Movies are getting pretty bad. Between the low class comedies, the overly melodramatic dramas about people I couldn’t care less about, zombies, and vampires so wimpy the weakest nerd in the world could kick their ass, the last decade of movies has been a few really great movies in a vast sea of crap. One of the few advantages over the last decade is that the comic book movies, which now seem to be about the only genre that is now consistently entertaining (not always good, but usually entertaining), have been getting deeper and deeper. Yeah the X-men movies were more philosophical from the beginning, but you have to admit that they do seem to be getting deeper on a whole (Dark Knight was a comment on ethics and the war on terror, Thor was laced with Branagh’s trademark obsession with Shakespeare, Iron Man 2 had shades of Atlas Shrugged, and The Incredibles was like an Ayn Rand cartoon).
Which leads us to the last couple of weeks which have given us two new films X-men: First Class and Green Lantern. On the whole X-men is the better of the two (but it also is aided by the fact that after Last Stand and Wolverine our expectations for an X-men movie was that it didn’t !@#$ing suck) however I think it is Green Lantern which has a more interesting and meaningful theme. (I just couldn’t bring myself to believe either film deserved a blog of its own)
I know that seems kind of a dumb assertion to make. But bear with me.
Yes I will immediately concede that First Class was a superior movie on all plot/character/stylistic fronts. Green Lantern seems to be missing much of its second act which kills all character development and relationships between our hero and his friend/the audience (I can hope that the missing 2nd act will show up in a director’s cut, but I fear it was never filmed and probably never written). Not that X-Men doesn’t have plot problems. From the previous films I had the impression that Charles and Erik knew each other for more than a few short months, but apparently they got to know each other really fast. Also, how did Charles go from mild rake to St. Xavier in two minutes of film? Also I do not see how someone as intelligent as Erik/Magneto, who has enough self-control and introspection to control his powers as fully as he does, but be completely unable to put his own beliefs to any kind of logical test whatsoever. Not to say that the intelligent don’t hold contradictory or wrong beliefs in real life…but it does seem a bit odd. Also a problem with both movies was their action sequences…am I the only person getting bored by these extended, special effects laden, action sequences? (Although watching Erik kill the S.S. officers in the first part of the film did warm my heart.)
(And I realize that the character of Magneto has been Jewish since the first comic, and it was not an Anti-Semitic choice in making him Jewish, it was a stylistic choice of irony that if there was one person who should understand why it was evil it should be Magneto, thus showing how human the mutants are in their personal flaws. But it’s probably just that I’ve seen too many Anti-Semitic themed news articles in the last week that scream at Israel for defending themselves when attacked, but I find it odd that the villain is a villain because he defended himself when thousands of missiles were fired at him. Somebody lobs that much fire power at me, I will be understandably pissed, especially when I just saved them. And then there is of course Charles’ defense of the sailors who launched those missiles, which boiled down to “They were following orders.” And in that case the fictitious U.S. and Soviet Navies were on a moral equivalent with the S.S. who tried to use that excuse. So while the vengeance would not have been a moral good, it would have been self-defense. Could not the writers have come up with a situation where Erik was not as justified in being pissed to no end? Yes, trying to kill the people who just killed him doesn’t make him a saint—it just makes him human, not necessarily a villain. Honestly, couldn’t they have made him a villain for a better reason than personal vengeance against Nazi’s and self-defense? It’s probably that I’ve been watching other things in the news, but I am detecting just a trace of Anti-Semitism in those choices…but I’ll admit I could easily be seeing what was not intended in this case).
But back to why I think the Green Lantern is the more meaningful picture. Art has only a few purposes. Three of these purposes (and the ones you’re most likely to run across) are to entertain, to provide social and political commentary, and raise philosophical questions of the universe, ethics, and human nature. Good (or at least tolerable art) usually deals with at least two of these, which both of these movies do. Great art usually deals with all three (neither of these movies hits all three). Both movies set out to entertain and did that to varying degrees of success. But X-men attempted only social commentary (its lack of character depth prevented the third) and a very limited social commentary at that, while Green Lantern looked more toward the philosophical. And it is this difference where I find Green Lantern to be superior.
The social commentary of X-Men has always been one about bigotry. In the 60’s when the X-Men were created it was an allegory for racism. Now that racism (except for Anti-Semitism) has been driven to the fringe of society, it is now an allegory for how society treats homosexuals. And there in is the reason X-Men is weaker—in a generation, maybe a generation and a half, society will likely have grown up and this allegory will not exactly be relevant. Further, this is more a message that is preaching to the choir—no one stupid enough to see homosexuality as a sin is going to change their minds because they saw a movie about mutants. So unless we actually do start having mutants this is a message with an expiration date on it (hopefully sooner rather than later)…and that’s the problem when art ventures into social commentary, to be truly great it either has to be an issue that is not specific to a certain place and time (1984 will always be relevant to humanity) or it needs to be so shocking that it doesn’t just preach to the choir but rather persuades the other side (things are so bad in Ireland we have no other option than eating the children). So while I think it is a correct argument, and a well made film I have a hard time seeing it venturing into greatness or even a movie I ever need to watch again. (But if you want a different opinion or here)
However, Green Lantern for all of its many stylistic flaws reached a much deeper part of my soul. I don’t think I’ll be giving anything away when I say the main villain of the film is a creature called Parallax who is am embodiment of fear itself. It feeds off of fear, it creates fear, it is fear. This is contrasted with our hero Hal Jordan, the Earth Green Lantern, who more or less is an embodiment of the will. Yeah, I know, not all that subtle, but it certainly has a far deeper point to make if you ignore the lack of grace. Now some smaller minds have critiqued the movie associated with the Nazi misinterpretation of Nietzsche concept of the will to power….but anyone who actually knows philosophy would not see anything of Nietzsche in this the concept of will shown in the Green Lantern. This will is more akin to you sitting between the cartoon devil and angel sitting on opposite shoulders, akin to the Freudian superego balancing the ego and id—the will in this case is the part of you that chooses. That chooses to move forward. That chooses to be good. That chooses to acknowledge that you are afraid but that you WILL move past it.
“You’re afraid to even admit you’re afraid. I know — I’ve spent my entire life doing it. You know, we have a saying on Earth — we say: “I’m only human.” We say it because we’re vulnerable, we say it because we know we’re afraid. It doesn’t mean we’re weak. Help me save my planet! Don’t give in to fear — fight it! Fight it with me!”
I realize that probably much of what I like about this sentiment probably comes more from years of source material (although still not enough to make me want to read a comic book, but I’m a bit of a snob that way) but it makes Green Lantern a superior piece of fiction. The idea that life is very much a battle between our will power and our fear (or in New Age parlance the battle of the soul and the ego) and we have to choose to move past our fear or not. Evil and fear are placed as one in the same, which is an accurate assessment of the real world. The movies shows in multiple forms how fear is seductive because it is so easy and so superficially powerful and thus becomes quite tempting for all of us to give into (exemplified in the line “those who worship evil’s might”—it seems to be powerful, because it’s easy, but will always lose). However the film also correctly ties intelligence and imagination to the idea of will (and I would go a step further and say good will) in opposition to fear as fear is an emotion that will destroy all of these things that make us human. For all these reasons (and a few more, but they do have a variation on theme nature to what I’ve already said and there is no need to bore you with information when you really need to roll these ideas around in your head and apply some self-reflection to get anything out of it) Green Lantern, at least philosophically, is a better movie.
Again X-Men is a more entertaining and well done movie, but Green Lantern has a more transcendent theme and I will probably end up buying Green Lantern and not First Class because the Lantern gives me more to think about.