Review: The real star of First Flight? It's not Green Lantern!

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Now that straight-to-DVD animated films have become the necessary preamble to almost every big-screen comic adaptation's theatrical run, it's hard to know precisely which characters deserve their own stories and which are secondary in their respective superhero universes. After two dramatically different Hulk installments, for example, it seems that the green-skinned monster isn't destined to be the main character in his own movie—at least according to the reviews.

But looking at Green Lantern: First Flight (Warner Home Video, $29.99 on Blu-ray), Hal Jordan seems exceptionally well suited to become the star of his own live-action film, if not a whole series of them, even if what's most compelling about this animated iteration is the world that he inhabits rather than the part he plays in it.

As voiced by Christopher Meloni (TV's Law & Order: SVU), Hal Jordan is a test pilot who gets super powers when a dying alien whisks him away—in mid-flight, no less—from his latest assignment. He soon discovers that he has unwittingly become a part of the Green Lantern Corps, a group of interstellar enforcers and policemen who patrol districts of the galaxy for wrongdoing.

Though initially rebuffed by his new comrades, he finds a curious ally in Sinestro (Victor Garber), a fellow officer whose methods are decidedly rougher than Jordan is comfortable with; but when the elder statesman discovers the Yellow Element—the only force strong enough to counter the ring's powers—Jordan finds himself in the midst of a conspiracy whose ramifications may have interstellar proportions.

While the film certainly provides an origin story for Earth's Green Lantern—amazingly, all within the first three or four minutes—Hal Jordan's story ultimately seems less important than Sinestro's, which makes for a unique but engaging first look at the characters' universe. Not having known much about the origins of the character, I found the narrative itself—a mystery scavenger hunt on a galactic scale—interesting by itself, but the emphasis on Sinestro's pursuit of the Yellow Element makes Hal seem small by comparison, and it's really only at the beginning and end that he figures directly into the events that transpire.

Mind you, that's not a bad thing: Because the Green Lantern Corps are a community and a team of protectors, the friction that arises (both dramatically and structurally) between Hal's irrepressible personality and the cooperation and collaboration of other Lanterns gives the overall piece a scope that many other hero stories haven't had.

Credit goes to the voice cast for so ably embodying these characters that they feel immediately feel familiar: Meloni's nonchalant insolence works perfectly to give Hal Jordan a roguish charm; Tricia Helfer gives Boodikka, otherwise a secondary Lantern, more substance; and as Kilowog, Michael Madsen seems to be having fun taking the stuffing out of one of the Lantern's most physically formidable members. But Victor Garber really gives the performance that ties all of these characters together and lends the tale gravitas; the actor's own pedigree as a heavy no doubt helps, but removed from his normal physicality, Garber gives Sinestro a grace and dignity that make him a worthy opponent to Jordan, not to mention a villain whose motivations are understandable and even sympathetic.

At just 77 minutes, First Flight covers an enormous amount of territory and barely stakes a claim at the same time. But the bounty of bonus materials, including several featurettes and documentaries, demonstrate how thoroughly this initial installment was developed. Unfortunately, some of them—including a "look at the symbolism of the ring"—seem designed for people who have really never read comic books or any literature, virtually none of whom will be watching the extras, while others scratch the surface of the character's storied history without examining his artistic origins; particularly when a character has existed for more than 60 years, one might expect more of a pictorial (much less mythological) history, but none of the images included even as backgrounds appear to go back further than a decade or so.

But a collection of hand-picked Justice League cartoons featuring Green Lantern are fun, and the previews of other upcoming DC animated features, including the promising Superman/ Batman: Public Enemies, offer a first look at some of the company's future projects. But overall, the point of this set was to test the appetite of comic-book fans for Green Lantern-themed material, and with any luck there should be resoundingly positive response. (Especially since, at least personally speaking, it's entirely unclear how those rings operate within any realm of realistic physics, a point of speculation that I'd be fascinated to have answered.)

Ultimately, Green Lantern: First Flight is one of the better animated adaptations to be released in recent years, because it looks great, tells an interesting story and whets the viewer's appetite for what's yet to come.