Before ‘Shazam!’ DC Tried Making Another Funny Superhero Movie. Unfortunately, It Was ‘Green Lantern’
This Friday, DC’s Shazam! Fury of the Gods opens, chronicling the further adventures of young Billy Batson, an everyday teen who has been given superpowers that transform him Big-style into an adult who looks like the dude from Chuck. When the original film came out in 2019, it was hailed as a breath of fresh air in the world of superhero cinema. Released just a few weeks before Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame, the movie that concluded Marvel’s shift to increasingly darker stories, Shazam! was more of a lark, with Zachary Levi appropriately silly and self-deprecating as the titular hero. Shazam isn’t on the same level as other DC characters like Superman or Batman — he wasn’t featured in 2017’s all-star Justice League — and so the filmmakers wisely didn’t take the property too seriously. Let Endgame and DC’s Zack Snyder drape their universes in dour tones: Shazam! just wanted to have fun.
Four years later, do audiences still want a funny superhero movie? You could argue that this year’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, in which the usually irreverent Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) started facing the same grim, universe-in-the-balance stakes as his more famous chums, leaves a pathway open for Shazam’s smart-aleck antics. After all, who said comic-book flicks can’t be really funny?
As superhero cinema has come to dominate the industry over the last decade-plus, they tend to lead with self-importance. The heroes are mighty! The villains are scary! The endings are always overblown spectacles! And while a sense of humor has always been central to these films, few try to be straight-up comedies, mocking the genre’s excesses and forced gravitas. The Shazam movies do that a little, but it’s not the first time DC went for such a radical tonal shift. In fact, the company gambled on a similarly funny superhero flick in 2011. Unfortunately, it was Green Lantern.
In a week where his wireless company got bought by T-Mobile for more than a billion dollars, it might be hard to remember that, not so long ago, Ryan Reynolds was struggling to find his way. Blessed with good looks and a sarcastic delivery, the Van Wilder hunk had transitioned to more grown-up roles, sometimes successfully in indies like The Nines and Adventureland. But with 2010’s The Proposal, he proved he could be a bankable star, setting the stage for his next big project.
Years earlier, Warner Bros. had been keen on making a funny Green Lantern movie. The studio even approached Robert Smigel to write the film, with Jack Black playing Hal Jordan. “I thought, ‘Well, of course this could be a comedy,’” Smigel later recalled. “Basically just the premise that the wrong guy gets the ring and can do all kinds of goofy visual jokes — because the visuals are so potentially ridiculous. What appealed to me about it on a comedic level was that, in order to be a superhero, this requires no physical skill or talent. All it requires is owning this ring. Automatically, that’s a comedic premise.”
That version never saw the light of day — in part, because diehard Green Lantern fans didn’t like the idea of a movie that potentially made fun of their guy — but the studio later developed a different take that had Reynolds in the lead role. Martin Campbell, the director who’d helped make James Bond cool again thanks to his work on Casino Royale, was tapped to helm Green Lantern. And the timing seemed perfect: 2008’s The Dark Knight had established the highwater mark for serious, critically acclaimed superhero cinema, so Green Lantern would be an ideal counterbalance, mixing action with plenty of laughs.
But the problems started nearly from the word go. For one thing, an initial trailer seemed to be too jokey, angering fanboys. It got so bad that Reynolds had to do an interview essentially saying, “Don’t worry, everyone: Green Lantern isn’t that funny.”
“I know, because I was an integral part of the shooting process, that the movie is not a comedy at all,” Reynolds insisted in the spring of 2011. “There’s definitely a few funny moments in it. The levity is really kind of more in a Han Solo kind of vein than anything broader.”
There were other concerns, though. Stories started circulating that Warner Bros. was desperately trying to get Green Lantern done in time, the delays due to finishing the film’s elaborate special effects. As a result, the studio had to hold off on doing a marketing push for a movie that was already drowning in bad buzz. “Part of the reason the response to the first trailer was lukewarm was that the big-scale sequences weren’t ready to show, and we suffered for it,” Warner Bros. marketing head Sue Kroll told the Los Angeles Times. “We can’t afford to do that again.”
All of that led to a sinking feeling that Green Lantern was a dud — a suspicion completely supported by the actual movie.
Opening in June of 2021, Green Lantern was the worst of both worlds in that it didn’t work as either a sci-fi action film or a hip comedy. And at the center of it was Reynolds, who played Hal as a smug test pilot who can’t quite believe he’s accidentally stumbled into this other reality in which he’s been chosen to be a vaunted Green Lantern who must help protect the universe. Not unlike the Shazam movies, Green Lantern has a little fun with the idea of a random dude suddenly getting superpowers. But this was before Reynolds found the right role to really channel his ironic persona. He mostly came across as excessively smarmy — and Hal sure wasn’t as fun as Han Solo. (As a side note, I’ve always found it remarkable that Reynolds later married his onscreen love interest, Blake Lively, considering that, in the movie, they don’t have a ton of chemistry.)
Terrible reviews greeted the film, and audiences mostly stayed away, preferring X-Men: First Class and Captain America: The First Avenger — to say nothing of Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Quickly, Green Lantern became one of that summer’s laughing stocks — with Reynolds as its public punchline. But he would get his revenge: When he made his comeback with another superhero film, the darkly comic Deadpool, he didn’t just improve on Green Lantern’s playbook but also mocked his earlier flop. Thereafter, Reynolds rarely missed a chance to poke fun at Green Lantern, following George Clooney’s strategy of savaging his embarrassing superhero debacle before anyone else could. Notably, Batman & Robin is somewhat similar to Green Lantern in that they both try to take the piss out of the sanctimony surrounding comic-book films — in each case, though, the fact that the film tanked made its failure all the more mortifying. There’s something about an unfunny superhero flick that’s even worse than sitting through a typically mediocre superhero flick.
To be sure, Warner Bros. has attempted to put its DC characters into comedies in the past. (Who could forget 1983’s Superman III, which cast Richard Pryor for comic relief?) But because the ubiquitous Reynolds rose from the ashes of Green Lantern’s failure — and still takes shots at its feebleness — that film still resides in our collective consciousness, serving as a warning of what can happen when studios try to do funny superhero movies.
That doesn’t mean, though, that the idea of making Green Lantern was ill-advised. In the wake of The Dark Knight, Hollywood embraced moody, grown-up blockbusters — Daniel Craig’s James Bond movies probably wouldn’t exist without it — creating an impression that being gloomy was the same as being artistic. That tonal approach quickly became a cliché, so you could see why Warner Bros. bet on a lighthearted antidote to all that somberness. The studio made the right call, but Green Lantern didn’t deliver, quickening DC’s abrupt pivot to moody, Snyder-y epics like Man of Steel that absolutely, positively weren’t trying to be comedies. Eventually, though, the DC Extended Universe developed a sense of humor, whether it was Joss Whedon’s strained, wobbly salvage job of Justice League, the bro-y cheekiness of Aquaman or the more overtly funny Shazam!.
It’s easy to point and laugh at Green Lantern — after all, it’s really, really bad — but the film spoke to a need that we still have for blockbusters that don’t try so hard to be blockbusters. Bigger isn’t always better in the world of superhero cinema, and a movie like Green Lantern is a necessary palate cleanser, even when it’s a dud. The lazy take would be “Green Lantern walked so Deadpool and Shazam! could run,” but that’s actually pretty true. We don’t need comic-book characters to be funny, but it doesn’t hurt.
What’s the point of saving the world if you can’t crack a joke now and again?