Thursday, July 30, 2015

Antman (Guest Review)

Alternate Title:  "... cause that's how you get ants"

One sentence synopsis:     The General departs for a two-week assault on the Central European countryside, leaving me to suffer through the latest in Marvel’s I.P. content-dredge on my own.

... ahem?

Fine... Retired superhero Hank Pym recruits a young thief to coordinate a heist and pass on his legacy.

That's better.

A Note before we begin:  Due to an unavoidable bout of raving insanity brought about by a Leviathan-related relapse, the General was unable to review this week's movie.  Fortunately, he was able to conscript a bitter, shell-shocked victim loyal and enthusiastic compatriot, more than willing to fill in for a movie like this.  We, the management, are extremely grateful for her assistance in helping us through this fallow period, and would never ever stoop to suggesting that if she complains about being asked to do this again, her next assignment could well involve Tyler Perry...

Things Havoc Corvidae liked:  I should probably add a few more words of explanation here.

So yes, hello, you can call me Corvidae. For all intents and purposes, I am the lieutenant to the General’s movie endeavors. For the last--shit, how long has this been, almost two years now?--I have accompanied him on many, if not most, of the movie-viewing jaunts, an experience which has, believe it or not, been quite rewarding. It has exposed me to many movies I would not otherwise have seen and sharpened my eye for film critique and screenplay storytelling. So, when I found out that we would be missing two weeks of the usual routine because of the General’s extended European vacation, I actually asked--nay, convinced--him to let me write a review in his stead. I thought it would be a nice exercise to stretch my burgeoning film-review chops. Most importantly, though, I argued that I had earned such a privilege, because when it comes to the now-legendary incidents of Under The Skin and Leviathan, I can justly say--much like Elrond in the heart of Mount Doom--

*****I WAS THERE!!!!!!!!!*****

But now I sit here faced with the actual prospect of saying something insightful-at-best and cogent-at-least about the film and have discovered...well...It’s not as easy as I thought. But I’ve had a glass-and-a-half of over-aged chardonnay (Gann Cellars 2007. Would not recommend.) so let’s just plow into this and see what happens.

Antman is the latest in the ever-unfolding Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) franchise and the next entry in Marvel Studio’s business plan of “No Fucks Given.” Seriously, when you turn a D-grade property starring a raccoon, a tree, and the lead singer of Mouserat into an international megahit, really you pretty much have carte blanche for whatever the hell takes your fancy, waiting for people to throw money at you just to see if you will continue to pull it off. Which is pretty much what happened to me in this case. See, growing up, my experience with comic books began and ended with a set of tie-in Jurassic Park comic serials I collected in elementary school, which basically read like officially-licensed fan fiction. Comics of the classic schools were entirely out of my purview...until Iron Man came out when I was in grad school. I loved it so much I saw it twice opening weekend, and ever since then I have watched in awe as this entire world has unfolded before me in hit after cinematic hit. It lead me to read up on some of the lore myself, and even go so far as to--gasp!--wander into brick-and-mortar comic book stores asking if the current run of Female Thor I’ve been hearing about is in trade paperback yet.

But even with all that, I entered into this movie with hesitation. I ant? I will give you hyper-efficient rocket suits, I will give you demi-magical superhumans, I will even give you bizarre strength serums and genetic experiments gone awry. ant?

And on top of that, they cast Paul Rudd. Now, I know that with the MCU expanding at the rate it is, and with DC starting to make land grabs of their own, Hollywood is rapidly running out of leading-human figures to cast, so much so that Ben Affleck has had to double up. To make things worse, even the excellent B-list and character actors are all disappearing into supporting roles, though usually to outstanding effect (I’m looking at you, Idris Elba, you beautiful man you.)

But, strangely enough, Paul Rudd turns out to be perfect. Antman is a movie that’s, I think, well aware of the ridiculous scenario it presents in a world of ridiculous scenarios, but rather than apologizing, it acknowledges and owns it. Rudd’s entire career follows this behavior, in a way, as he has largely condensed and perfected the character he created in his breakout role of Josh in Clueless, back in 1995. This is a man who knows what he is, knows it’s a little silly, but isn’t afraid of it. The gestalt of this sentiment comes across everytime he opens the helmet of his size-shrinking suit and greets the camera with just enough of a self-deprecating smile. It’s a look that says, “Yeah, I know, but...let’s have some fun, shall we?”

And the movie certainly does. See, Antman isn’t just a superhero film, it’s also a heist film. Rudd plays Scott Lang, a high-level thief who was thrown into San Quentin after being busted for a burglary on some corporate exec. As the movie opens, he’s just been released and is looking to set his life straight. Unfortunately, as is always the case, his efforts to find a normal job are confounded by his friends looking for the infamous “one last score.” When his efforts to forge a relationship with his daughter are blocked by his estranged ex-wife (the ever-entertaining Judy Greer, of Archer and Arrested Development fame) due to his lack of finances or respectability (understandable, considering he’s working at Baskin Robins and sharing a one-bedroom flophouse flat with three other men in the heart of the Tenderloin), he finally agrees.  

Meanwhile, though, is the other half of the plot equation: Michael Douglas as Hank Pym--the original Antman--and Evangeline Lilly as his daughter Hope. Pym is the founder of generic-tech corporation Pymcorp, though he’s recently stepped back from running the business, leaving it to his protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Pym was once the actual Antman, using hyper-shrinking technology he developed himself to fight crime and Soviet threats during the Cold War. Since then, though, he has stepped back from hero-ing--citing difficulties with the technologies and dangerous effects on a balanced mental state--and has kept his identity secret all these years. Cross, as he steps forward to take over the company, is driven both by his suspicion that Pym was more than he ever let on, and his desire to prove himself to his mentor by following in his footsteps, even if it means he has to do it himself. Cross develops an analogue of the shrinking technology, which he openly plans to sell as military technology, and Pym develops a plan to steal the technology from the hyper-secure Pymcorp buildings and destroy it before it can do more harm than what he witnessed himself, decades ago. Which is where noted-B&E thief Lang comes in.

Hijinks ensue, I’m sure you can imagine.

The movie walks a fine line between the gravitas of a superhero film--wrestling with the usual complexities of morality and duty--and the humor implicit in a world wherein technology exists to shrink or embiggen humans (and objects) at will. For the most part it does an excellent job. Lang’s sidekick-crew (a diverse, if somewhat cliched, collection of a Mexican-American, an African-American, and an Eastern-European) also provide comic relief.

As a semi-native San Franciscan, I also can’t help but comment on the role our fair city plays in the movie. There’s been an absolute glut of San Franciso-set movies lately--likely due the world’s attention focusing on Silicon Valley like never before--and the representation has ranged from the decent (Inside Out), to the artfully-outstanding (Big Hero Six), to the uncanny-valley of haphazard accuracy (2014’s Godzilla). Perhaps true to theme, Antman takes the tactic of focusing on the smaller, often-overlooked aspects of the city that only the locals might recognize as being truly typical. As I said, Lang lives in a rundown apartment in the Tenderloin (in a building I know I’ve passed before but can’t place right now because I’m usually hurrying past before someone throws up on my shoes). Hank Pym lives in a Victorian mansion somewhere near the 17th St saddle of Twin Peaks, positioned such that you can just make out the distant lights of St. Ignatius Church glowing through the driving fog the night Lang breaks in, a view I have seen with my own eyes often. Finally, the Pymcorp building itself is located on the west shore of Treasure Island, a place rarely visited by tourists but hotly contested for large-scale developmen, so it makes perfect sense that a megacorp in this world would have claimed it for itself. In fact, except for the irritating-yet-understandable conceit that Langs’s journey to the city from San Quentin somehow takes him all the way over to the Marin Headlands and back along Conzelman Drive, the landscape of the city, and how it maps to the lives of the people occupying it, is perfectly believable.

Things Havoc Corvidae disliked:  Unfortunately, not everything settles in quite so easily.

So, from what I’ve gathered, it seems that something...happened during the production of this movie. According to Wikipedia, one of the driving factors to create it was Edgar Wright, of Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim fame. He apparently has been a huge fan of the Antman stories since he was a kid and initially developed an idea for an off-beat, slightly-edgy interpretation of the character way back in 2003. He was a passionate advocate for the project, writing the script and working through multiple rewrites and planning delays. Finally, everything was a go and work on the film started around 2013...and not long after, he was taken off it entirely. The only explanation he has apparently given is that Disney--whom I keep forgetting now owns Marvel and then subsequently force myself to forget again--wanted to, quote, “go in a different direction.” The implication, of course, is they wanted something more “family friendly” than Wright’s other works.

And yes, it is a shame, because what we have is a movie where you often see glimpses of the fast-cut humor he obviously originally intended, but get the sense that it’s not...quite...right. Some jokes obviously made it through the transition, but quite a few comedic punches are telegraphed, oddly timed, or flatly explained in ways that ruin the impact.

And speaking of explanation, this movie has a lot of it. The technology is weird even for the MCU, so yes I can accept that we need to have a few info dumps about it, but with all that exposition, I was still unsure whether or not I “believed” it. I mean, obviously I’m not looking for a PLoS One paper on shrinking technology and digitally-assisted ant telepathy, but if you’re going to have huge chunks of time of Michael Douglass talking at me, he’d better say something that makes me connect with it emotionally (excitement, trepidation, whatever). At times I felt like I was getting the audiobook version of the Wikipedia article of the plot of movie.

This wasn’t helped by the fact that much of the plot advancement is done through montages. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love a good montage, but in this case I feel the movie relies on them a little too heavily. Montages show a little improvement with every shot, yes, but the viewer doesn’t experience the character advancement to the same degree as she would a real-time scene. During the movie, we have a few quick scenes of Lang screwing up with the shrinking-and-communication technology, then before you know it, he’s an expert at it. Again, not breaking the laws of these kinds of movies in any egregious ways, but it means that seeing him excel in the breakneck battles toward the end of the movie felt less like a dramatic accomplishment and more like, “I guess this is what we’re doing now.”

Speaking of the action scenes, these were obviously supposed to be the big showpiece of the film, as Antman flies through bullet space/time and back into the macro world with the fluidity of a gymnast, but honestly I was just...bored with them. I saw the movie in 2D (cause ain’t nobody got the extra cash for that shit) and I get the sense that these sequences were optimized for the 3D version, leaving the 2D version S.O.L. Specifically, the camera follows Antman tightly as he flips through the air, outrunning bullets and taking full-grown men down with one micro-punch. He is always centered in the screen, even as the camera moves through three-axes, and most of the background kind of fades into a false vanishing point behind him, indicating to me that the depth of the shot was supposed to be most of the texture, but without it it’s just a vignette of a dude flipping around. I mean, it’s fine, but it just...didn’t do anything for me. By contrast, another fight scene with functionally-similar staging, that of Nightcrawler popping in and out of reality in his attack on the White House in the opening for X-Men 2, uses far-simpler camera work and remains one of my favorite action sequences of all time. You really get a sense of the tension of the fight when you the viewer don’t know where he’s going to pop from next. And yeah, part of the point of Antman is to see him be small, but following him judiciously through every moment of the fight is about as interesting as following him through every step of his morning routine, especially when most of what he’s doing is just flying through the air (in the fight, that is, not the morning routine).

Perhaps, though, my irritation with the action scenes comes from a long-standing movie pet-peeve of mine, something I’ve decided to dub “Excitement-Exposition.” You know what it is, it’s those scenes of ramping excitement where sometime in post they went back and added in voice-over of the actor or actors yelling inanities like, “Yeah!” “Let’s go!” “It’s now or never, guys!” “Yeah, guys!!” “Guys lets do this!!!!” “GUYS!1!1!!” It’s especially rampant in kids movies, and the fact that this movie has an unnecessarily high amount of it is what makes me believe the rumors that Wright got dumped for a more family-friendly treatment.

The last thing I’d like to rant about is the villain, Cross. Frankly, he’s terrible. He’s a mustache-twirling caricature, killing in cold blood and selling his knock-off technology to Hydra simply for teh monies. There is some discussion about his deeper character motivations, specifically that he wanted to be Pym’s protege but Pym kept him at arm’s length, creating hurt and frustration. Also there’s sort of a hand-wavey mention that using the shrinking technology too much makes someone go crazy, but...come on. As Havoc himself says, the MCU is a franchise built upon the power of its villains (I’m looking at you, Loki, you beautiful ice-giant you) so this was just disappointing. Corey Stoll does a decent job with what he’s given, bringing enough of a sinister presence to the screen to carry each scene through, but I couldn’t get past the fact that, like many other things in the movie, it should have been better.

A Special Note:   Before I conclude, I’d like to take a moment to talk about something that struck me rather specifically, but which doesn’t fit neatly into like or didn’t-like. It’s not even really an issue of “like,” more a point of construction that I feel bears commenting on.

Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly, of Lost and The Hobbit), represents a new factor in modern comic movies. She has estrangement and Daddy/Daughter issues with Pym senior, (which isn’t new), and she is also somewhat of a romantic interest for Lang (which definitely isn’t new). But she is also someone who desperately wants to follow in her father’s footsteps. There estrangement comes not from her wanting to be free of him, but because, like Cross, she’s mad she’s been kept at arm’s length.

Lilly herself is merely alright at the role. There are complex motivations to the character and I don’t feel she pulled them off well in all cases. Hope works as an administrative assistant to Cross and basically secretly double-crosses him when she reconciles with her father and agrees to help him and Lang break into the company. But when she is on-screen in that role, I didn’t really get a good sense of her duplicity; she is calmly and politely his assistant. For half of the movie, I found myself suspecting her of triple crossing, secretly siding with Cross while pretending to help her father. Spoiler alert, this is not the case, but the fact that I kept expecting it I think speaks to her acting rather than the writing.

But then it also could be implicit suspicion of her haircut, which, with the addition of dem cheekbones, reminded me waaaay too much of Kate Blanchett in Indiana Jones 4 and the associated PTSD memories therein. Also it’s not really flattering on either of them.

Girl, wut.

But back to the point at hand, and right now I’m going to break type from Havoc’s usual M.O. and actually discuss points of a spoiler-y nature, so be warned.


Around the second-act climax, we discover the real reason Pym gave up the technology and became so afraid of it. Apparently back in his day, Antman wasn’t a solo act. He partnered with his wife, who had a similar shrinking-suit and went by the superhero handle of The Wasp. During the Cold War, at one point a Soviet missile was launched at the US and the two of them had to stop it, by the Slim Pickin’s strategy of physically attacking the missile itself. Something went wrong, and time was running out, so without hesitation, Wasp removed this regulating device from her suit and dropped into the “subatomic” realm to slide through the metal plates of the missile, destroy the electronics, and save everyone. Unfortunately, though, without the regulator there was no coming back. Wasp was lost forever. Pym reveals this to Hope in an emotional scene of reconciliation, but my emotional reaction was one of awe.

Because this is the opposite of a fridging”.

Wasp died heroically, of her own choice, which is, in my understanding, the rare exception case of women in comic books, even the superhero ones. Women in the major serials have tended to be killed suddenly and senselessly as emotional plot devices, stripped of agency on both an individual and meta level. No one argues that women in comic stories shouldn’t die at all, but the way those deaths are portrayed does mean a lot. I could go dredge up a bunch of comic-theory articles I’ve read on this to support my point, but instead I’ll cite my own anecdata as proof: I had never even heard of Wasp before this movie, she only had about 10 seconds of screentime in a flashback sequence, but even in that short period of exposure I was fucking. proud. of her.

This brief emotional resonance lasted through the rest of the movie, and came in particularly valuable at the end. And I mean the end end, in the after-the-credits stinger sequence. Pym takes Hope down to his basement and the secret room Lang broke into at the start of the movie. From there he reveals another secret room, storing another copy of the shrinking-suit, albeit with wings, just like the one Wasp had. Pym tells Hope he made this upgraded suit for her mother but never got a chance to give it to her, and has locked it up out of grief ever since. He says that after everything that has happened, he is now ready to pass it on to her, that it’s her birthright, and he knows she can do great things with it. Hope looks at the suit, the camera pans in, she smiles a brief, joyful smile, and says, “It’s about damn time.”

In those four words, I heard so much more than a daughter making a crack at her father. The implication is clear: Hope is to be a superhero, a female superhero. Yes, the MCU has Black Widow, but while she is unquestionably a hero, she is not a superhero. Comic stories represent a kind of modern mythology, especially as these movies have vastly increased their cultural saturation in the modern consciousness. I will remind you that I was completely ignorant of Marvel canon before the movies started coming out, and I am sure I am not alone in discovering it through the movies. To be elevated to the ranks of superhero is akin to demi-godhood, so the fact that we have gone so long without major female representation in the movie pantheon...hurts. It really, honestly hurts. It feels like we’re B-string characters (aka, second-class citizens) in a shared fantasy world, which is especially frustrating considering such worlds were specifically constructed to escape from and rise above the limitations of the actual world.

To further elucidate the frustration, let’s cross the line and look at the other major half of the pantheon: DC. Wonder Woman is not only one of the best-known female superheros, she is one of the best-known superheroes of all time. I’ve never read a single issue or even seen a single episode of the 70’s tv show, but I recognize that spangled outfit just as easily as any emblazoned-S or round-shield-with-a-star-on-it. People have been clamoring, absolutely begging for her to have her own movie, and DC’s knee-jerk response has been, “Oh, America isn’t ready for it.”

Really? Fucking really!? Marvel over here made a movie starring a houseplant and a fucking genetically-engineered mustelid and it made 700 million dollars. Branching out of comics, the Hunger Games movies--starring Katniss Everdeen and a completely unnecessary love triangle that’s gotten thankfully less screentime than in the books--has made 2.2 billion dollars, and the fourth movie isn’t even out yet!!! So don’t go crying to me, DC, about America not being ready. Cause America IS fucking ready, hell the whole goddamn WORLD is fucking ready.

So yeah, even if Evangeline Lilly isn’t great, even is Wasp is part of an ensemble rather than having her own spotlight, I will goddamn take it, and I will goddamn take it gladly.

Because it’s about damn time.

Actually Final Thoughts:  Overall, I think this is a fine movie to help expand on the Marvel portfolio, but missing some of the richness and edginess that is typical of the other movies so far. But I only judge it harshly because of the high bar set by its brethren. When I walked out of the theater with my viewing-partner (the Movie Sergeant?) we agreed that this is somewhere in the B-class of the canon. Not as mind-blowing as Avengers or Captain America: Winter Soldier, much better than Ironman 3, and worlds better than almost anything comparable available at the moment (I’m looking at you, Pixels, you ass-wipe excuse for family entertainment). 

Final Score:  6.5/10

Next Time:  Much to the disappointment of all concerned, I'm sure, we will not be reviewing the aforementioned ass-wiping excuse for family entertainment.  I think instead we shall look for something a bit more... elementary...

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