Saturday, July 02, 2011

On Hal

I've gotten back on my Green Lantern kick in the past couple weeks, mainly because of that movie. I saw it last weekend, and have been meaning to review it but keep putting it off.

See, I think it was chopped to pieces and there were some cheesy parts. I want to see the Director's Cut because I can just tell that scene with Hal talking to the Guardians had some groundwork laid earlier that we all missed.

Thing is, even for it's weaknesses, I freaking loved it and there's one big reason.

One big, dumb, reckless reason.

The movie Green Lantern featured Hal Jordan in a way that's seemed missing from the comics to me. The guy who is reckless, wild, and often thoughtless to the point that it is destroying his personal life. A man who lives in complete denial of his fears and the trouble he's caused by his carelessness. The guy who destroys jets just to prove he can, who can't keep a steady girlfriend, and who doesn't even stock his fridge. A man who is a complete jerk, with a complete and utter mess of a life because of this.

But for some reason, he's actually likable, has a decent heart, and steps up to be a hero when he needs to be.

I've been fond of this guy since the 90s, when we saw him being pretty reckless and stupid in flashbacks. He was completely unaware he had this horrible fate hanging over his head. I became a fan with Marz's time-travelling Hal in Emerald Knights, who finds out that he went bad but somehow is able to work through it. That Hal was the sweetest thing ever. I've found I really like Broome's clueless doofus, and other sporadic uses of the character from time to time. I think my absolute favorite might be Neil Gaiman's take in Superman/Green Lantern: Legend of the Green Flame, where Hal's stupidity nearly damns both heroes for all eternity.

And I really like that just post-Rebirth period where Hal showed up and had to apologize to everybody in every guest appearance. After that, my favorite storyline with him is Agent Orange, where he can't think of a happy thought to use the blue ring. I think Johns understands that, at heart, Hal is not very happy with his life and his behavior.

Thing is, in recent years that take just hasn't come across very often. There's a real emphasis on how awesome Hal's job flying jets is, and how often he gets laid, that we miss just how crappy his personal life is supposed to be.

Hal Jordan, as a character, is simply too built up from his concept. He's too cocky, too reckless, and too privileged to begin with. Then he gets the Most Powerful Weapon In The Universe that gives him the power of flight in addition to the opportunity to travel in outer freaking space. He's pretty hard to feel sympathetic towards when you hear him described.

He's pretty hard to feel sympathetic towards as written recently. They're even downplaying the Parallax thing.

But Hal, at his heart, is an underdog. Broome sets him up with girlfriend troubles, Carol dumps him when she gets promoted over him. From the very first adventure, he's clumsy as all hell. We're not exaggerating the head injuries, he trips and falls and gets bashed on the head a lot. He also has Silver Age superhero personal life problems, and is a little bit dense in comparison to the other Lanterns. Later writers have him going from job to job, and give us some fallout from his stupid behavior.

Emerald Dawn is entirely about Hal's recklessness and willingness to do the right thing when he needs to.

In what's probably the best 21st Century Hal setup, Cooke's New Frontier introduces him as a man who has dreams of being an astronaut that he can't achieve. Becoming a Green Lantern makes that possible for him.

It always helps Hal when the audience gets a feeling all of his opportunities have passed him by and the ring is saving him. It helps us relate to him.

Not only that, he's a deeply flawed character, but if we don't see that his flaws are actively hurting him it looks like an endorsement of his behavior. That actually turns a lot of readers off of the character, who is basically a big jerk with a heart of silver. (Because gold isn't really that great in this franchise.)

The other option is to whitewash the flaws away, but that also removes the main theme of the character. Hal's human, and flawed, but he's still good enough to save the universe and he wants to because he is human and flawed. That's always been the underlying difference between him and Sinestro (who is introduced as a power-mad Lantern who took over as absolute dictator long before he was retconned to Hal's mentor), Sinestro feels the universe has to live up to his standards. Hal--on a subconscious level--understands the universe and feels it has the right to exist, warts and all. Because Hal's got his bad points too, and recognizes that.

The great thing about the movie as a character study of Hal is that this is the setup. Hal's character flaws are engaging in a nonstop assault on his personal and professional life. There's a sequence at the beginning that's dedicated into showing how no one else appreciates this, how he's hurting his friends and family and coworkers. It shows that while Hal seems to have the coolest possible life on paper, he is a complete wreck, from the empty state of his kitchen to his inability to get to work on time. He's one mistake away from being unemployed, one more insensitive act from his brothers never speaking to him away, and one lane change away from death.

We also learn that he's screwed up an Air Force career, a relationship with Carol, and god knows what else in the past. We learn he's a serial quitter.

And the beauty of this is in casting Ryan Reynolds, one of those actors who just makes you happy to watch him. He's just plain likable, so while you watch that Hal's an idiot and a jerk, you still empathize with and root for him.

That was pretty impressive, and that's the Hal I've been missing in recent Green Lantern. Like I said before, from Agent Orange, that Green Arrow teamup with the Black Mercy, the just post-Rebirth stuff, and the producer credit, I think that Geoff Johns understands that these are the necessary parts of Hal's concept. His personal life must be absolutely chaotic and he has to be, on some level, pretty miserable about the situation he's made for himself. Johns certainly does have a lot of moments where Hal is shown to be in complete denial, or at least very dissatisfied with his lifestyle.

But more often than not, he seems too focused on showing how good he is with women, how good he is at fighting, and how awesome his day job is (even though Hal really is the shittiest Air Force officer possible and oh god I want the proper Maj. Steve Trevor back so someone can chew Hal out for his conduct) to really drive home just how much of a mess Hal makes of his life. It's there, and you see it sometimes, but usually it's really subtle or completely shoved aside so we can focus on the crossovers instead.

It was nice to see that guy in the movie, though. Fingers crossed we'll see him again in September. I mean, the same writer did do Agent Orange.


  1. I think, for me, the problem with Johns version of Hal is that, really, Hal isn't really doing much as a character in the stories lately. I mean, since we've gotten every color and Hal's been going around with the leaders of each Corps, he's never been dealing with anything personal. That said, I can't remember the issue number, but before War of the GLs, I think it was Barry who asked him when the last time was he took off the ring, and Carol's asked him when he last saw Cowgirl.

    I think its in the back of the plots, but since we've been reading Johns' large GL space opera, Hal hasn't really spent an issue in his own life since at least Blackest Night. I think we just need more time with Hal's life rather than the big plots Johns has been writing. I do hope to see the loserly Hal come back too, he's my favorite GL of Earth. He just needs to stop hanging out with Sinestro and get broken up with by Cowgirl for being an idiot chasing Carol and lose his job for abandoning it (though I do love Sinestro).

  2. I guess I haven't really thought of Hal in toto like this. I've always thought of GL as virtually a different character with every writer's "era." You know, the flawless Broome era, the "let's write him as Peter Parker" era, the period where he kept getting written out in favor of John Stewart or Guy Gardner because he was adjudged "too dull," the Parallax era, etc. But I've always liked the character, and your essay uniting all those periods as a seamless story kinda tells me why. Great post!

  3. Andrew -- Yeah. It's funny that he's the one Lantern I demand a personal life from. Kyle, Guy and John are absorbed into the hero and Lantern social environments, and they're the sort of characters you relate to even that way but Hal really needs to struggling with his personal life. I guess it's because so much of the character's humanity was tied to his supporting cast and setting, while the other three have their primary social ties in the superhero world and are all just enough removed from Stock Hero Character that we see ourselves in them.

    Captain Comics -- I'm glad you liked it. I've noticed that with a lot of characters, not just GL. Fans seem to treat them as completely reinvented each era, totally removed from their roots, but really each writer is interpreting what they read before and there's a reason characters feel right or feel off when you're reading them. They're evolving as time goes on, even through origin retellings and retcons.

    Hal will always be a well-meaning privileged white guy who learned racial awareness as time went on, for example, because of how he interacts with Tom and John in the Silver and Bronze Ages. It doesn't matter if Secret Origin retcons it so he never used a racist nickname and had a previous altercation with John, that sort of growth has been coded into the character and learning to see from the viewpoint of others has become another of his recurring themes.

    The character who seems to get this a lot worse than Hal, though, is Wonder Woman. And someday I'll get into that specifically for her, because she has really interesting evolution.

  4. I love this post, mainly because I have always been apathetic about Hal and couldn't really get into the movie. I don't know much about him except that he doesn't appeal to me as a character, until now. This made me want to go out and buy some GL trades and back issues!

  5. I so glad that you liked the movie. Frankly, I think that Ryan Reynolds did a fine job, and I too would love to see the Director's cut, because I get the impression that a LOT of stuff was left on the cutting room floor.

    Poor Hal. It would be nice to have him have an issue where he tries to do something other than fight the Threat Du Jour. The constant epic battls are fine, in and of themselves, but it would be nice to have a little bit of down time too.

    Although I have to say that that one moment in the last GL book but one, where Guy and Hal have finished beating each other up, and have found where Hal hid that cool intergalactic space ship...and the sheer joy on Hal's face when they take off...not to mention Guy's utter consternation. Pure gold.

  6. The great irony of Green Lantern is that it makes for terrible space opera.

    When you get Hal Jordan out into space and away from his poor job performance, his difficult relationships with women, his racial insensitivity and the rest, he becomes Captain Kirk without the crew. Hal's recklessness becomes courage. He is no longer dumb, because he is in an unfamiliar situation.

    In space, Hal Jordan loses his flaws and, therefore, his personality.

  7. Dean -- Well, it's only that way with Hal. The other three work GREAT in outer space for long periods of time. Hal I think actually needs to take a supporting cast member to outer space with him if he leaves for more than two issues.

  8. Geoff has been making Hal live the role of Green Lantern 24/7, and I think Batman even made mention of it just before "War of the GLs". I guess we're going to see what Hal does with himself now that he doesn't have a ring (unless he gets a yellow ring, who knows).

    There's an under-appreciated anime favorite of mine, "YuYu Hakusho", one of those shonen deals with a 14-year-old protagonist. One of the simple things it does well, in its first episode, is it paints our hero as someone who has made a mess of his life. His teachers think (understandably if a little mistakenly) that he's a no-good punk, he mistreats his only friend (a girl who has known him since childhood, and remembers a time he wasn't so angry), and all the other students fear him because he is an unstoppable brawler who can allegedly summon hordes of biker thugs just by whistling. The reality is, more than anything, he's unhappy and alone. If they put a little bit of that into Hal, I'm all for it.