Thursday, February 17, 2011

Why Seth Rogen Does Not Make a Good Superhero

I want to do a more in-depth post-mortem on "The Green Hornet," which did not perform as well as Sony was hoping for. It's far from a box office disaster, but between the tepid reviews and so-so audience reactions, we're not going to see a sequel unless the overseas numbers are stratospheric. I've heard murmurs that this might be an early sign of superhero genre fatigue, or that "The Green Hornet" was simply too obscure a property to stand this kind of rebooting. However most reviewers, me included, singled out Seth Rogen as the biggest problem with the movie, both for his performance and the way he wrote the character of Britt Reid.

You've seen protagonists like Rogen's Britt Reid in other movies, the physically adult but mentally immature male specimen found in many a Judd Apatow film, perhaps best encapsulated by the work of Adam Sandler and Homer Simpson. They frequently act like jerks, shun all social graces, and make no effort to hide long lists of typical frathouse vices such as excessive drinking, partying, carousing, and minor criminal mischief. They are notably lacking in brain power, ranging in IQ from the Faulknerian Idiot Manchild to the mere Average Boob. Despite this, they're often genial, likable guys who mean well, and have just enough redeeming qualities to make good and get the girl in the end. There are many, many of these protagonists found in our modern comedies, and we've seen them successfully cross over to comedy-dramas like "Cyrus" and action films like "Transformers." Perhaps that's why it was inevitable that one of these very imperfect protagonists would end up in the middle of a superhero movie.

I liked "The Green Hornet," but I think it would have fared better as a straight comedy - say, a buddy cop project like "The Other Guys." Then Seth Rogen could have been as crass and moronic as he wanted, and nobody would have minded. The trouble is that "Green Hornet" was billed as a superhero film, and superhero films need heroes. What Rogen did, which was great for the comedic aspects of the film, was to turn Britt into a typical mook of a comedy protagonist, an unrestrained male id. However, because Rogen's take on the character never grew up and never changed, nobody bought him as a superhero and that part of the movie fell flat. It's no mystery why existing "Green Hornet" fans were not happy. Generations of kids looked up to and pretended to be Britt Reid. Sure, it was easy to poke fun at him as a square, and through modern eyes we can see all the racial issues with Kato and the gender issues with his secretary Lenore, but the Green Hornet was indisputably a hero. Rogen's version was not.

The immature comedy protagonist is inherently non-heroic. Viewers may sympathize with them, may feel affection for them, and may identify with them, but that's as far as it goes. We don't respect these characters, don't aspire to be these characters, and certainly don't idolize and hold them in high regard. Superheroes, as many have pointed out, are representations of our ideals. They are the larger-than-life equivalents of the gods and kings and warriors that have populated all mythological pantheons since the dawn of time. These days, they can be as flawed and complicated and human as you like, but they have to fit the classical hero archetype. Tony Stark may have been a boozer and a lout, but he had his change of heart (literally) and made good when it counted. Looking at the Superbowl trailers for the upcoming superhero summer showdown, "Thor" and "Captain America" are full of traditional hero imagery - Nordic badassery and rampant patriotism. It's corny, but it sends the right message.

"The Green Hornet" made no concessions toward the superhero-loving audience at all. Britt Reid becomes a competent crimefighter for the space of about a minute, but remains a mook at the end of the story who hasn't learned a thing. Maybe the film would have found more success if the focus had been on Kato, who does fit the hero profile, so the audience could have come through "The Green Hornet" with someone to root for. I can see why viewers got frustrated if they weren't clued into the satire and were waiting in vain for their hero character to show up. Part of me wishes that "The Green Hornet" would get a sequel, so Rogen and company could undo some of the damage to poor Britt Reid and make him a real superhero again, instead of just a pretender we're meant to laugh at. Part of me is just glad that they didn't target a character I care about.

On that note, if Jonah Hill or Zach Galifianakis so much as looks at the Flash funny, I will not hesitate to bring the full wrath of the Internet down upon their heads. And that's a promise.

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