Thursday, July 16, 2015

THE LITTLE HERO THAT COULD: "Ant-Man" Is An Atypical But EnjoyableMarvel Film [MINOR SPOILERS]

Anyone who’s ever watched any amount of television knows of the staple that is the “Really Big Episode(s)”. You know what I’m talking about: The big, multi-part story epic that takes at least two (maybe three) episodes to tell; a game changer where the stakes for the characters are so high that it leaves the protagonists, and the audience, exhausted at the conclusion. What usually follows is a quieter episode, sometimes a “day-in-the-life” scenario; an episode where both protagonist and viewer can take a breather and re-settle into the status quo before the next “event” hits; in other words, a small episode.

If we’re to treat the cinematic output from Marvel Studios as part of one grandiose narrative, then Ant-Man is that small episode. It serves as an appropriate coda to Marvel’s “Phase II” of films, Avengers: Age of Ultron having served as its bombastic climax. It’s everything that A:AUO, or any of the previous Marvel films, isn’t…and that’s not a bad thing at all.

Ant-Man is a super-hero/Mission: Impossible-esque heist film hybrid which follows breaking-and-entering artist Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) who, upon release from doing time for a major, attention-calling heist, resolves to go legit; however, his attempts at legitimacy are thwarted by his larcenous past. His troubles are compounded by his forced estrangement from his daughter by his ex-wife Maggie’s (Judy Greer) new fiancé, an overbearing cop named Paxton (Bobby Cannavale). Unbeknownst to Lang, his criminal exploits have caught the interest of one Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), an ex-S.H.I.E.L.D. associate who enlists him to commit the clichéd “one more job” with the aid of a miniaturization suit to reclaim Pym’s technology, that was appropriated by Cross Industries CEO and Pym’s one-time protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Reluctantly aiding Lang in this endeavor is Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who is Cross’ corporate right-hand and is not only estranged from her father, but harbors an intense resentment towards Lang as well.

In terms of scope, again, Ant-Man is, pun intended, small. Whereas the previous films (and their respective protagonists) in Marvel Studio’s catalogue are larger than life, Ant-Man, the film and character, is more down-to-earth, it’s tone and execution somewhere between lofty super-hero demagoguery and the grim, street-level aesthetic as seen on the Netflix series Daredevil. Despite it’s relatively high stakes, Ant-Man feels like a quiet, indie film (well, as quiet as a story replete with super-heroes and villains, tech, and explosions will allow). If the feeling of the film is to be described in one word, it would be “intimate”.  It feels intimate. It’s perhaps one of the most intimate super-hero films ever filmed. More than any previous Marvel film, it’s relationships that take front and center. It’s also thematically rich. Both Lang and Pym’s characters run parallel courses: flawed characters whose pasts have a stranglehold on their present, estranged from their daughters and, to varying degrees, vilified by authority. The film asks whether redemption can be had when a person’s life is so checkered. Also poignant is the theme of generational hand-over, wherein the choice of whom to pass a figurative torch can have consequences for not only those to whom the torch is given, but to those who are passed over.

In any other film, such thematic explorations would unfold heavy-handedly; however, here is where director Peyton Reed veers from the Christopher Nolan-esque path and keeps the tone comically and approachably light. He blends the right amount of pithy and pathos, keeping one from overshadowing the other. This film was reportedly a troubled production, with original director Edgar Wright (who shares screenplay credit along with Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and star Rudd) having left over “creative differences” and various screenplay revisions. You would never know such took place from the finished product, as the film holds your attention even in the quietest of moments.

Paul Rudd’s everyman turned superman is extremely grounded, washboard abs notwithstanding. Scott Lang is the larcenist with a heart of gold frustrated with a system that won’t allow second chances. Rudd’s Lang is also quite charming in a goofy way. Rudd is for Ant-Man what Michael Keaton was to Batman; an unlikely choice of actor to headline a super-hero film. And, much like that casting a generation ago, it works. He’s a fallible hero that one can root for. Douglas’ Hank Pym (the original Ant-Man in the source comics) is as crotchety and stiff as his gait; an interesting acting choice for the usually spry actor. Douglas’ performance is by turns comical and nuanced, serving as straight man to Rudd in many respects, and the two actors bounce off each other almost effortlessly. This film hinges on the mentor/student, father/surrogate son dynamic, and the actors deliver. Evangeline Lilly’s Hope is just as strong and dynamic as the two leads. She juggles her character’s pseudo-sibling rivalry with Lang with the conundrum of resenting her father as much as needing his approbation. If she is a damsel-in-distress, it’s of an emotional nature as she is as heroic as the super-hero-in-training is. Much of thecomic relief is provided by Michael Peñz, T.I., and David Dastmalchian as “Luis”, “Dave”, and “Kurt”, respectively; three larcenists of differing expertise whose depictions border on racism. Yet Reed’s direction and the actors' performances offset the caricaturization. The trio provide back-up for “Team Ant-Man”, and do so in engaging, hilarious fashion. Bobby Cannavale takes what could have been a hated unwanted step-father trope and humanizes it. His character is not quite a bad guy; you still don’t want to like him, but it cannot be denied that Paxton is a decent bloke. The short end of the stick award has to go to Judy Greer who, as in the recent Jurassic World, only appears to establish subtextual conflict and not much else. 

The film is not without its faults. For example, the CGI is somewhat uneven, the most glaring example of which are the depictions of the ants, as it takes some time for the viewer to figure out whether the ants are supposed to be organic or mechanical. On the flip side, once Ant-Man goes into shrinking mode, the mundane transforms in size and scope to spectacle (you won’t see raves or sewers in the same way again). The film veers into Interstellar territory at one point, hinting at another corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but takes its own spin on it conceptually and visually…which is especially trippy, for lack of a better term, in 3-D.

Another major sour note is Stoll’s performance as the “Lex Luthor/Luther the Anger Translator love child” antagonist, Darren Cross. His character is disjointed; as if Stoll hasn’t been given enough direction by Reed and, as a result, Stoll seems unsure if the intention of the character is straight or burlesque. His performance is out of sync with the rest of the cast, which makes him unlikeable for all the wrong reasons. Its a misstep that brings a good portion of the film down.

The action is low-key compared to the film that immediately came before it; however. that’s not to say that it’s tiny in any sense. The size changing effects are effectively realized and interestingly applied in combat.  There’s one sequence with a surprise (not so much thanks to commercials) character that utilizes another Marvel Comics storytelling hallmark to great, fun effect, its conclusion is as satisfying as any Hulk/Thor slugfest would be. The film manages to balance the super-heroics with light hearted comedy, a combination that’s reflected in Christopher Beck’s entertaining score. There are other shout outs and Easter eggs to Marvel lore both comic and cinematic, but they work within the story and are not too distracting. It also features one of the better executed yet absurd action climaxes of any film in recent memory. 

Ant-Man is nothing you would expect, and everything you could enjoy. It’s not world-shattering drama, and it shouldn’t be. In the grand scheme of the MCU, it may be a tiny film, but it’s large on heart. It proves that a super-hero film doesn't have to take itself too seriously. It's tongue-in-cheekieness is it's main selling point and makes it what super-hero films should be...fun. If you're into the genre, then Ant-Man is for you. See it. Don't sell yourself short. 

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