Superhero movies are going through some interesting, if difficult, transitions right now. Following the big explosion of comic book adaptations in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the artistic pretense of the genre was no longer a laughing matter, but neither was its commercial prospects; audiences are in the incipient stages of experiencing franchise reboots, such as with the forthcoming 'Spider-Man' films, and it remains to be seen whether or not second-tier characters and series will succeed as easily as their predecessors. Meanwhile, material inspired by alternative sources or created concurrently with its printed-page iteration, such as 'Kick-Ass' and 'Scott Pilgrim,' has met with mixed success at best. All of which is why 'The Green Hornet' may inadvertently be a litmus test as the first major superhero adaptation of this new era.
As written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and directed by Michel Gondry, the film's artistic and commercial bona fides are more than well-covered, at least in terms of attracting some general interest of mainstream moviegoers and fans of less conventional fare. But it's because of this scattershot combination of elements that 'The Green Hornet' is on admirable (if decidedly shakier) ground, since it creates a superhero origin story that seems both too ambitious and uneven to satisfy fully, either as four-square genre material or as a straightforward crowd-pleaser.
Rogen plays Britt Reid, a spoiled and irresponsible twenty-something who inherits an independent Los Angeles newspaper after his father James (Tom Wilkinson) dies under mysterious circumstances. Unprepared for the responsibilities of the job, he commiserates with one of his father's mechanics, the preternaturally gifted Kato (Jay Chou); but when they're interrupted by real criminals while trying to deface a statue erected in his father's honor, the duo decides to launch new careers for themselves as superheroes. Branding his alter ego "The Green Hornet," Reid uses the newspaper to establish himself as a criminal, hoping to protect his real identity from the authorities; but when an actual crime boss named Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz) believes that the Hornet is horning in on his territory, Reid and Kato find themselves under attack from both crooks and the authorities.
Given the fact that the vast majority of viewers watching this movie know little or nothing about the original 'Green Hornet' radio serials (much less the TV show that co-starred Bruce Lee), Rogen and Goldberg do a terrific job assembling and streamlining a mythology that mostly makes sense and, God willing, sets up the characters for additional installments. Indeed, it's actually all of the pre-Green Hornet material in the story that feels the most superfluous, and the film as a whole seems to find its footing with increasing confidence as it rushes towards a suitably epic finale. The fight scenes are directed with appropriate zeal and inventiveness by Gondry, who manages to provide a visual landscape that's glossily conventional and then uniquely imaginative, depending on the demands of the action (or lack thereof).
That said, the screenwriters' fealty to a few of the hallmarks of the source material – in particular, the inclusion of Cameron Diaz as Lenore, who as a character and actress sticks out like a sore thumb – unfortunately lets the film lag too often in its rhythms. For example, an early scene reveals that Britt starts each morning with a gorgeously-landscaped cup of coffee, but while its absence later provide an introduction to Kato, the scene itself goes on about twice as long as it needs to. Similarly, a scuffle between the two of them later in the film goes on about twice as long as it should, and an ongoing joke about Britt's oblivious pursuit of a clearly disinterested Lenore just becomes distracting after a while, not to mention the fact that it further compromises our sympathy for Rogen's character.
And yet Mr. Rogen continues to mature as an actor and provides a suitably formidable leading man for a film of this size and scope (his biggest thus far), but he also wrote for himself a somewhat thankless role as a self-aggrandizing, over-privileged, and frequently obnoxious character who doesn't easily engender the audience's affection. This seems particularly glaring given the fact that he appears on screen opposite Chou's Kato, a smart, resourceful and imminently likable character who quite rightly deserves the lion's share of the credit for their success as superheroes. But the appeal of Rogen is repeatedly tested in the film – even if he means for it to be – and it may mark the difference between viewers that enjoy the film and those that feel like it's a celebration of personalities and lifestyles that are themselves unappealing or unrelatable.
Overall the film strikes a very successful balance between Rogen's sort of irreverent, off-the-cuff humor and Gondry's limitless, carefully-planned creativity, generating set pieces that are fun and memorable as well as interstitial character-based scenes that at least hint at deeper ideas. (And it should be noted that the 3D in the film is by far the best "post-conversion" transfer yet released, and it is in all cases the preferable way in which to watch 'The Green Hornet.') But without a clear or well-defined moral through-line to motivate Britt and Kato – which the film unfortunately does not have – the experience is ultimately fun but also a little bit empty.
The cast is great, the action scenes are very cool, and many of the ideas congeal unexpectedly well, but there's nothing concrete thematically to tie all of it together, at least in the way that Spider-Man or the X-Men or even Batman seem to have a more specific and profound motivation to disguise themselves and fight crime. In any case, 'The Green Hornet' gets Rogen's career as a superhero off to a good start, and proves that Gondry can make a movie that really synthesizes his handmade style with something polished enough to succeed in the mainstream.