Thursday, July 30, 2015


Let's Get Small
"We Haven't Worked Out All the Bugs Yet"

Superhero movies are, in and of themselves, absurd. They're two-dimensional entertainment thrust into 3-D with real human beings squeezed into the form-fitting costumes that seem to defy logic and gravity.

The norm of the superhero movie has become explosions and crumbling masonry. It's become the superhero cliché: it doesn't matter the power, it doesn't matter the skills. Pretty soon, the walls come tumbling down, no matter how much power you have. What DOESN'T happen is for these movies to differentiate between these heroes; it doesn't matter who or what these super-beings or meta-humans are, the results are the same and it's become a movie cliché. You can't tell a Bat-man from an X-man anymore, because the results are all on the outside, you never get the experience of what it would be to be able to DO these incredible things.

Except for Ant-Man. It's the first movie in a long, long time (since we first believed we could accompany Superman in flight back in 1978), where you get the visceral sensation of what it must be like to wield that power, to be a part of the world that we are thrust into in the adventure.  It's a matter of perspective, and Ant-Man doesn't shrink from the task.
Let's face it: Ant-Man, as a character, is pretty silly. Like Aquaman-but-thirstier, he can talk to and command a veritable picnic of ants (you in the back, stop laughing), and like Doll Man and The Atom, he can shrink to a tiny size while maintaining his weight and strength. His playing-field is the horrifically out-sized one of The Incredible Shrinking Man, which has traditionally been one of the ordinary made predatory, the insignificant made insurmountable—spools of string are tank-busters, sewing needles become spears, and the normal becomes terrifyingly demeaning, bone-crushing in its impact, both physically and psychologically. It's a sci-fi concept rife with metaphor. Ever feel small in this world? Problems feel insurmountable? Well, imagine being mouse-size in a world of cats. There's something about these shrinking violets that appeals to the disenfranchised, feeling apart from the norm and even belittled by it.
If you've got a disenfranchised audience, you might as well make a franchise. Despite his role as a "minor" Marvel character, despite his being a long-standing member of the comics version of The Avengers (it was actually the original Ant-man, Hank Pym, who created "Ultron" as opposed to the story in the film), but the character is relatively minor in the Marvel pantheon. But, in an upside-down world where "Iron Man" is king of the Marvel Film Universe and The Guardians of the Galaxy does better business than Thor...or Captain America...or Hulk, a character like "Ant-Man" just might catch on.
Speaking of "catching on..."
Except his name is "Ant-Man" (the current shrinker even asks at one point "Is it too late to change the name?") and has mental control over ANTS, fer cryin' out loud. Handy at a family reunion, maybe, but fighting crime? Unless you send carpenter ants to destroy the foundation of a villain's HQ, ants make a pretty ineffective army (no matter what Stan Lee says)—easily distracted by sugar, for instance. And frankly, you can slow them down by the interference of Ant-Man's arch-nemesis, Orkin Man
Ant-Man (the movie) does not care. It knows deep down in its thorax that it is a silly concept, and still thinks it's the coolest thing on Earth. It communicates the absurd glory of it (and this is evidently due to the early conceptual work of Edgar Wright, who co-wrote and directed Shawn of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World. Wright left over "creative differences" with Marvel Studios (and that can be anything from casting, script changes to changes in the costume so the action figures sell). It's always dangerous to speculate, but the director-change occurred about the time Marvel put its "franchise" mitts into it, linking "Ant-Man" to the larger Film Universe. That might be well and good for the suits at Disney—really, can rights to the Marvel/Disney unifying "Mighty Mouse" be that hard to acquire?—but it doesn't play too well in the film. This "Ant-man" isn't much of a "joiner."
New meaning to the term "gun-runner"

Getting back to disenfranchisement, Ant-Man's characters are full of it. Both past and present Ant-men are free-thinkers who don't fancy themselves "team-players." They are not little men. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, giving his strongest performance in years, surprisingly) is your prototypical genius who has perfected the "shrinking-people-down" thing without subsequently blowing them up and had operated for years as the original covert "Ant-Man," but has strenuously avoided giving the patents to his partners at Stark Industries and S.H.I.E.L.D. (an early scene has John Slattery as Howard Stark, Hayley Atwell as the time-ubiquitous Peggy Carter, and an impressively de-aged Douglas, doing a version of "Take This Job and Shove it"), seeing them as a threat to peace and security. Current Ant-man Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is an ex-con, who was incarcerated for performing a "brilliant" hack on his former employer, and finds his chances of employment somewhere between miniscule and microscopic.  
Outcast by society and by his own family—divorced by wife Maggie (Judy Greer), distrusted by her new husband, officer Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), but adored by daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson)—he's fired from his job and decides to become part of a burglary ring consisting of Dave (T.I.), Kurt (David Dastmalchian), and his old cell-mate Luis (Michael Peña, displaying a suspected, but under-utilized flair for comedy), who are a sort of bargain-basement "Mission: Impossible" team. Luis hears of a great job—in one of a trio of nicely pulled-off exposition scenes—that turns out to be the secluded mansion of Hank Pym, where there are no vast quantities of valuables—only a goofy suit that ends up throwing Lang back in the slammer, and an eventual surprise visitation by Pym.
What Pym proposes to Lang is no small feat: breaking into Pym Labs and stealing the prototype of an element essential to the company's years-long attempts to match Pym's experiments in shrinking, which are being designed for weaponization to be sold to the highest bidder, with a corporation's indifference to anything but the viability of the coinage. So, a plan is hatched between Lang and his cohorts and Pym and his daughter (Evangeline Lilly, who manages to make a great performance out of a part that is usually played mawkishly—one doesn't know if it's the part that is written well or just her playing of it that makes it exceptional)—who has managed to win the loyalty of the arrogantly sociopathic new head of Pym Labs (Corey Stall) to infiltrate the facility and keep the monopoly (so to speak).
It wouldn't be a good heist movie (as director Reed calls it) if everything went smoothly. It doesn't, but on a decidedly concentrated scale, albeit one that incorporates most of the cast. Where most superhero movies go global with city-wide destruction, crumbling sky-scarpers and flowering orange explosions, Ant-Man takes it small, which, at the least, is refreshing. It also pays off in wonderful perspective-based moments of comedy, of the like not seen since the "Men in Black" series. There's a giddy joy in Ant-Man, no matter how schizy the villains, no matter how "angsty" the drama, the filmmakers know that they're working with a superhero that is not all-powerful, and from the looks of it may be under a severe handicap. They then proceed to milk all the coolness from it, showing us the bizarre perspective of being the tiniest thing in the room, and having a great deal of fun with the yin-yang of POV.
One could quibble about that: how much of a threat could Thomas the Tank Engine be if the "Yellowjacket" can control his weight and density? And as soon as you ask that you realize that you're not having nearly as much fun as you should and probably should shut up and take the movie (and life) a little less seriously. It's enjoyable, and surprisingly enjoyable—which Marvel tends to do when the chips are down and they HAVE to make a hit against the odds—The Avengers (but not its sequel), Captain America: The First Avenger, and Guardians of the Galaxy). It is when they don't play it safe and go against the grain and the current trends for success that the studio has the best success. Artistically, anyway. And Ant-man is as entertaining as any of the movies that Marvel has produced.

That is no small feat.

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