NEAL CONAN, host: Superheroes rule the silver screen this summer. Well, "The Green Hornet" came out in January, but then came "Thor," "X-Men: First Class." "Captain America" is still to come. And just over the weekend, "Green Lantern."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GREEN LANTERN")
RYAN REYNOLDS: (As Hal Jordan/Green Lantern) I, Hal Jordan, do solemnly swear to pledge allegiance to a lantern that I got from a dying purple alien in this world. To infinity and beyond. By the power of Grayskull. What the hell? Come on. If you can find me 100 miles in the middle of nowhere, do you think that you can
CONAN: Ryan Reynolds learning to charge the emerald gladiator's power ring. If you don't know the difference between Green Lantern, Green Hornet and Green Arrow, what draws you to see these movies? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Glen Weldon is with us here in Studio 3A to talk about what he calls the current glut of superhero films. He blogs about comics for NPR's pop culture blog Monkey See. He's also a panelist at NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
GLEN WELDON: Always great to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And I suspect it would not be much of a challenge to ask you to recite the actual oath.
WELDON: Do you want me to? I seriously could. I can also...
WELDON: ...do the golden age version if you want.
CONAN: The golden age version.
CONAN: That's - well, let's leave that to the imagination. In any case, in your review of the film, you quote the star, Ryan Reynolds, who says, this is the movie fans want to see. And you also say that's the problem with the movie.
WELDON: Exactly. I grew up with this lore. I internalized it at a very young age. So to me, it seems like Civil War history. Take that for what it's worth.
WELDON: But what happens is that you take this - all this mythology about the 306 - 3,600.
CONAN: 3,600, yeah.
WELDON: 3,600 space cops that patrol the universe lorded over by tiny, blue immortals. And when you transpose it directly - comics and medium - comics and movies are different media. When you transpose it directly and just simply upsize it without deepening it, I came out of this film thinking, this thing that I love is kind of hokey...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
WELDON: ...kind of flimsy and thin.
CONAN: I think you're speaking for all of 2814.
WELDON: Yeah. Thank you. Nicely done, Neal.
CONAN: Yeah. So as we look at this transposition, this is also a product of sort of second-tier characters. This is not "Batman." This is not "Superman." The success of "Iron Man" has given us, in a sense, "Green Lantern."
WELDON: Absolutely. This is a second-tier character. He doesn't have a lot of name recognition. But that's the other thing that happens. When you take a second-tier character, you could go bad in one of two directions. You can either impose a Hollywood three-act summer blockbuster formula over it, the way that bad movies like "Daredevil" and "Elektra" did that felt very formulaic and stilted. Or you can cater to the fans, which is a mistake because we're going to see the thing anyway. You got your hooks in us already. Don't worry about us. And we're a fractious bunch. We can't really agree on what we like about the thing. We just know that we like it.
CONAN: Well, we're going to come out disagreeing with something because we have to find something to disagree with.
WELDON: That's what we do.
CONAN: And, of course, the lore will not be perfectly transposed, or at least not perfectly to each of our individual memories of this, as you point out, decades of back story.
WELDON: That's right. And you have to cram all that into one hour and a half, or, in this case, well, it felt longer, but it was an hour and 45 five minutes. I - but, yeah. The stuff that is expanded but not deepened, not rounded. Motivations of these characters, which work perfectly well in the comics, just don't work on the big screen. Dialogue that seems stirring comes off as silly. It's just a different beast.
CONAN: There are different approaches, as you say. There were a successful run of "X-Men" movies, and this summer we've had "X-Men: First Class," which is a prequel to the three that we saw before. But in that sense, it gets to introduce a whole set of characters again, and it gives us an opportunity to get some of that precious back story.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "X-MEN: FIRST CLASS")
ZOE KRAVITZ: (As Angel Salvadore) My stage name was Angel.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING)
KRAVITZ: (As Angel Salvadore) Kinda fits.
MORGAN LILY: (As Young Raven) You can fly?
KRAVITZ: (As Angel Salvadore) Mm-hmm.
CALEB LANDRY JONES: (As Sean Cassidy/Banshee) I'm going to be Banshee.
NICHOLAS HOULT: (as Beast) Why do you want to be named after a wailing spirit?
JONES: (as Banshee) You might want to cover your ears.
CONAN: Good stuff.
WELDON: Yeah. And that's, you know, the - I thought "X-Men First Class" worked better certainly than "Green Lantern" because it's grounded by two performances, by James McAvoy and especially Michael Fassbender, whose roles consist of just sort of waving his arms around and looking pained to move things around. But he does it - he's so charismatic, you can't take your eyes off him. I thought some of the stuff with the younger X-Men that was played for laughs didn't really work as well and the tone was all over the place. But it was a stylish film, and it kind of knew what it was.
CONAN: And then there is a separate approach, and this is not to a comic book character - as you've put it on your review - but one who's been in comic books and is not dissimilar, and that is "The Green Hornet." And this is Seth Rogen's adaptation. Well, here he is talking to his sidekick.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE GREEN HORNET")
JAY CHOU: (as Kato) We'll need a car.
SETH ROGEN: (as Britt Reid/The Green Hornet) Hells yes, we'll need a car.
CHOU: (as Kato) With some weapons.
ROGEN: (as Britt Reid/The Green Hornet) Hmm.
CHOU: (as Kato) And armor.
ROGEN: (as Britt Reid/The Green Hornet) Cool rims. Spinning rims.
CHOU: (as Kato) I can do that.
ROGEN: (as Britt Reid/The Green Hornet) Kato, I want you to take my hand. I want you to come with me on this adventure.
CHOU: (as Kato) I'll go with you, but I don't want to touch you.
CONAN: And this is a separate approach, a much more individualistic approach.
WELDON: Right. That's basically - it feels like a sequel to "Pineapple Express." It's very much a Seth Rogen film that happens to be a superhero film. So your patience for the character of Seth Rogen who - he's onscreen pretty much the entire film and never stops talking.
CONAN: Almost every five seconds. No.
WELDON: Never stops talking. So, yeah, it'll - it won't change your mind about "Green Hornet," but it might change your mind about Seth Rogen.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. If you are not a fanboy, why do you go see these movies? 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. We'll start with Jason, Jason with us from Portland.
JASON: Hi. How are you doing today?
JASON: I think it's important to remember, when we talk about the appeal of these movies, that the most popular genre during the Great Depression (technical difficulty) because it was sort of these mythos of America where opportunity was around every corner, and it was escapist entertainment for people who were suffering.
And now, when we look forward today at the great recession, I think it's interesting to note that these superhero characters are almost uniformly average individuals who are somehow given great power and great ability to affect events around them. And I think a lot of people in society right now are feeling powerless. And that is why I think there is that big of a draw.
WELDON: That's a good point. A lot of these characters that started out this whole thing - Superman, Batman, Spiderman - have a primal simple appeal. They appeal to wish fulfillment in a very basic way. Green Lantern, he's not as easily to reduce to a simple tagline to kind of sum him up as easily, and I think that might be why there's a more complicated relationship with him.
CONAN: Jason, thanks very much for the call.
JASON: My pleasure. Have a great day.
CONAN: As he pointed out, a lot of them are — well, Steve Rogers coming up in "Captain America." A typical scrawny kid who's kicked - I'm sure - I don't know if he gets sand kicked in his face in the beach, but we'd like to think so in memory of Jack LaLanne. But in any case, he becomes a super soldier. There is another movie out, though, which is distinctly not about a sort of average guy who gets superpowers but about a god who is sort of reduced to human levels. This, of course, Thor, who is, well, just too arrogant even for his father, Odin.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THOR")
ANTHONY HOPKINS: (as Odin) You are unworthy of these realms. You're unworthy of your title. You're unworthy. I now take from you your power. In the name of my father and his father before, and by Odin, your father, I cast you out.
CONAN: And cast out he is. Of course, to Midgard or - that's where we live, actually.
WELDON: Yeah. I love that...
CONAN: Also Sector 2814.
WELDON: That's right, exactly. Hang it up nicely.
WELDON: I love that clip because that's what the film's about. The film is about Anthony Hopkins chewing the scenery through his big burly beard.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
WELDON: It's just so much fun. It's light. You've got two stars, Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth, both of whom are easy on the eyes.
WELDON: And, yeah, the story has - is not just mythical, it's a myth. He's a god, for god's sake. So it's very simple but a lot of fun.
CONAN: Let's go next to - this is, excuse me, Jodie, and Jodie is with us from Jackson, Michigan.
JODIE: Hi. How are you?
CONAN: Good, thanks.
JODIE: Good. I'm a 40-year-old woman and I really have never read a comic book in my life. But I've kind of been watching a lot of these movies lately, especially since Redbox has made it fairly easy to rent a movie for a dollar. The main reasons: one, is if there's a major actor who I like their acting, they're usually in decent movies.
Second, I think it's very interesting, the CGI, the special effects that they have today to see the blend between, you know, what would a comic book would be or what acting would be and what a computer can do now. It's amazing when you compare it to, you know, movies of even just the '90s (unintelligible) there.
CONAN: What's your - which one's have you liked, Jodie?
JODIE: I really like "Green Hornet," actually. I didn't think I would like it, but I ended up especially liking that one. And, let's see, the, I'm drawing a blank here, "Robocop." Oh, not "Robocop..."
CONAN: "Iron Man?"
JODIE: Thank you, thank you. Yes, "Iron Man." I liked the "Iron Man" 1 and 2. They're both great actors. And one of the third reasons why I am kind of drawn to them is because they've got a different twist usually. They're somewhat formulaic, but you can almost expect there to be something different, whether like Seth Rogen. He was kind of a jerk, you know, and I wasn't really expecting that. So, anyway, those are the reasons.
CONAN: Anyway - and as, Glen pointed out, stayed a jerk all the way through the movie.
WELDON: Pretty much.
CONAN: Yeah. He's not transformed by his experience as a crime fighter. Anyway, Jodie, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. And she points out, name actors: Anthony Hopkins, Robert Downey, Jr. in "The Iron Man" movies.
WELDON: Yeah. That's a way of kind of taking this material and giving it some gravitas and some depth and making people care about it.
CONAN: We're talking with Glen Weldon, who blogs about comics for NPR's pop-culture blog Monkey See and a panelist on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. His latest review, "'Green Lantern:' A Hero's Light, Shuttered By Clutter." You can read that at npr.org. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to - this is Taylor, Taylor with us from Augusta, Georgia.
TAYLOR: Hey. How are you all?
CONAN: Good. Thanks.
TAYLOR: Thanks good. Y'all, actually, I was actually going to ask a question, but you all kind of made the point. I've always noticed that a comic book movies, superhero movies, even the action movies in general are usually reflective of, you know, what's going on, I guess, geopolitically within the United States, because, obviously, these are American-made movies, you know? During times of war, I have seen that, you know, people want a hero and no - the movies will put out hero movies that, you know, kind of feed that need or whatever. Whereas, you know, immediately after tragedy, those kind of violent heroic movies kind of tend to die away, because people want, you know, to be placated so to speak.
You know, a lot of good movies right after September 11th went under the radar because they were kind of violent. Whereas, you know, two, three years later, there's that need for the hero, you know? People want to have that hero.
CONAN: And one of the things about comic book violence is that you don't really have to take it all too seriously since nobody else does either.
WELDON: Absolutely. And you'll have a chance to test your theory very soon with "Captain America" coming out as soon - that has high-name recognition. So you're going to get some people in the theater who have heard of it.
CONAN: This is not a second-tier character.
WELDON: It's not really, no. And the thing that I think it's going to make it fun, even if the film turns out to be bad, is that he's fighting one of the three things you want to fight if you're a superhero. You want to fight either robots, apes or Nazis. And, you know, put a Nazi in your film and punch him, and you got instant appeal.
CONAN: Instant appeal. I was wondering, though - and thanks very much for the call, Taylor - this is set in the World War II era, where the original Captain America was fighting Nazis and, well, it turns out, the Red Skull is involved here, too, I'm sure. But do they do the iceberg thing at the end, where they freezes and cryogenically re-appears back in 1980's America?
WELDON: Well, he's scheduled to be in "The Avengers" film, so I'm guessing yes.
CONAN: And "Thor" isolated up there in, you know, the kingdom of the gods...
CONAN: ...stranded from his girlfriend. Is the rainbow bridge going to be repaired in time for him to come back and join the Avengers, do you think?
WELDON: I think Joss Whedon will have an answer for you very soon.
CONAN: And, well, there's other questions of - this idea of joining The Avengers, because now there's going to be an "Avenger's" movie, there's going to be "Iron Man 3" is also going to come out.
CONAN: This is an enormous billion-dollar project at this point.
WELDON: It's all logistics and - but it's kind of what Marvel fans look to the Marvel books for. They love that shared universe, something that DC isn't bothering with. They've made the announcement that the "Superman" and the "Batman" films are never going to cross over, and I don't think the "Green Lantern" film will either.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: They give us a hint of a sequel at the end of it. I don't want to spoil anything.
CONAN: But a character named Sinestro was not always going to turn out to be a good guy. Anyway, the - but it's unclear, after a $55 million take at the box office this weekend, that they're going to be a "Green Lantern 2."
WELDON: Yeah, yeah, certainly. And I think they're, sort of, running out of the characters they can give us treatment too. I don't think we're going to see a Matter-Eater Lad film. Do you know Matter-Eater Lad?
CONAN: I'm not so familiar with Matter-Eater Lad.
WELDON: He is a hero lad.
CONAN: He eats matter. That's really - yeah.
WELDON: Yeah, go figure.
CONAN: What happens to - never mind. Here's an email from Laura in Blacksburg, Virginia: I watch superhero movies, even though I'm not a comic book fan, because the movies are what I call, big, dumb, fun.
CONAN: They don't require a lot of thought for me. I don't have a plot to follow, really. And they're usually lots of explosions, perfect watching when my brain is tired and I just want some entertainment.
WELDON: Yup. This might be a semantic distinction that I make in my brain only, but I love goofy. That's what I kind of love about superheroes, their goofiness. I distinct - there's a distinction between that and silly, which just seems flimsy.
CONAN: And it can, as you point out, look really - there's that element of what I used to call cosmic stupidity...
CONAN: ...in comic books, which I loved. "Thor" seemed to capture it.
CONAN: I thought that grandeur...
CONAN: ...was thrilling, not so much in "Green Lantern," whereas you point out, the big villain is a cloud.
WELDON: Is a cloud and that worked for Burt Lancaster in "The Rainmaker," but it probably won't work for a superhero. You need something to punch.
CONAN: Howell Smith in Edmond, Oklahoma writes: Bah, humbug. I like the first two "Batman's," endured "Spider-Man." I hated all the others unless you count "Avatar" as being countable in the genre.
WELDON: I wouldn't.
WELDON: I really wouldn't.
CONAN: No, very different.
WELDON: This genre, it is a subsection. It's a subgenre of action movies. And it's here for the foreseeable future. It's just - I'm just kind of curious where they're going to dig out the closet next.
CONAN: Curios also. It is a subgenre of comic books. The capes, as they're known in the trade, they - there's a lot of other comic books that don't have superpowers.
WELDON: Well, there had been a lot of films made from comics that people don't know came from comics, films like "Road to Perdition" and several others, but...
CONAN: "Ghost Story," yeah.
WELDON: Yeah, "Ghost Story." Absolutely, yeah.
CONAN: And so keep an eye out for some of those too. Some of those are a little more quirky than...
CONAN: ...well, something about in brightest day and in blackest night.
CONAN: Glen Weldon blogs about comics for NPR's pop-culture blog Monkey See. And as we mentioned, he's also a panelist at NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. You can find those all at npr.org. He joined us today in Studio 3A. Glen, thanks very much.
WELDON: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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