Rebuilding American Manhood: The Green Hornet Circa 2011

More than escapism, the Green Hornet gives an U.S. audience nurtured on frontier imagery an example of individual agency that resonates with the effort to believe and achieve the American dream.

The Green Hornet

Director: Michel Gondry
Cast: Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Christoph Waltz, Edward James Olmos, David Harbour, Tom Wilkinson, Cameron Diaz
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Sony Pictures
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-01-14 (General release)
UK date: 2011-01-14 (General release)

The big screen reboot of the Green Hornet provides another opportunity to bask in a heroic struggle against evil. While the Green Hornet seems to fit neatly into the comic to film craze, the truth is more complex. The big screen outing of this classic pulp hero extends and progresses a message of masculinity, identity, and agency that predates the superhero comic. More than escapism, the Green Hornet gives an U.S. audience nurtured on frontier imagery an example of individual agency that resonates with the effort to believe and achieve the American dream. This message is amplified by the unlikely casting of Seth Rogen to play Britt Reid/Green Hornet. Not seen as an action hero, his turn as the Green Hornet links contemporary circumstances to an imagined U.S. identity nurtured by a selective remembrance of the past.

Originally created as a radio program in the 1930s, the Green Hornet is a historical antecedent to comic book superhero. Created by George Trendle, James Jewell, and Francis Striker, the Green Hornet debuted on radio in 1936. The Hornet, like many pulp characters of that era, made the transition to comics in the 1940s and starred in a movie serial that same decade. Still, for all of its cross media success, the source of the Green Hornet contemporary popularity rests, not on comic book appearances, but on the collective memory of the 1960s Green Hornet television series starring Van Williams and Bruce Lee.

The truth of the Green Hornet’s origin and pop culture appeal make the film anomalous. The television series is best remembered for two points of pop culture trivia. First, a young Bruce Lee, struggling against discrimination in the U.S. entertainment industry, was casted in the role of Kato, sidekick to Van Williams' hornet. This came at a time when there were virtually no positive depictions of Asian Americans on television. Lee’s screen test, which you can find on YouTube, showcased his martial skill and charisma. After the Green Hornet series, (the show lasted one season from 1966-67) Lee beat the discrimination in Hollywood by going to Hong Kong and making movies such as The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972) and the classic Enter the Dragon (1973). The second point of interest is the Green Hornet was not campy like its ABC network counterpart, Batman. Indeed, Van Williams played the Green Hornet as straightforward hero out to save the city. Squared-jawed and serious, Williams was self-awareness enough to let Lee’s martial skill anchor the show. Williams’ Green Hornet was deadly serious (within censor limits) in his encounters with mob bosses and gang leaders (no colorful thematic criminals) he brought to justice every week. In essence, the entire series represented a mirror to the campy inflection offered by Batman’s wildly popular interpretation of comic book superheroes. This dualism is more telling when we consider Batman is the direct inheritor to the pulp hero tradition in superhero comics. The juxtaposition of the two series in our cultural memory references an established obsession in U.S. popular culture—the wish fulfillment associated with vigilantism versus society’s rejection of unsanctioned violence.

The pulp magazine era began as the United States struggled with the implication of closing frontier. By the late 1890s the magazines printed on better paper offering serious content was known as "glossies" or "slicks" while the pulps were known for their fast-paced, lurid, and sensational stories. The term "pulp" came from the cheap wood paper used to print the magazine, but became synonymous with the cowboy, romance, horror, science fiction, and other genre stories found in their pages. For all their far-fetched elements, pulps echoed the trepidation and aspiration created by progression from an agrarian to an urban-centered life.

Pulp heroes invoked frontier mythology by maintaining the white, male, morally upright hero, but acknowledged the future by offering adventures framed by global encounters with culturally and racially dissimilar peoples. The white male hero triumphed, but his adventures informed the reader of a changing world that challenged the United States to be its best. Lacking superpowers, pulp adventurers had the mission, identity, costume, and codename we associated with superheroes. Without powers however, pulp characters used superior physical and mental abilities to outthink and outfight their opponents. Proto-superheroes, characters such as The Shadow, Doc Savage, The Avenger, and The Spider transitioned to radio, with the writers in that medium offering increasingly fantastic elements to standard pulp action adventure stories. Always capable of overcoming impossible obstacles, pulp characters grew to fill radio’s "theater of the mind." While the original published version of The Shadow used subtle misdirection, in the broadcast version the character could “cloud men’s minds.” These changes, of course, responded to the need for heroes that could overcome the harsh deprivation of the Great Depression and fear of a looming war. The pulp hero then, offers Americentric values and ideas growing to match dynamic global threats facing the nation.

The Green Hornet was an embellishment of the pulp characters that already appeared in print, further refining core qualities. The character’s mythology highlights this point. Like many pulp (and Golden Age comic book heroes), the Hornet is an upper class patrician white male. From a wealthy family, we must assume his actions in pursuit of justice are not for personal gain. Instead, familial obligation compels him to act. This point is accentuated in the Green Hornet. Britt Reid is the great-nephew of the Lone Ranger, another character created by Francis Striker. Thus, the Green Hornet is a dynastic successor to a frontier hero/vigilante. The Green Hornet connects the civilizing effort of the frontier cowboy to stabilizing act of the urban vigilante.

The character’s identity provides justification for his actions that exceeds the mission used by other heroes. Reid’s family birthright, helping to civilize the country, creates an obligation to regulate society. Since the district attorney knows his identity, the symmetry of Green Hornet acting as a western style vigilance committee condoned and supported by elite inaction is apparent.

With the success of superhero inspired film over the last decade, the Green Hornet seems an unavoidable project. At some level, those characters with instant name recognition have been exhausted. Thus, turning to a character with a small, but clear place in the United States’ cultural memory makes sense. Yet, with so many characters available, the push to bring Green Hornet to the big screen moves beyond the simplistic symbolism related to super-powered characters to embrace the action and agency associated with the pulp era. This film will, of course, be free of the obvious jingoistic perspective that framed the pulp era and shaped the twentieth century.

Challenged by foreign predicaments, global economic uncertainty and shifting sociocultural standard, the audience for this film is both beyond simple messages and in desperate need of them. While many question Rogen’s casting, fearing a campy turn, he has stress that Green Hornet is a “serious” action movie. Directed by Michel Gondry, known for Be Kind Rewind (2008) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and with a screenplay written by Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the film presents an imperfect Britt Reid. Indeed, the new film corrects the glaring inconsistency from the television show my emphasizing Kato’s played by Taiwanese superstar Jay Chou, superior functionality. Rogen’s Reid is an immature trust fund brat who needs Chou’s Kato to grow into his familial and personal responsibility. Kato in contrast, is inspired by Reid enterprising spirit to move beyond his boundaries. Thus their cross-cultural bond between these two men provides both with benefits that strength them and their community.

Still, Rogen’s cinematic persona, built as it is, on the struggle to be a man, is inherently comedic for the viewing public. Thus, his presence provides the perfect vessel to deliver a neo-pulp message. Featured in numerous comedies as an immature man-child, he is the template for millennial generation in the midst of a “crisis of masculinity.” This generation, facing challenges similar in tone if not substance to their nineteenth century counterparts, are searching for heroic example that reconcile a frenzied present with an alluring imagined past. This is perhaps the greatest benefit and danger in the Green Hornet. Already an amplification of the pulp genre, the character links the challenge of the frontier to a belief in a manifest global destiny driven by the United States. The film reboot borrows from the character’s roots and in doing so provides a context for viewers struggling with questions about contemporary masculinity, identity, and agency to place their feeling within this enduring perspective. As the United States struggles to find a means to continue its place in the center of economic, political, and social circumstances, the message provide by our popular culture increase in importance. In this atmosphere, the return of an updated pulp era hero may provide a template for U.S. audiences looking to discern their place in a new century.

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