Tuesday, August 11, 2015
Ant-Man (Peyton Reed, 2015)
Marvel’s original Ant-Man, Hank Pym, is a character whose most famous story arcs concerned mental illness and domestic violence. These are, now as ever, delicate issues, which any film adaptation would have to handle with extraordinary care in order to pull off without inciting a storm of angry blog posts in this day and age of holier-than-thou finger-pointing and overeager content-policing in the name of social justice. Indeed, for as much as a generation of teenage (or otherwise developmentally arrested) male readers heralded the original stories for tackling these serious topics, the old comics would not likely impress today’s audiences, and might even kind of disgust. At the very least, it’s questionable how well they have aged. It’s not surprising that, for its first cinematic take on Ant-Man, Marvel Studios has chosen to sidestep these most infamous chapters in the character’s history, presenting instead the more straightforward origin story of Scott Lang, the lesser-known second Ant-Man.
For fans of the Hank Pym character, it’s disappointing perhaps that Disney’s Ant-Man isn’t the definitive cinematic adaptation of the character we know from the comics. It also isn’t the Edgar Wright Ant-Man film that was so long dangled before admirers of the Hot Fuzz (2007) director. So geeks could already count two strikes against the movie before filming had even begun. But, whatever it isn’t, what Ant-Man is is a pretty great movie, both taken on its own and as an addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
As a solo superhero origin story, it’s fairly straightforward, yes, but also refreshingly light. Director Peyton Reed, faced with what had seemed an impossible situation, having to step into the shoes of a true auteur, nimbly toes the MCU line, ticking all the boxes (references, cameos, the overall look and feel), while not getting bogged down in shared universe lore or superhero excess. In fact, it’s a movie that almost feels more Disney than Marvel, with obvious similarities in concept and content to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1987). It also reminds me a bit of some of the old Robert Stevenson fantasy-comedy films, including The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and The Love Bug (1968), which featured stories ostensibly set in the real world but each with one core fanciful element, sold partly through special effects, but even more so by appealing to the audience’s innocence and imagination shared by the movies themselves, together with charming characters, gentle sensibilities, and mild family-friendly thrills bordering on the slapstick.
Ant-Man does possess some nifty special effects and clever visuals. When characters shrink down, reality itself seems to warp, as they adjust to the unfamiliar and initially overwhelming sense of scale. Unlike other superheroes, Ant-Man is not ideally suited for combat, so the set pieces in this movie also necessitate more creativity. The one thing that a miniature hero might excel at is infiltration, so much of the picture takes the form of a heist film, our tiny protagonist navigating through grates and water mains to bypass security. Naturally, he must also be backed up by a crack support team, including both human misfits and endearing ant companions.
It helps the movie that Marvel had a stellar cast already in place before Peyton Reed was brought in. Although Hank Pym is not the titular Ant-Man of this story, he is nevertheless the central figure in its mythology and still very much involved in the action. And Michael Douglas gives a shockingly great performance, which shouldn’t be a surprise, but it had just felt like a long time since I’d taken the guy seriously, whether in his movies or in the celeb rags. As the self-appointed custodian of the potentially destructive science his genius wrought, he brings more depth and genuine pathos to the role than we’ve yet seen from Robert Downey, Jr. or Mark Ruffalo. Evangeline Lilly, as Pym’s daughter and seemingly the surrogate for Ant-Man’s traditional partner in the comics, the Wasp (who is probably even more significant in Avengers history than Pym himself), also impresses, bringing to the role all the qualities of a winning superhero—strength, charisma, humanity. Paul Rudd, as the Scott Lang Ant-Man, is not the obvious candidate to don a superhero costume, but he’s a nice change of pace from the Avengers we’ve seen—a more ordinary guy, with more ordinary friends. And he wins us over without seemingly having to do very much, because Rudd is so naturally likable. The biggest letdown of the movie is Corey Stoll as the villain, Yellowjacket, who is really kind of an underdeveloped and generic bad guy.
In the comics, Yellowjacket was none other than Hank Pym himself. It was his fourth identity (after Ant-Man, Giant-Man, and Goliath), and the popular interpretation is that all the constant reinventing of himself took a toll on his psyche. Something had to give, and so finally he snapped, yielding the deranged Yellowjacket, who introduced himself by claiming to have killed Hank Pym. The movie offers a slight nod to this with the suggestion that exposure to the size-changing particles have driven Stoll’s character to derangement, but this is not quite convincing, because 1) we never get to know what the character was like before he went nuts, and 2) honestly, he doesn’t seem remarkably insane by superhero movie standards, but rather just run-of-the-mill evil and ambitious, like any number of other bad guys already in the MCU. It’s too bad we won’t get to see Pym as Yellowjacket, because I always thought the personality disorder angle was a clever play on the reality that Marvel’s writers were continually struggling to find ways to keep the character relevant alongside his fellow Stan Lee-created Avengers.
Stoll’s character tries to sell the idea of an ant-sized soldier as though it were the most obvious thing in the world, but truthfully the idea remains unintuitive. The power to turn small seems highly situational in its usefulness, no? Good for espionage, but maybe not so great for evacuating an island falling from the sky. Like the Hulk, Ant-Man was not originally conceived as a superhero. Early Marvel had comics spanning many genres. Ant-Man made his debut in 1962 in the science-fiction anthology Tales to Astonish (which is also where new Hulk stories were published for a while), and somewhat inelegantly transitioned to superhero, once it was determined that that was all the industry had room for.
The movie does do a good job of making Ant-Man’s powers seem totally awesome, as he zips around weightlessly and untouchably and knocks down full-sized grown men, who look as though they’re just flailing about and collapsing for no reason. But his coolest power is his ability to command the ants, which are truly the best thing in the movie. They assist him with transport and combat, and, giant from his perspective, there’s a touch of Harryhausen to them, even if the computer-generated effects in this movie are much more sophisticated. Of course, it raises the question: if Pym’s shrinking technology works, as explained, by reducing the distance between atoms, where in any of that does the ability to telepathically communicate with ants fit? One can only conclude that, in his heyday, Pym was so weirdly, obsessively committed to the whole “ant” theme that he developed multiple otherwise unrelated revolutionary technologies specifically for the purpose of concocting a complete “Ant-Man” persona. And, even with all those abilities, still one wonders, what could Ant-Man add as a member of the Avengers, dealing with cosmic-level threats the likes of Thanos or Korvac?
Well, as mentioned, the original Ant-Man, Hank Pym, in the comics also could become Giant-Man, who might be marginally more useful in a brawl. In the movie, Pym has these red and blue discs used for shrinking and unshrinking objects remotely. At least, I assumed they were for shrinking and unshrinking. But then, toward the end of the movie, Ant-Man uses the blue disc to enlarge a normal ant to giant size. The movie never addresses the implications of this, but it would seem to mean that Pym has already cracked the science behind Giant-Man as well.
I really do hope that Ant-Man gets a sequel, not only to explore this Giant-Man question, but also just because I’d like more fun adventures with these characters. Failing that, I look forward to seeing Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man in a future Avengers movie, and I really hope Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly join him.