Why Green Lantern Matters
In the wake of the release of Green Lantern in theaters everywhere, there have been a few interesting reveals from people. Heidi Macdonald reveals that she doesn’t get the character of Green Lantern, and Adam-Troy Castro shakes his head at what may be the most famous page of Green Lantern ever (reproduced above). Ty Templeton, as he is wont to do, goes full mock, as does Let’s Be Friends Again.
Here’s what they’re missing.
While I’m willing to shoulder the blame for shunning Green Lantern over the years, as I’ve been learning and growing, I have noticed a few things about the character that do strike me as flaws, dramatically speaking. It’s often noted that DC’s heroes for the most part lack the melodramatic emotional flair of the Marvel heroes, Batman and Superman being the notable exceptions. Marvel’s heroes are flawed and troubled and their powers echo and magnify those flaws and troubles; DC’s leads, generally speaking, are dudes who get some great idea to shrink or go fast and then proceed to shrink or go fast. Green Lantern is a prime example of this.
Hal Jordan is precisely that type of flawed character. He’s a cocky guy with tremendous willpower who gets a ring that runs on willpower and can create anything he can think of (although it’s often had a weakness for yellow) and is turned into an interstellar policeman. So far, so good– he has a science fiction version of Aladdin’s lamp, he can create whatever he wishes if he believes hard enough.
But the fuel of his power is also his greatest flaw– he thinks he can solve everything through sheer force of will.
Denny O’Neil’s genius was to show that there are some problems that can’t be solved by simple willpower alone. The first time he really notices this is the story we show here, when he’s being booed from a crowd after saving a slumlord from angry tenants. Green Arrow spends a lot of time pointing out that there are lots of problems that can’t just be solved by pointing a power ring.
Later on, he gets an even bigger comeuppance when his home town, Coast City, is destroyed as a consequence of Superman dying and four superbeings returning in his place. Hal tries to bring millions of people back from the dead, and fails. He really doesn’t take it well, turns evil, and attempts to reboot the universe, all with the best of intentions.
This is Hal Jordan’s trap. He can’t solve everything by clapping harder and bringing Tinkerbell back. And he has to resist thinking that it will, because that will often make matters far, far worse. That although we all know that with great power comes great responsibility, great intelligence and wisdom does not. Whoever wields the ring has to learn how to use its power wisely, as we have learned from any other tale where wishes are granted.
The lessons are obvious, particularly when applied to the world at large. Matthew Yglesias made a bit of a splash five years ago when he noted that the Bush Administration what following what he called “The Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics”, which puts a huge amount of weight on things like willpower, resolve, perceptions of strength and weakness, and the banishment of fear:
Suffice it to say that I think all this makes an okay premise for a comic book. But a lot of people seem to think that American military might is like one of these power rings. They seem to think that, roughly speaking, we can accomplish absolutely anything in the world through the application of sufficient military force. The only thing limiting us is a lack of willpower.
What’s more, this theory can’t be empirically demonstrated to be wrong. Things that you or I might take as demonstrating the limited utility of military power to accomplish certain kinds of things are, instead, taken as evidence of lack of will. Thus we see that problems in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t reasons to avoid new military ventures, but reasons why we must embark upon them: “Add a failure in Iran to a failure in Iraq to a failure in Afghanistan, and we could supercharge Islamic radicalism in a way never before seen. The widespread and lethal impression of American weakness under the Clinton administration, which did so much to energize bin Ladenism in the 1990s, could look like the glory years of American power compared to what the Bush administration may leave in its wake.”
I don’t even know what else to say about this business. It’s just a bizarre way of looking at the world. The wreakage that the Bush administration is leaving in its wake is a direct consequence of this will-o-centric view of the world and Gerecht takes it as a reason to deploy more willpower.
And what happens when you discover that you have limitless power at your fingertips and it still may not be enough? That’s when you feel despair, rage– fear. And that turns out to be another form of weakness. Doubt? Doubt will get you killed!
Ultimately, it’s showing a story Abraham Lincoln would have recognized, when he said, “Nearly all men can stand the test of adversity, but if you really want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
- Why I Just Don’t Get Green Lantern (comicsbeat.com)
- Ryan Reynolds Slips Into Green Lantern (comicmix.com)