Monday, June 20, 2011

The "Act Two problems" of Green Lantern

An unfortunately-not-uncommon term among screenwriters and critics is "Act Two problems." Even if you don't know exactly what this means, likely you've observed them. If you're a writer, chances are at some point in your creative efforts, you've birthed them.

See, if you've got a good hook for a script, writing the set-up is often pretty easy. When you're really lucky, the first act writes itself. If you're really sharp, you've come up with an exciting climax and a strong ending that perfectly suits your concept and set-up. In other words, you know where your plot and characters start and have a good idea of where they end up.

Here, I'll give you a good example of this kind of pitch. This is from The Player. The story itself starts at about a minute in. Tim Robbins plays a studio exec who's getting a pitch from two writers. (One of whom has an arrogance and pretension that eventually comes across as off-putting and, frankly, naive.)

In a later scene, Robbins' character remarks that among the story's other deficiencies, "It's got no second act." It's a problem a lot of writers face - how do you get from A to C?

Green Lantern is - much to my great disappointment - a pretty good example of Act Two problems. As I discussed last week, I'd been anticipating this film like no other and was very concerned when I saw so many negative reviews. When I finally saw the film, I spent the first 40 or 45 minutes pleasantly surprised. The mythology of the Green Lanterns was introduced as effectively as film allowed, Ryan Reynolds' Hal Jordan got an exciting introduction that summed up his character well, and the big scene where he received the ring from the dying Abin Sur had all the weight and power I expected it to carry.

The film doesn't really run into trouble until partway through the second act. While Hal is whisked away to the planet Oa for training, an Earth-bound threat emerges in the form of scientist Hector Hammond, who becomes infected with energy from galactic threat Parallax.

The Green Lantern Corps need to mount an attack on Parallax, which is winging its way through space and is bound for Oa. The problem: there's still an hour left in the movie, so the film has to find some way of stalling that climactic battle.

Thus we get our first major Act Two problem: The Hector Hammond subplot. Peter Sarsgaard performs the role well, and under the right circumstances, Hector can be one creepy SOB. Here, he feels like a placeholder - a way to motivate some action to happen on Earth. Since the movie wants to set up Hal's earthbound life for future chapters, there needs to be some kind of subplot set-up Earthside, preferably one that puts Blake Lively's Carol Ferris into some kind of damsel-in-distress situation.

Hector is supposedly an old friend of Hal and Carol's, but this fact isn't mined for anything beyond perfunctory "I had the hots for her too, Hal" tension. When it comes down to the final battle between the two, there's none of the depth or heartbreak that X-Men: First Class was able to tap when Xavier found himself on the opposite side of the situation from Erik and Mystique.

There's also the fact that superhero film conventions demand that Hal flex some muscles on Earth and have a public debut of sorts as Green Lantern. Hector's first public stunt provides this, but then the film makes one of it's most baffling misteps: Hal's public debut barely feels public. The helicopter rescue gives him a chance to show off some of his ring constructs, but then we only get the barest hint of a public reaction to the new superhero in their midst.

I get that a lot of Superhero movies - particularly Superman - have covered this ground, and there's the risk of being derivative. Still, it's something that would have made the world feel realer, and given a stronger sense of Green Lantern's powers and responsibilities. From what we see - the world reacts with a shrug more than a "Holy shit! This guy can fly and his ring does anything!" If no one in-story is reacting to amazing things with any sense of wonder, it often weakens the impact for the audience.

(I had a similar problem with the Smallville finale last month, where Clark's public debut as Superman was practically non-existent and we saw none of the reaction to "The Blur" finally showing his face after years of being little more than an urban legend to the people of Metropolis.)

That's a lot for one day, so we'll save another major Act Two issue for tomorrow's post, where we focus on Hal Jordan's personal arc.

No comments:

Post a Comment