In Brightest Day… (a criticism of criticism)

I really, really, really liked Green Lantern.  I liked it so much, in fact, that I’m actively annoyed that other people are so down on it.  I don’t care if people disliked it.  I don’t mind if people call it bad.  But the virulent venom aimed at this particular flick is just not warranted.

I have a simple rule.  If people start complaining about set design or CGI, they’re usually just expressing a strong hostility toward the film they’re watching.  It’s not that I think there isn’t such a thing as good and bad set design, subtle or sloppy CGI.  I just think that complaints about these elements come from a complete lack of cooperation from the audience.  I don’t care what story you’re telling or how well you tell it.  If the audience doesn’t want to like it, you can’t make them.  Conversely, the opposite is often true.  If someone is determined to enjoy something, they can usually dig out a positive nugget or two.

I’m not out to tackle all the elements of Green Lantern, but I will go ahead and talk about one complaint that always bugs me.  There’s a bunch of people who just can’t seem to accept the fact that CGI is here to stay.  And they also can’t seem to accept the fact that it won’t always be seamless.  These complaints seem so frivolous to me that I almost hate addressing them.  But it comes up again and again, so let’s just do this.

CGI isn’t going away.  It will remain a vital part of modern filmmaking and will only grow more important in the future.  An even more important observation is that CGI isn’t going to fool you into believing the unbelievable.  The job of FX is not to be invisible.  Most of the time, they can’t be.  If there’s a giant monster or a laser or a spaceship, you will know it is fake.  The job of an FX isn’t to convince us these things are real.  It’s to allow us to pretend (along with the film) that they are.

Some of my favorite movies have lousy FX.  The original King Kong, Clash of the Titans, and many others use extensive stop-motion animation.  These FX are actually astonishingly good, but they are “bad” if your definition is that they are clearly FX.  The Muppets are terrific, but they’re clearly puppets.  But what kind of asshole is going to poke a kid watching Sesame Street and constantly remind him of that?

So it is too in Green Lantern that there’s really just no way to make an utterly convincing alien planet populated by thousands of strange life forms and make it completely convincing.  And when Hal Jordan flies through space or fights a giant yellow fear monster, we know it’s mostly special FX.  If we didn’t, we’d be delusional.

Yeah, it’s fake.  We all get it.  The people that can play along aren’t being dumb.  They’re just allowing themselves to enjoy the experience.  And, no, it’s not dumb.  It’s fun and cool and completely ridiculous, but what part of magic green space cop made you think realism was the goal?

Which brings me to my final point.  I know that, even in the world of comic books, fun, outrageous adventure is looked down upon.  People will praise The Dark Knight and X-Men: First Class for being “intelligent” superhero flicks.  They’ll heap compliments on Kick-Ass and Watchmen fore being elaborate deconstructions, kind of.  (Although neither of those films really qualify as deconstructions because they’re very much traditional superhero films, just with more blood and swearing than usual.  But that’s a subject for another time.)  What people don’t seem to be able to do anymore is enjoy a good ol’ fashion fantasy adventure.

The superhero “genre”, however you want to define it, is pretty damn diverse by its very nature.  It’s impossible to compare characters like Batman and the Punisher to characters like Superman and Green Lantern.  Or Green Arrow.  Or Spider-Man.  Or just about any other character.  Not all superheroes are meant to be dark and gritty.  They’re not all meant to be brightness and hope, either.  They are all these things and more.  When I loved superhero comics (though it’s been a while), I loved their diversity most of all.  I could read about the Punisher fighting crime on the streets and the Silver Surfer flying through space.  It was a world where mole people could attack a city, or street thugs with colorful gimmicks could commit crimes.  In short, superheroes work best when they’re treated not as uniform category of fiction but as a sprawling category.

It’s unfair, even downright silly, to expect the same thing from Green Lantern as you would from Batman or X-Men.  Because Green Lantern isn’t that character.  His powers are completely outlandish.  His universe is utterly fantastic sci fi.  It’s not a lack of “sophistication” to write a Green Lantern movie where our hero gets his heroic mantle then saves the day by destroying a giant yellow fear monster.  It’s not “childish” for a film to have a good guy who is obviously good and a bad guy who is obviously bad.  And it’s perfectly fine for some stories to be about kicking ass in the name of justice.

Also, it’s okay to say that Green Lantern has some very strange powers that are goofy if taken at face value.  Sure, he makes catapults and race cars and swords out of pure willpower.  That’s what makes him unique and interesting as both a superhero.  It’s the kind of silly conceit that makes no apologies.  (Which is another thing that always irks me.  I hate apologetic fantasy, especially apologetic superheroes.  But again, another topic for another day.)

It occurs to me that I haven’t discussed the specifics of Green Lantern much.  Possibly because I was less annoyed by the critics of the film than by the flimsiness of these recurring criticisms.  So let’s talk about the film itself.

Green Lantern will no doubt have the same problem Thor has.  It crosses an invisible line that most superhero films avoid.  While Iron Man and Batman Begins are both about superheroes, they’re largely grounded in the real world.  And even characters like the Hulk and Superman, while incredibly powerful, are human and human-like.  They also live and work on Earth.

But Green Lantern (like Thor) is a very sci fi character.  While Hal Jordon lives on Earth and mostly hangs around there, he still has a link to a much grander universe.  But where Thor is built on established Norse mythology (admittedly loosely), Green Lantern is an entirely original mythology.  And it’s probably even a bit stranger than Thor’s.  After all, millions of years ago, immortal aliens created a bunch of magic rings that they hand out to worthy beings to act as cosmic law enforcement officers.  At least the Asgardians (and their foes) are human and human-like.

There’s a scene that encapsulates everything great about Green Lantern and everything wrong with Green Lantern, depending on your point of view.  It’s when Hal Jordan is on Oa, surrounded by countless other Green Lanterns.  The movie could’ve played it safe and avoided anything too weird.  Just slap a few rubber forehead aliens in the scene and keep it simple.  Instead, we see an incredibly diverse group of creatures.  There’s a giant bug lantern, a rock lantern, a robot lantern, and so on.  (Side note:  If DC decides to make the robot lantern an official character and is looking for someone to write the story, I happily volunteer.)

Your reaction to this scene will probably tell you everything you need to know about the movie.  If you think it’s “cheesy”, “silly”, or “dumb”, then you are not the kind of person who should go to see a movie about a magic green space cop.  If you (like me) think this is awesome, then you should go ahead and ignore the negative reviews.

Really.  That’s all you need to know.

The acting is good.  The story is fine.  The FX are more than solid.  There are thrills, fun, and at one point, a giant yellow fear monster gets punched in the face by a huge green energy fist.  And if that doesn’t convince you that this is everything a sci fi superhero spectacular should be, then save us all the trouble and don’t bother.  Some of us are here to have a good time, and we don’t need you harshing our mellow.

Oh, and one last thing.  The movie isn’t dumb just because it’s fun.  If being smart always has to equal depressing and dull, then it’s no wonder we take such a dim view of intelligence.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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4 Comments

  1. Nolly
    Posted June 21, 2011 at 2:49 am | Permalink

    I haven’t seen Green Lantern; I don’t know if I will. This comment is not about the movie.

    You say “CGI isn’t going to fool you into believing the unbelievable. The job of FX is not to be invisible.” I disagree — sometimes, it the movie sucks enough people so far in that disbelief isn’t suspended; it’s in an anti-gravity field.

    When the first PotC started being nominated for FX awards; I heard more than one person say something along the lines of “It had effects? Oh…yeah, I guess it did.” Obviously, there’s no way the actors could become skeletons without CGI. But it was so seamless, so believable, that no one I know questioned it. Further, the sails, waves, etc. were largely CGI, but details like that were even less visible.

    Now, obviously, not everyone has Disney’s budget, and that kind of work is _pricey_. But, like any tech, prices will and have been falling, and eventually, I don’t think it will be anything visual that gives it away.

    I suspect there’s already a lot of invisible CGI FX in a lot of movies that no one who’s not an expert notices.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted June 21, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      My point isn’t whether or not FX can be seamless. (Though I’d argue that the zombie pirates on POTC, though well done, are still obviously effects.) It’s that complaints about FX are usually groundless in my opinion, a nitpicky way of saying “I have decided not to like this movie”.

      It’s unfair and almost always an illegitimate complaint. It’s like readers who complain about a typo. Or movie goers who seem to be obsessed with how many times they can spot the boom mike. If the audience is bound and determined to not enjoy the illusion, there’s no way for a story to work.

      It’s the cooperation between the storyteller and audience that makes a story function. FX are merely a tool toward that end. And if the audience wants to shake their heads and wag their fingers because they can spot a bit of imperfect CGI or a hanging wire, then I suggest the story’s failure isn’t the storyteller’s fault, but the audience’s complete disinterest in cooperation.

      You can’t tell a great story. You can only tell a story and hope someone finds it great

  2. Nolly
    Posted June 22, 2011 at 3:02 am | Permalink

    Sure, the pirates are obviously FX if you stop to think about it; some viewers were too caught up in the story to do that. But the sails, waves, etc. were no so obvious, at least to me.

    And noticing problems with FX can be a sign of not being sufficiently engaged by the story. That’s going to be something that’s different for every viewer; my favorite story ever will not work at all for someone else, regardless of medium. The ratio of engaged to unengaged will vary from work to work, and if the unengaged outweigh the engaged by a large enough margin, that likely is a sign of poor storytelling.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted June 22, 2011 at 4:41 am | Permalink

      I agree that it can indeed be a sign of poor storytelling when people get nitpicky about things like FX. On the other hand, it can also be a sign that the audience is simply refusing to cooperate with the storyteller at all.

      The problem is that it’s rarely obvious which of these two things is happening. In the end, if someone complains about the story itself then I tend to find this more valid than complaints about CGI or FX, which tend to spring from a more hostile place.

      It’s almost impossible to win over a hostile audience. And almost impossible to do anything to offend a receptive one. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with admitting that, though I don’t mean to offer it as an excuse for failed work. Just because there’s a negative reaction to a movie, book, etc., that doesn’t mean it’s high art. And just because people love something that doesn’t mean it’s commercial pablum. And vice versa.

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