Ant-Man Review

antmanThis review is a critical analysis of the movie, and as such there are spoilers. 

There’s a part of me that secretly worries Ant-Man may just be the outlier, the black sheep of Marvel Studios. Originally to be directed by comic genius Edgar Wright, that duty passed to Peyton Reed, who did an exceptional job of bringing our tiny hero to the screen. Wright’s departure was earmarked as being one of “creative differences.” One reasonable explanation was that Wright began his work on Ant-Man in 2006, when Marvel (as a cinematic studio) was still young. During the course of the script’s development, the studio was acquired by Disney, which changed their direction considerably. As a result, the introduction of the greater Marvel universe was a factor in Wright’s decision to leave.

In that sense, Ant-Man is a marvel in and of itself. It’s rare that multiple visions blend and arrive at something cohesive, as the recent Fantastic Four movie has so reminded audiences. The original script may still bear resemblance to Wright’s work, but it has been altered by both Adam McKay and star Paul Rudd with input from Marvel. Reed as director also must have added his own touches.

From start to end, Ant-Man does an exceptional job of shaking up the usual tropes that have come to dominate comic book derived films. Sam Raimi is probably the most thought of director for establishing these conventions in his overall impressive Spider-Man trilogy (I leave your opinion of Spider-Man 3 to you, dear audience.) I like to believe that Wright respected this and worked with the original source material to avoid these cliches.

Rather than a young man still wrestling with his budding sense of morality, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a former thief recently paroled for a righteous heist against his former company. Despite his good intentions a crime is still a crime, and Lang is divorced and kept at arm’s length from his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) until he can at least provide child support payments, a challenge given his background. The usual moral convictions many super heroes earn from mistakes are set aside for a more understandable desire to be connected with family.

antzMeanwhile, former Ant-Man Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) returns to the company from which his daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and former protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) expelled him. There Pym witnesses the unveiling of the Yellow Jacket, a suit that uses a modified version of his size altering particles to shrink and grow.

Realizing what Cross is about to unleash on the world, Pym takes the steps to recruit Lang and pass on the mantle. This flies against the wishes of his grudge-bearing daughter, who now spies against Cross and sees herself using the suit to stop the Yellowjacket.

Ant-Man has a number of themes worth mentioning. Broken families are a constant for both the main characters. One tries to mend the damage caused by his absence, the other is trying to prevent it. Rather than some unrealistic sense of healing the fractured relationships perfectly, there is more an acceptance of the imperfections and general good will to try and become better men. Although it takes a dramatic act on the parts of the characters to prove they truly mean it.

Hope_Van_DyneThere’s also an insinuation that corporations were inherently malevolent; while Iron Man was more inclined to take the view that companies represent the views of their owners, every corporation in Ant-Man is at worst morally corrupt and at best unkind. VistaCorp, Stark Industries and the current Pym Technologies are varying degrees of villains.

Even Baskin Robbins (of all businesses) gets teased, as they eventually learn of Lang’s criminal past and terminate his employment with them. Given the swiftly established likability of Rudd’s character, this casts the ice-cream giant in a negative light for being unwilling to give our hero a second chance.

But the hints of redemption are the best elements of all. More on that in a moment.

Michael Douglas is far more than good as Hank Pym. He crafts a brilliant and angry character, portraying Pym’s ardor in several degrees that never grow dull. From a provoked violent streak to calmly delivered sarcasm and frustrations with his daughter, the trio of van Dyne, Cross and Pym make for a satisfying though partial story. Cross, I feel, wasn’t the under developed villain many critics think he was. Rather I believe Reed wisely veered away from revealing too much of Cross’ motivations for fear of indirectly illuminating Hank Pym’s secrets too early. The two men’s histories are, after all, greatly entwined.

Redemption requires regret, and that’s a line that Marvel seems to tread with care. In the original comics, Hank Pym has a history of domestic violence towards his wife Janet van Dyne. A single act during the 80s is perceived as accidental, but the more recent Ultimates series portrayed Pym as mentally unstable, and left no doubt that abuse was on-going.

hank pymThe movie seems to insinuate, based on Cross’ increasingly erratic behavior, that this is a side-effect of prolonged exposure to the Pym particle. It is possible that Pym’s secrets were simply remorse for the fate of Janet, but it could also imply that the MCU Pym may have mistreated his wife as well. This issue is not something to be casually tossed into the script without prudence and remorse, something Ant-Man didn’t have time to approach.

Likewise, Rudd’s Scott Lang has a similar need for a second chance. But while people can be on the fence about Pym, Lang is instantly likable, not really flawed but rather carrying the burden of his mistake. Even the Baskin Robbins’ manager was sympathetic as to the reason for his criminal history despite still having to fire him. You see Lang trying against the odds to be there for his daughter when it actually matters and not years down the road after the heavy lifting has been complete. Lang is so cool, he even helps make sense of Pym’s concern for his daughter, articulating with emphatic brilliance why Pym was so reluctant to let his daughter be the Ant-(Wo)man, and helping to cement another path for her.

With regard to that future, I am rather excited for the possibility of Evangeline Lilly as the future Wasp in the MCU. Marvel has suffered from a lack of good super heroines due to Fox Studios possessing the rights to the X-Men, and Lilly is a great actress who portrays Hope van Dyne with an emotional depth surpassing Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow (Elizabeth Olsen hasn’t had much time to fully mature into her role as the Scarlet Witch yet.) It has also been suggested that Janet van Dyne may someday return, as Scott Lang figured his way out of sub-atomic space. But if Lang could, then what of Darren Cross?

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Ant-Man is easily one of Marvel’s best movies. It’s fun, it’s funny, and although it hints at the Avengers it never really needs them. It values wit, smarts and charm over power, and these factors put it more on par with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. One would never believe that someone could take a hero named Ant-Man seriously, but not only does it succeed, it does so over the sound of laughter.

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If you fear plot spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises, and yes there is quite a plot to spoil, begone.

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Life Story? Meh

"He is NOT Judge Judy and Executioner!" -Nick Frost

“He is NOT Judge Judy and Executioner!” -Nick Frost

Are origin stories necessary?

A number of critics have been asking this question after the recent movie, The Amazing Spider-Man. I absolutely appreciate how much different this origin story was from the last. But there were still the tedious elements they felt they had to addressed. 

I’m going to skip the long debate and reach for the nuclear device. Episodes I thru III of the Star Wars trilogy. It’s true. Pretty much the first three movies revolve around the origin of the Empire (which was interesting) and the origin of Darth Vader. And while the third movie was a bit redemptive, it was still not a pleasing experience.

Origin stories often followed a similar pattern: A tragic incident, usually involving one’s parents, “drives the hero to good”. It’s been done with Spider-Man, Daredevil, a bit of it was touched upon in Hulk. As much as I love his work, it was reused in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.

It’s also kind of why the origin of Iron Man was so mentionable different than most. Forget the cliched “reason for being a super hero”, Stark had his reason when someone stuck a gun in his face and put shrapnel in his heart. When one becomes a victim of their own carelessness, a dawning sense of responsibility can sometimes take over. Both Iron Man movies were more about Stark cleaning up the results, both indirect and not, of his actions.

Why am I bringing this up? Probably because of the upcoming Dredd movie, a reboot of the terrible Judge Dredd from 1995. According to many critics who have already viewed it, the movie is not an origin story. And so far, their reviews have been pretty good. Another example to chew on is The Dark Knight. Not only did we know nothing of the Joker’s origin, but we were likely fed lies.

You mean, you can make a great comicbook movie without addressing where the hero came from? This concept can be explained through a very simple analogy. Imagine if a stranger came up to you and introduced themself with, “Hello! I’m John Smith.”

Chances are, you’ll forget his name in no time.

Now suppose you see the guy do something more interesting before he introduces himself. Say, he stops a mugger from stealing a lady’s purse. Or he does something impossible, like web slinging his way across the city or turning into a giant green monsters. All of a sudden, the whole question of “Who is this guy?” is way more interesting.

Trust me. Strike up a conversation with a stranger, but don’t tell them your name. If you hit it off, then they’ll be way more interested in knowing who you are.

That’s why there’s a strange, lasting appeal about Judge Dredd. In the comics, he never takes his helmet off, maintaining a mystique about him. They broke that rule in 1995 with Stallone and that didn’t work well for them. But my understanding is that they DON’T break that rule with this upcoming movie.

Imagine that! A movie where you never see the hero’s face. Ever. I have to give Karl Urban kudos for his willingness to stay true to the character. I’d also imagine that, if Peter Jackson ever got the green light for the Halo movie, there would have been Hollywood executives pressuring him to have the Master Chief remove his helmet.  

“The hero needs to be sexy!” Some of these guys claim. It’s high time we start asking, “Why? Why do we always need origin stories? Why does the hero have to be sexy?”

And after decades of story writing, comics and development, I’d say time and history are on our side. Maybe it’s time to challenge the status quo a bit. Maybe they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

I’ll be seeing The Dark Knight Rises tomorrow… looking incredibly forward to it.