When it comes to his movie set, filmmaker Martin Campbell is a talented tyrant in search of silence. “It isn’t pretty when a cellphone rings,” says Daniel Craig, who played James Bond for Campbell in “Casino Royale.” “People leave puddles when Martin comes after them.” So you can imagine the angst last summer when a shrill beeping interrupted work on “Green Lantern,” the Warner Bros. project that arrives in theaters this week as the most expensive superhero film in a summer packed with them.
“Not good,” star Ryan Reynolds muttered as the bleating fire alarm filled the New Orleans wood frame house that had been rented for an emotional family scene. The culprit, it turned out, was the mist being pumped into the home to lend a suffused, sentimental burnish to the footage, and crew members scrambled up the cherry wood staircase to find the off button even as Campbell turned three shades of purple. Work got underway once again but then another commotion: A fire truck had arrived at the curb and neighbors were beginning to cluster. The affable Reynolds shrugged with a don’t-look-at-me expression. “You know,” the star said, “I’m not actually a superhero.”
It feels like alarms have been going off for months on the $200-million “Green Lantern” — the studio and filmmakers were spooked by the early blogger view that the movie looked more cartoonish than cosmic — but Warner is banking on the hope that Reynolds will turn out to be the hero who saves the day. His biggest challenge will be getting past early reviews that seem to range from tepid to savage.
The 34-year-old Canadian plays a reckless test pilot named Hal Jordan who finds himself pulled into a strange off-planet adventure when he is reluctantly drafted into an interstellar peacekeeping force called the Green Lantern Corps, a knighthood that boasts aliens of every shape and size and outfits them with high-tech rings that are so wondrous they seem magical to human eyes.
Jordan has been a Chuck Yeager figure in the pages of the Warner-owned DC Comics since the Eisenhower administration, but he is just now getting a feature-film opportunity as the studio finally looks beyond Gotham City and Metropolis for a major superhero franchise.
The Warner goal is to match the varied and vibrant movies coming out of Marvel Studios (two “Iron Man” films, “The Incredible Hulk,” “Thor” and next month’s “Captain America: The First Avenger”) and go beyond the Batman and Superman brands that at this point have combined for more than a dozen feature films.
To lead the way, the studio and producer Donald De Line (“The Italian Job,” “Yogi Bear”) turned to Campbell, who reenergized the 007 franchise and also showed a deftness with crowd-pleasing masked-man adventures. His two Zorro films combined for more than $390 million in worldwide box office with a mix of genre peril and flirty wit. That same combination is the key to “Lantern,” according to Reynolds.
“The challenge from Day 1 was to find the right tone, that’s the first conversation, and we felt it should be a movie that is fun and an adventure and is heroic,” Reynolds said in Louisiana, the tax-credit home of the production but not a locale that appears on screen or in the script. “You think about the heroes in movies like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ or ‘Top Gun’ in a way, that’s what we were looking for here. I’ve said that he’s a guy who knows how to throw a punch and kiss a girl and tell a joke. He deals with dark things, but it’s not a dark film.”
Dark is in these days — “The Dark Knight Rises” (a sequel to “The Dark Knight”) and “Dark Shadows” are filming in the U.K. right now and Ron Howard is ramping up an adaptation of “The Dark Tower.” The green glow and warm wink of the “Lantern” project have made it a cause of concern for the Comic-Con crowd that loves lone-wolf antiheroes such as Batman, Wolverine and Jack Sparrow.
An early trailer that emphasized romantic comedy instead of adrenaline adventure stirred an online backlash, but in April the filmmakers, Reynolds and costar Blake Lively made a course correction with a presentation at Wonder Con in San Francisco, where thousands of fans cheered new footage that showed a ferocious space battle.
Lively was still jittery amid the applause. “It’s intimidating,” she told a reporter backstage, “because it’s a movie that has so much money and so many stakes — so many people are so invested in it.”
The competition is intense too. There are four big superhero movies this summer (and a fifth upcoming film, “Cowboys & Aliens,” that is based on a comic book) and, in tone and approach, “Green Lantern” appears to be the most traditional; Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class” for instance, is nightclub-cool with its retro setting and “groovy mutations,” but “Lantern” is more in the mode of the first “Spider-Man” film with its bright colors, wisecracking hero and mad-genius villains that are played over-the-top.
“I think this is the one you can take the kids to,” Reynolds said last week in a separate interview in Los Angeles. “I knew that when I saw [the giant alien character] Kilowog for the first time. That’s when I said, ‘Oh, kids will love this guy, that’s what this is.’”
The filmmaking was an intense exercise in visual effects even by the standards of this era of ubiquitous CG-moviemaking. Like last year’s “Tron: Legacy,” the film strives for a pulsing-light vision of costume and contour; the muscular Reynolds is in essence wearing a superhero skin-suit that was “painted” on him in post-production.
But there’s a thin line between movie magic and video-game flatness these days and Warner Bros. decided just two months ago to throw another $9 million into the visual effects budget to improve the digital sculpting and final-stage polish work. And with good reason. Last year, in New Orleans, costar Mark Strong — who plays the imperious alien Sinestro — said “Green Lantern” would be judged against the best efforts in a sector that is now leaping forward constantly.
“It was ‘Lord of the Rings’ that gave us the armies and just the epic accomplishment of that and then, for me, watching the aliens in ‘District 9,’ the emotion of them and how they were fit into our world, that was just amazing,” Strong said as he sipped water during a break from his fight and flight training. “And ‘Avatar,’ of course, was just off the scale, really, and changed the conversation.
“This strand of movies just lends themselves to the epic and the fantastic and that’s where we want to be,” Strong continued. “This is a story with hundreds and hundreds of aliens. This is a big canvas and that is a challenge but it is also an amazing opportunity.”
For director Campbell, a New Zealand native raised in England, the film was a chance to “make a superhero film that is up there — out in space, on different planets, in the cosmic — as opposed to down here, which we’ve seen again and again.”
That’s true, the membership of the Green Lantern Corps is like a Knights of the Round Table mashed-up with the alien cantina scene in “Star Wars” and, if this film clicks with audiences, the plan is for the franchise to hopscotch throughout the universe the way Spider-Man swings through the five boroughs of New York. “There’s a vast universe to explore and this mythology is as rich as any that’s been put on the screen in these other franchises,” De Line said. In the comic books, other Earthlings have worn the ring, among them the stern John Stewart and crass Guy Gardner, and Greg Berlanti, also a producer on the film and one of the screenwriters, has even pitched a nine-film series that would approach the Green Lantern Corps as a Jedi-level story tapestry.
The character will need to win over casual moviegoers first, who will have to accept the basic conceit of the film — that the glowing ring of Hal Jordan can make anything he imagines take shape, whether it’s a giant green fist, a giant green brick wall or a green jet fighter.
“It’s all about will power, what he sees in his mind he can make real with his ring,” Reynolds explained on the hot, difficult day last year in the Big Easy. A bit later, after all the imaginary fires on the set were out, Reynolds sat down to talk about the future. If will power alone could make a box office hit, “Lantern” would have already been on its way to days of green. “This is the movie the fans want to see,” Reynolds said. “We are going to deliver.”
– Geoff Boucher
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