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Movies that were supposed to launch franchises (but didn’t): Green Lantern

It’s superhero movie season.  But then again, what time of year isn’t these days?  As we brace ourselves for the release of Zach Snyder’s Justice League next week, we’re looking back at the movie which was supposed to kick of Warner Brothers’ slate of DC Comics-based movies.  Marvel makes it look easy with the success of their Cinematic Universe.  But Green Lantern reminds us of everything that can (and did) go wrong.

Warner Brothers had been kicking around the idea of a Green Lantern movie for decades.  In the 90’s, they approached writer-director Kevin Smith about the idea.  Smith had just had his script for Superman Lives rejected by Tim Burton and he had doubts about his ability to take on an effects-heavy movie like Green Lantern.  Based on Smith’s filmography to that point, you have to wonder what Warner Brothers was thinking.  Nothing Smith had made before or since suggests he has what it takes to direct a tentpole movie.  But the suits at Warner Brothers have never understood the DC Comics properties, so they just assumed that as a comic book fan Smith would be qualified.

That’s probably the same thinking that lead to the studio approaching Quentin Tarantino.  Can you imagine a Green Lantern movie written and directed by the auteur responsible for Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill?  Tarantino wasn’t specific about his involvement in the project, but from his comments it seems pretty clear that the director would have wanted more creative control than the studio was willing to give him.

Then there was the infamous Jack Black Green Lantern movie.  Robert Smigel, best known as the creator of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, wrote a comedic take on the character.  His concept was that Green Lantern didn’t have to do anything to be a superhero.  He was just a guy with a ring.  So he wrote his script about a lazy reality TV star who is given a Green Lantern ring by accident.  Jack Black initially turned down the movie, but he changed his mind after reading the script.  Then word got out about the project and the negative fan reaction caused Warner Brothers to go in a different direction.

They turned to Greg Berlanti for a more serious Green Lantern script.  Currently Berlanti is the show-runner on the CW’s slate of DC superhero TV shows.  He teamed up with comic book writers Michael Green and Marc Guggenheim to pen a traditional superhero movie script.  Originally, Berlanti was supposed to direct the movie.  But instead, he was moved to a different project and Martin Campbell was hired to helm Green Lantern.

That decision is understandable.  Berlanti had worked primarily in television.  He may have been in over his head directing a big budget movie like Green Lantern.  Campbell wasn’t an obvious choice either.  He had never made an effects-heavy movie.  But he had directed two successful James Bond movies launching the Brosnan and Craig eras with Goldeneye and Casino Royale.  That experience suggests that Campbell would be collaborative.

Unfortunately, the director butted heads with the studio from the beginning.  Campbell’s first and only choice for the role of Hal Jordan was Bradley Cooper.  But Warner Brothers had their eye on Ryan Reynolds.  In the first of many decisions, Campbell was overruled and Reynolds was cast over Cooper.  The fact that Campbell was stuck with a leading man he didn’t want reportedly lead to clashes on the set.

According to Reynolds, he agreed to star in the movie without having seen the script because at that point, there wasn’t one.  After decades of sitting on Green Lantern, the studio was starting to worry about their competition.  Traditionally, Warner Brothers had been successful with their Batman and Superman movies while Marvel licensed their superheros to studios that butchered them.  But recently, movies based on Marvel characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men had proven popular.  When Marvel had a hit with a B-Lister like Iron Man, Warner Brothers took notice.  They wanted a piece of that action.

The year Green Lantern was released also saw the release of the first Captain America and Thor movies.  Avengers would be released the following year.  Warner Brothers wanted to duplicate Marvel’s success by using Green Lantern to build up to a Justice League movie.  The stakes were high and the suits were feeling the pressure.  They decided that Berlanti’s script was a bit too specific to the Green Lantern mythology.  They wanted something a little more generic, so they hired Michael Goldenberg to rewrite Berlanti’s script.

Another problem was that Warner Brothers had staked out a June 2011 release date.  That’s common practice these days – especially in a summer movie season crowded with other superhero movies.  The studio was determined to have the movie ready for that release date come hell or high water which meant keeping to a tight schedule.  Shooting had to be pushed back to accommodate script revisions and casting continued into shooting.  While filming, Reynolds suffered a shoulder injury which added further delays.

The pressure only intensified during post-production.  The studio basically froze Campbell out of the editing process.  DC Comics editor Geoff Johns and Warner executive Jeff Robinov had input into the final cut.  Large chunks of the movie ended up on the cutting room floor leaving narrative holes that no longer made sense.  Meanwhile, special effects were running behind schedule.  Warner Brothers has effects teams working overtime to have the movie ready for their June release date.  The end result was crappy visual effects that added to the movie’s over-sized budget.

Warner Brothers did a full court press to support Green Lantern.  They had an animated series, video games, toys and theme park attractions tied into the movie’s promotional campaign.  They also had a script in flight for the sequel they assumed would follow and their were also plans to make a Flash movie which would be set in the same universe.  Everything was in place.  All they needed was for Green Lantern to be a hit.

Unfortunately, the movie opened to terrible reviews and flopped at the box office.  In  2008, Marvel’s Iron Man made over $300 million dollars on a budget of around $140 million.  Green Lantern struggled to get past $100 million dollars which was roughly half as much as it cost to make.  Plans for sequels and spin-offs were quickly cancelled.  Instead, Warner Brother looked to Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel to launch their superhero universe.

More Movies that were supposed to…

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Posted on November 9, 2017, in Movies, movies that were supposed to..., Super Heroes and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. They should have known that Green Lantern comics were never nearly as popular as other Superhero comics. I’ll bet a lot of movie goers never heard of the Green Lantern.

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    • Believe it or not, around the time that the movie came out Green Lantern was the second-best selling DC Comics character behind Batman. His books (and there were many) were outselling X-Men (which were in a slump). Geoff Johns took over the GL book in 2004 and returned Hal Jordan to the lead role (for about a decade, he had been replaced by a new character). As the book’s popularity grew, so did Johns’ influence. Today Johns, is the president and Chief Creative Officer at DC. After he left Green Lantern, the books’ popularity leveled off, but he’s still a lot more popular than he used to be.

      From WB’s perspective, if Marvel could launch a massive franchise on the back of a B-lister like Iron Man, there was no reason they couldn’t do the same thing with their Green Lantern. I think that’s understandable. Execution was a big part of the problem, obviously. Also, GL has a very complicated mythology that needs to be established. For that reason, I’m not sure he was the best foundation for the DCU. One of the advantages of Iron Man is that he’s simple. There’s not a lot to explain. With GL, he has a magic ring that is powered by willpower. I’m a fan and I still don’t know how that works. And he’s also part of an intergalactic corps of space police. That’s a lot to dump on the general public all at once. For comparison, look at how Marvel eased audiences into Thor’s Asgardian backstory. A similar approach could have worked better for GL.

      I think the biggest issue was that they dug in their heels on a release date, panicked about the script they had and dumbed it down at the last minute, and then thew money at the problem in order to make their release date. Plus, there were too many hands on the wheel.

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  2. I would kind of like to see what that Jack Black version would have looked like. Obviously it wouldn’t have led to a connected universe with multiple sequels, but it could have been funny. Green Lantern’s core concepts are kind of goofy to begin with, and only strong writing made fans take him seriously in the books. I was never a DC guy, but I had multiple friends who loved GL.

    It seems like apart from the problems you detailed that they took the wrong approach by casting the lead with a quippy guy like Reynolds. Hal Jordan always impressed me as possessing more weight than that as a character. If they really wanted humor in the picture that could have been achieved by letting other characters comment on situations while a basically humorless Green Lantern takes his situation completely seriously.

    Honestly, the guy’s weakness is to the color yellow. Give me a no2 pencil and I could take on him and Power Girl.

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    • I haven’t read Robert Smigel’s script yet, but I am tempted to do so. I hear it is funny. If you are curious, it is available to read on-line. Smigel said he did a lot of research on Green Lantern mythology because he figured the only way it would be funny would be if he got all the details right. So he tried to take the world seriously and then stick Jack Black in the middle to wreak havoc. It would have crossed over with the rest of the DCU a little more than you might suspect. spoilers The script ends with a large asteroid hurtling towards earth. Having gotten a bit cocky, Black’s character decides the easiest way to save earth is to move it out of the way of the oncoming rock. This causes all kinds of natural disasters of course. So Black’s character, remembering Superman: The Movie, conjures up Superman and let’s him travel back in time to fix everything. Smigel said the sequel would be Green Lantern sitting around while Superman did all the work.

      Like the Tim Burton Superman, I will make sure to check out the Jack Black Green Lantern should I ever find myself in an alternate universe where it got made. It can’t be worse than Batman V Superman.

      People have been complaining for years that Ryan Reynolds was miscast as Hal Jordan. And they are sort of right. It depends on your point of view. The character as written was much more like Hal’s comic book replacement, Kyle Rayner. I don’t think anyone would argue that Reynolds is a bad fit for that character. When Geoff Johns came back and relaunched the Green Lantern comic books with Hal returning to the lead role, he revamped the character quite a bit. 21st century Hal Jordan is a bit of a hot head. He went around sucker-punching people a lot in Johns’ stories.

      I felt like Johns was working too hard to make Hal “cool” for this kids. But it worked. As for the movie, I thought Ryan was a good-enough fit for the script as written. But I agree with Martin Campbell that Bradley Cooper would have been better.

      I realize you are having fun and Green Lantern and Power Girl’s expense, but those weaknesses have been done away with. They were relics of the Silver Age when every character had to emulate Superman.

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  3. What Went Wrong With the 2011 Green Lantern Movie?

    http://www.denofgeek.com/us/movies/green-lantern/252971/what-went-wrong-with-the-2011-green-lantern-movie

    In 2011 Warner Bros tried to launch the DC Extended Universe with Green Lantern. It didn’t work out.

    Studio interference

    While Marvel Studios pretty much has the run of their own cinematic universe as far as the studio bods at Disney are concerned, Green Lantern followed in a long line of DC Comics movies at Warner Bros that were largely overseen by the studio’s executives. Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies, Catwoman, and Jonah Hex all smack of ham-handed meddling by producers who don’t understand the material, but you rarely see a film with so many hands on it ending up as paint-by-numbers as this one.

    In summer 2008, The Dark Knight became a box office phenomenon and Warner Bros. started looking in earnest to see how they could bring more DC properties to the screen. Greg Berlanti co-wrote a script with comic book writers Michael Green and Marc Guggenheim and Warner assigned Berlanti to direct it, with the same team on standby to make a film version of The Flash set in the same continuity, if Green Lantern was a success.

    However, Berlanti was reassigned to the studio’s This Is Where I Leave You and in February 2009, Martin Campbell replaced him in the director’s seat. Having previously reinvented Zorro and James Bond (twice), Campbell’s appointment was not necessarily a bad omen, but in retrospect, it seems like the first misstep to take someone who knew the material off the project in favor of a reliable hand who hadn’t directed a CG-heavy feature like this before.

    Additionally, Michael Goldenberg was brought in to rewrite the script by Berlanti, Green, and Guggenheim – having previously wrangled the most unwieldy Harry Potter tome The Order Of The Phoenix into one of the zippiest scripts of that franchise, it also seems like the writer was brought in to rein things in. The original draft is online if you know where to look for it and all of the changes for the final film seem designed to make it more of a generic superhero origin story, when the potential is there for a space opera cop movie.

    It might be puzzling to wonder why the studio wanted to retain creative control after reaping the rewards of Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman. The answer probably lies in 2006’s Superman Returns, Bryan Singer’s loving follow-up to Superman and Superman II, which underperformed at the global box office and got lukewarm reviews on arrival.

    Perhaps out of a desire to play it safe, it was a different story behind the scenes on Green Lantern. Apparently, Campbell’s first and only choice for the lead role was Bradley Cooper, but the studio courted Reynolds for the role instead, leading to reported clashes between the director and the star on set. Insider reports about heavy-duty reshoots in January 2011, a last minute 3D conversion and the studio taking the final cut away from Campbell continued in the run-up to its release.

    Everyone from DC’s Geoff Johns to Warner executive Jeff Robinov got involved in the fraught editing process and frankly, the results speak for themselves. Huge chunks of the film don’t make a whole bunch of sense while you’re watching it, most criminally of all in the leftfield mid-credits stinger, in which Sinestro, who has just given a speech about how his faith in the Green Lanterns as a force to fight fear, puts on the yellow fear ring out of nowhere and gives a little ominous sigh, to set him up as a villain in the sequel. That’s what Sinestro does in the comics, of course, but like so many other decisions here, it doesn’t ring true for the characters in the film adaptation.

    “The ring’s limits are only what you can imagine,” Tomar-Re intones, but the studio meddling gave us a film with no shortage of ideas, but a severe lack of imagination in the execution. How else does the film’s big setpiece involve Hal conjuring up a giant race track in order to give the film a merchanding tie-in with Hot Wheels?

    Green and animated

    The ring constructs lack definition, but the emerald animation of race tracks, giant fists, and heavy artillery actually winds up being the most believable effect in the movie. They look fine because they don’t need definition like other computer generated creations and that’s where the movie truly becomes one of the worst-looking $200 million films ever made.

    For starters, as referenced in the trailer for Deadpool, the Lanterns’ uniforms are green and animated, rather than actual costumes, a creative decision that has mixed results in practice. On Hal, the luminescent second skin doesn’t look too bad, recalling a better version of the kind of costume designs that WB were after in Tim Burton’s Superman Lives in the 1990s, but it only looks right without the cartoonish CG mask that sporadically appears on him when he needs to hide his secret identity.

    As for the other, non-human Lanterns, the CG is universally terrible. Posters for the film teased the extraordinary array of species that would feature in the film, but the effects seem to have limited what was possible. A lot of the non-speaking characters in the movie look like concept art on the poster and they don’t look much better when we see them in motion.

    A bad stereoscopic conversion could explain how every scene set on the Lanterns’ planet Oa looks swampy and light-deprived, but it truly looks as awful in 2D as in 3D. The underpowered prologue seems designed for 3D, which is the clearest sign that it was a last minute addition by the studio, but again, the effects can’t back it up. The nearest comparison would be to the overly digital look of the Star Wars prequel, but dimmer and less focused – it really takes the majesty out of it.

    We haven’t even got to Parallax, a stunningly misjudged creation, from design to execution. This giant yellow cloud represents a villain whose name couldn’t be more reminiscent of a laxative and seems to have unwisely taken a cue from the derided portrayal of Galactus at the end of 2007’s Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer. Even with the ominous vocals of Clancy Brown, who has voiced Lex Luthor in various animated DC adaptations, the threat is utterly risible from its very first appearance and it doesn’t get any easier to take it seriously from there.

    The film’s harried schedule seems to have been its downfall in the VFX department. The meddling led to a run-on post-production schedule. Voice actors Rush and Michael Clarke Duncan were cast very late in the day, just months before the film’s release – even though Tomar-Re and Kilowog weren’t performance capture characters, that had to affect the alignment of actor and animation. The studio also had to tack an additional $9 million onto the effects budget two months before release, which mostly seems to have gone on getting it finished in time rather than sprucing it up to a decent standard.

    Bad effects are all relative, but the fundamentally bad consequence of this really affects the other Green Lanterns within the story. Before the climax of the movie, Hal goes all the way to Oa to appeal for help from the Corps, but winds up fighting Parallax alone, probably because it wouldn’t have been possible to finish the film on time with a bunch of CG characters to animate, on top of the villain and the hero’s super-duds. Sinestro and a few others show up after the fight is done, but having set them up as great warriors all the way through, this feels utterly wrong-footed.

    You could generously say that the reach exceeds the film’s grasp, but once again, this film cost $200 million. With that amount of money, it’s only an endless run of bad creative decisions that leads you to a massive intergalactic corps of endlessly unique aliens that isn’t even as cool or as interesting as Scott Pilgrim’s Vegan Police. Collectively, they’re only a little more interesting than our hero.

    Adventure goes to voicemail

    But herein lies the biggest problem with the film – Hal Jordan is a complete a**hole from beginning to end and it comes not from his Tony Stark-brand cockiness or bravado, but from his status as superhero cinema’s first inaction hero.

    At some point in the first act, the call to adventure or responsibility will be directed at our hero and they’ll let it go to voicemail, until something shakes them out of their indifference. Even if you’ve never touched Save The Cat or similar screenwriting guides, you know this bit – Luke Skywalker can’t go to Alderaan because he’s late getting home; Sarah Connor can’t believe that she gives birth to the savior of the future; Peter Parker lets a mugger go when he could easily have stopped him.

    These beats always take place early in a story and are quickly followed by a change of heart, often spurred by a tragic point of no return. Thanks to Green Lantern, you don’t have to imagine how annoying it would be if a hero spent most of the story refusing the call. The man who is chosen above all others on Earth to fearlessly defend our part of the galaxy spends most of the movie being passively ferried from one incident to the next by his magic ring, receiving pep talks from friends and family who really ought to be done with him by this point, and has quit his duty by the midpoint of the movie.

    Yep, you read that right. Our hero quits before he even has to do anything. He still gets to keep the ring – the original draft had Sinestro gravely explain that it is bound to him until he dies “in battle or elsewhere,” but this is glossed over in the movie. Hal’s arc in the movie is not about learning to be fearless, but learning to overcome fear, which would be fine if we saw him affected by fear in action rather than being crippled by fear of any number of things, from memories of his father, to commitment to Carol, to a friendly training beatdown by Kilowog and Sinestro.

    The script seems to define acts as divisions of the story, rather than actual decisive moves on Hal’s part. Only when he makes an appearance to save people at the Ferris Air party does Hal actually check his 37 missed calls to adventure and makes an active decision to do something. Up until then, he make decidedly unheroic choices, like destroying millions of dollars worth of aircraft to prove a point that hobbles his own employers and, of course, quitting being a Green Lantern.

    It doesn’t help that Reynolds is misdirected, leaning in favor of smug irony (Bradley Cooper probably would have eaten this shit up and grinned while he did it) rather than earnestness or valor or any of the usual qualities you want from a space cop-cum-superhero.

    Reynolds is charismatic and likeable as hell, and there’s no one more in need of a McConaissance-style comeback (Reynaissance, anyone?) than him. He tries his damnedest here, but compared to the brilliant on-the-spot performance of the Green Lantern oath he gave to a young fan at Comic Con in 2010 (which won Reynolds the goodwill of all who live), his Hal is as mirthless and charmless as the script allows.

    In an interview about Deadpool last year, Reynolds told Yahoo! Movies: “When we shot Green Lantern, nobody auditioning for the role of Green Lantern was given the opportunity to read the script, because the script didn’t exist. I’m not complaining about it – it was an opportunity of a lifetime, and if I were to go back and retrace my steps, I would probably do everything the exact same way.”

    He also said “I’ve since learned that a lot of superhero movies don’t really have a fully functioning draft of the screenplay ready until they’re already well into shooting.”

    It couldn’t have hurt in this case though, could it?

    What went right?

    It’s hard to find nice things to say about this movie, but it’s not all irretrievably bad.

    Though wasted, Mark Strong’s Sinestro is up there with JK Simmons’ J. Jonah Jameson as an interpretation of the character that most fans would agree deserves another run in whatever the next version of the property is. In a movie mired by shoddy CG characters, he makes his sunburnt David Niven look completely credible and the merest hint of what might have been if Sinestro had been given his due as Hal’s mentor-turned-nemesis does wonders for its watchability.

    Other than Strong, Peter Sarsgaard is by far the most entertainingly invested cast member, turning his hammy Hector Hammond up to eleventy-stupid with ridiculous wails and Malkovichian intensity. He gets a good shake before the poo monster shows up, but so many of the other supporting characters are wasted, including Angela Bassett’s Amanda Waller, presumably serving Nick Fury duty for the intended DC franchise, and Tim Robbins’ Senator Hammond.

    Plus, even though it’s a gag that further breaks the film, we have a soft spot for Blake Lively’s ad lib when Hal goes through the motions of the “Superman visits Lois Lane” scene and she immediately recognizes him. “I’ve seen you naked,” she tells him incredulously, “I’ve known you my whole life! You don’t think I would recognize you because I can’t see your cheekbones?” It takes away the need for the rubbish mask altogether, but outside of keeping the hero on the bench for an hour and change, that’s the closest the film ever gets to subverting conventions.

    Aftermath

    Michael Goldenberg was assigned to write Green Lantern 2 a whole year before the first film hit cinemas, but the studio’s confidence in the film turned out to be misplaced. In just about every way that Iron Man went right, Green Lantern went wrong and the result was critically panned. Audiences steered clear too, and the eventual worldwide box office take of $219 million wasn’t enough for Warner Bros to push ahead with the planned sequels.

    The following year, Christopher Nolan released the final chapter in his Dark Knight trilogy before moving on to produce Man Of Steel, Zack Snyder’s Superman film, which has become the new foundation stone for a DC cinematic universe. Amanda Waller will be back on screen this summer, now played by Viola Davis, as one of the main movers and shakers in Suicide Squad, and we’re set to see a reboot titled Green Lantern Corps in 2020, after the two-part Justice League movie.

    According to JoBlo, they’re looking at making the film a ”Lethal Weapon in space” with Hal Jordan and John Stewart, another Lantern from Earth, which would be a bit more in line with the cop movie approach that would arguably have benefited this one. But 2020 is a long way away, so we’ll probably glimpse the next incarnation of the Corps in one of the two Justice League movies before they get their own film.

    Meanwhile, DC already has a shared continuity up and running on television, partly because they do have an autonomous production division for that side of things, with none other than Greg Berlanti serving as a creator and executive producer. There’s more convergence going on between Arrow, The Flash, Legends Of Tomorrow, and Supergirl than anything we’ve yet seen on the big screen.

    It’s strange that WB isn’t capitalizing on DC’s TV success by crossing characters like The Flash over into the movies, but they seem set on a slightly different course from Marvel Studios, rather than copying their continuity across various mediums. It remains to be seen if that will work out for them, but we’ve seen what happens when they try to follow suit and maybe this way, history won’t repeat itself.

    Is 2011’s Green Lantern the worst DC movie? No, because it’s not as bad as Catwoman or Jonah Hex and it would take something truly abysmal to set a new nadir for these movies. But despite hewing to instructions from the Ladybird Book of Making Superhero Movies at every possible point, it still turned out to be an absolute mess, full of lousy dialogue, lousier CGI, and squandered potential. Green Lantern Corps will likely be a very different proposition and by that point, you can probably let this one escape your sight.

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