"Green Lantern: First Flight" – Code Four on the Outer Space Beat
Although he’s never had the same degree of name recognition amongst the general public as Superman or Batman, DC Comics’ Green Lantern is still one of the A-list superheroes in the DC stable. At least part of the reason why is the powerful wish-fulfillment aspect of the character: it is easy to imagine being granted the power ring that is the Green Lantern badge of office, with its near-limitless power at your disposal. In this regard, it is rather like Iron Man’s suit of armor, and it’s worth noting that both franchises are the rare instances where a different person was able to take on the role for long stretches in the comics. Now, Green Lantern is the next subject for the latest Warner Brothers Animation direct-to-video animated movie Green Lantern: First Flight. Written by Alan Burnett, directed by Lauren Montgomery, and cast with a stellar array of actors, Green Lantern is never less than satisfying, but ends up missing greatness by just a hair due to the formulaic nature of the story and a strange lack of emotional connection.
Green Lantern: First Flight takes the “space cop” aspect of the character to its logical conclusion. At the very center of the universe, the diminutive Guardians of the Universe work to preserve peace and order using the Green Lantern Corps, a legion of beings from all corners of space armed with a power ring that can create anything the wielder can imagine and limited only by the willpower of its wielder. The newest recruit to the Corps is Hal Jordan of Earth, a fearless test pilot for Ferris Aircraft who receives the ring from its previous bearer, the alien Abin Sur. One of the first things that Green Lantern: First Flight manages to do well is the origin story recap that runs before the opening credits. This is essentially the same ground covered by Justice League: The New Frontier and countless comic books, but is still quite impressive for its brevity and the amount of information it stuffs into such a short span of time.
Shortly after receiving the power ring, Jordan is whisked off to Oa to meet the Guardians and the rest of the Green Lantern Corps. Sadly, the Guardians view Abin Sur’s choice of successor as flawed, at best, believing Earthlings to be crude and inferior beings unfit to wield a power ring. Luckily for Jordan, he is taken in for training by Sinestro, a senior Green Lantern whose parents must have been convinced that he was destined for either Great Evil or left-handedness. Before long, Jordan uncovers a conspiracy to overthrow the Guardians themselves, finding himself embroiled right at the heart of the conspiracy and possibly the only one in a position to stop it.
It may be set in outer space and the duty weapon may be a magic ring, but for all intents and purposes, Green Lantern: First Flight is a police procedural at heart and police procedurals are all somewhat formulaic and predictable by nature. Even if you’ve managed to avoid the plot synopsis on the back of the DVD cover, it’s not hard to figure out that you’re watching a “Bad Cop” story, and once Sinestro is pegged as the Bad Cop early on, it’s easy to find yourself subconsciously ticking off the different Bad Cop Story Twists one by one: the offhand comment that surprises the Rookie (and us) with its venom, the Bad Cop showing the Rookie the ropes, the Rookie allowing the knowledge of his inexperience to suppress something he feels is wrong, the Rookie finally seeing the Bad Cop go too far, the Bad Cop offering his brand of tainted goods to the Rookie, and the big showdown. The movie also feels emotionally cooler and more clinical than many of its forerunners, which were more effective at mashing emotional hotbuttons at appropriate times. At the very least, doing Green Lantern as a Bad Cop story creates a familiar framework to couch the more bizarre story components, and is a nice way to add a bit of spice to the usual “learning to be a superhero” tale. We’ve seen police procedurals and superhero origin stories before; Green Lantern: First Flight‘s minor innovation is to use the former as a vehicle to tell a story of the latter.
However, simply because it’s following well-trod genre paths does not mean that Green Lantern: First Flight is boring or fails to surprise. As we have come to expect from the DTV movies by now, the many action sequences in Green Lantern: First Flight are all thrilling, with the highlights being a dramatic spaceport rescue sequence involving multiple Green Lanterns, a high-speed pursuit of a spaceship through a warp tunnel, and the climactic showdown between Hal and Sinestro. While we may know how this story plays out in broad strokes, this movie finds its surprises in the execution of those story elements, with an especially delicious nasty surprise awaiting in the last third of the movie. First Flight also takes pains to ensure that shades of gray creep in to make many of Jordan’s choices harder than a lot of other police procedurals would have. The Guardians are not paragons of virtue, with their arrogant demeanor and idealism blinding them to ground-level realities, while Sinestro is not simply corrupt and evil, but merely guilty of allowing his zeal to overwhelm the ideals he is ostensibly fighting for in the first place.
By now, nobody should be that surprised at the quality of the animation in these direct-to-video movies. The animation is top-notch from start to finish and packed with the thrilling action sequences that are the coin of the realm for superhero stories. It also manages to use its running time nearly perfectly, which is something the DC animated movies haven’t always done consistently. The movie easily earns its PG-13 rating in some of the more intense action sequences, one of which is a harsh interrogation in a bar that generates a sense of great cruelty despite its stillness. The only minor flaws worth noting are in the integration of some CGI elements, with the Guardian’s battery and a giant robotic battlesuit not quite fitting in with the hand-drawn elements they interact with. However, the design of Green Lantern: First Flight is really the star of the show, presenting us with a dazzling array of bizarre and fascinating alien life forms and distant alien worlds. Character designer Jose Lopez apparently designed most of the aliens himself, and his work is astonishing, presenting the most dazzlingly broad array of life forms committed to film since the cantina scene in the first Star Wars movie. The environments are also inventively strange while still being recognizable, like the aforementioned spaceport, the wretched hive of scum and villany bar on some backwater planet, or the desert planet of Qward. This last world, seen for but a fleeting moment near the end of the movie, is also home to the Weaponers, one of the most memorable alien races in the movie with their creepy spider-like movements and a weird monotone vocal performance by Rob Paulsen.
Speaking of the voice acting, the usual array of stars has been assembled for Green Lantern: First Flight, but the results are more mixed than on previous efforts. Topping the performances is Victor Garber as Sinestro, who gives the character an elegant theatricality that fails to mask the deeply brutal and vicious streak underneath. Close behind is Tricia Helfer as Boodikka, who has the same sense of steely resolve that she displayed as Carla in the TV series Burn Notice. Michael Madsen has the right amount of world-weary grit to play veteran Green Lantern trainer Kilowog, but his voice doesn’t have the depth or resonance you would expect considering how much more massive he is compared to the others. Surprisingly, the least impressive vocal performance comes from Christopher Meloni as Hal Jordan, who is fairly bland and doesn’t manage to leave very much of an impression, lacking the edge that David Boreanaz managed to communicate in far less time in Justice League: The New Frontier. This Jordan may be a joker and a risk-taker, as seen in his flirting with Carol Ferris at the start of the movie, but those traits get lost fairly quickly, leaving him understated and a little overwhelmed by the stronger personalities around him.
Green Lantern: First Flight is available in one- and two-disc DVDs and a single-disc Blu-ray. The high-definition video is eye-poppingly gorgeous and highlights the design work beautifully. The TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is perfectly adequate, although it seems oddly lacking in punch at the moments when you think it really ought to be rattling the windows. The special features (all in standard definition on the Blu-ray) are dominated by a brace of featurettes about Green Lantern in his comic book form: a chat with comic book writer Geoff Johns, two character profiles for Sinestro and the Guardians of the Universe, and a preview of the Blackest Night comic book event now in progress. The Blu-ray also comes with an extra 22-minute featurette titled, “I Am the Ring” which is the latest in a chain of quasi-documentaries on these movies that attempt to saddle comic book superheroes with a bit more mythical and metaphorical weight than I believe they can handle comfortably. Taken together, these featurettes tell us less about Green Lantern than they do about the crush a sector of DC fandom has for Hal Jordan. I don’t hold this against the movie, of course, but all the lionizing of Jordan and justification for reviving him in the comics completely ignores the elephant in the room that being replaceable is an inherent part of being a Green Lantern. It’s in plain sight in Hal’s origin story and in the thousands of other Green Lanterns throughout the universe, including the three others from Earth. This Jordan-worship must also ignore the five bonus Justice League episodes included on the special edition DVD and the Blu-ray (the two-part “The Once and Future Thing” and “Hearts and Minds,” and “The Return”), which use an entirely different Green Lantern to no ill effect. Finally, I don’t think it bodes well when it takes this many featurettes just to bring potential readers up to speed on a massive comic book crossover event and convince them that one of the major characters is really interesting.
Rounding out the special features are a look ahead at the next DC Animated movie, Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, as well as all the previous “sneak previews” that were released with prior movies. A crossover episode of Duck Dodgers, “The Green Loontern,” provides some much needed comic relief from the Green Lantern worship, or it would if the episode were a lot funnier than it is. Sadly, there is no commentary track for this movie as there have been on the other DC Animated DVDs, and I’m still disappointed that we have yet to get a decent “making of” video that goes deeper behind the scenes at making one of these things than we get from the sneak previews.
On technical levels, Green Lantern: First Flight probably is the best DC Animated film made yet. However, even though its “just the facts, ma’am” attitude is fitting for the genre, I find it also leaves me cooler and less emotionally involved than on earlier films despite its technical accomplishments, especially compared to Wonder Woman. In Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee famously instructed one of his disciples to kick him “with emotional content.” It’s not enough to have perfect technique, because without that emotional content, you’re just waving your hands and feet around. It’s not that Green Lantern: First Flight has no emotional content, but Wonder Woman‘s hot-blooded passion was enough to get one to forgive its plot holes, geographic impossibilities, and magical hand-waving. Green Lantern: First Flight is very good, and even hits greatness in some aspects, but ultimately feels like the superhero equivalent of Law & Order. It’s formulaic, and even though the formula works and the execution is unquestionably well done in almost every aspect, you can’t quite escape the sense that you must have seen this one before and you just can’t remember how it ended.