The Green Hornet
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Credit: Sony Pictures

This Week in Genre History: The Green Hornet was not the bee's knees

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Jan 13, 2021, 5:00 PM EST

Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world's greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.

We have all seen the transformations that the bodies of movie stars have gone through once they signed up to play superheroes. Whether it's Kumail Nanjiani for The Eternals or Chris Pratt for Guardians of the Galaxy (or even Paul Rudd for Ant-Man), there is an expectation, when someone is in a superhero movie, that they must transform their body into "what a superhero looks like." This is just the get-in-the-door ante, at this point.

But this was not always the case, and it was not the case as recently as 10 years ago.

10 years ago, the idea of a purely slobbish superhero, a superhero who was more interested in smoking weed and just hanging out, not only was acceptable, it in fact served as the entire premise and selling point of a particular superhero movie. This week, we look back at The Green Hornet, released on Jan. 14, 2011, almost exactly one decade ago. It seems to exist in an entirely different universe than the one we live in — whether it's a better or worse one may be up to your own personal interpretation.

Why was it a big deal at the time? The Green Hornet himself was not a particularly well-known or even beloved superhero in 2011. The character had originated in '30s radio serials and had become popular in movie reel shorts in the '40s, but was unconnected to any larger universe. The peak of his popularity was in the 1960s, when he'd had his own television series, but it only lasted two seasons and was mostly remembered not for the Green Hornet but for the man who played his sidekick Kato: Bruce Lee, who used the role to launch his United States career. It was considered shticky and silly and not particularly serious.

Perhaps that's why it was the logical next step for Seth Rogen, who, in 2011, was arguably at the peak of his popularity. The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up had introduced him to audiences, and he built off that with Pineapple Express and Funny People to become one of the biggest movie stars in the country. He then did what movie stars do: He made some art films (Take This Waltz being the best of them) and made a big-budget superhero action movie. The Green Hornet was the ideal vehicle: It wasn't a hugely popular character (it's not like he was playing Batman), it fit his usual film personality (Britt Reid is sort of a lazy rich kid), and it was a property you could have some fun with.

And so, Rogen signed on, also co-writing with his longtime partner Evan Goldberg, with a terrific cast, including Cameron Diaz, Tom Wilkinson, Christoph Waltz, pop star Jay Chou as Kato, and a pre-Stranger Things David Harbour. And, perhaps most exciting of all, French surrealist Michel Gondry was directing, with the biggest budget of his career. This was going to be weird and wild.

What was the impact? Well, a pretty good sign that maybe not everything had gone well with The Green Hornet was its release date: Typically, you don't release your big expensive superhero movies in the wilderness months of January and February. When you look back on it now, it seems obvious The Green Hornet was going to bloat and wobble in its creation. It has all the ingredients: talented but inexperienced newcomers at the helm, no clear tone, meddling studio executives, expensive locations (producers insisted they film on location in Los Angeles rather than in a cheaper, more tax-friendly state), a lead character with no clear identifiable persona and thus able to be pushed and pulled and poked by everyone involved. Because it was a superhero movie, marketers got involved, which means this weird little film made by French surrealists and stoned comedians ended up having a Carl's Jr. tie-in. Oh, and this was the age of 3D, which meant the movie had to undergo a 3D transfer as well. (This is a particular shame because the idea of Gondry making a full, deep-dive 3D movie is quite exciting.)

So critics were already, with the delays and the release date, on guard for a stinker, and their knives were out opening weekend. Roger Ebert called it "unendurable" and got at the central problem with the movie: It's not about anything. Britt and Kato become friends, and then sort of fight crime, and then Cameron Diaz floats into the movie every once in a while, and there are some stunts, and then it is over. It was widely perceived, as Ebert put it, as being "half-cooked."

It was, however, not a financial disaster. It grossed $33 million its opening weekend, very solid for January, and just missed $100 million domestically. Worldwide, it made $227 million (much of it from China), making a profit, though not enough for anyone to put themselves through the headache again for a sequel.

Credit: Sony Pictures

Has it held up? The problem with the movie, as Ebert pointed out, has to be laid at least partly at Rogen's feet. He has said making the movie was a "f***ing nightmare," but it doesn't look like he fought for it particularly hard. He's curiously disengaged from the movie, listless and removed like he's sleepwalking through a comedy he knows isn't working, but he only had himself to blame for that one: He was the co-writer and star, after all. The slackness of his performance and script can't help but rub off on the rest of the cast: Only Jay Chou as Kato seems to even be trying at all.

The movie has a little bit of Gondry charm to it; one sequence, clearly put together for 3D, has some of his trademark wit and whimsy. But on the whole, everyone seems bored and tired. It turns out that you need to have some energy to make a superhero movie.

Will Leitch is the co-host of The Grierson & Leitch Podcast, where he and Tim Grierson review films old and new. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.