based movies in a desperate attempt to play catch-up to Disney’s unprecedented success with the Marvel Cinematic Universe:
- Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
- Suicide Squad (2016)
- Wonder Woman (2017)
- Justice League Part One (2017)
- The Flash (2018)
- Aquaman (2018)
- Shazam (2019)
- Justice League Part Two (2019)
- Cyborg (2020)
- Green Lantern (2020)
Needless to say, this prompted some discussion ‘mongst my social circle … and some eye-rolling that followed the last entry on that four-year, ten-movie extravaganza: Green Lantern.
Long-time readers will recall that GL was once Your Obedient Serpent’s very favorite superhero, but even he will admit that the last attempt at translating the Emerald Gladiator to the big screen was, to be generous ... unimpressive. Nevertheless, while its descent into mediocrity was the end result of bad creative choices, one should not fall into the trap of assuming that the first of those bad choices was "let's make a Green Lantern movie!"
The first and biggest Bad Choice was to cram far too many elements into the first movie, all from different periods of the comic, without really giving any of it a proper build-up.
The second Bad Choice was Hal Jordan.
Okay, let me rephrase that. No, I am not Happy Hal's biggest fan; of all the different characters who've worn the ring and claimed the title, I'd have to say that there were three or four ... thousand ... I like more than Hal Jordan. And if the movie had actually given us Hal Jordan instead of Stock Character #438, I'd have been middlin' pleased.
Look, here's the Secret Magic Ingredient that Marvel Studios stumbled across that turned their movies into both critical and box-office successes: superhero movies need distinctive characters and strong character arcs.
The character arc in the Green Lantern movie? "Look, the slacker screwing up his life gets a magic ring, straightens out, and turns his life around, proving that he's not such a screw-up after all." No surprises there: that's about as trite and unimaginative as Hollywood gets these days.
It's also not Hal Jordan.1
Please note that I am not saying "oh, they aren't faithful to the character, so this movie sucks." I'm also aware that they've been trying to shoehorn "reckless maverick who's always in trouble" into Hal's backstory since they did Emerald Dawn back in '89, but that's never really clicked.
I AM saying that Hal Jordan's character arc in the comics is a lot more compelling and unusual than the story of Yet Another Man-Child Growing Up.
When we first meet Hal in 1959, he's got it all. He's a test-pilot, competent, confident and successful in a career that demands highly-honed skills and steady nerves. He's fearless, not reckless: having him on the Ferris Aircraft payroll is an asset. He's a jet-setting ladies' man who has his sights set on the woman who runs the company, and lives a life of martinis and tuxedos that James Bond would envy.
The magic ring that falls from the sky doesn't straighten out his screwed-up life; quite the contrary. It gives him amazing power and opens the entire Cosmos up to him ... but little by little, it sends his personal and professional lives into a tailspin. The responsibilities of protecting Sector 2814 as a member of both the Corps and the Justice League take more and more of his time from his life on Earth. By the mid-'70s, he's gone from a high-prestige test pilot to someone who can't hold a steady job, his resume including such gems as travelling salesman for a toy company.
He spent a good chunk of the mid-'80s having resigned from the Corps, trying to figure out what had happened to his life, wandering around as a drifter trying to figure out just who Hal Jordan was apart from being Green Lantern.
And yet he keeps going back.2
Now, that's a character arc that we haven't really seen on the big screen. In the Spider-Man movies, Peter Parker can't hold a steady job because because of his extracurricular activities, but it hasn't really dragged him down -- at worst, it's held him back. In the Iron Man series, we watched Tony Stark go from a reckless genius billionaire playboy asshole who didn't give a damn about anything to ... um ... a reckless genius billionaire playboy asshole who really does want to do the right thing, mostly. By the end of Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, Bruce Wayne is a battered, broken semi-invalid, but really, he was always a broken man: his body just caught up with his soul.
So far, we haven't had a superhero movie where the "Guy Who Has It All" finds his true calling ... and loses "it all" because of it.
As much as I can see the potential of a good Hal Jordon movie, though, I think they could get a lot more mileage out of John Stewart. Really, as much as it pains the Silver Age Stagnation Squad to see it, John is familiar to a lot more people than Hal, thanks to his headlining role in three brilliant seasons of Justice League and Justice League Unlimited.
I would love to see a movie that really took advantage of John's two primary background elements: he's a Marine Sniper who became an Architect. Seems like writers who eagerly adopt the Marine backstory (first introduced in the above-mentioned animated series) completely ignore the Architect (the vocation he's pursued in the comics almost since the beginning), but that dissonance between Warrior and Builder has a LOT of untapped potential.
John was the protagonist of Green Lantern: MOSAIC, a brilliant, surreal early '90s series by Gerard Jones that DC shows no interest in reprinting or even acknowledging. At one point, Jones scripts him a scene -- almost a soliloquy -- that manages to reconcile Warrior and Builder as two aspects of the same principle:
"What I do," John says, "is redistribute violence."
After this this startling proclamation, he clarifies: the job of an architect is to balance all the forces acting on a structure, and redirect them to make it stronger instead of tearing it apart.
That's John Stewart, particularly when Jones writes him: he's intelligent. He's erudite. He's philosophical.
John Stewart is the Warrior Poet.
We've had a lot of "smart" superheroes on the big screen ... we haven't really had an intellectual up there.
I will also note that John has another quality that is important for entirely different reasons: he's African-American.
And yes, dammit, that's important. Ask my friend kolchis, a school teacher who does a lot of substitute work in a lot of different areas, about the black kids who immediately zero in on the Green Lantern keychain the middle-aged white guy carries.
Rest assured it's not because they're Ryan Reynolds fans.
No matter how hard they try to push him as one of their Iconic Characters, Cyborg is the odd man out in that slate of movies. Sure, he's been around for more than thirty years now, but when push comes to shove, he's a Teen Titan. When they try to shoehorn him into the Justice League, it feels like they're desperate to dig up just one character in their roster who isn't Upper/Middle Class White Guy Man.
Do I think they should leave him out? Hell, no! I want to see Victor Stone up there on the screen with John Stewart. I want to see Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson playing
Representation and diversity is not tokenism.
1 "It's Kyle Rayner." "YOU SHUT UP. JUST SHUT UP."
2 This is directly related to why I am one of the few people who thought that Emerald Twilight was perfectly in character and was the logical culmination of three decades of storytelling ... but that is a story for another time.