Green Lantern: Beware My Power appears to show a newfound willingness by Warner Bros. Animation to expand outside of ‘Batman’ and ‘Justice League’ branded content, with the previous New 52-inspired continuity primarily built around ‘Batman’, ‘Justice League’, and ‘Teen Titans’ features. While 2/5 of the Tomorrowverse is currently Batman content, those other three feature a solo Superman title, a Flash-JSA team up, and now a Green Lantern feature centered on John Stewart. The last animated Green Lantern led project was the cult favorite Green Lantern: Animated Series (2011-2013).
In terms of direct to video animated features there was Green Lantern: First Flight (2009) and the underrated, anthology film Green Lantern: Emerald Knights (2011), neither of which featured Stewart. The character of John Stewart hasn’t played a meaningful role in transmedia DC content since the Justice League/Justice League Unlimited days. All of this makes the realization of how deceiving those appearances are more impactful and frustrating.
Along the way they pick up Hawkgirl (Jamie Gray Hyder) and Adam Strange (Brian Bloom), as they investigate the death of the Green Lantern Corps and get pulled into a riff on the ‘Rann-Thanagar War.’ This new team up has the byproduct of turning the feature into a primarily White cast. While Hawkgirl voice actress Jamie Hyder is Lebanese American, the character’s design is coded as White as opposed to her more recent comic incarnations.
As the plot progresses, transforming into an intergalactic murder mystery of sorts, about 45 minutes in a feeling struck me: this is no longer John Stewart’s movie. Sure, he is the point-of-view character for audiences, but the story really isn’t about him as it jumps from crime scene to crime scene. He gets lost in procedural of it all. The film introduces John Stewart as a recent veteran sniper of an unnamed American war, not the veteran architect. Stewart is dealing with an unstated post-traumatic stress disorder that is reduced and banalized in the way Hollywood treats most mental health issues. The most recognition this and Stewart receives is when the cop who arrests Stewart, as opposed to the vigilantes who attempt to set an unhoused man on fire – which Stewart stopped – mentions serving in Afghanistan and that it “sucked to.”
While their television counterparts place their characters in suspended animation, crime procedurals on film do not have to be character-free dramas. Stray Dog centers on the maturation of a young cop, Toshiro Mifune. Seven pushes David Mills (Brad Pitt) to the breaking point. The examples go on and on. Co-writers Ernie Atlbacker and John Semper lose John Stewart’s arc, and with it audiences’ emotional engagement as the plot moves and decenters his role from the narrative. Stewart’s agency reduces as the film goes on. What starts as a desire to get rid of the Green Lantern power ring just fades away as he keeps powering the ship. You could point to a pair of small sequences of him building things with the ring as part of a training program that shows a growing fascination with it, but these interludes occur after he pretty much stands in the background as Hawkgirl, Green Arrow, and Adam Strange bicker and move the plot forward and he has to act as the coolheaded one.
This disengagement makes the several moments where Stewart makes aphoristic reference to the structures of systemic racism and white supremacy that shape his existence as a Black man in America, such as the color line, read as cartoony. They are pithy one liners that lack substance. Would John Stewart be aware of these things? Of course in practice, they instead highlight how this iteration of John Stewart must play and be understood as a certain type of Black man, a flat cartoonish version of one. For his part Aldis Hodge’s performance is solid if a bit monotone but given what he had to work with it’s not that surprising.Continued below
There exist obvious hooks for some kind of thematic statement to be made as the Rann-Thanagar War is hollowly presented to evoke both America’s incursions into the Middle East over the past two decades and the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict. Except, our flashback to Stewart’s tour in Unnamed Middle East coded space shows no real questioning, by him or the film, of the ethics of him killing anonymous fighters or the orders and polices that set him up to kill. Beware My Power continues the ambivalent presentation of violence in these animated features; as superhero products they are all reflexively structured around condoning and justifying their use of power and potentially lethal force.
The Rann-Thanagar war is used to show the unjustifiable nature of perpetual war and violence and the culture of xenophobia it produces. For his part Stewart wants to be thought of as an ethical killer, stating he’d rather be certain he’s fighting (and killing) the “right” people several times. Except, due to his past experiences, Stewart would rather not become violent in general, which ironically culminates in a moment of bloody violence (couched in classic Disney “the bad guy did it to themselves” framing) that should have been the equivalent of Henry Cavill’s anguished howl after snapping Zod’s neck in Man of Steel. Instead of a moment to breathe and begin processing, the film hangs for a second before moving on to yet another action sequence.
Throughout the film Hawkman, Adam Strange and Green Arrow are shown killing their adversaries. Oliver’s killing feels more like a twisted joke and overcompensation for all the times he talks about how he has “pointy ones” too, but when he kills someone important to him, like Stewart’s killing, it is quickly brushed aside. These acts of violence are not ethically unjustifiable. Beware My Power through its uneven storytelling instead reveals the equivalence in position between “hero” and “villain” as it relates to violence and the necessity for these narratives of justification in order for audiences to feel good about themselves and these inherently violent icons, which is a reflexive posture this kind of product would not want for its audience.
The storytelling in Green Lantern: Beware My Power leaves much to be desired. The technical animation that puts that storytelling into motion, however, continues to improve. When this story world started in Man of Tomorrow, the animation was pretty dreadful when the film wasn’t doing an action set piece, something with inherently a lot of movement. In smaller interpersonal moments, moments primarily defined by dialog, these features were dreadfully still with limited animation and dialogue pacing that was stilted. Action dominates Beware My Power, but the quieter moments have a sense of life to them the ways similar moments in both parts of The Long Halloween do not.
I was looking forward to this film because of the potential it had. Finally, Warner Bros. was doing an animated feature not based around the Justice League or Trinity (Wonder Woman is the point character in terms of marketing for Justice Society: World War II) with a Black man as the lead! In Western animation, how often is that the case? And instead we get a film where John Stewart appears to be a supporting character in his own movie. The same storytelling problems continue to plague these animated features where they try to fit a 120-minute movie into a 90-minute package. You can make a good to great 90-minute film – look at their own history with Mask of the Phantasm! – which is technically 15 minutes under 90, or even the recent Justice Society: World War II.
Green Lantern: Beware My Power is a missed opportunity that feels like it will be used as a justification against expanding which heroes get to lead their own features and be represented, perpetuating a boring and safe status quo.