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In Brightest Day, In Blackest Night

By TK Burton | Film | August 3, 2009 |

By TK Burton | Film | August 3, 2009 |

DC Comics has been on something of a hot streak when it comes to animated features. Their television series, from “Justice League Unlimited” to their Superman and Batman series, are consistently excellent. Similarly successful have been the four animated films — Justice League: New Frontier, Superman: Doomsday, Wonder Woman and Batman: Gotham Knight have all been absolutely stellar productions, featuring (except for the anime-inspired Gotham Knight) a somewhat retro style, full of brightly colored palettes and terrific movement and action. The direction has been innovative and interesting, and the writing nothing short of terrific. Coupled with some outstanding voice talent, the DC animated films have been gorgeous examples of what can and should be done with superhero storylines and animation.

All of which brings us to the most recent DVD release from DC Universe Original Animated Movies, Green Lantern: First Flight. Following the story of Hal Jordan, a brash test pilot who becomes swept up in the Green Lantern Corps, a group of intergalactic heroes whose role is to use their incredibly powerful rings to defend the universe from evil. Anyone who’s read the comics or watched the Justice League animated series is likely familiar with the character’s basics — he wears green and black tights and a mask, he flies around surrounded by a green glow, and he’s got a ring that is only limited by his imagination. The character is actually far more exciting that he’s sometimes given credit for, mostly due to the vast possibilities available from the ring’s power and the intergalactic storylines.

In Green Lantern: First Flight, we are rushed through how Jordan (voiced by Christopher Meloni of “Law and Order” becomes the newest Green Lantern, and he quickly finds himself at the headquarters of the Green Lantern Corps, defending his selection to the Guardians, a race of super-powerful psionic blue midgets who are the keepers of the source of all of the rings’ power. They are disinclined to allow him to retain the ring, due to their fundamental mistrust of humankind. Here lies generic cliche number 1: humans are warmongering dummies who are never trusted by other alien races. It shows up everywhere. In any event, another member of the Corps, Sinestro (Victor Garber of “Alias”) volunteers to take Jordan under his wing. In the process of searching for the killer of the Lantern who gave Hal his ring, they uncover a conspiracy to overthrow and destroy the Green Lantern Corps by using a weapon based on the Yellow Element, which is the Kryptonite of the Green Lanterns. There’s a traitor in their midst as well, which of course no one suspects until it’s too late.

If I sound cynical, it’s because unfortunately, Green Lantern: First Flight ended up being rather disappointing. The animation was as excellent as always, no question. While the backgrounds were sometimes rather uninspired and dull, the character animations were remarkable, able to convey intense and varied emotion using nothing but lines and color. However, the writing is lackluster and mostly humorless, with a plot that’s telegraphed within minutes. Part of that predictability can’t be helped, and is a consequence of the DC Universe itself. Even for those with no familiarity with the show or the comic (Spoilers ahead), it’s not hard to guess that the bad guy is going to end up being the demonic, red-skinned guy with the villain mustache. His name is Sinestro, for Christ’s sake. Might as well give him a pitchfork and call him “Evil McBackstabby.” (End spoilers).

But predictability aside, the story just isn’t very compelling, nor is the direction. Directed by Lauren Montgomery, who directed the superb Wonder Woman released earlier this year, and who also was a co-director of the equally impressive Superman: Doomsday, First Flight lacks the excitement and intrigue of her previous efforts. The pacing is slow and plodding — despite a rushed origin story, the plot takes a while to get to the point, and the viewer is left wondering what the purpose of the endless, boring battles are. The fight scenes essentially consist of a beam of energy is shot at someone. That someone is thrown backwards through several walls/large objects. Someone gets up, shakes off dust, shoots energy beam back. The beam hits the other person, who is thrown through several walls/large objects. Eventually one of them falls down. And scene! Despite the limitless opportunities for creativity granted by the the power of the Green Lantern rings, they mostly settle for throwing each other around — through things, of course.

The voice acting is similarly dull. Meloni, who has a great timbre to his voice and seems a good choice for the wisecracking Jordan, is either wasted here, or is simply not a good voice actor. His delivery was frequently flat and it just didn’t feel like a real person — a strange criticism for an animated feature, to be sure, but in the other DC films, the characters felt real, not like strangers wearing masks. Garber’s Sinestro fares much better, as does Tricia Helfer’s Boodikka (another of the Lantern Corp). The Guardians are unfortunately mostly interchangeable — all of them are short, blue and kind of dickheads. In the end, the greatest failing is the writers’ inability to make the characters compelling, to create a sense of empathy that makes you care about their fates. Gone is the wry, clever humor that made the dialogue and interaction in Wonder Woman so great, and gone is the powerful delivery and intense story that made Superman: Doomsday so riveting. Outside of the first five or ten minutes, what few jokes there are in First Flight mostly fall flat.

It’s a shame to see the momentum that DC Animated has been building come to such a screeching halt, especially since, in the wake of the news of the Ryan Reynolds motion picture Green Lantern, this would have been the perfect time to capitalize and knock another one out of the park. Unfortunately, the brilliant direction from Montgomery and the writing of Alan Burnett (one of the Gotham Knight episodes as well as numerous DC comic books and television episodes) didn’t pay off. They fail to capitalize on any of the ideas that make Green Lantern exciting, and instead created a bland and ultimately disappointing film that will do nothing but continue to relegate the Lantern to secondary hero status in the eyes of the average viewer.

TK writes about music and movies for Pajiba. He likes dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.