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Entries in Ant-Man [2015] (1)

Sunday
Jul262015

Ant-Man (2015)

We Don't Need Another Hero

"I try not to do anything that's too close to what I've done before. And the nice thing is we have a big universe here. It's filled with new ideas. All you have to do is grab them."

--Stan Lee, Brandweek, May 2000

Too bad Marvel's Chairman Emeritus isn't in charge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Maybe it's just me, but I expect more from a multi-film franchise based on the House of Ideas' rich, half-century history. Instead, these superhero flicks' narrative returns get tinier and tinier--while brand loyalty, hype, and budgets increase exponentially.

Case in point: Ant-Man, Peyton Reed's famously troubled production that once had fan favorite Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, The World's End) at the helm. Until alternate-reality travel becomes possible, we'll never know if Wright would have offered a better balance of the comedic and the heroic than what credited screenwriters Adam McKay and Paul Rudd (who also stars) came up with--but it probably would have amounted to more than this middling, confused placeholder of a film that perfectly illustrates everything wrong with the current MCU.

The film's biggest crime is being superfluous and predictable. Unless this is your first go-round with Marvel movies or comic-book films, Reed offers absolutely nothing in the way of surprises, storytelling innovations, or even special effects work. Protagonist Scott Lang (Rudd) is another aloof, wisecracking guy who gets his hand on multi-billion-dollar technology, which he uses to thwart a one-dimensional, one-picture villain with world domination on his mind. He has, in his inner circle, a capable and intelligent female companion whose primary function is to be overlooked, condescended to, and rescued in the third act.

See also Iron Man, Thor, and Guardians of the Galaxy.

At the very (very) least, Ant-Man’s creative team deserves credit for not crapping out another Doomsday Device movie. You will not find a single shot of heroes joining forces around a beam of light that’s headed to/from the sky. You will find, however, a feebly executed heist flick that’s less Ocean’s Eleven than Tower Heist—an ostensibly interesting premise bogged down by juvenile humor and an over-inflated sense of its own coolness. I could talk at length about the myriad problems that amount to this unfortunate misfire,* but it’s probably best to confine my written review to a few high-level examples of what drove me nuts here.

Yes, boys and girls, it’s time for another List Review:

1. Paint Face: Right off the bat, Ant-Man stinks up the MCU with a distracting mish-mash of student-thesis old-age makeup and Uncanny Valley CGI. The film opens in 1989, as frustrated scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) storms into Stark Industries (or is it S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters? I don’t recall) to lecture the brass about their intentions for his top-secret shrinking formula. Among those at the table is a twilight-years Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell), whose makeup looks like it was lifted from Back to the Future Part II (which, coincidentally, came out in ’89). Douglas has been digitally de-aged to his Wall Street-era glory days--but the effect is eerily unconvincing.

There's something off-kilter about his mouth, specifically, that sucks the air out of the entire scene. It's not Hank Pym we're seeing; it's Michael Douglas' vanity on display--either that or the pixel-based embodiment of studio-exec fear ("But how will audiences know it's the same guy?"). Look, if Anthony Ingruber can pull off a spot-on Harrison Ford likeness in The Age of Adaline, I'd wager there at least five young-Douglas-types who'd play late-80s Pym for a ham sandwich and a Marvel credit.

2. Phony Snark: Thematically, Ant-Man is essentially Iron Man, minus the inherited family cash. Rudd plays a cat burglar named Scott Lang, whom mega-millionaire Pym hires to break into the lab of his former protege, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), in order to steal back the shrinking technology Cross ripped off from him (got it?). Lang accepts the gig to get the cash to prove to his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her new husband (Bobby Cannavale) that he's fit to be in his daughter's life. Pym outfits the wisecracking thief with the super-suit he once wore on secret government ops. Much trial end error and corporate espionage ensue.

The key difference is that Iron Man, as a film, has a finely tuned balance of the humorous, the fantastical, and the dramatic. Ant-Man features characters whose motivations and personalities change, on a molecular level, depending on the comedic demands of any given scene. That's fine for Minions, a cartoon designed as airy, episodic, childhood fun--but this film fits squarely into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. How does one reconcile the grim political intrigue of Captain America: The Winter Soldier with Ant-Man's trio of borderline racist (or, at the very least, puzzlingly culturally insensitive) trio of obnoxious sidekick hackers? Would Scott Lang's clueless meta-commentary about absolutely everything fly in the the bone-breaking world of Netflix's Daredevil series?

3. The Needs of the Scene Outweight the Needs of the Film (Er...Sometimes): In better hands, Ant-Man could have been a great film. There are some truly inspired moments here that Reed and company destroy by tacking on the dramatic equivalent of a whoopee cushion. Take, for instance, the touching scene where Pym tells his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), the truth about her mother's mysterious death. Turns out mom was also a secret super-agent called The Wasp, who disappeared into a realm of sub-atomic particles while trying to defuse an in-flight Russian nuke. Pym narrates a thrilling flashback of the fatal episode, and Lilly's present-day reaction speaks volumes to the decades of lost connection with her dad.

Scott is also in the room for this scene, and instead of offering insight (or at least condolences), he makes a stupid joke and then doubles down by commenting on the fact that he'd just made a stupid joke. It's an offensive co-opting of a perfectly good emotional catharsis that makes zero sense--until you consider that two of the last hands to touch this screenplay also brought us the Anchorman films.

4. Race to the Bottom: Assisting Scott and Hank in their high-tech theft are Luis (Michael Peña), Kurt (David Dastmalchian), and Dave (T.I. Harris). Like Scott, they are career criminals. Unlike Scott, they have no interest in leaving that life behind. Making crooks into heroes is a solid premise, and one that requires the jumping of several narrative hurdles in order to bring the audience on-board. Better films, like the Ocean's series, succeed in this regard by downplaying the characters' inherent villainy, narrow-casting their objective to include only a specific "really bad guy" target, and painting the thieves as smart, lovable rogues.

As written, Ant-Man's supporting-hood parts belong to clueless twenty-somethings--not men in their late thirties to mid-forties whose eyes betray a sense of knowing better. Rudd and Peña, in particular, are gifted actors who've brought at least some degree of innate intelligence to their careers. There's an ugliness to the stupidity with which Luis, Kurt, and Dave are drawn, a stereotyping shorthand that belongs in the Joe Dirt Universe, not the MCU (aren't we way past the era of the Russian hacker who talks like Chekov from Star Trek?).

Getting back to the film's thematic schizophrenia, we're asked to believe, on one hand, that Luis spends his off hours as a wine connoisseur and armchair art critic. Yet, during the climactic heist, he attacks at least three security guards and has to ask Scott if he and the team are "the good guys". The appropriate response is, of course, "No, Luis, we're not the good guys. Those unconscious hourly employees probably have families, mortgages, and dreams".

Instead, Scott gives him a thumbs-up or something.

5. Spinster Spin-off? Ant-Man also carries with it an odd stench of sexism regarding Hope Pym. She's an uptight careerist who's only allowed out of the shoulder-padded business suit for one scene. Throughout the movie, she's told to butt out of the proceedings by a parade of overprotective/scheming/dorky men--even though it's apparent from her second scene that she could (and should) handily steal the show from these clowns.

During the mid-credits "stinger", Hank Pym finally presents Hope with her very own Wasp costume. This would have been a lovely moment in an 80s film, but we're way past the millennium now--way past the point where a strong female character should be "presented" with anything. It's not that Hope doesn't have multiple opportunities to assert herself during Ant-Man, it's that the screenwriters never think to put that thought into the character's head. As such, we endure many elephants in many rooms, wherein the under-qualified buffoon is allowed his Heroe's Journey at the expense of Hope's dignity (and possibly the fate of the planet).

6. The Incredible Shrinking Universe. Aside from the beautiful (and beautifully weird) sub-atomic realm scene and a nod to Marvel comics' early depictions of staged transformations, Ant-Man is a largely uninspired retread of all the other MCU origin-story pictures.**

That's fine if we're still finding our footing in Phase One, but Marvel is set to enter Phase Three of its interconnected film universe. The formula works. First-place opening weekend slots are guaranteed. So why is Disney/Marvel so afraid of a little originality? Ant-Man is two hours and five minutes long,*** but the amount of worthwhile (or at least semi-unique) material can be gleaned from the inevitable two-and-a-half-minute YouTube highlights video.

Notice I didn't mention the villain past my plot synopsis? Notice I didn't talk about the results of the heist, the climactic showdown, or whether or not Scott worked things out with his family? There's no point talking about these things because, as a frequent moviegoer (and possible Marvel devotee), you know how everything plays out. You know that Ant-Man is just a placeholder for Captain America: Civil War, which is just a placeholder for the next three "stand-alone" movies leading up to Avengers: The Infinity War: Part One.

I mentally jumped for joy at the rumor that Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor had been cast as rivals in the upcoming Doctor Strange film. But I now have zero confidence in that movie being anything but a jokey, middle-aged-Harry Potter flick with wands, gags about tea, and a wide-eyed American-girl sidekick whose character development will be sacrificed on the altar of Avengers cameos.

In short: Marvel's dead. 'Nuff said.

*Actually, I have.

**In truth, even the sub-atomic stuff reminded me of a similar self-sacrifice scene from Guardians of the Galaxy.

***And that's a full two hours and five minutes, because everyone has to stick around for the famed "second stinger" after the end credits.