One of the very first posts I wrote on Cinematical was whether or not pure and unsullied heroism was dead in movies. I disagreed at the time and I still do, though some recent Green Lantern news has led me to backtrack a little bit. Just a little, mind you.
Superheroes are pretty much defined by their own label – they are super heroes. Better than good. Larger than life. A finely sculpted Adonis with nary a crack in the marble. When you call someone a superhero, it's because they did something so wonderful that it was out of the ordinary level of heroism – the heroism displayed by soldiers, policemen, firemen and doctors who will always tell you that they were just doing their job. (I don't mean to lessen their job in any way. I'm just trying to classify.) There's Superman, and then there's Backdraft. The appeal of one is that he's unpaid and he can rescue airplanes, whereas the appeal of the other is that regular men and women against fiery odds. They may not always win, whereas Superman always does. Theoretically, we enjoy the superhero stories because of that moral certainty and comfort blanket of goodness. Or we used to.
CHUD caught up with Martin Campbell, who let slip a little about how The Green Lantern will tackle Hal Jordan's origin story. In the comics, Hal was given the ring because he was a modern day Galahad. He was pure of heart, incorruptible, the right human to wield a ring of enormous power. But DC Comics decided that was too boring, especially in comparison to embittered Batman and drunk Tony Stark, so they did a miniseries called Emerald Dawn. The miniseries retconned Hal into a bit of a screw-up. His father dies in a fiery plane wreck, and he carries those demons into a bit of a bad boy persona. He drives drunk, he crashes his car, severely injures his friend, and winds up in jail. Hal receives the ring not because he's the white knight of the crash site, but because he just happened to be there when Abin Sur crashed. It was quite controversial and unpopular, and remains so to this day.
This is the origin story they'll be using. As Campbell says, "[Jordan is the] hotshot military guy who is slightly f***ed up. He screws up a bit. He may be a hotshot as a pilot, but he also has chinks in his armor, which is what makes him interesting. In fact if anybody should not be chosen as Green Lantern, it would have been Hal Jordan. That's the journey that film takes, about somebody who on the surface of it is the least likely candidate to become one of the greatest Green Lanterns." In other words, he's your standard cinema superhero who is becoming a far different animal than the ones on the page.
For The Green Lantern, I would have thought the alien element was the most relatable angle. Jordan is plucked out of an ordinary life and thrust into cosmic greatness. It's a world he has known nothing about up until Abin Sur crashes in front of him. Can't his journey be one where he comes to grips with his new destiny, and succeeds expectations (his own as well as the Corps) to become one of the greatest Green Lanterns? After all, this is basically the same story as Emerald Dawn, but without the demons, the DUI, and the accidental "Whatever, here's a ring" angle. Why are these twists more realistic? After all, most of us (I hope) don't have one. We're far more likely to be nice people who are suddenly thrown into a job we're ill-prepared for. Isn't that a story we'd like to see occasionally? Wouldn't we like to see the good guy rewarded, or someone who was genuinely meant to be a hero elevated to great heights? I don't want every superhero to be someone who might decide to get wasted and not answer the call for the sake of suspense and character development.
I get the persistent belief that perfect heroes are boring heroes. Since the Greeks donned masks and lined up in a chorus, audiences have wanted to see hubris brought low. It's the point of all comedy and drama (in the classical sense), it's the hero's journey, and it's the good die young. I know this, and so do you. But epic heroes have always existed, and the point of them is that they are something to aspire to. The Song of Roland doesn't stop and paint some flaws in Roland just to make him more identifiable. No one in Beowulf says "That guy drinks way too much mead, but what are we going to do? He's the only one who can kill trolls. Send him, I guess. Whatever." (It wouldn't sound any better in Old English.)
Epic heroes (or superheroes in the parlance of the times) are meant to be a counterbalance to the flawed ones who are kicked around. Lord of the Rings is a fairly black and white example of this – Boromir falls and must redeem himself, whereas Faramir and Aragorn are meant to be the paragons who don't have to. I don't think their serene strength makes them any less interesting, though Peter Jackson certainly threw in a few more flaws and doubts to keep moviegoers wondering who the Ring would consume next.
Ideally, superhero comics should play the same way. Characters like Wolverine and the Punisher came about was because superheroes were so darn good and fair that you needed someone who was a little dirtier. It's their conflict with the boy scouts that make them interesting more than their body count – and the fact that the boy scouts so often send them out to do the work that would sully their own reputations. This is a constant refrain with Wolverine – he exists on teams like the Avengers and the X-Force because they need someone who has a lousy reputation. He accepts that, and that's what sets him apart from Captain America. They're both superheroes, but one is decidedly less morally bound than the other, and it's their different backgrounds that encourage their reactions, and determine their weaknesses. That's what makes superhero teams interesting and internally conflicted.
Nowadays, everyone wants to play Frank Miller and Alan Moore and go straight to the dark underbelly and expose the true nature of heroism. But they were able to shake up the paradigms because they understood mythic framework. Moore has become so synonymous with sex and deconstruction that it's a shock to go back to a story like For The Man Who Has Everything. That's a bittersweet Superman story that taps into what heroism and sacrifice is, and all without subtracting anything from the character's essential nature. We understand it because we see the gulf between ourselves and Superman. We can have a normal life. He can't. There's the hook.
I would like to see these good guys make it to the big screen for once. If they're all flawed men and women running away from their own demons, if they're all screw-ups who you wouldn't figure to be a hero in a million years, it's just as boring as Superman's goodness allegedly is. They are all going to share the exact same arc. Sure, you can argue that heroes have been experiencing that arc since we first started telling outlandish tales, but it's the little variations that matter. We're stripping those away in this genre in favor of the dark and edgy hero who is constantly grappling with himself, and threatening to fail everyone around him. This is supposed to inspire us. This is supposed to be more human.
But humanity is what you see every day. It's the daily grind. It's the mediocre. It's the wasn't fast enough, wasn't strong enough, wasn't big enough. Shiny heroes exist because we want to believe that's the man or woman who'll be there when the time comes. Why do we have to cripple and damage them before we'll believe in them?