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March 18, 2013

Movie Mondays: The Green Hornet: A Retrospective

Behold the RETRO glory!

Hello, one and all, and welcome back to Movie Mondays!  You may have noticed that there was no article last Monday.  Well, there’s a good reason for it.  This entry is all about THE GREEN HORNET!  No, not that lousy comedy flick starring Seth Rogen, but the REAL Green Hornet, which is to say…everything else.  What?  You totally missed that movie (lucky you)?  Well, here’s a look at it.
Now that you’ve got that out of the way, let’s move on, because the less time spent on that movie, the better.
The original intent for this retrospective was a two-part set of articles, detailing the history of the Green Hornet franchise.  However, upon outlining the two entries, it became clear that due to the erratic nature of the franchise that the two entries would be very unevenly focused.  So, rather than deliver two awkwardly developed articles, it was decided that one fully developed article was best.  So, without further adieu, in the words of The Green Hornet: “Let’s roll Kato!”

The Green Hornet has been around for nearly 80 years, with a complicated history that can be described as “spotty” at best.  With lots of gaps and certain aspects of the franchise possibly getting more focus than others.  THE GREEN HORNET made his debut in 1936 as a radio series, and since then has gone on to appear in theatrical serials, a television series, tons of comics, a short film, toys, and so on.  The Green Hornet, aka Britt Reid, is the Lone Ranger’s great-nephew and rich owner of a powerful newspaper (hard to imagine a time when newspapers had real power in the world, nowadays) who went out in a disguise to fight crime as a vigilante.  Armed with a few weapons, his wits, a cool crime-fighting partner, and a high-tech personalized vehicle, one might see ol’ GH here as a precursor to characters like Batman.  The difference between the two characters is that Green Hornet pretended to be a criminal like the ones he brings to justice.

The Green Hornet is accompanied by Kato, his mechanically and technologically savvy partner-in-crime.  Throughout the years, Kato’s level of importance has fluctuated.  For example, in the 1930s and 1940s Kato was book smart, and designed Green Hornet’s fancy car, but not very street smart and didn’t understand much of the criminal element they were up against.  In later years, like the 1960s, when Kato was portrayed by rising star Bruce Lee, the “sidekick/partner” generally upstaged and outshined the title character whenever possible.  In the comics and even the short film, there has been a concerted effort to even out the characters in many ways, such as emphasizing that while Kato might be the better fighter due to his martial arts prowess, Green Hornet is no slouch either.  Another mainstay of The Green Hornet series his car, The Black Beauty; think of it like The Batmobile (complete with sleek design and gadgets, too), except that Black Beauty came first.

The Green Hornet, Kato, and their awesome ride, The Black Beauty!

In the 1940s, The Green Hornet made his big screen debut in not one, but TWO theatrical serials.  Pretty cheesy by today’s standards, this theatrical release would pave the way for other serials to come, like Batman and Superman.

The 1960s television show came at an interesting period in the history of American TV programming.  For instance, American TV producers were still uncertain (to put it VERY politely) of the potential Asian acting presence in Hollywood.  Bruce Lee had seen a few guest spots in a few shows, but wasn’t the pop culture phenomenon he would eventually become after 1971.  Furthermore, this show was created by the same people who created the television adaptation of Batman starring Adam West.  This is an important detail to note, because the Batman TV show was a pop sensation because of how intentionally campy it was.  The Green Hornet TV show was played straight, and quickly fell by the wayside.  With the current trend of Marvel movies like The Avengers and Iron Man 3, or Nolan’s The Dark Knight films, it’s just hard to imagine a production getting canned for taking its source material seriously.

Van Williams and soon-to-be Mega-Star Bruce Lee as Green Hornet and Kato.

In regard to American views toward Asian stars, it’s interesting to note that when the show aired in Hong Kong, it was re-titled The Kato Show, and its success is one of the key elements that would eventually lead to Bruce Lee starring in the Hong Kong action films that would make him a pop culture icon.  This would also lead to Kato-centric films, tie-ins, and homages…but more on that later.

In 1992, Universal Studios tried to get a big budget Green Hornet feature film made.  For the next few years, casting would be attempted and pre-production was nearly realized, but nothing ever took off with the project.  At the time, George Clooney and Greg Kinnear were sought after to star as The Green Hornet, with Jason Scott Lee starring as Kato.  Interestingly enough, Jason Scott Lee would portray Bruce Lee, and even act out a scene as Kato in the film Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story in 1993.

Jet Li in “Black Mask” and Jason Scott Lee portraying Bruce Lee.

Several attempts were made, including one in 1997 where Michael Gondry (the man who would eventually direct the Seth Rogen Green Hornet in 2011) pitched his idea for a superhero film that he described as a quirky “futuristic fantasy” inspired by Superman III.  In this film, Green Hornet and Kato would have fought an Asian sorcerer/gangster who got his powers by eating human hearts, and is killed by a microwave after accidentally eating a pacemaker (I wish I could make this up, folks).

In 2001, another attempt was made, this time by Kevin Smith (of Clerks and Dogma fame), featuring a young Jake Gyllenhal as the son of The Green Hornet who must take up the mantle of his dead father, while being trained by an older Kato, played by Jet Li.  This pitch eventually got tossed away, as well, but thankfully survived as a comic book, and turned out to be rather excellent.

This short film is just simply outstanding!

In 2006, a French filmmaker by the name of Aurélien Poitrimoult put out an absolutely fantastic short film called The Green Hornet.  While never officially released on DVD or any other format here in the United States, anyone can download it and even some bonus features (like production interviews) on the film’s official website.

On top of all of this, The Green Hornet has had several comic book runs from 1940 through the 1960s, 1989 through 1995, as well as an outstandingly successful series of comics launched in 2009 and still currently running.  One great aspect of the comics is the continuity.  In an attempt to explain the varying time periods, technologies, and media, the comics in no vague terms established that the role of Green Hornet is a generational title with multiple Green Hornets and Katos assuming the roles over the decades, much like another long-running masked crime-fighter series, The Phantom.  There have been both male and female Katos.  Kato even got his own spin-off comics, as well.  There’s even a Green Hornet comic taking place in the not-too-distant future similar to Batman Beyond or Phantom 2040.

So many great comics to choose from!

Aside from the various adaptations, The Green Hornet has also had several unofficial “appearances” in other films.  Remember those Kato-centric homage/tie-ins I mentioned?  Here you go.  Black Mask, a 1996 action film starring Jet Li, featured Li as a crime-fighter dressed as Kato, who is even compared to Kato within the film.

It’s Bruce Lee, no Jet Li, no Donnie Yen! It’s Chen Zhen, no it’s Kato! Oh, just watch!

Here’s a more complicated one for you!  In 1972, Bruce Lee starred in the film Fist of Fury, playing Chinese folklore hero Chen Zhen.  In 1994, Jet Li (eventual star of Black Mask) starred in the remake, called Fist of Legend.  In 2010, that film got a sequel called Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, also known as Fist of Fury: The Legend of Chen Zhen, where Chen Zhen fights crime as Kato and drives The Black Beauty.

The Green Hornet has had a long, interesting, and complicated history, and unfortunately hasn’t met with very much success.  Here’s hoping that one day a new attempt will be made at a good and successful film adaptation, and Green Hornet fans will see their beloved character get the spotlight he deserves.  If you’re one of those fans, and haven’t familiarized yourself with any of the things mentioned in this article, or if you’re completely new to the character…do yourself a favor and check out the short film, and go down to your local comic shop and pick up an issue.  You won’t regret it.

Aaron Nicewonger
Aaron@comicattack.net
aarongni@gmail.com

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