"Green Lantern: Emerald Knights," a.k.a. "The Color of Corporate Money"
Green Lantern: Emerald Knights contains more than a few fun things. I’d like it better, though, if it weren’t also so good at putting me to sleep.
I’m not sure what the point is of this latest DTV from DC Comics and Warner Bros. Animation, aside from the obvious one: It’s a tie-in to the live-action feature film. If it’s supposed to be a rousing sci-fi adventure it would be better if it came with an actual story. If it is supposed to explore the Green Lantern Corps, it would do better by telling a group story rather than a lot of individual tales. If it is supposed to showcase a lot of action scenes, it would do better if it didn’t feel so much like a demo reel.
But how is it on its own terms, as an anthology of individual stories?
I’ve just spent the better part of forty minutes pondering that very question, trying to come up with a more detailed answer than “Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.” Here’s the best I can do:
Like the earlier (and far superior and ambitious Gotham Knight) Emerald Knights is a collection of disjoint stories tied together by an overarching plot. In this case, the Green Lantern’s base world of Oa is being threatened by the return of Krona, an archenemy whose origins come with quite a lot of explanation but zero emotional impact, since he’s transparently a a plot device and nothing more. (Really, his back story could have been “He’s the guy from the place with the whatsits that will do something bad” and it would work just as well and in much less time than all the jaw-stretching pseudo-Scriptural mumbo jumbo about alternate universes and whatnots that Emerald Knights unfurls like bolts of fabric.) As the Corps members gather, charge their rings, and take the interplanetary bus to the battlefield, Hal Jordan (and a few others) get to tell the new girl some stories about themselves and the Corps.
Those stories are depressingly easy to summarize. In “The First Lantern” we see the Lanterns’ first battle and how they learned to use the power of their rings. In “Kilowog” we watch some of the more famous Lanterns going through boot camp. In “Laira” the title character returns home to fight her family after their planet has been declared an outlaw world. “Mogo Doesn’t Socialize” pits a tough guy against the Corps’ most unusual member. And “Abin Sur” has Sinestro and his late friend catching an escaped criminal and escorting him back to prison.
I’m sure each of these tales was quite fetching in its original comic book form. But here they are just flat and pro forma. My thumbnail summaries, I fear, do ample justice to their simplicity of realization: They are each just a single idea tapped at without variation or development—like a toddler jabbing one finger repeatedly against middle C on the piano. Take “The First Lantern,” for example. It bows with a numbingly dull set up about how the universe was unbalanced by evil and chaos; plods its Olympian way through the forging and distribution of the first four Lantern rings; and then sends them to battle a space fleet that would shame the Imperial armada at the climax of Return of the Jedi. They get their butts kicked and fall into a funk. But then one them stands up and swears by Green Gum that he’ll lick the bad-guys yet, and hey whaddaya know, that’s just what he does. The End.
And I’m left thinking “Yeah, so?” I mean, I get it: The Lanterns’ power comes from their will power and their gritty determination to bend said willpower to the task at hand. It’s a worthwhile lesson and one that should resonate. After all, anyone who has ever changed a tire or had to fix a Windows installation knows what it’s like to stop in the middle of a mess, kick the wall a few times, and then get back to work to finish the job right. But I don’t see Warner Bros. spending a couple of million dollars turning those anecdotes into top-line, animated, direct-to-video releases, and it’s not because “The Time I Came This Close to Breaking the Bathroom by Installing a New Toilet” would lack visual panache. It’s because that sort of thing is just an incident, not a story, and “The First Lantern,” for all its pyrotechnics, is basically just a narrative about the time the Intergalactic Commode Got Backed Up and the First Green Plumbers Got a Phone Call. At the end of “The First Lantern” we don’t know anything more about the title character than we did at the beginning (except that he’s 2% more stubborn than his colleagues), and that’s a real problem when you start off by knowing nothing about him.
The same problem afflicts the other stories. Once you grasp its situation you have grasped its beginning, its middle, its end, its theme, its development, and every possible surprise it has in store, largely because none of them have any of these things. In “Kilowog” four fresh recruits are stripped of their rings and thrown into dangerous situations by their foulmouthed drill sergeant. Within five seconds you foresee everything that follows: Kilowog’s resentments and humiliations; the way he gradually starts to impress the sergeant; the mid-story confrontation between him and the sergeant; the suddenly for-real and for-serious battle; and if you’re even a little bit alert to the dialogue you’ll anticipate the fate of a key character. “Kilowog” does nothing to upend any of these anticipations, and even seems to relish lighting on its very obvious tropes with a Cortez-on-Darien air of discovery. (These moments may particularly disturb those who remember Invader Zim‘s own “boot camp” story, “Hobo 13,” and they may end up giggling over some extremely unfortunate echoes between that episode and this one.) To watch “Kilowog” is too much like participating in some ritual, like High Mass, where the whole point is to check off the prescribed boxes in the prescribed order.
The worst offenders are “Mogo Doesn’t Socialize” and “Laira,” though, because you can sense within them some undeveloped possibilities. “Mogo” at least gets by on some shaggy charm, but it’s a one-joke idea that suffers greatly for not containing any additional jokes that could build up some credibility for the One Big Joke at the end. Instead, you can only slouch in wonder at the way it does absolutely nothing while taking forever to deliver a punch line that you can see coming from over several horizons away. Contrariwise, “Laira” irritates because it contains the unmixed and unbaked ingredients for a classic tragedy: a princess who trains as a Green Lantern so she can protect her planet has to return to fight her father and siblings after they stretch self-defense to near-genocidal lengths. But again, as presented, it’s just an idea, and you can tell its only an idea and not a drama because everyone has to explain what is going on, why they are doing it, and why it matters. And this, of course, is to violate the First Commandment of Storytelling: Telling instead of Showing.
If you want a defense of the action scenes, my colleague Ed Liu has your back. But whatever their technical merits—and to be truthful I found nothing about them special in the least—they exist in a dramatic vacuum; they would be exactly as meaningful and exactly as exciting as they are if they were excised from the surrounding material and uploaded to You Tube. (A fate they will likely suffer, at least to some degree.) The music will sound very familiar without being memorable. For vast swaths of the picture Nathan Fillion provides a narration that is winningly smooth and relaxed, so much so that I wish he’d played a person. (Technically, the credits say he played “Hal Jordan,” but I’m swozzled if a character by that name—rather than a cardboard cutout with Articulated Manly Chin Action—ever showed up in Emerald Knights.) Jason Isaacs is also on hand as Her Majesty’s Evil Silver Sterling Tea Service, which is the kind of thing that’s always fun to listen to. In fact, I’ll say this in Emerald Knight‘s favor: Most of the performers sound better than the stuff they have to work with.
There are other Warner/DC titles that I’ve disliked, but their failures have been creative ones: ambition and talent gone astray, or wasted on unworthy material. Emerald Knights is the first Warner Premiere product that feels utterly soulless. Whatever effort went into it has vanished like water into sand, leaving behind nothing but a corporate tie-in.