Today we have a guest post from Charles Hackney.
Never having been much of a fan of DC comics (hardcore card-carrying Marvel Zombie here), I came to this film with fewer preconceptions than other recent superhero movies. My comments are therefore based entirely on the film, with no clue as to its faithfulness to the comics.
At a psychological level, Green Lantern is about the human ability to overcome fear with willpower. Hal Jordan (played by Ryan Reynolds) presents himself to the world as cocky and fearless, but beneath his mask, fear is a powerful motivating force in his life. In an attempt to live up to his father’s memory, Hal becomes a daring test pilot, but the fear that he will die as his father died causes him to “choke” at a critical moment. Fear of commitment causes him to abandon his girlfriend, as he believes that he would somehow ruin the relationship. When drafted into the Green Lantern Corps, an intergalactic force of super-powered peacekeepers, fear that he cannot live up to the legacy of his predecessor Abin Sur causes him to abandon his duty and return to Earth. Hal remarks at one point about his highly-developed skill at walking away. Another Green Lantern tells Hal that he “reeks of fear.”
When Parallax, the cosmic nemesis that threatens the Corps, targets Earth, Hal can no longer hide. He finds the strength to accept the responsibility that comes with being a Green Lantern, and it is overcoming his own fear that empowers him to defeat the fear-based powers of Parallax. When discussing the possibility of will overcoming fear, Hal’s girlfriend informs him that there is a word for that: courage.
Several parts of this film fit well with current psychological thought on fear and willpower. The psychologists’ reference volume Character Strengths and Virtues, for example, defines courage as “the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, either external or internal” (p. 199). When Hal is told that his fearless father was never truly fear-less, but instead was able to bravely defeat his fear, this also fits. “Bravery” say the authors of the CSV, “is the ability to do what needs to be done despite fear… We have interviewed firefighters given awards for their valor, and no one reported to us being unafraid when rescuing people from burning buildings.”
One of the leading researchers in the psychology of willpower is Roy Baumeister, psychology professor at Florida State University and author of the upcoming book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Baumeister’s work focuses on our ability to exert our will over our own thoughts, emotions, and actions, and he argues that this capacity for self-regulation is just as important as intelligence in humanity’s status as unique among animals: “Homo sapiens could just as well be called homo temperans (from the Latin, “the self-controlled man”), as our ability to regulate and control our actions represents a key evolutionary achievement” (p. 2). Strength of will is associated with a vast array of positive outcomes, ranging from academic and career success to flourishing relationships to mental and physical health. These associations are pervasive and strong that Baumeister and Exline consider self-control to be the “master virtue” of a highly-functioning human.
Willpower grows with practice. In several studies, self-control has been shown to operate like a muscle. When we exert our wills, we are temporarily weakened, but repeated exertion results in gains in self-regulatory power. It is appropriate that, as Hal’s ability to wield his willpower-fueled Green Lantern ring grows, and he becomes powerful enough to defeat Parallax, at the same time he demonstrates emotional growth, greater moral development, and improved relational maturity. One villain of the film quips that “all it took” for Hal to grow up was the end of the world.
Chuck is Associate Professor of Psychology at Briercrest College and Seminary.
- Moral Theory and Green Lantern (politicaljesus.com)