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ANT-MAN Review (spoilers)

I’ve seen some reviews criticizing Ant-Man for not being as “necessary” to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe as other films have been. But I think that’s missing the point of the MCU’s interconnectedness. It’s not about how the films serve the universe; it’s about how the universe serves the films. And I think that was very much in evidence in Ant-Man. It’s telling its own story, but it’s a story that’s informed by the larger context it’s part of, and that sense of being in a larger world is useful to the story.

For starters, the ties to the larger universe serve as a shorthand to help us understand the mindset of Dr. Hank Pym, as played by Michael Douglas, who’s very convincingly de-aged in the opening flashback to the 1980s. We already know what SHIELD is (in the person of a mature Peggy Carter), and we know who Howard Stark is (with John Slattery reprising the older Howard), so that gives us context for where Pym is coming from when he walks away from SHIELD rather than share his powerful Pym particles with them. And we know how Howard’s son Tony formed the Avengers and how SHIELD connects to Hydra, so that gives context for later developments such as Pym’s unwillingness to call in the Avengers and the plans of Pym’s protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) for militarizing the shrinking tech and selling it to disreputable parties.

So that background simplifies the exposition and lets the film focus more fully on the story it’s telling in the here and now, with catburglar Scott Lang (star and co-writer Paul Rudd) trying to go straight and be worthy of his totally adorable 5-year-old daughter, but being lured back into thievery by Pym, who intends to recruit him to steal Cross’s Yellowjacket prototype before it can fall into The Wrong Hands. Both Scott and Hank are defined by their troubled relationships with their daughters — Scott close to his daughter but kept away from her by his ex-wife and her cop fiance, and Hank marginalizing his gung-ho daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) in a way she resents, but that turns out to be based on protectiveness and his grief about the loss of his wife Janet, the winsome Wasp. It’s a pretty effective story about well-meaning but flawed people gradually finding their way to the same page. Not profound drama, perhaps, but fine for giving a human core to a comedy-adventure movie.

What’s interesting about Hope’s arc, which is largely about her wanting to don the Ant-“Man” suit herself and resenting Hank’s insistence on recruiting Scott instead, is that it feels like a metatextual nod toward the treatment of female heroes in the MCU thus far. Hank may be acting out of love, preferring to risk the expendable Scott over his own daughter, but it’s still a paternalistic choice and keeps a clearly qualified woman out of the lead role she deserves. Hopefully the resolution of that arc is also symbolic of where the MCU is going with regard to its heroines, but it still feels like too little (no pun intended), too late.

Another MCU trend that this film fails to buck is the tendency toward one-dimensional villains. Darren Cross is an obvious bad egg from the first scene, and he has no character arc. It’s explained that the effect of his knockoff Pym particles has warped his mind, but that’s an easy copout. Making a villain insane is a cheat, because it saves the writer from having to come up with plausible motivations or nuances. And Marvel has had so many rich, nuanced villains in its comics over the decades that it’s surprising the MCU falls so short on that front even while capturing the Marvel spirit so well in other respects.

For me, perhaps the best example of that was the scene where Hank sent Scott on a “trial run” to steal a security bypass device from an old Stark facility which turned out to be the new Avengers HQ, leading to a fight with the Falcon. This was the part that felt the most like a scene out of a comic. You’re introducing a new hero and you want to show his stuff, so what do you do? You bring in an established guest hero and have them fight. That’s a classic Marvel move. And now the MCU is such a well-developed, continuous universe that it feels as natural in the movies as it does in the comics. It’s also good to see Falcon get a featured role after the way he was marginalized in Age of Ultron — though it’s a shame that his first action scene as an Avenger ends with him losing.

Also, I was bugged by Scott’s boastful line afterward about how “I fought an Avenger — and didn’t die!” That implies the Avengers go around killing as a matter of course, and that’s disturbing. That’s another respect in which the movies have consistently failed to capture the comics’ flavor — the casualness with which the “heroes” kill, something that their comics counterparts usually avoid as a rule. I find it ironic that the TV series Daredevil, which is touted as the darkest and most violent incarnation of the MCU yet, is the only one in which the hero has a code against killing. Ant-Man was pretty good in that respect too; both Hank and Scott were opposed to violence, and they and Scott’s comic-relief accomplices made a point of evacuating the building they planned to destroy in the big heist. (Indeed, the moment where Luis went back to rescue the tied-up guard was perhaps the moment when he really crossed the line to the side of “the good guys,” a nice redemptive beat.) Even Yellowjacket’s fate in the end is somewhat ambiguous. This film probably has the lowest body count of any MCU production to date, and that’s refreshing.

Otherwise, I feel the action was very well-done. Ant-Man’s shrinking powers and the microscopic setting in which he operated made for some very novel visuals and action beats, a nice, fresh addition to the usual roster of superpowers. When was the last time we had a live-action movie that played around with miniaturization? Was it way back with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids? If so, it’s a trope that’s been overdue for a revisit with modern effects. The control of ants as a major part of the action was also a novel element, though as a lifelong entomophobe, I appreciate that they made the digital ants “cuter” than the real things would be at that scale of magnification.

The comedy aspects of the film are also pretty effective, and I can tell that a lot of Edgar Wright’s ideas and sensibilities have been retained, particularly the use of super-quick cuts and visual montages. It’s probably more homogenized than it would’ve been if Wright had stayed on the film, but as a middle ground between the Wright style and the MCU house style, I think it worked pretty well.

The theater I went to was pretty crowded, since Tuesday is discount day and it’s the first week of release. (Normally I would’ve waited longer, but there were already so many spoilers out online that I felt I had to see it before I got too completely spoiled.) Nearly everybody stuck around for the mid-credits tag scene, but only a dozen or so people, myself included, stayed for the second tag scene. I found it interesting that the order of the tags was inverted compared to earlier movies. In both Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the mid-credits scene was a teaser for the next film in the sequence, and the final post-credits scene was a tag to the film we’d just watched. I felt it would make more sense the other way around — and this time, it was, with the mid-credits scene being a tag to Ant-Man and the final scene being a setup for (and, I think, an actual excerpt from) Captain America: Civil War. It works better that way, especially with so few patrons being patient enough to stick around to the very end.

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  1. Laughing_tree
    August 10, 2015 at 8:24 pm

    Found my way here through your Trek books, and I just want to say, I really like your reviews. Even when it’s for stuff I have no interest in, like vintage TV, I find your perspective interesting.

    Out of curiosity, why do you only post your thoughts about film and TV media? Why not the sf/fantasy novels or comics that you encounter?

    • August 10, 2015 at 8:34 pm

      My approach is not at all systematic or planned. I just post what I feel like posting. There’s a lot of TV and movies I watch that I don’t review. I have reviewed the occasional book or comic, e.g. the “Richard Castle” novels and the “Mod” era of the Wonder Woman comics.

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