Beemer (dr_tectonic) wrote,

Fixing Green Lantern (long)

We watched Green Lantern recently, and I have to say it was... not great. I mean, it wasn't a full-on failure, not actively bad, but I wouldn't give it a grade of more than about a C-minus.

To summarize the analysis that Film Crit Hulk just tosses out as an example in his rather brilliant essay on why the 3 act structure sucks, the problem with the movie is that while a lot of stuff happens, Hal Jordan doesn't really do anything. There's only one point where he makes a decision that creates a meaningful change in the narrative. The story has no pre-existing conflict that gets exacerbated, ramified, twisted, and intensified before resolution, so there's no narrative momentum and no arc of character development; it's just a big pile of acting and FX.

And here, I think a large portion of the problem lies with the source material. I'll admit that I'm not much of a DC comics guy, but as I understand Green Lantern, Hal Jordan is not a character with conflict built-in to his concept. He's a fearless cocky fighter-pilot kinda guy, and then he gets a magic ring that runs on willpower, which chose him specifically because he was well-suited for it, being a fearless cocky fighter-pilot kinda guy with lots of willpower, and... that's it. He has exactly what he needs to do be a superhero, the end. He fights against enemies whose powers are based on "fear" (and more on that later), but he's not an innately fearful kind of guy, and even if he was, having a magic ring that can do literally anything you can imagine will go a long way toward building self-confidence. So... what's interesting about this setup, again?

Okay, so maybe he's iconic instead of dramatic. Lots of superheroes are. Superman is the ultimate boy scout (or maybe an angel). Batman's the dark vigilante. What's Hal Jordan? Well, supposedly, he's a space policeman. That could work. There's a lot of potential in policing. Except... what law is he upholding? The Lantern Oath just talks about "evil". Nobody ever talks about any kind of universal law the Lanterns are supposed to enforce, and there certainly weren't any bits in the movie where they went over the rules he has to follow. And frankly, it seems kind of poor judgment for the ring to pick a maverick rule-breaker who won't follow orders if his job is to be a policeman.

And if the Green Lantern Corps are cosmic policemen, why is their power source "willpower"? Willpower is useful to a cop, but it's not the defining characteristic of policing. It's kind of arbitrary. And once you get into all the other Lantern Corps(esses), it only gets worse. They're based off seven fundamental emotions, right? First off, willpower is not an emotion. And it may work against fear, but it's not its opposite -- that would be hope. And why those particular seven emotions? If they're supposed to be primal elements, why is compassion (a complex and intellectual emotion) in there, but not sorrow? Where are the missing counterparts: generosity, gratitude, and hate to match avarice, anger, and love? Why set up equal numbers of positive and negative emotions in almost-opposition without pairing them off properly? And this is without even getting into the issue of how poorly the actions and motivations of various characters match up with the emotions their powers supposedly derive from.

Okay. I wouldn't have written this much just to gripe. The concept of the Lanterns is pretty nifty, and I wish it had the coherence and resonance that it deserves. And I had some ideas.

First off, if you just wanted to fix Green Lantern the character, that's pretty easy. Make him a cosmic policeman, and then follow through on that. Dispense with the whole willpower and vulnerability to yellow thing as irrelevant. What's important to cop stories are the law and the boundaries of the law. So maybe he can only use his powers to combat threats to the cosmos or the timestream. Or he could be charged with upholding a universal law that sometimes is in conflict with human law. Or maybe his job is to uphold the local law, whatever that is. What's interesting about the character is that he's got unlimited power that he can use to do anything at all -- but at the same time, he's highly limited by rules to use it only in specific ways. That's an interesting tension that you could build all kinds of stories around.

But I like this emotional spectrum notion, and if you want to fix all the Lantern Corps, you have to try to untangle that whole mess. It's got three positive emotions and three negative emotions, and they're kinda-sorta set up in opposition (although only in a simplistic way), but the whole arrangement (and its problems) hinge on neutralish green, in the middle, which represents willpower. And, as mentioned before, WILLPOWER IS NOT AN EMOTION.

So let's start there.

We've got a superhero who uses sheer force of will to bring things into existence. What would you feel, what would you need to feel to make that power work? I'd say probably something like confidence. That's an emotion. Self-confidence, a feeling of sureness that you can do it, pride in your ability.

Oh-ho. Pride. Now that's quite interesting, because while confidence is a positive emotion, its sibling pride is only one tick away from the negatives of arrogance and hubris. If pride is what drives the power of the ring, we've now got dramatic tension built-in to the character at the very deepest level. A Green Lantern will need to cultivate his self-confidence to be effective, but also maintain constant vigilance against going too far.

Isn't that exactly the tension that we see in Hal Jordan at the beginning of the movie? He's cocky because he's an excellent fighter pilot and he knows it, and that's why they want him flying in the demo -- but then, precisely because of that self-confidence, he slides over into hubris, refuses to follow orders, and in his arrogance destroys not only his plane but the careers of all his friends and the company itself, and still he has no doubts that he was right. His strength is also his weakness. The ring doesn't pick him because he's fearless, it picks him because he's the most cocksure but still non-evil individual on the entire planet.

And it dovetails beautifully with the "cosmic policeman" concept. He's got power unavailable to ordinary people, and the only thing keeping it in check is his own self-restraint. That's precisely what we worry about with real-world policemen, but now it's amped up to 11. Go back to the movie and think about the training scenes on Oa. Instead of trying to justify some weird reluctant-hero subplot that doesn't do anything but pad out the running time, wouldn't it have been a lot more interesting if Hal knew that he could do this and was all over it (which is far more consistent with his character as established at that point), and what the other Lanterns were doing was trying to deflate his ego and teach him that actually he's not all that and a bag of chips?

Part of what's enjoyable about origin story movies is seeing the character who doesn't quite fit get the rough edges sanded off so that they snap precisely into the mental hole we've got ready for them. Wouldn't it be great to see the guy from the beginning of the movie, who's a little bit of a jerk in his cockiness, get a measure of comeuppance, and then... accept it gracefully? To be given power and choose to use it wisely -- that's somebody you admire as a hero.

So now we've got an articulation of the power of the green lantern that encompasses a light side and a dark side that are intimately entwined with one another, two sides of the same coin, in constant dramatic tension. And that seems to work pretty well. Let's see if we can salvage the rest of the emotional spectrum by doing the same thing with the other colors. Come up with a pair of good and bad (generally selfless and selfish) versions of the same vibe and see how they play off one another.

Blue is the color of hope, and it requires green to actually do anything. Which is... kinda boring, if you ask me. It just doesn't seem right that phenomenal cosmic power should be passive. Plus, if you have to say in words like "Hope is nothing without will to enact it" to make a big thematic statement, it's just not as interesting as doing it with actions.

But there are some promising details for blue if you dig into the backstory. The blue lanterns, it turns out, were founded by a pair of Oans who were banished for embracing their emotions and their love for one another. Well now! That sounds like something a whole lot more motivating than simple hope at work. I'm going to take a lover, rebel against my whole culture, and go off to found a whole new organization because I hope that it's a good idea? I don't think so. To do something like that, you have to want it. You need drive and desire. You need -- a-ha -- passion. And what is passion when it's selfish? Why, lust, of course. Which certainly fits with the two founders forsaking everything for the sake of one another.

So that's interesting. More interesting, I think, than "hope, which is useless on its own". Let's forge onward.

Indigo is the color of compassion. The source material on the Indigo Tribe is, as yet, still a bit thin and focused on their mysteriousity, but we won't let that stop us.

Their schtick, such as it is, is that they don't really have their own set of powers, but can mimic those of the other lanterns. They apparently don't feel much in the way of their own emotions, either, but perceive the emotions of others. I'd call that empathy, really, with compassion simply being empathy with a particularly selfless bent.

So how do we put a negative spin on empathy? Let's look at that 'borrowing power' angle. The Indigo Tribe have nothing of their own; instead, they focus on what others have. Add a little bit of selfishness to that and it sounds a lot like envy. Lose the detachment, and the indigo focus on others becomes a covetousness for what they have and you don't. You could draw that out into a psychic vampire kind of thing, where Indigo Tribe members gone bad are prone to stirring up all kinds of drama so they can feel something vicariously.

Enh, it's not the greatest thing in the world, but it'll do. There might be a more interesting elaboration to explore if Indigo wasn't such an enigma.

Violet is the color of love, which bodes interestingly. But then it turns out that the violet lanterns are not a lantern corps per se but the Star Sapphires, who are hot babes in skimpy costuemes that convert other lantern users to violet by imprisoning them inside purple crystals until they're brainwashed converted, and the incarnation of violet energy is named "The Predator", and the backstory of the various characters named Star Sapphire has them trying to seduce and enslave and subjugate people and steal the Earth's atmosphere, and it's like, dude. This is "love"? Really? PLEASE SEE A THERAPIST.

But all is not lost! Because if you think about all of that as being the dark side something that in its selfless mode we call love, it starts to come together. Love is caring about other people. This thing is more like wanting other people to care about you. That makes sense out of an awful lot of the Star Sapphire backstory, which is all about this narcissistic desire for Hal Jordan to be in love with her. And remaking people in your own image? That's the ultimate in narcissism. The primary emotion at play here isn't love, but vanity.

And you can see how these could be flip sides of the same coin. Caring about other people, be it selfish or selfless. Of course, there are other ways to invert love. Hate is caring about other people, but negatively. Wanting other people to care negatively about you? Hello, rivalry! Don't care what people think, as long as they're thinking about you? Back to narcissism again. Even loving self-sacrifice taken too far becomes codependency. (Apparently love is a many-sided coin...)

Now, consider that one of the primary Star Sapphires is Carol Ferris, who has an on-again, off-again romantic relationship with Hal Jordan. Think about how complicated real relationships are, and how you can love somebody and hate them at the same time. Star Sapphire is Green Lantern's ex. And she has a cosmic power ring that runs off all of that, not just love, but ALL of those feelings. Aren't the possibilities for interesting story-writing there just... awe-inspiring?

Red is the color of rage, and now we're into the interesting territory of trying to posify the negative emotions. The Red Lanterns are pure, incoherent, animalistic rage. Which is, y'know. Not generally seen in a positive light.

What's interesting, though, is that it's not undirected rage. If you look at the backstories of the Red Lanterns, they all have something in common, which is that they've all been terribly, terribly wronged. (Dex-Starr, the evil kittycat Red Lantern? yes, really His origin story is: sees his owner murdered, is kicked out onto the street, and then gets thrown off the Brooklyn Bridge. And then kitty is crying! OMGSADFOREVER! D: D: D:)

So red isn't just rage, it's also a thirst for revenge. And if you clean vengeance up a bit, that is, put it in a nice suit and give it a sense of proportion and restraint, it becomes justice. That's where anger comes from: it's the emotional response to wrongdoing that urges action and justice.

In other words, take away the crazy from your Red Lanterns, and you've got a group that wants to bring wrongdoers to justice, but that must remain ever-vigilant against going too far and giving in to anger. Gosh, could you write some good superhero stories about that, with all kinds of depth and sophistication? I think you could!

Orange is the color of greed and avarice. This one is tricky, and I'm not entirely sure what to do with it. I mean, greed is selfishness, so if you take that away, you don't have anything left to make selfless.

But let's try. Greed is a desire for more. More more more. As depicted, it's a desire for more stuff, but we've only got one datapoint, so maybe the existing Agent Orange is a bit off-kilter and stuck on a lower level of Maslowe's hierarchy, and he really ought to be wanting more of the higher-up levels of stuff, which would transform that greed into something more like ambition.

Ambition's not bad. It can be selfish or selfless. So maybe that's what orange really ought to be.

Or maybe orange and indigo are our odd colors out, being the essence of selfishness and selflessness, and we need to think of some other axis to give them a positive and negative polarity on.

I'm open to ideas.

And finally that brings us to yellow, which is the color of fear.

Except... it's not, really.

This is the only one other than green where I'll argue that the writers (whether film or comic) are wrong and don't actually understand their own work, but they're wrong, and they don't actually understand their own work.

The thing is, every other color is about what the wielder is feeling and experiencing. And while the Yellow Lanterns / Sinestro Corps use fear, they don't feel it. Some protestations about "learning fear to overcome it" notwithstanding, there's nothing to back up the idea that Sinestro and his Corps are all secret cowards. They never act in a cowardly fashion. They inflict fear, they don't suffer from it. Likewise with the Parallax entity in the movie: it doesn't in any way behave like something whose fundamental emotion is fear. It is fearsome but not fearful.

What do the Yellow Lanterns feel? It looks like mostly they take pleasure in making others fear. They're not cowards, they're bullies. Which makes the yellow emotion not fear at all, but something more like contempt or schadenfreude. Delight in the humiliation of others. It's not quite cruelty, because they're not focused on suffering so much as mortification
and destruction. It's wanting what Conan views as what is best in life: to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women. I saw it called "scorn" somewhere, and that'll probably do.

More evidence: consider Hector Hammond in the movie. He gets infected by the Parallax entity and starts getting telepathic snatches of others' thoughts. Does the Parallax entity make him privy to thoughts that will terrify him? No. The thoughts he overhears are things that humiliate and embarrass him. What does he desire as a result? To destroy them. Again: scorn, not fear.

So. What happens when we take that and twist it around into something selfless and positive? Now we've got a desire to humiliate others -- that is, to abase their pride and break down their ego... but for their own good. Done benevolently. That sounds like a Zen Master kind of thing. Helping someone by breaking down their ego. Actually, that's practically a bodhisattava kind of thing. In its positive mode, the power of yellow seeks to open the mind to enlightenment. (...Which can be kinda scary. So it all fits.)

Think about the outlines of Sinestro's history in that light (so to speak): he starts out as a Green Lantern (one of the greats, even), but succumbs to hubris and kicked out. Now he turns to the power of yellow and fights against the Green Lanterns as one of their worst nemeses. But with yellow as scorn/enlightenment, he doesn't have to do a full 180 and throw away everything he previously stood for the way he would if he's switching from Will to Fear, it's "opposite". Now he's just taking a little bit of a turn; he still believes in the same things he always did, he just thinks that the Lantern Corps is doing it wrong, and needs to be brought down a peg so they'll see it his way. And given the history of the Guardians of Oa, he might even be right! Those guys are so far into hubris-land it's not even funny.

Think about how he interacts with Hal Jordan. Wouldn't it be an amazing twist to find out that actually, somewhere along the way, Sinestro became enlightened and has been working to bring Hal to enlightenment?

So yeah. I think all of that would be interesting and nifty. (And I feel I should finish with a caveat, which is that I haven't read many of these comics. Most of this is based off Wikipedia readings and suchlike, and I'm sure there are vast swaths of important backstory and character arc that I'm ignoring. My goal is not to rain on anybody's favorite bits of parade canon or anything, it's just that I like the broad strokes of the concept, and it feels like to me it comes off as a little lacking in the execution. And this is where my brain goes as a result...)

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