I recently saw the Green Lantern movie. I know, I know. The reviews were terrible, but I often enjoy turn-brain-off movies. This fun-but-dumb superhero action flick definitely fit the bill.
But the real entertainment came after the movie, as my family and I analyzed why this superhero movie failed compared to other recent titles. Where did this one go wrong?
Sure, it was formulaic, but many stories are. The real problem was the movie felt formulaic and superficial. Maybe if we understand why, we can avoid that feeling in our stories.
I’ll assume most of you aren’t suckers for punishment like I am, so I’ll include context from the movie. And don’t worry if you plan on seeing it later. My notes won’t spoil anything because the movie had no surprises. Yes, that was just one of its problems.
Lessons from the Plot of the Green Lantern Movie:
- Prologue: Prologues by themselves aren’t bad. (I’ve used them.) But this prologue was long and all backstory and world-building. One of my new favorite bloggers, Janice Hardy, recently posted about how a Green Lantern trailer suffered from the same fate, and the movie’s prologue was twice as long as the clip in that trailer.
- Lesson: If a prologue is used, make sure it’s engaging and relevant.
- Flashback: Flashbacks are difficult under the best circumstances, but no matter what, they have to occur when the character would have time to think about the past. Hint: When you’re the pilot in a plane below the altitude for a safe ejection and you’re about to crash, you wouldn’t have time to think about the last time you saw your dad and what he said to you, etc.
- Lesson: Don’t interrupt tense action scenes with inappropriate flashbacks.
- Convenient Plot Points: Why didn’t the helicopters chase Hal Jordan as he fled the crash scene of the alien ship? Why was Hal more successful against the bad guy than any other Green Lantern after one day of training? Why would the yellow ring work without a yellow lantern to recharge it? Because it was convenient to the plot.
- Lesson: Make coincidences add complications, not take them away.
- Relatable: Contrived plot points can make a story feel like it isn’t taking place on this—or any other—real world. The military shouldn’t test equipment by rules of engagement counter to wartime requirements. After superpowers are first used in public, the superhero shouldn’t be able to return to the scene the next day without a hundred cameras capturing his every move in a media frenzy.
- Lesson: Logic must exist, even in a comic book story.
- Chekov’s Gun: If we see a gun in Act One, we expect it to be used in Act Three. In the middle of Green Lantern, Hal Jordan needs to recharge his ring using his green lantern. The audience thinks this will be important later. Maybe his ring will run out of energy at a critical moment. Ooo, tension, worry, good stuff. But no. The problem never occurs and the plot point is never addressed again. This failure to meet expectations would be a good surprise if it had introduced more complications. Instead, it made things easier for our hero—again.
- Lesson: Don’t include unnecessary story elements, or even better, complicating plot points should be used rather than ignored.
- Subtlety: We sometimes include a “save the cat” scene to show an unlikable character as a good guy. However, if that scene is irrelevant to the rest of the story, audiences won’t be fooled. In the Green Lantern, we see Hal attend his nephew’s birthday party just so we can see him as a decent guy. We never see or hear of these family members again. Subtle, this movie was not.
- Lesson: Make “save the cat” scenes relevant to the overall story.
- Stakes: In the quest for bigger stakes, it’s tempting to go for *imagine voice-over guy here* the fate of the whole world. But the whole world is too big for us to grasp easily. Good stories know how to zoom in on a subset of characters at risk to make the stakes more personal. Green Lantern didn’t take advantage of this—no shots of his favorite nephew in trouble, etc.
- Lesson: Make stakes personal to the characters.
- Black Moment: Green Lantern suffered from a weak “there is no hope” black moment, and the internal character arc and the external plot arc didn’t line up together to make the low points lower. By the time Hal faces the big bad, he’s already serene and has a plan. And if the character isn’t worried, the audience won’t be either.
- Lesson: Make internal and external arcs build on each other for powerful black moments.
In many cases, little changes in the plot could have made the Green Lantern movie vastly better. An additional scene with his nephew would have upped the stakes and made Hal’s “save the cat” scene less obvious. The end scene by the sun would have made more sense if the recharging issue had reared its head at that critical moment.
Instead, Green Lantern took every opportunity to make things easier on the hero. Coincidences, contrivances, unrealized stakes, and flat black moments don’t make for a high tension story. Simplifying a plot makes it more superficial, and a superficial plot will feel formulaic.
Come back Thursday for Part Two, when I’ll take a look at this movie from the character side of things. And if you haven’t entered my blogiversary contest yet, check out my post to see if you can “win” me.
If you’ve seen Green Lantern, what was your impression of the plot? What stories have felt superficial or formulaic to you? Why? Do you have plot issues to add to my list? Do any of these lessons apply to your stories? Or have you avoided these problems?
Photo Credit: DC WikiaPin It