One of the great movie success stories is the outstanding response to Iron Man — which helped launch our current golden age of superpowered action movies. True, the boom started with X-Men and Spider-Man, but Iron Man proved that a lesser-known hero* could hit big with the right creative team. Iron Man opened the floodgates.
Iron Man included light comic touches, nosebleed-inducing flight sequences, and a beloved, slightly roguish actor. And to a large extent, Green Lantern copied this formula. So why did Iron Man succeed where Green Lantern failed? It has to do with taking liberties with the story. Spoilers ahead...
Top image via BigThink
With Green Lantern coming to DVD soon, it's a great time to revisit one of the summer's most disappointing failures. On the surface, the two movies are pretty similar — you have a hero who's sort of an overgrown boy, a womanizer who refuses to take anything too seriously. He's flying high, soaring on the awesomeness of the military-industrial complex — until he's brought low by his own hubris. Tony Stark gets captured by rebels, Hal Jordan crashes his fighter jet. And then both men get an amazing widget that lets them soar through the air, and project energy.
(Even in that brief synopsis, a few differences jump out immediately: Tony Stark learns something from his fall from grace, and he actually builds his miraculous widget himself. Hal Jordan may or may not learn something from crashing his jet, it's never entirely clear, and he gets handed his magical widget, instead of having to earn it or make it.)
But in any case, both movies have a lot of the same elements, including a hero who starts out somewhat unlikable and immature, and a brilliant device that turns him into a superhuman. So what happened with Green Lantern? (Image via Mark Spears.)
In a nutshell: I think the makers of Green Lantern didn't take enough liberties with the story. Iron Man actually deviates from the continuity of the comics in some crucial ways. In the comics, Tony Stark gets captured by guerillas, but they aren't using Stark Industries weapons. And Tony doesn't repent being a weapons maker at that point — he comes to that decision years later. Obadiah Stane, the movie's villain, isn't Tony's mentor, but a rival businessman who takes over Tony's company after he becomes an alcoholic. And so on.
The Iron Man movie takes a lot of elements from the comics over the years, and fashions them into a coherent story that's actually more interesting than Tony Stark's comic-book origin. Instead of just being trapped in a cave by soldiers and forced to make weapons, Tony is actually confronting the harm that his weapons have already done in the wrong hands. And instead of Obadiah Stane just being a ruthless rival who moves in on Tony's territory, Stane is a friend who secretly plots against Tony.
Most of all, Iron Man resists the temptation to throw in a ton of elements that the (relatively few) fans of the comic book would want to see. There's no Mandarin, although we get an oblique reference to the Ten Rings to keep fans happy. S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Avengers are carefully kept to an after-credits sequence. There's no War Machine, except that James Rhodes looks at a suit of armor and says "Next time, baby." There's no Extremis virus. And so on.
Meanwhile, Green Lantern sticks pretty close to the comics continuity, as refashioned by Geoff Johns and a few others. Instead of sticking to a fairly simple villain, we get Parallax, who requires infodumps of heroic proportions — as well as lengthy abstract discussions of the difference between not feeling fear and overcoming fear. The film loads on an extra villain, Hector Hammond, and shoehorns in cameos from fan-favorite Green Lanterns like Tomar-Re and Kilowog, who are performing roles that could just as easily have been assigned to Sinestro.
One big reason why Green Lantern stumbles is just because it's trying to force-feed the audience too much backstory (and too much frontstory, for that matter). After a while, you start to wonder just whose story this movie is: is it Hal Jordan's, or is it just the story of the Corps as a whole? It almost doesn't matter, because neither protagonist is engaging.
But there's a deeper problem — sticking too closely to comics lore means that the movie isn't free to tell a real, strong story in its own right. I've been a harsh critic of the tendency of comic book movies to over-compress everything, so that Ra's Al-Ghul becomes Batman's teacher instead of just a great evil that Batman must fight, and Doctor Doom becomes the cause of the Fantastic Four's transformation. But Green Lantern goes in the opposite direction, embracing sprawl to too great an extent.
Which brings us back to what Iron Man does right — Tony Stark is changed as a result of his experience with those Afghan fighters, and his rebirth as Iron Man is part of a transformation of his character overall. This change sharpens his conflict with Obadiah Stane, who was already plotting against him. The key focus of Iron Man is Tony's motivation for putting on the suit, not just whether he's worthy of the suit. Just like Captain America: The First Avenger puts the emphasis squarely on Steve Rogers' determination to be part of the war effort, whatever it takes.
Part of what makes superheroes extraordinary is their determination, their extraordinary motivation to do the right thing even when it's nearly impossible. That's probably why Batman and Spider-Man are among our most iconic heroes — they both have traumas in their past that we can relate to, which keep them motivated to keep fighting. Even when they want to give up.
So yeah, a successful Green Lantern probably would have given us a Hal Jordan who learns something more concrete — even if it meant sidelining a lot of the gosh-wow stuff about the Guardians and the fear monster and all the cool aliens. There are all sorts of ways to make Hal Jordan's fall from grace dovetail more fully with his origin story — even without resorting to making Hal a drunk driver, as the 1980s retelling Emerald Dawn did.
(Personally, if someone put a gun to my head and said, "Pitch a Green Lantern movie," I would have gone with something akin to Kyle Rayner's origin, and made Hal the last of the Green Lanterns, entrusted with upholding the peace in the universe in the wake of a disaster that had wiped out a whole intergalactic police force. That way, you automatically get some weight behind the responsibility that Hal is taking on, and he's unique rather than being one of 3,600 others.)
But there are all sorts of ways you could go with recasting Green Lantern's origin, including having Hal just spend the entire movie just training with Sinestro and forming a bond with him — only to be betrayed in the end. Or having Hal find the ring with no instruction manual and have to figure it out, only to make some serious mistakes before he finally redeems himself. (And then at the end of the movie, he finally meets some other Lanterns.)
The lesson of Green Lantern is, pandering to vocal fans of a property almost never pays off. And taking liberties often does. Look at J.J. Abrams' Star Trek, which outraged a huge segment of old-school Trek fans and yet managed to tell a strong story that delighted audiences everywhere. Look at Russell T. Davies' Doctor Who relaunch, which did away with the Time Lords and recast the Doctor as a scarred war veteran. And yeah, look at Iron Man.
The fans will go see the movie anyway — even if they complain bitterly afterwards. Pulling in the mass audience, though, requires taking some risks with the material and crafting something that is going to look character-focused and fun to a casual watcher. And this is doubly true with a property like Green Lantern, which has almost no popular recognition.
If Iron Man had taken the same tack as Green Lantern, it would have included War Machine and the Mandarin, and probably the Extremis virus. And it would have set up Civil War as the sequel. Fans would have been thrilled — and alone in theaters.
* - Yes, Iron Man had a lot of recognition among comics fans. But not so much among the general public. And even in comics, he hadn't been one of the top-selling heroes in years.