Movie theaters in the summer of 2011, like most summers for the past 30-something years, were dominated by films heavy on crowd-pleasing elements, with particular attention to heavy FX content. Unlike many other summers, the summer of 2011 featured a face-off between films spawned by archrival comics-companies, with Marvel supplying both Thor and Captain America and DC Comics making its somewhat-tardy entrance into the high-FX super-sweepstakes with Green Lantern.
Now, of these three, Captain America wasn’t dealing with the same level of outrageous fantasy as were the other two. Therefore it’s outside the central question of this essay: why did 2011 audiences cheer to see a god reduced to a mortal but jeer at the sight of a mortal elevated to godly power?
In their respective Silver Age comics runs, both Thor and Green Lantern pursued a parallel course. Each feature tended in the first dozen or so adventures to emphasize the hero’s mundane adventures with only occasional jaunts to other worlds. Arguably Green Lantern always stayed somewhat more rooted in the mundane than Thor, but prior to the 1970s most of the adventures in both venues possessed larger-than-life cosmic ramifications. Of course in 1970 Green Lantern broke that pattern with a short-lived spate of (mostly) down-to-earth “relevance” stories. These remain the most celebrated stories of the character’s original run, but Green Lantern’s most successful modern revival took the opposite tack: plunging the character into stories of cosmic consequence. In contrast, once the Thor feature blossomed into Wagnerian spectacle in the middle 1960s, it continued to emphasize such high-fantasy elements for the greater part of its uninterrupted run.
Serial comic books have some advantages over feature films in the depiction of far-flung fantasies. For many years comic book artists could depict an apocalyptic monster with hardly more effort than drawing a New York street-scene, while feature films were lucky if they could afford a credible man-in-a-monster-suit. The technology of CGI has made it much easier for films to conjure up frost giants and fear demons and to successfully integrate them with the more mundane elements of the film, such as real actors, settings, et al. Still, if CGI has emancipated cinema from many of the constraints of visual space, the cinema’s marketing-born need to fit stories into a fixed amount of time can present a problem in terms of unveiling tapestries of wonder.
As most fans know by now, in the face-off between Thunder God and Emerald Crusader, Thor won the box-office battle. I felt, however, that though neither film was any sort of cinematic breakthrough, Green Lantern should have won in terms of the presentation of wondrous FX—often, though not always, the element that usually wins the day in the battlefield of summer movies.
I reviewed Thor in an essay tellingly titled “Arggh, That Awful Asgard.” As my experience of the comic-book Thor relied heavily on the wonder-inducing visuals of artists like Jack Kirby and John Buscema, I wanted Thor to possess at least some fraction of that visual élan: at least as much as any of the better Ray Harryhausen films. But I found the film’s rendition of all the marvelous aspects of Asgard—the frost giants, the buildings of Asgard, the costuming of Thor and his fellow gods—to be uninspiring at best. I might make a marginal exception for the costumes of Loki and Heimdall, but my overall impression was that Thor was just another Hollywood movie in terms of visuals—not least because the filmmakers saved money by situating most of the film in the mundane real world..
By contrast, I felt that whatever story-problems Green Lantern had, the filmmakers did their homework on the current comic-book universe of Green Lantern, as re-interpreted by comics-scribe Geoff Johns (who also had some input into the film’s script). Again, while there was nothing in Green Lantern that would put Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey in the doghouse, there was an effort to lend what Tolkien called “arresting strangeness” to the Guardians, their planet Oa, and the assorted alien Lanterns to whom Hal Jordan had to relate.
From my standpoint, then, it’s a given that Green Lantern looked spiffy and Thor looked spotty. So I have to assume that since Thor did score with 2011 audiences, while Green Lantern crashed and burned, both must have happened for reasons other than visual FX.
Many comics-fans claim that they want “good stories” as opposed to wild visual spectacle, even when dealing with such spectacular protagonists as “superheroes.” But I can’t ascribe the success of Thor to a good story. If anything I believe that the narrative of Green Lantern was generally better organized from a narrative vantage, even if it was more than a little predictable. In contrast, I found Thor full of glaring story holes, the worst of which relate to the crucial element of Loki’s history and his motives for conspiring against Asgard. So I would resist the notion that Thor presented a better-told story than Green Lantern.
My theory for the success of Thor, then, is as follows:
Movie-Thor was simply a more interesting character than movie-Green Lantern.
I admitted that in terms of narrative Green Lantern was predictable. The same applies to the depiction of central character Hal Jordan. In charting Jordan’s progress from an amiable screw-up with daddy issues and a conflicted romantic life, the scriptwriters failed to find a dramatic center that would make Jordan any more interesting than dozens of “child-men” in Judd Apatow comedies.
In contrast, even though the story of the Thor movie is a mess, Thor the character is pleasingly consistent. He too has his Campbellian “hero’s journey.” The thunder-god is first seen as a reckless warrior whose desire for justice brings him into conflict with the frost giants against Odin’s express command. Odin responds by sending his favorite son down to Earth, sans his godly power, to learn the virtue of humility. And without giving away the film’s turnabout, Thor does learn an almost Christian sense of humility through his identification with mere mortals.
If future DC-movies stand any chance against Marvel-movies, they will have take the audiences’ need for appealing characters in mind.
Which is certainly the least likely aspect anyone ever expected to be necessary for superhero movies!