I've never been a huge fan of Green Lantern in the comics, despite the fact that space adventurers battling evil aliens with the dynamic visual of magic rings that can make anything they can think of is exactly the sort of thing I like. That's why I've been looking forward to checking out the new Bruce Timm-produced Green Lantern: The Animated Series that debuts this Friday on The Cartoon Network. I like all the stuff about Green Lantern, and I'm pretty sure the record will back me up when I say that I'm a pretty big fan of Bruce Timm's animated projects. And now that I've seen the hour-long pilot, I have to say that from what I've seen, Green Lantern: The Animated Series does it right.
The first thing that really jumped out at me about the 44-minute pilot is that the producers of Green Lantern: The Animated Series seem to be dialing back a lot of the obsessive details (like the names and planets of origin of all the other Green Lanterns, or the exact wording of the oath) in favor of the grand-scale action of a space opera. There are certainly nice little nods for existing fans, and definitely enough to make kids curious about just what those characters are all about, but the focus has really been narrowed down.
I imagine that's almost essential when you're dealing with the idea of an army of 3600 intergalactic soldiers (or 7200, or whatever they're up to these days), but the paring down of what's important to the series is done really elegantly. The show never lacks for the feeling that its characters are part of something bigger, and those characters -- Green Lanterns Hal Jordan, Kilowog, Ganthet and a handful of others -- never get lost in the big picture, and come off as well-developed even in the context of a single episode.
I was also pretty pleased that, much like they did with Batman: The Animated Series, the producers decided not to go with an origin story, because much like with Batman, there was a live-action movie out there that had already done that job for them.
Instead, we're introduced to Hal Jordan as a fully-formed character, and as much as I have difficulty with other versions of him, this is one I can get behind. He's kind of a jerk and he's kind of a goofball, but in an affable way that plays out like a combination of Jack Burton and Flash Gordon.
There are two great scenes early on that really underline it perfectly. One is our introduction to Hal as a Green Lantern, where he's test-flying a jet and sees a train about to go over a cliff after a bridge collapses, so he sets it to auto-pilot and jumps out to save the train, completely forgetting that he had the plane pointed directly at the side of a mountain when he did so.
The other comes a little later, when he's hauled off to the planet Oa so that the Guardians can yell at him for punching out an alien ambassador. Hal calmly and even pleasantly explains to them that he did it because the guy was using his diplomatic immunity to cover up a slavery ring, and there was no way he could let that one slide in good conscience.
Not only do those scenes mean that this is a version of Hal who had an honest-to-goodness Lethal Weapon 2 "It's just been revoked" moment -- which is hilarious to think about -- it also sets his character up in a way that perfectly leads to everything that follows. He's got a likeable cockiness to him, an arrogance that somehow comes from having his heart in the right place. He won't let anyone get away with anything while he's around to stop it, no matter what consequences he's incurs for himself.
In other words, he's totally honest and totally fearless, something we learn without those words ever needing to be said out loud.
I also really liked that the show is visually interesting. You'd think that would go without saying for a franchise so rooted in imagination and a character using his weapon to make literally anything, but for some reason, that's not often the case. Brave and the Bold did a great job with it and I love Justice League /Justice League Unlimited, but that show ran for six years with the most unimaginative uses of the Power Ring. Power blasts and green walls, week in and week out.
There's a little bit of that here -- including some of my pet peeve, using the Power Ring like a gun that just shoots green lasers -- but there's a lot more depth to it, and it actually lends itself to the show's characterizations. The untrained frontier Lanterns have the ol' power blast/green wall setup, while Kilowog, known for his size and physical strength, uses his ring to make hammers. That's even a plot point in the show, that he prefers to use his ring for things that aren't that complex.
It even helps to add to Hal's character: Among all the Lanterns we see using their rings -- five over the course of the pilot -- he's the one making stuff with his. Baseball bats, power drills, giant hands. It shows us why we're following Hal Jordan instead of one of the other 3,599 other Lanterns we could be getting stories about: He's the one with the imagination that goes with his impulsiveness. And when he actually does lose it and start actually punching a guy, it really has emotional impact. We can see that Hal has lost control in his anger, because it's been established that he does things a different way.
Both of those elements of the show point to one big strength: The fact that it does an amazing job telling its story through action.
It's an exciting show. More than anything else, it reminded me of Star Trek in the way used its outer-space sci-fi elements as a background for this really pulp-styled action story. During the fight scenes, the background music even has a touch of those Kirk vs. Spock fight music horns. It's not dumb by any means -- there are some really smart, really sharp moments involved -- but it doesn't get bogged down explaining anything more than what it needs to keep things moving at a brisk clip.
In fact, my favorite moment of the show is when Hal Jordan charges up his ring while saying the famous Green Lantern Oath. Instead of treating it as a solemn occasion with Hal reciting the lines in strict, stentorian tones, this is a show that has Hal spit it out as fast as he possibly can while jumping through mid-air at a spaceship. It doesn't treat the Oath like the focus, because it's not the focus -- no one wants to see a guy stand around talking about what he's going to do with his Power Ring when he could be doing it instead.
That's what I mean when I say that the show doesn't get hung up on the minutiae at the expense of storytelling. The Oath is there, but it's treated the way that an impulsive, action-oriented guy like Hal Jordan would probably treat it: Something he has to get through so that he can get back to helping people. It's not that he doesn't believe it, but that there are things more important than words when his friends are in danger.
That emphasis on action does lead to a few noticeably weird plot holes, though. The entire premise of the show is that the Red Lanterns are out on the frontier of the galaxy killing off any of the isolated frontier Lanterns that they can find. Incidentally, the Red Lanterns were a pretty interesting choice for villains, but they work out pretty well in the context in which they're presented. There's a nice contrast set up between Atrocitus and Kilowog, they feel like fresh territory as opposed to a bad guy like Sinestro, and, maybe most importantly, all that blood-vomiting they do in the comics is played off with more of a firebreathing sort of effect.
Anyway, the frontier is 18 months away from Oa (and Earth) at a Green Lantern's "top speed," which seems weird, because we see Hal bop over to Oa in the span of a few seconds while fully planning to get back to Earth by five to go on a date with Carol Ferris. Then, it's revealed that while the Green Lanterns' rings would take 18 months to get to that part of space, the Guardians also have this new spaceship that can get them there over the span of a commercial break, because it's powered by... a Green Lantern power battery.
It's certainly not a huge deal since the rest of the show is so good, but it does seem pretty strange, even in the context of a show about little blue aliens who hand out magic wishing rings.
But then Hal Jordan steals the spaceship by, and I am not kidding about this, seducing a computer, and all is forgiven.
I was worried about how Timm's designs would translate to the computer-generated animation they were using for this show, but it's actually very impressive. His broad-shouldered, top-heavy figures move really well through the areas around themselves, and it looks natural and smooth.
It's also surprisingly expressive. The still shots don't really do justice to how fluid it is, but the one above comes closest to showing the range they're able to give their characters. Hal smirks and rolls his eyes, Kilowog gets mad and shakes his head in regret, and there's another character who is given this "I only had one day 'til retirement" look that comes through perfectly even on his alien features. The voices, too, fit very, very well, making it a really enjoyable show to watch. I just wish it had a better opening sequence.
The one-hour premiere of Green Lantern: The Animated Series airs this Friday, November 11 on Cartoon Network at 7 PM, and after seeing it, any skepticism I had about this show is gone.