Wednesday, July 22, 2015

ANT-MAN review

Let me preface this review by saying this: I am a huge fan of the works of Edgar Wright. I love all four of his movies and was very excited about "Ant-Man" when he was attached to the project. That excitement fell through almost completely when he dropped out, and for good reason. At the time, there had already been rumors of Joss Whedon having difficulties with the 2nd "Avengers" film and it just became increasingly clear that Marvel does not have the best relationship with strong-willed visionary directors. And ultimately, it's Marvel who wins these arguments as these directors either begrudgingly finish the movie vowing never to work with Marvel again, or they walk out before filming starts, leaving their movie in the hands of the studio.

This was also the case with Jon Favreau five years ago during "Iron Man 2" and it's the reason why someone like Ava Duvernay has a tough time saying "yes" to making a Black Panther movie. A degree of compromise must be made in order to successfully helm an MCU film. It all has to fit into the overall, larger Marvel Universe. Edgar Wright and Marvel producer Kevin Feige just could not see eye-to-eye on those types of issues.

Plus, consider how close to production Wright was at before he dropped out. They had a little over a year to make this film and now they needed a new director, a new DP. They found their guy, Peyton Reed, just in time. But then, you had to wonder... Peyton Reed? Could he really pick up where Wright left off? Can he save this from being a disaster?

So yes, there were quite a few barriers for me here, coming into "Ant-Man." With all that in mind, I find great pleasure in admitting that I actually had a wonderful time watching this movie. I thought "Ant-Man" was kind of a blast in its own way. It didn't have big ambitions and it didn't have the highs and overwhelming thrills of, let's say "Iron Man" and "The Avengers," but what it sets out to do - it does well. And as far as the usual "villain" and "third act" problem Marvel's been having for awhile now? Well, this movie is about 50/50 on that. Third act? Actually kinda cool, humorous, enjoyable. The villain? Eh, not as much.

For the most part though, this cast is aces. Paul Rudd fits in like a glove playing Scott Lang. Rudd just has a winning on-screen presence. He may not be your first choice when it comes to an actor playing a superhero, but watching "Ant-Man," it makes perfect sense why he was chosen. He brings a grounded, human, sardonic element to the character that makes him immediately relatable. And if he's really about to join The Avengers, he would easily be the most down-to-earthof all the superheroes.

And Scott Lang probably has the most inauspicious background of all the MCU superheroes yet. Except for maybe Star-Lord in "GOTG." Lang is a criminal, a cat burglar. He gets released from prison at the opening only to find himself back in the world of crime thanks to his friends Luis (Michael Pena) and Dave (T.I.). He winds up breaking through the safe of billionaire Hank Pym, who has secretly been behind this burglary plan all along as he sees Scott Lang as a potential fit for his project.

I don't want to get bogged down in plot here, but basically Pym invented a suit that allows someone to shrink/enlarge almost at will. He took this invention with him when he retired from his own company and now his protege (Corey Stoll) is spending all the resources he can to re-create that invention.

So, ultimately Lang becomes Ant-Man and he helps Pym hatch a scheme to prevent the protege, Darren Cross, from re-creating this invention (which involves dismantling a similar Ant-Man-like suit), as it could lead to mass chaos. Creating an entire army of ant-like soldiers has several implications - none of them good. So it's up to Lang, Pym, and Pym's daughter Hope van Dyne to stop Cross.

Rudd's great. Michael Douglas as Hank Pym is solid as usual. When does Douglas ever turn in a bad performance? Evangeline Lily really shines as Hope and her arc is very interesting. She resents Scott Lang's involvement in this heist-like scheme, wanting very much to become the "ant-man" herself. And in a sense, her frustration mirrors that of many fans who wonder why there are so few (really, only two at this point) female superheroes in this universe.

A key aspect towards making this film work are the effects involved with shrinking/enlarging the suit. The initial scene where Scott Lang finds himself shrunk inside a bathtub is quite the mind-bender. His friend Luis turns on the faucet in the bathtub (not knowing Scott is in there) and watching Lang outran the giant, running bathwater was very interesting to see unfold. I really dug all the "shrunken" scenes. That technology/CGI has been around for awhile, but I was still impressed to see how seamless the entire thing was here.

And they especially used that effect in an enjoyable manner during the last third of the film when Lang/Ant-Man has a big fight with the villain, Darren Cross. Without giving too much away, let's just say the movie has a lot of fun mixing in "big" and "explosive" moments that turn out to have very minimally damaging consequences. Really, the big fight scene at the end was one big laugh riot for me, it really subverted all the big climactic finales of other Marvel films and put its own humorous spin on the whole thing. It's been awhile since I've said it, so here goes: Marvel (and director Peyton Reed) really nailed the final act. They actually pulled it off. Kudos.

Unfortunately, Corey Stoll hammed it up a bit too much as the villain and, once again in the MCU, he just wasn't very fun to watch nor was he that threatening. Darren Cross is completely one-note as a character. His only goal is to perfect Hank Pym's invention and  he seems to have nothing else interesting going on with him besides that. And since there are several scenes in the movie that consist of Darren Cross spouting his evil "villain" nonsense, it really started to become a drag. It all leads to a slick heist sequence and a great fight scene between him and Ant-Man, but I'm just tired of one-note villains populating the MCU. Why can't we have a villain that really, legitimately kicks ass and is a real threat in the movie?

Still, that's really the only aspect of the film that keeps it from being a total blast from beginning to end. We're talking about a movie that was in danger of not getting made, or at least, being heavily delayed. Considering the circumstances, you gotta hand it to Peyton Reed, Adam McKay and Paul Rudd (who re-wrote the script), and the cast for keeping this thing from falling apart. But I guess you also have to give some credit to Edgar Wright and his writing partner Joe Cornish for putting the pieces together to make this the entertaining heist/superhero film that it promised to be. They definitely laid down a solid foundation, but I'm even more impressed that it wound up being as well-executed as it was.

"Ant-Man" is definitely one of the better entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After the bloatedness of "Age of Ultron" (a movie I still enjoyed, mind you), and before the superhero epic of "Captain America: Civil War" that's to come, you have to appreciate "Ant-Man" for being such an entertaining diversion. And it gives me hope that Marvel can introduce yet another "new" character to its established universe and it's a character (or characters, as I enjoyed both Hank Pym and Hope van Dyne) that I would not mind revisiting down the road. Seriously, just when I start to doubt and maybe turn my back on the MCU franchise, they pull off two largely entertaining films this summer. How long can they keep this up and continue to make things interesting? That will be the key question moving forward.

Grade: B/B+ (somewhere between those grades)

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