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.