Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Hitting the Small Time

Paul Rudd in Ant-Man (2015)

Ant-Man (2015, directed by Peyton Reed) finds the Marvel superhero franchise experimenting with genre. The superhero film is flexible if you're not hellbent on destroying cities. Marvel, more than their cinematic competitors, have been more committed to this idea than you might expect. They've placed their superheroes within epic fantasies, space operas, and conspiracy thrillers. Ant-Man is a heist film. Given the backstage drama that accompanied its production, it's a surprisingly nimble and fun movie. It's not without its drawbacks, though, not least of which is its gender politics and Marvel's gender politics more generally. Still, it manages to be Marvel's best film of the summer, which isn't something I expected.

The story follows ex-con Scott Lang, who is being released from prison as the movie opens. Lang's crime involved burgling his ex-employer to expose their predatory business practices and refunding their customers the money they overpaid, but motives aren't very important in the scheme of crime and punishment. Scott has masters degree in electrical engineering, so he figures that it will be easy to re-integrate himself into society. He figures wrong. He's fired from the fast food job he gets right out of prison when his background catches up with him. This is heartbreaking for Scott, because he needs to catch up on child support in order to see his daughter, Cassie. Cassie's mom has remarried--to a cop no less--so the separation is daunting. Meanwhile, some of Lang's connections from prison have invited him to participate in a heist. The home of some retired CEO, they say, who has a safe in his basement waiting to be cracked. Lang refuses at first, but after being turned away from his daughter's birthday party, he reluctantly agrees. The safe, it turns out, belongs to Hank Pym, who has a mysterious past of his own. Once upon a time, Pym discovered a particle that, correctly applied, reduces the space between atoms, effectively shrinking whatever comes in contact with it. Pym has family issues of his own, too. His daughter, Hope van Dyne, is an executive at Pym Technology, the company Pym founded. She works directly with Darren Cross, the protege who forced Pym out. Cross has been trying to recreate Pym's work for years and is getting dangerously close. Cross intends to use Pym's work as a weapon, selling it to the highest bidder. Pym has been at pains to keep his work from being weaponized for decades, having denied it to SHIELD and burying the evidence. Meanwhile, Pym has been researching insects. Particularly ants. Scott Lang, for his part, penetrates Pym's house and cracks the safe, but all that's in the safe is what looks like some elaborate motorcycle suit, with a decidedly strange-looking helmet. When Scott tries it on, he finds himself shrinking to the size of an ant. The experience is terrifying, and he decides to return the suit, at which point, he's arrested. Pym busts Scott out of jail, putting him at his mercy. Pym wants Scott to break into Pym Technology and steal the Yellowjacket suit, Cross's version of Pym's "ant-man" project. To this end, Hope is enlisted to train Scott and then they send him on a preliminary mission to retrieve a device to help them circumvent Cross's security. It's held at an unused Stark Enterprises warehouse. Unfortunately, Pym's intelligence is old, and that warehouse is now the headquarters of the Avengers. Scott manages the task, though, and soon, he's ready for the main event. He knows how to use the ants, he's ready with the shrinking tech. There's only one real problem: Cross is onto them, and his buyer for the Yellowjacket suit is HYDRA...

One of the main pleasures to be had in Ant-Man is the scaling back of its concerns. The last several Marvel movies have postulated world-destroying threats and indulged in city-wrecking spectacle, so it's nice to see a film with smaller, less apocalyptic concerns. You might even call it personal. Oh, don't get me wrong: it's got plenty of gee-whiz moments, particularly in a sequence late in the film where Scott winds up becoming so small that he enters a cosmic microverse. The microverse of this film's imagining is reminiscent of the stargate sequence from 2001. Never let it be said that Marvel skimps on the allusions in their films. Ant-Man's action sequences, filmed at unfamiliar scales, are creative and occasionally visionary as they poke at the possibilities of their microscopic vistas. Toys and ants and weapons become much stranger when viewed from this film's point of view. They are definitely unfamiliar, even if the audience has already seen Honey I Shrunk the Kids or The Incredible Shrinking Man. They're filmed with a combination of macrophotographic cameras and computers that gives us a world that is unlike anything else in movies. On that score, it's a breath of creativity in an idiom that, if I'm honest, I thought was getting more than a little bit stale.

Paul Rudd in Ant-Man (2015)

The visionary elements of the film are hung on a sturdy genre structure. The second half of the film follows the beats of the heist picture, from the planning to the execution. We even get the ragtag band of criminals assembled to pull the job. Michael Peña, playing Scott's chatty crook of a bestie, almost walks off with the picture, and their solutions to the monkey-wrenches the job throws at them are occasionally hilarious. This isn't a noir crime film. It reminds me more of the comedy crime novels of Donald Westlake, with their sad-sack losers being victimized by Murphy's Law again and again. Paul Rudd, who plays Scott in this film, would make a splendid Dortmunder if anyone ever wanted to revisit those books in the movies (better, certainly, than Robert Redford, who was much too pretty to be Dortmunder in The Hot Rock). This bodes well if Marvel ultimately makes a sequel to this film, because the characters are all clearly delineated and fun to watch and seem like they have a life beyond this film's plot. In truth, they would make a terrific ensemble for a television series, not that Michael Douglas would ever agree to that. Douglas's Pym is as complex and conflicted a character as Marvel has put in their films: haunted by his past failures, distrustful of superheroes, a reluctant mentor, an even more reluctant hero. There's a ton below the surface with Pym, partly owing to the character's troublesome history in the comics. This film's Ant-Man is Scott Lang because Disney didn't want a character with a history of psychosis and domestic violence as the lead in one of their blockbusters. Understandably, I think. There's no in-film explanation for why Hope uses her mother's last name, but given Pym's comic-book history, there are certainly reasons.

Michael Douglas and Paul Rudd in Ant-Man (2015)

Thematically, this is a film about fathers and regret, which is so familiar a framing of white male masculinity that it probably counts a cliche at this point. Scott and Pym are parallel figure, both trying to reconcile with daughters lost to them through their actions in the past. This is overt and occasionally treacly and is almost so routine as to exist as white noise behind the film's more genre-oriented concerns. One misses the personality of Cassie Lang from the comics, who was part Dennis the Menace. The only nod to her comic book incarnation is a cute scene near the end when she feeds an unconventional pet under the table. Pym's relationship with Hope is more complicated. While Cassie Lang is a bystander to her parent's estrangement, Pym and Hope are active antagonists. She's working with him, true, but you get the feeling that she'd do anything to not work with him. She regards Scott with disdain, for the most part, because she knows that it should be her on the mission. The brief hints of romance between the two at the end of the film seem like they're checked off a list of elements that need to be included in a blockbuster. Certainly, they're at odds with the withering disdain she expresses at the ersatz father/son dynamic Pym and Scott develop over the course of the film.

Evangeline Lilly in Ant-Man (2015)

Hope van Dyne and The Wasp are the film's Achilles Heel. This film is one of the most egregious examples of the trope of the hyper-competent woman who by rights ought be the hero of the film training the feckless male lead in order to become his sidekick, sublimating her own story and agency to the kind of hero we've seen time and again. Pym has his reasons for not letting Hope take on the mission he's reserved for Scott, but they ring false as the excuses cobbled together by ignorant corporate media executives because they're uncomfortable with female-led action films. Fuck, they could easily have written around this by giving Hope something essential to do in her capacity as the inside woman at Pym Technology, but they fail even at this. After more than a dozen Marvel movies in which badass women have been sidelined, this is particularly galling. While it's nice that Hope gets her own Wasp suit at the end of the film, there's no promise at all that she'll ever step out of the shadow of her male co-stars. The ridiculousness of how the film handles Hope Pym is a serious downer that threatens to torpedo the entire house of cards. Evangeline Lilly would make a splendid Wasp, and in a more just world, this film would have dispensed with Ant-Man all together and gone with her as the lead. Alas... I won't even get into how the film completely squanders Judy Greer as Maggie Lang, because it's not quite as awful as the way Jurassic World squandered her. All of this in a summer when Furiosa and Spy and Pitch Perfect 2 have shown some serious box-office muscle and completely invalidated every pallid excuse people like Kevin Feige can muster.

Still and all, I can't really hate this film. It's too much fun. The "fun" quotient is neatly summarized by the film's most post-modern moment, when Garret Morris--the very first live-action Ant-Man--makes a cameo. If I had been drinking when that scene shows up, I probably would have spewed it through my nose. I'm also pleased to see the nimble way the film is put together. Oh, this tries hard to conform to the generic Marvel house-style of filming, but there's a montage at the end that slips the leash into the kind of film people expected back when Edgar Wright was the director of record. I'm not interested in the back story, mind you, just the film I got, and Peyton Reed did a better than competent job of picking up the pieces of this project. The end result is pretty entertaining.

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1 comment:

Unknown said...

Yeah, I liked this film enough but alas it featured another anonymous bad guy, which also seems to be a problem with many Marvel films. Fortunately, Marvel has such interesting good guys who are in turn played by very charismatic actors that it isn't too much of an issue, but still.

I agree with you with whole portayal of Janet/Wasp. Yeah, I know this is Scott/Ant-Man's origin story but the way she's shunted off to the side is a bummer. Good to see that if the title for the sequel is any indication she'll have a more significant role.