Green Lantern: Emerald Knights is a slight but entertaining anthology film intended to capitalize on the upcoming live-action feature film and corresponding PR blitz. It’s packed with a lot of crowd-pleasing sci-fi superhero moments that will make fans of the genre smile, and it’s all executed with enough skill and good humor that I’m willing to overlook the film’s head-scratching moments and structural flaws, which, anyway, will only occur to the viewer after the end credits start to roll.
A thematic if not literal sequel to Green Lantern: First Flight, Emerald Knights spotlights five different members of the Green Lantern Corps, an intergalactic peacekeeping organization led by the tiny, blue self-appointed, Guardians of the Universe and headquartered on the planet Oa. The Corps’ badge of office and primary weapon is a power ring capable of creating anything the wielder has the force-of-will to imagine into being; it can also project protective force fields and enable the wielder to fly. At the start of Emerald Knights, the entire Corps is gathered on Oa to address the pending arrival of Krona, an ancient enemy of the Guardians who is about to burst out of a nearby sun, apocalypse trailing in his wake. This loose overarching story provides a framework for Hal Jordan, veteran Green Lantern of Earth, to regale Arisia (a nervous new recruit) with tales of other Lanterns. Unlike many other anthology movies, these separate stories fit together wonderfully well, even as the final result remains understandably disjoint.
The first story is “The First Lantern,” which chronicles the story of the first members of the Corps and the one recognized as the first true Green Lantern. It’s a grand-scale space adventure, mixing the interstellar dogfights of Star Wars with a good old-fashioned superhero origin story, and it also delivers a quiet but positive little message about the value of having imagination and the will to use it to change the world around you. It is also interesting to contrast the grungy, ground-level realities faced by these first Green Lanterns with Hal Jordan’s Scripture-like narration. It is the first of many times that Nathan Fillion’s terrific performance elevates the material beyond its warrant.
“Kilowog” details the early days of the Corps’ resident drill sergeant, and especially his conflicts as a new recruit under the harsh, demanding Green Lantern Deegan. If Green Lantern: First Flight focused on the “space cop” aspect of the Green Lantern franchise, Emerald Knights focuses more on the “space army” aspect, making the Corps feel much more like a military organization. Boot camp sequences are familiar territory for war films, and the one presented here puts an entertaining intergalactic spin on them with wildly divergent alien life forms and planets. Training time is cut short by an emergency, and the rookies must go through a trial-by-fire as Deegan has to take them into a live-fire zone. This leads to more big-scaled action, as well as Deegan doing an incredibly hardcore macho act at the very end.
The focus of “Laira” is the Corps’ resident warrior woman, chronicling her mission to her home planet Jayd to investigate reports of wartime atrocities. The story is slight and familiar, but the real impact comes from the absolutely stellar action sequences as Laira plows her way through three powerful opponents to uncover the truth. In contrast to the giant-scaled battles of the first two stories, the conflicts in this one take place on a personal level, finding extremely creative ways to augment martial-arts maneuvering with various science-fiction accouterments. The final battle is dazzling in its creative choreography and bone-crunching brutality; if it were available at the time, it would have been one of my Top 5 Martial Arts Fights of Animation. Equally impressive is Kelly Hu’s understated vocal performance as the title character, which reveals just enough vulnerability under the steel to make Laira one of the coolest warrior women since Wonder Woman herself.
“Mogo Doesn’t Socialize” takes a breather for some comic relief with an entertaining story (adapted from the classic comic book tale by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons) about a most unusual Green Lantern. It is a great deal of fun, especially “Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s over-the-top performance as Bolphunga the Unrelenting, and it’s a joke that you can enjoy hearing told again even if you know the punch line ahead of time. The adaptation makes a few sensible changes, padding the early portion with another fight to establish Bolphunga’s badass bona fides and changing around a few details to use the medium of animation more effectively.
The last story, “Abin Sur,” is a very loose adaptation of a comic book story by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, and is the least satisfying of the lot. The rest of the stories don’t require any prior knowledge of the Green Lantern Corps to be enjoyable, delivering characters and stories that easily stand on their own merits while slipping in the occasional Easter eggs for the longtime comic book fans like me. “Abin Sur” recounts a tale of Hal Jordan’s predecessor and his relationship with the Green Lantern Sinestro (who also pinch hits as this tale’s narrator). After another thrilling action sequence, this story turns into an extended conversation about fate vs. free will and isn’t any more exciting than that sounds. There is also some overly talky ominous foreshadowing at the very end which will be meaningless to anybody who isn’t familiar with current Green Lantern comics or the Green Lantern: First Flight movie. The only redeeming thing about this story is that it gives some more screen time to Jason Isaacs’ articulate and enthralling performance as Sinestro.
Once storytime is over, the main “Emerald Knights” tale wraps up with a bang as Krona finally emerges and is defeated thanks to some wildly nonsensical pseudoscience courtesy of Arisia. I don’t expect or demand much accuracy from a story centering on an army of aliens wearing magic wishing rings, but the last-minute scheme to defeat Krona just makes absolutely no sense. It doesn’t help that spending time on the earlier stories leaves Krona as little more than an abstraction: a threat that we recognize as massive and urgent only because everyone on screen says so repeatedly. This is actually one of the fundamental structural flaws of the film. On its own, the framing Krona story is slight and unsatisfying, especially compared to the much more entertaining shorter stories that weave through it. There are also some thematic links between the individual stories and the larger Krona story, but only if you squint very hard and turn your head sideways. The story might have been more satisfying if those links had been made more explicit. Finally, despite the way the bonus features genuflect to him, we get little to no indication at all why Hal Jordan is held in such high regard by comic book creators and fans. I think what appeal he has here comes largely from Fillion.
It will be no surprise that the animation of Green Lantern: Emerald Knights is top-notch from start to finish, even edging out the prior Green Lantern DTV. If I am disappointed by anything, it’s that the film opts for visual consistency between its individual stories rather than allowing the individual studios more freedom in visual interpretations, as Batman: Gotham Knight or the Halo DTV movie did. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is equally impressive at delivering the crash and boom of interstellar combat and the heavy amounts of dialogue that drive the film. The voice cast is also quite good across the board, starting with Fillion’s Hal Jordan and Elisabeth Moss’ young and tentative Arisia. While no animated incarnation of Kilowog has quite measured up to the voice I hear for him in my head, Henry Rollins does a much better job here than Michael Madsen managed in Green Lantern: First Flight (although my favorite Kilowog is still Dennis Haysbert’s take from Justice League). As mentioned, Jason Isaacs is terrific as Sinestro, with a cool and competent demeanor that steps just far enough into arrogance to be sensed but not so far as to make him unpalatable. I would also single out Wade Williams’ Deegan as a performance to listen for, since it easily convinces us that the relatively small Deegan is a pack of dynamite wrapped up in barbed wire without ever once sounding like a cheap R. Lee Ermey clone.
Green Lantern: Emerald Knights comes in a Blu-ray combo pack which includes a DVD that contains nothing but the movie and a digital copy. All the bonus features are on the Blu-ray, but the only bonuses of value are the preview of the upcoming animated adaptation of Batman: Year One and the “Revenge of the Reach!” episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Everything else is a major disappointment. The commentary track is provided by DC co-publisher Dan Didio and Chief Creative officer Geoff Johns rather than any of the Warner Brothers Animation staff that worked on the movie. They note references to the original comic book stories and Johns points out the sequence he wrote, but I suspect the rest of their banter will be incomprehensible to anybody who has not been religiously following the comic books for the past several years. The track did provide a moment of unintentional hilarity when they made a point of declaring how important it was to introduce new characters to ensure these stories stay fresh, considering that their most visible creative contribution to DC Comics was to resurrect superheroes created in the 1950’s and left for dead for the past 10-20 years, shunting their newer replacements offstage.
Much of the information they provide is repeated through the four featurettes on the disc, one of which is ostensibly about why Green Lantern is powerful as a metaphor (and which mostly recycles the same stuff from the documentary included on Green Lantern: First Flight); one that focuses on Johns’ recent work with the character; and two shorter ones that briefly cover the comics history of Abin Sur and Laira. All of them are little more than thinly disguised advertisements for the comic books, though they would be far more effective as advertisements if they’d bother to tell us what comic books we were looking at or threw up an ad for the Comic Book Shop Locator. Between the commentary and the featurettes, we get to hear Dan Didio recount his favorite Geoff Johns-penned scene from the comics three times, while getting less information about the making of this movie than we got in the advance look on the All-Star Superman Blu-ray. This just seems wrong somehow, especially in comparison to the short but informative “making of” featurettes on Thor: Tales of Asgard. There’s also a virtual comic book, reproducing a few pages of a recent Green Lantern issue. Like earlier comic books included on these Blu-rays, this issue is nearly unreadable even on a high-definition TV, making this a wasted effort as well. Considering DC’s recently announced push into digital comics, perhaps they’d be better off including a digital comic (or a free excerpt from one) next time. Finally, there are the bonus cartoons of Batman: The Brave and the Bold. The good news is that they look and sound terrific on Blu-ray. The bad news is that we only get one full episode, plus one excerpt from “The Siege of Starro! Pt. 1.” I realize that these are “bonus” features, and thus are “freebies.” I also have had my share of complaints about them on earlier releases, but just getting one episode and a clip when earlier discs had up to 4 full episodes makes me feel like I’ve been cheated somehow.
In the end, Green Lantern: Emerald Knights is pretty lightweight, but sandwiched between the incredibly dense and heavily metaphorical All-Star Superman and the expected industrial strength pulp noir of Batman: Year One, Green Lantern: Emerald Knights will serve as a pleasant palate cleanser. It’s not aiming to do much other than tell ripping sci-fi yarns, but it succeeds so well at its modest ambitions that it’s quite easy to overlook the flaws in the work. I question whether it’s really the best way to “prepare for the upcoming film in theaters,” as the packaging declares confidently, but I’d definitely say that this is a worthy addition to the growing library of excellent DC direct-to-video animated features.