Green Lantern isn't just the story of an ordinary run-of-the-mill fighter pilot who gets a magic ring from space. It's also the saga of a whole army of aliens, each with his/her/its own magic ring.
The footage we saw at Wondercon laid the early fears of cheap, crappy CG work to rest. (Mostly. There's still the mask.) But it raised another, more fundamental concern: Does this movie go too far in introducing the sprawling Green Lantern mythos to moviegoers who don't even know who Hal Jordan is? And are there just too many cartoony aliens and cheesy creatures for mainstream moviegoers to deal with?
Actually, the real question is: How much fan-pleasing clutter can you include in a big-budget production before you turn off the casual viewers? And Green Lantern is an interesting case that provides a microcosm of this larger issue, because it's:
A) A character whom nobody outside of comic book fans has ever heard of
B) Insanely complicated and full of Silver Age silliness
The gold standard for bombarding audiences with tons of over-the-top creatures — not to mention an ocean of insanely garish computer graphics — has to be James Cameron's Avatar. Cameron force-fed us CG cheese and a whole ecosystem full of creatures, and made us like it. Even a week before Avatar came out, I wouldn't have been able to predict whether the eye-searing color palette and over-saturated worldbuilding would work for people. I could easily have believed that Avatar would be a huge flop.
Star Ryan Reynolds has been going around comparing Green Lantern to the original Star Wars, but all along I've felt like Avatar is a more apt comparison. Both movies are about one guy who goes inside a strange world of uncanny life forms, and winds up joining them. What Avatar does really well, though, is establish Jake Sully and the world of humans before thrusting us into the jungle of Pandora. The other thing Avatar does is give a really strong arc for Jake Sully, that it never loses track of, and very clear villains.
Hopefully Green Lantern will do the same thing, but I have to admit that the early marketing is making me a bit nervous. For one thing, there's the fact that they're putting the menagerie of Lanterns front and center — perhaps it was necessary to lay the "CG animation failure" meme to rest, but it downplays the extent to which this is a human story, with largely human characters on Earth. And the point of the marketing thus far appears to be reassuring die-hard fans rather than winning over newbies, which is always a bad sign.
Then there's the fact that the film apparently has two wildly divergent villains — the scary cosmic threat of Parallax and the huge-headed Hector Hammond. (With Sinestro apparently waiting in the wings.) In a film that has to introduce oodles of backstory, that might just be too much ground to cover.
The thing is, Green Lantern has a really simple concept: he's a guy with a cosmic wishing ring, and a lamp that recharges it.
The original comics introduced all the other elements really slowly. When Hal Jordan first gets his ring, in Showcase #22 (1959), the details are purposely kept vague. He meets a dying alien, Abin Sur, who gives Hal the magic ring and tells him only, "Look at this battery, Hal Jordan... Yes... in your words, a Green Lantern... but actually it is a battery of power... given only to selected space-patrolmen in the super-galactic system... to be used as a weapon against forces of evil and injustice. It is our duty... when disaster strikes... to pass on the battery of power to another who is fearless... and honest!" And that's all the info we get.
After that, in the comics, Hal doesn't really find out more about the ring and the battery and where they come from, for quite a while. A few times, he receives instructions via the lantern, telling him to go to a planet where there are people in danger, but he never knows where these instructions come from. Finally, in Green Lantern #1 (which is page 82 of the reprint collection Showcase Presents Green Lantern Vol. 1), Hal meets the Guardians of the Universe — but it's only Hal's "energy twin," and the real Hal doesn't remember anything about it.
Hal keeps wondering, "But who speaks to me through the Lantern? Whose thoughts do I receive? Will I ever know? Will I ever get to see them?" (Showcase Presents, p. 94).
It's not until Green Lantern #6 (May-June 1961) that we finally meet another member of the Green Lantern Corps besides Hal and the dead Abin Sur: Tomar-Re, the Green Lantern of the planet Xudar, who's got the weird fish-bird head that you've seen in all the trailers. Hal teams up with "the Green Lantern in the nearest sector," Tomar-Re, to stop a galactic menace. After they've won, Tomar-Re tells Hal about the Guardians of the Universe, who created the rings and batteries and "inhabit a world somewhere in the cosmos — no one knows where!" The Guardians only contact the ring-wearers indirectly "through the power battery."
In the following issue, Green Lantern #7, Hal's "energy twin" returns to visit the Guardians, and they tell him about the one Green Lantern who turned bad: Sinestro, who becomes Hal's arch-enemy. And then in issue #9 (Nov.-Dec. 1961) Hal prepares to attend "the first galaxy-wide conference of all power battery possessors," but Sinestro takes his place — and it's here that we first learn that the Guardians live on the planet Oa. We also meet a large number of crazy-looking alien Green Lanterns, including Larvox and Chaselon.
And a lot of the other characters that we now take for granted in the Green Lantern mythos weren't introduced until the 1980s — Kilowog first appeared in GL #201 and Salakk first showed up in GL #149. The 1980s comics featured a Tales of the Green Lantern Corps miniseries, followed by a set of backup stories in the issues of the Green Lantern comic proper. (It was these "Tales" that gave us some of Alan Moore's great inventions, including the F-sharp Bell and Mogo, the GL who doesn't socialize.) As for Parallax, he's a much more recent invention.
All of which is to say, the Green Lantern mythos is like most others out there — it didn't start out insanely complicated, but it got that way over time. And as fans have become more devoted to it, those bits of added mythos have been treated as though they're part of the core concept — as though you can't have Hal Jordan without Kilowog and all the rest.
Imagine if the first Iron Man movie had tried to introduce the Mandarin as well as Obadiah Stane — and what the hell, let's throw in War Machine and the Extremis virus as well. You'd have ended up with a bit of a cluttered mess, and maybe asked audiences to buy into too much stuff at once.
Or imagine if Russell T. Davies, instead of relaunching Doctor Who with the elegant, stripped-down "Rose," had chosen to give us a convoluted nightmare featuring a regeneration, the Eye of Harmony, a confusing Dalek cameo, confusing lectures about the Time Lords, and the Master. Actually you don't have to imagine that — just watch the 1996 TV movie.
All of which is to say, I hope Green Lantern is a huge hit — both because I'm a huge fan of the character in the comics, and because a successful Lantern movie will lead to other DC Comics characters getting their chance on the big screen. A lot is riding on Hal Jordan's shoulders here.
So let's just hope that Green Lantern can repeat Avatar's achievement, and make us want to dive head-first into a world of colorful creatures. If not, it'll be another sign that audiences are resistant to stories that try to sell them on too much mythos (and too much silliness) all at once.