Now that Green Lantern is playing theaters around the world, it’s become the biggest attempt to launch a DC Comics character whose name didn’t begin with Super or Bat on the big screen since 2004’s seriously misguided Catwoman. In a summer movie season crowded to the gills with everything from 3D swashbuckling to animated animals who also function as masters of kung fu, the concept of a superhero with a galaxy-spanning mythology whose power comes from a mighty ring is a risky proposition for a tentpole movie franchise.
But there was a time only a few years ago when the possibility of a reverential adaptation of the classic comic book character was so remote, the studio that owned the rights actually considered going in a radically different direction.
As early as 2004, New Line Cinema, flushed with revenue from the success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and in possession of the Green Lantern movie rights, floated the idea of making a big-budget comedy loosely based on the character but more in the vein of the studio’s 1994 smash hit The Mask, which itself was an adaptation of a comic book series that was lighter in tone than its source material. When news of this turn in the development of the Green Lantern movie first broke, it was not well received, but the studio persisted in the idea and entered into discussions with Jack Black to play their version of the iconic hero.
In 2006, New Line hired Robert Smigel, the longtime writer for Saturday Night Live and Late Night with Conan O’Brien and the creator of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, to pen a script that adhered to this new vision of Green Lantern. Reaction to the script was mixed, and that’s putting it kindly, and not much else was ever said of the idea. For years, Black stuck to his guns hoping the movie would eventually be made but without a director attached to the troubled project (although Smigel himself was reportedly in contention for the job) the Green Lantern comedy wound up dead in the water. Following the blockbuster success of The Dark Knight, a new Green Lantern movie became an inevitability, and with the direction of the story back safely in the realm of serious but not without a sense of humor, fans of the comic book could breathe easier knowing that Hollywood was finally treating the character and its rich history with the respect both deserved.
The opening of Smigel’s draft, dated June 20, 2006, mirrors that of the new movie as mortally wounded Abin Sur crash lands on Earth and his ring must now choose a successor. After browsing through a selection of worthy candidates that include an American soldier and a heroic missionary woman, the ring chooses Jud Plato, an average schmuck who works in a furniture store by day and by night appears on a television program modeled on Fear Factor called “The Dare Diner” where he performs a number of crazy and repulsive stunts. On the night the ring chooses him, Jud is on the show enjoying himself with a rather unsavory meal to the amazement of his audience: the head of an expired coyote, right down to its dead eyeballs. Doing the show is just about the only worthwhile thing Jud has going in his life, but having the courage to devour the uncooked flesh of a dead animal is good enough for him to be inducted into the Green Lantern Corps.
Stay with me because it just gets better, and if you can’t detect the sarcasm in that statement, you would probably dig the hell out of this script.
The ring takes Jud for a wild and comical ride in his car before the dying Abin Sur gives him the news that he’s been chosen. Apparently people like Jud know all about the Green Lantern Corps in this version of the story, although he initially confuses them with the Green Hornet (not an uncommon mistake in 2011) and then describes them as “like the eighth most famous superhero.” From there the script devolves into a series of pointless shenanigans that would be better off in something like Puma Man or Mystery Men with Jud coming to terms with his new powers with his annoying sycophant of a sidekick Seth by his side. During his early attempts at being a superhero Jud traps a gang of looters by using his ring to form a giant green condom that wraps around them. At one point he even creates a green Superman to please a crowd of confused onlookers. He uses the ring to turn bullets into popcorn kernels and tries to nail the hot lady Corinne that he works with at the furniture store. This is all before he even gets to visit Oa for the first time. There he conjures up the original Beatles just so he can take over for John Lennon. The Guardians have to use singing Muppet-like characters to keep Jud from nodding off as they explain the origins of the Corps. Later in the story, Jud and Kilowog take a break from training to visit Earth so that they can… dine at Olive Garden. Important characters from the Green Lantern universe, like Sinestro, Tomar-Re, and the Guardians, are turned into figures of low humor. The travesties continue. It’s all agonizing to behold.
I could continue, but do you really want me to? Let’s just say we dodged a real bullet here, despite how you may or may not feel about the new film adaptation (from a much different script thankfully). The script reads like a typical lame Jack Black comedy, only much worse. Reading it actually pissed me off and I’m usually a sucker for a good com. I’ve never been a big fan of the Green Lantern character, but seeing the movie recently has revived my interest in him and the rich mythology that has developed around the Emerald Knight over the course of more than seven decades. It’s indicative of Hollywood’s simmering contempt for comic book properties and sadistic desire to milk every last cent they can out of them that they were willing to transform an iconic superhero like the Green Lantern into a one-note comic buffoon in the desperate hope their devious effort would make them a profit. This script is a shameless mockery of the love and imagination that many talented writers and artists have invested in the character over the years and it’s sad to see that a genuinely funny writer like Robert Smigel was involved in this mess.
But, I understand why Smigel took the job; the decision to make a Green Lantern comedy was made by studio executives and if the job had to be done, then it makes sense to hire an actual comedy writer, and Smigel had an undeniable pedigree for the task. But the final result just stinks. It doesn’t even work as a halfway decent farce. The characters are obnoxious and unsympathetic and the jokes labored. It fails on every conceivable level. There’s nothing wrong with adding some levity to a ponderous story to keep it from sliding into self-importance, but this is flat-out ridiculous. Worst of all, Jack Black still held out hope of the movie getting made for years until Warner Bros. wised the fuck up and went with a more reverent adaptation, and eventually Black had to move on as well. So while ol’ J.B. never got to realize his dream of being a portly ring-wielding galactic avenger he has made some pretty good comedies in the years since, with only the occasional stumbling block along the way. But that doesn’t take away the chill running down my spine that this movie almost happened.