Greetings, true believers. BAADASSSSS! has returned with the latest installment in my ongoing series of articles The Ten Best Unproduced Comic Book Movie Scripts.
If you haven’t checked out my bloated, unwieldy nerdgasm of an introduction to the series as well as a complete week-by-week breakdown of clues to each entry on this list you may do so here.
Green Lantern by Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, and Marc Guggenheim.
You remember that episode of Home Improvement where Tim Allen looked at a random appliance or piece of machinery that was working just fine and said, “This needs MORE POWER”? Well, that was every episode, wasn’t it? Anyway, he’d rewire whatever it was and then proceed to blow himself up like Wile E. Coyote while the studio audience laughed their asses off.
That’s exactly what happened with the original screenplay for Green Lantern.
There’s an old joke that goes like this: two Hollywood executives are wandering around the desert totally lost and haven’t had a drink of water in days. One day they come across a small watering hole with only a limited amount of water at the bottom. It’s hardly enough to quench their thirst, but after days of nothing a mere puddle would seem like the most beautiful ocean to them. One executive looks at and says, “Look, there’s water! We’re saved! Let’s have a drink.” As he starts to walk to the hole the second executive stops the first in his tracks and says, “Before you do, let me take a nice long piss in it.” It’s one of those timeless industry jokes that could only be found amusing by those who have braved the nightmarish scorched earth of Development Hell.
I’ve made no bones about the respect I have for how Marvel Studios values its roster of classic superhero film properties. In the early days of Phase One there was a lot of flop sweat and nervous tension over the box office viability over characters like Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, and there was even a time when the possibility of a live-action Avengers feature was deemed worthy of snarky fanboy ire. But Marvel devoted near-absolute faith and imagination in developing those characters into full-fledged blockbuster franchises by hiring eclectic and talented creative teams to marshal each adaptation from the first script draft to the lavish international movie premiere. Now they have achieved what was once believed to be the impossible, a cinematic universe of heroes and heroines where each film finds inspiration on nearly every level from the last.
I wish DC Comics and its parent studio Warner Bros. shared the same enthusiasm for their line-up of comic book properties that Marvel has for theirs. But DC/Warners devotes untold hundreds of millions of dollars developing and filming giant-size Batman and Superman movies every time they get the itch to get back into the superhero movie game, while characters like Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, and now the Flash are relegated to lower-budgeted television series that either get picked up or are instantly transported to the purgatory of failed concepts that never evolved past the pilot stage.
They’ve managed to stay somewhat above the fray with small screen successes like Smallville and Arrow for the WB, and of course there’s the Batman-inspired Gotham in the works at Fox for this coming fall. But these fleeting successes come at the expense of their flagship characters continuing to lose their potential to function as the anchors of their own mega-budget movie vehicles. Every time the latest Superman or Batman feature opens to good reviews and huge box office tallies it only makes DC/Warners want to focus on the further exploitation of those properties rather than give any of the others a fighting chance. At least with the last three Batman movies directed by Christopher Nolan they had the best casts and creative teams possible working for them, and it was a welcome sight to see them defy the odds stacked against them by the rancorous reception that greeted the theatrical release of the rightly derided Batman & Robin and smash records at the ticket counters and video stores.
I know I’m not alone in really enjoying the Green Lantern movie released in the summer of 2011. Its box office wasn’t a pimple on the ass of Marvel Studios’ releases during that same summer but the movie played a lot better at home in its Blu-ray extended cut form – unfortunate for a grand-scale, cosmos-spanning comic book adventure that should have played like gangbusters on the big screen. In the end Green Lantern is little more than a handsome product that bore the scars of incessant tampering from a studio that practically had no faith or interest in a superhero long treated as a B-list character even in its own home. As further proof of Hollywood’s stunning inability to make a halfway-decent Green Lantern movie, New Line Cinema was set on turning the DC Comics hero into the star of an R-rated gross-out comedy starring Jack Black almost a decade ago.
Hard to believe that there was a time when Green Lantern could have been one of the best superhero movies ever made, but after reading a first draft of the script dated June 9, 2008 I came to the conclusion that the movie many of us saw in the theater and at home was the result of having one too many chefs working in the kitchen. The 2008 draft is credited to three men with extensive backgrounds in television and comic book writing: Greg Berlanti (co-creator of the CW’s DC Comics-based hit series Arrow, among others), Michael Green (another TV vet who also wrote for several DC comic titles), and Marc Guggenheim, who has written for television and for comics published by both DC and Marvel.
With their vast combined experience in injecting character and humanity into dazzling four-color comic book spectacles it is little wonder that the Berlanti/Green/Guggenheim script is everything a truly fantastic and faithful Green Lantern movie could be. Unfortunately the suits at Warners disagreed and brought in Michael Goldenberg, a writer and director in his own right who had worked on the scripts for Contact and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for the studio, to further mold the excellent 2008 draft into a workable screenplay all involved parties could be satisfied with.
The 2008 draft – which draws heavily on the 1990 DC Comics miniseries Green Lantern: Emerald Dawn for inspiration – opens with a male voice-over describing how we are not only not alone in the universe, but that there’s a force of extraterrestrials fighting to protect us all from danger and annihilation. The voice is soon revealed to belong to a weathered, greying man in his 60s who we will know as Pipe. He essentially serves the same function in this version of Green Lantern that would later be assigned to DC Universe connective character Dr. Amanda Waller (played in the released film by Angela Bassett), in the comics the head of the Suicide Squad. Then we cut to an airfield fifteen years earlier where a young Hal Jordan watches in horror as his fabled pilot father Martin dies during a routine test flight. This scene was filmed and included in the 2011 film but only to be glimpsed during flashbacks. The Blu-ray extended cut would feature the full sequence during the opening.
Green Lantern Abin Sur is speaking to his fellow Lantern Tomar-Re when he is suddenly attacked by “A MASSIVE CREATURE blocking out the sun.” It is also described as being “the size of a WHALE with tentacles of an OCTOPUS and a SHARK’S KILLER GRIN.”
This is LEGION. And we fear it.”
Abin Sur is mortally wounded in the attack but manages to fight off Legion long enough to make his escape to the nearest planet in his sector to select his successor. Speaking of which, the adult Hal Jordan is introduced in the midst of his own flight for life as he desperately flees from the angry “MOTHERF**KING HUGE BOYFRIEND” (as named by the writers, sans the censorship) of a sexy lady he bedded the night before. The character beats in this draft were kept mostly intact in Goldenberg’s unnecessary rewrite, including Hal’s strained relationships with his off-and-on girlfriend and colleague Carol Ferris and his disappointed family, with the exception of his adoring nephew Nathan.
Now we get our first glimpse of the Green Lanterns’ home base of the planet Oa, where the intense and dedicated Sinestro has just been informed that Abin Sur has fallen. He requests some kind of action from the Guardians but is refused, which makes him only more intense.
Hector Hammond, the story’s human (so to speak) villain is given greater development in this draft and as a result becomes a more formidable foe. He is introduced working for the FBI as a pathologist. The bespectacled nerd gets no respect from his colleagues or his asshole of a boss Broome, but someone up there clearly likes him because Dr. Hammond has been handed a top-secret assignment to perform an autopsy on the body of Abin Sur, just after he has passed his ring onto to an amazed and confused Hal. Hammond is introduced to our humble narrator from the opening Pipe, who oddly refers to the deceased Abin Sur as “a friend.” Pipe gives Hammond three hours to determine what caused the Lantern’s demise. During that time, as in the later draft that made it to film, Hammond becomes infected by a glowing yellow piece of shrapnel the script helpfully informs us is “a friggin’ PIECE OF LEGION.”
Meanwhile, Hal has only begun to investigate the powers of the ring he has bequeathed by the dying purple alien when Carol arrives to take him to dinner. That’s where he has his inevitable showdown with the “MOTHERF**KING HUGE BOYFRIEND,” which Hal naturally wins with a ring-created “TEN FOOT GLOWING GREEN FIST.” In the script that was filmed Hal was fighting a group of pissed-off former employees of Ferris Aviation whose jobs he had cost with his reckless early stunt to disprove an unmanned fighter jet could outperform one piloted by a human, so his using the big green fist to pummel them into submission felt more like a dick move than justified self-defense.
After the fight Hal is transported to Oa and gets the entire rundown on being a Green Lantern, from meeting Sinesto and Tomar-Re and having his first run-in with Lantern instructor Kilowog to being given a compact history of the Green Lantern Corps. What’s different in this draft is that he also briefly meets Abin Sur’s widow Liana and lies to her in describing his last words as a pronouncement of his love for her, which Sinestro confronts Hal on in private in the next scene. Hal doesn’t get to go through Lantern combat training with Kilowog at first; he refuses to serve in the Corps once he is told of the destructive power of Legion and returns to Earth.
Back on Earth, Hammond begins to develop the powers of telekinesis and uses them to enslave his boss Broome. The 2008 draft also provided a grander venue for the burgeoning baddie to unleash his newfound abilities in spectacular fashion. Hector attends an airshow at the Ferris airfield where his father Senator Hammond, a former pilot and astronaut, is at the controls of a jet for an exhibition. Hector mentally assumes control of the jet and delights in the power he temporarily has over the man whose shadow he has existed in his entire life even as the jet clips the wings of two others in the senator’s formation and starts to spiral out of control. Reliving memories of his own father’s tragic demise, Hal races to retrieve the Lantern power ring from the glove compartment of his Mustang and makes his first public appearance as the Green Lantern as he rescues the two damaged jets and catches the senator’s jet in a glowing green net. Hector becomes enraged and pushes forward with his own powers to counterattack Hal’s and causes one of the jets to crash into the control tower where Carol and Nathan are observing the show. Carol risks her life to protect Nathan but an explosion from the crash sends her hurtling out of a window and to her death, but Hal catches her just in time.
When I read this sequence I wondered aloud (but to no one in particular) how this fantastic set piece with its multiple dangers and cheer-worthy heroic moments for Hal could have been dumped for the lackluster replacement scene that had Hal preventing a helicopter from crashing at a nighttime party by using his ring to create a giant racetrack to bring it down safely. It certainly would have served as much more dynamic way of having the character finally accept his destiny as a protector of his home planet instead of what was ultimately used. Green Lantern cost almost as much to make as The Avengers, and that film had some truly exciting action. Something obviously went terribly wrong.
Emboldened by his powers Hal begins battling crime and saving lives all over the world (even taking a detour into space to rescue a troubled astronaut on the International Space Station) as his fellow Lanterns gear up for a mighty throwdown with Legion. Meanwhile, Hammond embarks on a crime spree with Broome as his helpless assistant and he uses his illegally gained fortune to make a grand entrance at a party at the National Air & Space Museum. But none of it is enough to impress his disappointed father.
As the senator is giving a speech Hector invades his thoughts and levitates him with his powers. Just then Pipe arrives with a dozen armed men and pleads with Hector to stop. Sensing that he won’t comply Pipe orders his men to fire, but Hector deflects the bullets upwards so they all rip through his father. The senator uses his dying breath to tell his monstrous son that he always loved him, which is enough to drive Hector into a grief-stricken rage he turns on Pipe. Hal hears of the chaos at the museum and comes to the rescue in full Lantern regalia. Hector quickly gains the upper hand by seizing control of Hal and uses his power ring to incinerate Pipe’s captured men.
This is enough to make Hal doubt his ability to honor the legacy of Abin Sur as one of the Green Lanterns. After a heartfelt conversation with his trusted friend Tom (who knows of his super secret) he returns to Oa to learn more about the origins of Legion, the terrifying result of the Guardians’ attempt to harness the power of fear. Though 33 of the Lanterns were killed in battle the Corps managed to capture Legion and imprison it until the Guardians forged a yellow ring powered by fear that will finally allow them to keep the beast at bay for all time. Hal requests assistance from the Guardians to help him fight the threat of Hector Hammond, who carries within him a piece of Legion, back on Earth. The Guardians refuse because Hal has not yet completed his Lantern training. Realizing that the planet will suffer unless he acts soon, Hal removes the power ring and tells the Guardians that he’ll go back to Earth and fight Hammond.
As Hal’s plea to the Guardians falls on deaf alien ears, Legion breaks free of its cell and starts to cut a path of destruction through Oa. Hal retrieves his ring and gets back into uniform. With Sinestro by his side the newest Green Lantern goes head-to-formless mass with Legion. Hal lures the apocalyptic creature into the chamber containing the Corps’ Central Battery and channels the battery’s immense power into a single blast that destroys Legion for good. He barely survives the awesome ring blast but still has his old cocky personality and his temples are now grey (as the script reads, “FANBOYS ORGASM APPROPRIATELY”).
Sinestro and the other members of the Corps are left floored by Hal’s willingness to sacrifice his life even when they wouldn’t assist him in saving Earth and vow from that moment that they will honor their oaths as Green Lanterns and help their newest member defend his planet from the evil Hammond. At that moment, the once-harmless geek is a misshapen monstrosity who takes Carol hostage and mentally launches a squadron of unmanned jets to rain hellfire on Coast City. Hal and the Corps arrive just in time to prevent further casualties. While Sinestro, Kilowog, Tomar-Re, and the other Lanterns destroy the jets and rescue Coast City civilians Hal flies off to save Carol from Hammond’s diabolical clutches.
Hector puts his beautiful hostage into another jet where he intends to send her off into the sky to perish. As in the final film Hal offers his malevolent adversary his power ring in exchange for Carol’s life. Hammond takes the ring, then goes back on his word and launches the jet. While rejoicing in his victory the villain realizes too late that you have to be chosen to wield a Green Lantern’s ring. The energy backfires on Hammond, leaving him a mangled and catatonic mess. Now all Hal has to do is save Carol, but that’s easier said than done. His ring is low on energy and the battery he uses to recharge it is miles away. Thus Hal has to climb into another jet and intercept his lady love before she dies. Once she’s in sight he ejects at 10,000 and approaching the sound barrier. His parachute gets ensnared by Carol’s jet and he manages to climb aboard to pull open the canopy and free her before they slam into the side of a cliff. In free fall, with mere seconds to live, the two young lovers share a final kiss and the power of love, as cheesy as this is going to sound, recharges the ring and Hal becomes the Lantern just in time to hasten their deadly descent.
With Hammond forever incapacitated and the world saved for now Hal finally acknowledges his responsibility as Earth’s protector and a member of the Green Lantern Corps. In the next-to-last scene he meets up with Pipe, who is now revealed to be none other than Alan Scott – the first Green Lantern of Earth. Scott wishes Hal well and implores him to explore the universe and all the wonders it contains (in so many words). The script ends with Hal joining Sinestro in Earth orbit and the two Lanterns streak off into the infinite void to find adventure on the thousands of planets that await their arrival.
Now this, my friends, is how you write a great Green Lantern movie. The 2008 draft isn’t perfect and definitely needed some cosmetic surgery prior to going before the cameras, rather than the complete lobotomy Warner Bros. dictated was in order. Some of the one-liners land with a thud. Plus the script is lacking in what I consider to be one of the highlights of the 2011 Lantern film: Hal’s brutal training session on Oa with Kilowog. Maybe the writers considered it to be irrelevant since they included a sequence where Hal observes other Lanterns practicing making their power ring constructs. Regardless, this version of Green Lantern is possibly the most faithful and entertaining treatment of the character and his vibrant and outrageous mythology we could have hoped for. It has a droll sense of humor, the relationships are fleshed out well, and the dual villains Legion and Hector Hammond both become credible threats. Damn shame that the execs at Warner Bros. got cold feet and hired Goldenberg to gut Berlanti, Green, and Guggenheim’s superior efforts of everything that made it such a fantastic, celluloid-ready yarn.
If anything, the studio should have kept the original writing trio on to fine-tune this draft rather than sack them altogether in favor of bringing on a scribe who would faithfully execute the orders of the ignorant suits.
Martin Campbell, hot off launching Daniel Craig as the new James Bond in Casino Royale, was selected to helm the big-budget feature. No doubt this choice was made because New Zealander Campbell was an old hand at directing large-scale action features with the touch of a seasoned professional. That style might have proved adequately ideal for the earthbound adventure of The Mask of Zorro and the two Bond films he directed, but it seemed ill-suited for the action of Green Lantern that spanned from the imperiled terrain of the planet Earth to the furthest reaches of a universe mostly unknown to us mere mortals.
The decision to hire Campbell felt safe and uninspired and immediately signaled that the studio’s faith in Green Lantern‘s box office prospects were slim to none. The director’s knack for staging expansive action set pieces with a clear eye for establishing geography and not allowing the characters to be obscured by flashy camera tricks and editing techniques must have been misplaced prior to the beginning of the shoot. There is not a single memorable highlight on the action front in Green Lantern.
Prior to Campbell signing on to direct Berlanti had hoped to be handed the assignment of heralding Green Lantern onto the silver screen and temporarily earned that position by creating a storyboard pitch to sell Warner Bros. execs on his vision for the proposed film. Armed with a love and respect for the character that Campbell obviously did not share Berlanti might have been a riskier choice for the director’s chair, but coupled with his experience behind the camera directing for film and television it’s possible that he would have done for the Lantern what filmmakers such as Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, James Gunn, and Anthony and Joe Russo did for their respective Marvel Studios features.
Warner Bros. invested more than $300 million to produce and market their Green Lantern film. Although it handily won its first weekend at the box office when it opened on June 17, 2011 with a gross of $53 million, Lantern suffered a 66% decline in its second week – the largest such decline for a superhero feature released that year. With a North American haul of $116 million and an international haul of $103 million the first major motion picture appearance of the Emerald Knight was labeled a flop, putting the permanent kibosh on potential sequels (the first of which was to have been written by Goldenberg – shudder).
The releases of The Dark Knight Rises in 2012 and Man of Steel in 2013 helped to keep the cinematic future of the DC Universe on life support, but the same summer that saw the big screen debut of Hal Jordan Marvel Studios saw greater critical and commercial success with films based on superhero properties that had been in development for far longer, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. They were riskier propositions that Marvel took a great leap of faith in making and their efforts reaped them richer rewards at the ticket counters and on home video and cable. Forced to again default to another Batman movie and a revival of the Superman franchise, the once-mighty DC and their studio partner were now starting to look like a collective of rank amateurs.
Their attempts to catch up to and surpass Marvel’s accomplishments in bringing their characters to the big screen in the form of the still untitled Man of Steel sequel (commonly referred to as Batman vs. Superman) have reeked of desperation and a lack of storytelling focus. With not only Batman but also Wonder Woman looking to make appearances in the film that is obviously designed to set up the long-planned Justice League team-up flick DC and Warners’ belief that Marvel’s formula for creative and financial prosperity can be easily replicated is looking tired and misplaced as the project has been moved back from the summer of 2015 to 2016.
In the meantime, Marvel has perfected their releasing strategy to the point where they can now put two of their superhero blockbusters into theaters every year, maybe even three or four down the road. Their precision-built machines are lapping DC/Warner Bros. as the older companies continue to develop the comic book cinema equivalent of Howard Hughes’ fabled Spruce Goose until it becomes so big and bloated it may never get off of the bloody ground. Maybe one day we’ll get to see a great Green Lantern feature on the level of this sadly unfilmed script, perhaps even better, but don’t hold your breath. Instead, just bury your face in both outstretched palms and contemplate what might have been.