Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Overt Comedy Of The Marvel Cinematic Universe: Ant Man Is Enjoyable!

The Good: Funny, Good special effects, Decent performances, Moments of character
The Bad: Predictable plot and character arcs
The Basics: The Marvel Cinematic Universe highlights the sidekicks and
back bench characters in Ant Man, which is successful as a comedy film!

The strategy from the executives in charge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become fairly evident over the last few years of the franchise's Phase 2 films: Marvel/Disney releases (at least one) "safe" film (one with a well-established character or team) each year and one "risk" film. The "risk" film is one that is not "guaranteed" to blow away the box-office because it is either not a sequel or does not feature one of the a-list Marvel Comics superheroes. For example, last year, amid all of the sequels from Avengers-heroes, Marvel released Guardians Of The Galaxy (reviewed here!). This year, after the reliable-hit The Avengers Age Of Ultron (reviewed here!), Marvel's addition to Summer Blockbuster Season is Ant Man.

Ant Man represents the largest risk to the Marvel Cinematic Universe Marvel has taken since Iron Man (reviewed here!). Had Guardians Of The Galaxy not been a sleeper-hit, it could still have been written off by the studio as an attempt to offer backstory and insight into the villain of the forthcoming The Avengers: Infinity War and the consequences for the fans would not have been huge because virtually the entire story happened off-planet. But Ant Man is very much based on Earth and it is a risk, like Iron Man. Revisionists like to forget how much of a risk Iron Man was: Marvel tried to launch the Marvel Cinematic Universe five years prior with the (usually) reliable fan-favorite Incredible Hulk headlining a film that flopped, the protagonist of Iron Man was not even the highest-paid actor in the cast, and the comic book Iron Man was not even the most-popular (or even top five!) book Marvel Comics was producing at the time. Marvel took an interesting approach with Ant Man to mitigate the box office risk.

Perhaps the oddest choice - at least on the surface - that Marvel Studios made with Ant Man was to create a film that did not center around the original and widely popular incarnation of the title character. Instead of having Dr. Pym, the original Ant-Man, as the film's protagonist, Ant Man focuses on Pym handing the mantle of Ant-Man to Scott Lang. The jaded fan in me suspects that not having Pym as the film's lead is an excuse for lazy writing - Pym is one of the four smartest people in the Marvel Universe and having to write for a character who is that smart can be intimidating for writers and for the audience - and an attempt to make broader appeal for the film (with Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, adding Dr. Pym to the mix makes the Marvel Cinematic Universe very scientist-heavy, which appeals more to geeks - read "niche audience"). As a business move, passing the mantle in Ant Man makes sense: it allows Marvel to make an overt comedy film and it introduces a whole "secret history" element to the Marvel Cinematic Universe - there is a "lost era" in which Dr. Pym as Ant-Man would have been the dominant super-hero in the Marvel Universe!

Ant Man is the closest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to overtly focus on the second-string characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (they haven't taken a risk like that outside Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.). Ant-Man is trained for a very specific mission and he only goes up against one adversary. As well, Ant-Man encounters only one Avenger . . . and it's The Falcon, who is presented almost as a parody of himself in the film. But, for all the hedging of bets, Ant Man works and it does exactly what it is supposed to: create a comedy film that still fits into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and add another hero who will have an integral part in saving the Earth from Thanos in The Avengers: Infinity War. And should Robert Downey Jr. decide to opt-out of any of the future Marvel Cinematic Universe films, it seems like Paul Rudd is being set up to fill the same niche for one-liners.

Opening in the late 1980s, Dr. Hank Pym confronts Peggy Carter, Howard Stark, and S.H.I.E.L.D.'s Mitchell Carson. Pym controls his revolutionary Pym Particle, which allows him to change size. Rather than let that technology fall into S.H.I.E.L.D.'s or Stark's hands, Pym resigns from their arrangement and becomes a recluse. Almost thirty years later, in the wake of Ultron's attack in Sokovia, Scott Lang is released from prison in San Francisco. Having served his sentence for burglary, for returning the ill-gotten gains of a company to its exploited customers, Lang is determined to fly right and get a legitimate job in order to get access to his daughter, Cassie. But, after getting fired by Baskin-Robbins, and with his friends pressuring him to do another heist, Lang succumbs and agrees to help break into a reclusive millionaire's safe. When he does, he becomes suspicious because the safe he cracks leads only to a strange suit.

Lang tries on the suit and discovers that it gives him the ability to shrink down to about 1/4" tall and the voice in his helmet tells him that the man from whom he stole the suit is impressed with him. Lang attempts to return the suit, but is arrested while leaving Dr. Pym's house. While in custody, Lang is visited by Pym, who is pretending to be his lawyer, and is broken out of jail by ants who bring him the shrinking suit. Escaping the police, Lang properly meets Dr. Pym, who explains why he is interested in Lang. Dr. Pym's corporation has been taken over by Darren Cross in Pym's absence and Cross has spent the intervening decades developing his equivalent to the Pym Particle. As Cross's work nears fruition, he is negotiating to sell his weaponized shrinking suit to the highest bidder. Seeing that Cross's perverted vision of his work is about to fundamentally change the world's landscape - Cross is selling an army of shrinking suits for defense, espionage, and the elimination of personal privacy - Pym begs Lang to break into his old laboratory and steal the prototype before Cross's work is finished. Trained by Pym's estranged daughter, Hope, Scott takes up the mantle of Ant-Man to save the world from Cross's twisted army.

In many ways, Ant-Man is a very typical super hero movie and an equally-obvious heist film. Were it not for Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. using a number of similar elements on almost a weekly basis, there would be a lot in Ant-Man that was new to fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So, on the plot and character arcs, there is not a lot that is original.

That said, Scott Lang is an interesting protagonist and Michael Douglas brilliantly plays Pym as his straightman, even though he is forced to deliver an incredible amount of the film's exposition. The performances in Ant-Man are good, but play more to the performer's established wheelhouses, as opposed to expanding their range. Evangeline Lilly plays Hope Van Dyne in essentially the same way she played Kate on Lost (reviewed here!) and Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang with his usual knack for shtick. But, Rudd's performance is virtually interchangeable with his acting in Wanderlust (reviewed here!) and Anthony Mackie's appearance as The Falcon does not add anything truly substantive to the character's role (not Mackie's fault, it's just the part that was written for him!). Lilly and Rudd have virtually no on-screen chemistry, which makes their final scene seem like a cheap plot point, as opposed to something organic from the characters.

But more than the predictability, Ant-Man suffers from problems with the details. While there are fleeting moments where the special effects are erratic (it's tough to do the scale consistently properly and make miniaturized characters visible on screen!), the real issues come in the exposition and the tie-ins to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. Dr. Pym says that he cannot re-take the mantle of Ant-Man, which implies there are dire consequences from constantly using the Ant-Man suit. Lang doesn't question that adequately and Pym's lack of explanation makes him seem either dishonest or disingenuous. At the other end of the spectrum, the moment Cross's buyers are revealed to be HYDRA, the fact that Grant Ward does not appear on-screen feels like a real missed opportunity (especially considering where his character ended up at the end of the second season of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.).

Ant-Man is funny and all evidence points to the idea that it will hold up under multiple viewings better than some of the earlier works in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Pym is a great mentor and his dynamic with Hope is one of the most realistic relationships yet depicted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ultimately, Ant-Man is one of the better endeavors in Summer Blockbuster Season this year.

For other films currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
Dragon Blade
Fantastic 4
Jenny's Wedding
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Lila & Eve
No Way Jose
Terminator Genisys
Inside Out
Jurassic World


For other elements of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, please check out my Marvel Cinematic Universe Review Index Page for a listing organized from best to worst!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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