Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Green Lantern: The Choice of Courage

Green Lantern has been getting ripped by the critics, and it doesn't surprise me one bit. Why? Because it gets everything that's good and true about the genre, all the things the critics hate.

I admit that I, too was a bit skeptical about this movie, but for different reasons; I thought it looked a little goofy, as if it were going to make fun of the genre. Having Ryan Reynolds, known for his comedy roles, in the role of fearless Hal Jordan didn't reassure me, either.

I was wrong.

Green Lantern is an example of romanticism, presenting people not as averages, but as heroes. It's a movie that knows what it is, a comic book movie, and furthermore, doesn't apologize for it. That means that the CGI is well-employed in bringing to life the wild, colorful else-worlds and aliens. But more than that, for those who are concerned with "the human element": well, that's there, too. Green Lantern finds the right balance between art and entertainment; the heroes don't wallow in angst or despair, and don't wallow in unnecessary white-middle-class guilt, while the story asks philosophical questions about the nature of courage and heroism. (For those who prefer more philosophy than entertainment, I direct to to Green Lantern and Philosophy: No Evil Shall Escape This Book.)

One recurring criticism I've read is that the movie lacks a "self-deprecating" humor...as if that's a bad thing. In the comics, Hal Jordan is selected because he is "without fear." Rather simplistic, especially in the context of a jet pilot, as Hal Jordon is supposed to be, when you consider the old saying that "there are old pilots, and bold pilots, but no old, bold pilots." If the movie had been that simple, it truly would have sucked, and Ryan Reynolds' brand of humor would have been obnoxious. However, his humor is put to good use. Contra the critics who celebrate the denigration of the self, Reynold's Jordan uses humor as part of his brash brand of "fearlessness," which, in reality, is a mask for what he does fear. This mirrors the situation with the Green Lantern corp, for which he is, seemingly at first, a mistaken choice by the ring. But it turns out that the fearless corp are simply repressing and evading, and thus, vulnerable to fear. Jordan is different, and his story illustrated the idea that courage is not the absence of fear, but the willingness to face that fear. This, despite the critic's claims that the story is thin, is a much-needed improvement to the original comic origin. To quote another sci-fi epic, Dune:

I must not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.

Only I will remain.

Now, this brings us to an interesting philosophical issue, and that is the question of why Jordan is chosen. In the comics origin, it's because he's fearless. But the movie version does, indeed have fear, he just chooses to overcome it. It can be asked, then, was there no one else equally worthy? It does present a plot hole, but it is somewhat addressed by way of the film's human villain, Hector Hammond. Hammond, whose life choices are dominated by fear, infected with an alien presence, manifests powers that work on the fear of others. When Jordan offers Hammond the ring, in exchange for the life of Carol Ferris, he tells Hammond that anyway can be a hero. When Hammond seems to agree and accepts, he says that he lied, prompting Jordan to say that he also lied, that to wield the ring, one must be "chosen." Hammond cannot hurt Jordan with the ring, because Hammond's choice to use fear renders it null. On the surface, this may seem similar to many classic hero stories of "the chosen one" (a recent example being Harry Potter, who, at birth, was "the one who lived,"), but it's crucial to note that, to be chosen by the ring, one must be ready to make the right choice. So, getting to the question of "Why Hal?"; anyone, potentially, can be chosen, but it won't choose just anyone, either.

By choosing courage instead of fear, Jordan doesn't have the need for self-deprecating humor. One doesn't mock what is considered virtuous, and this movie is about virtue. But when the critics talk of self-deprecation, it brings to mind the contrast of career choices between Hammond and Jordan. Jordan has taken risks, while Hammond, who, ironically, is a brilliant scientist, turns down lucrative opportunities out of the belief that he is not worthy. Jordan, by contrast, when praised for his work, notes that it's people like Hammond, the idea guys, who make the men of action possible. This is not presented as self-deprecation, but as honest recognition. But it's also a reminder that the thought and action are not false dichotomies, but enable each other. This movie runs the risk of repeating the "mad scientist" as cliche shtick, but this scene is a welcome antidote to all that.

Yes, there is the self-sacrifice trope to deal with. Although I'd have to see it again to be sure, I felt that it was presented as it was not a self-sacrifice at all, but rather, as "I value this world, and would rather die than to sacrifice it without a fight." A rationally-selfish value, to be protected and defended.

Just like this movie. Instead of re-inventing the same-ol' Superman-Messiah trope, the future of superheroic characters is better served by the lesser-known heroes like Green Lantern, who don't have the same religious baggage, and, therefore, and despite the alien presence, can truly represent humanity as something to be respected, not pitied.