Friday, October 9, 2015

Review - Ant-Man

          This will be something of an experiment for me. If these words actually make it to the blog, then that means that I decided to go ahead and review Ant-Man. It should be noted that I haven't actually seen the film yet, but I felt inclined to put pen to paper (or, in this case, fingers to keyboard) and start writing anyway, which is what makes this review experimental. I imagine that I could perhaps get about a third of the review done and get the groundwork for the review out of the way without needing to have seen it. Of course, if I decide to go see Ant-Man and finish this review, then I will be seeing it in the coming days, and I will note the point at which I will be writing after having seen it.
          And I could really only pull this off with Ant-Man, insofar as my relationship with superhero/comic movies has been a rocky one. I have never really been a fan of the whole superhero craze in Hollywood, with a few notable exceptions. The Batman films, for example, I really enjoy, particularly the Chris Nolan and Tim Burton iterations of Batman. Other than that, I am usually hit or miss with my satisfaction of superhero films, and in those cases that I am more satisfied than I am disappointed, it is usually only a mild satisfaction. It probably doesn't help that I wasn't a big comic-reader when I was younger (Spawn being the only notable exception to that), so when I talk to fans of the films who inevitably try to compare them to the comics, I always feel as if I am at a loss for words. The superhero craze has been particularly infectious these past few years; it seems as if the action movie landscape in Hollywood right now is littered with reboots (see The Amazing Spiderman), spin-offs (see Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice), and endless sequels (see the entire X-Men series). Studios have even figured out a way to invest more money and wrap all of these reboots, spin-offs, and sequels together into one lovely package and call it a "cinematic universe". Now one might wonder, if my general disposition towards superhero films is unfavorable, why I would even bother seeing, and then reviewing, Ant-Man. The answer is actually quite simple; for the past several days I have been debating what my next blog entry should be. I want to do another review, but there is actually nothing good playing at the movies right now, and Ant-Man, not because it was initially enticing, but because it sounded like the least lame thing playing, seemed to be the best option. I entertained the idea of instead starting my next "Philosophy" entry, but I quickly realized that I actually just wrote one of those right before my Scorch Trials review, and, while I have been brainstorming topics for my next "Philosophy" entry, I don't have all of my resources or materials laid out yet for the topic I have in mind. Nor did I feel inclined to just skip a period and wait until either something good came out in the theaters or until I was ready to write my next "Philosophy" piece. Thus, by sheer circumstance, I am strongly considering doing an Ant-Man review, though I confess a degree of reluctance.
          Marvel's whole "cinematic universe" might be a good place to start an Ant-Man review; the whole superhero genre the past few years has been dominated by Marvel's Avengers and all of the individual IPs that feed into it (i.e. Iron Man, Captain America, etc). I will confess that, despite what I said in the previous paragraph, I have actually seen most of the movies in Marvel's cinematic universe, and that there are actually a few noteworthy standouts. I actually really enjoyed Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which presented us with Captain America, the paragon of American values, questioning the imperialistic and paranoid motivations behind the government developing what more or less amounted to doomsday machines, all in the name of "keeping America safe". This is in stark contrast to the first installment of the Captain America series, which could accurately be summed up by noting that the first half of the movie is backstory in 1940s New York City and the second half is a drawn-out montage of American Flag-Man punching Nazis until the very end, where the villain is then randomly beamed into space. At the very least, one could say the first Captain America film was cliche (so much so that one might also think it was actually just a trailer for a new Wolfenstein game, albeit an excruciatingly drawn-out trailer), and, at the more cynical end of the spectrum, one could call the first Captain America film a really boring attempt at pro-American propaganda. Beyond the Captain America series, I also thought Thor: The Dark World was fairly enjoyable, not necessarily because it had some compelling story or asked some important questions, but because its blend of sci-fi technology and its constant references to Norse mythology illustrated a kind of sci-fi/fantasy crossover that is little seen in film. In some ways, the design and architecture of Asgard invokes the design and architecture seen in The Chronicles of Riddick, while, if I may say so, the whole sci-fi/fantasy crossover thing actually hints at Warhammer 40,000 (make of that what you will). I should also perhaps give some credit to the first Iron Man film, which seemed to understand the core notion in science fiction known as the "suspension of disbelief". One of my biggest criticisms of superhero films is that they all seem to miss the mark on invoking the suspension of disbelief; it is painfully apparent how implausible the events of most these films are, almost to the point of being absurd. A telltale sign of good science fiction is that there is a sense in which the events of the film are plausible, causing the audience to sympathize more with the narrative, or "suspend their disbelief". (Perhaps a side note could be said here that one of the reasons that J.J. Abrams' Star Trek series is so strong is because he knows how to invoke the suspension of disbelief.) The first Iron Man actually did a fairly good job at this, painting a Middle East ravaged by constant war and terrorism, when, suddenly, an engineering genius creates a robotic suit to combat both extremists and private military contractors that sell weapons to these groups on the black market.
          Beyond these examples, if one is looking for genuinely good sci-fi or fantasy films, I usually refer them elsewhere. I should point out that I don't think that the Marvel cinematic universe is invariably bad, but I also don't consider it to be of the quality of Fury Road or Jurassic World this past summer. It's average, run-of-the-mill, where the number of pros are even with the cons (and perhaps even, on one of my more cynical days, the cons slightly outweigh the pros). For example, in may last review for Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, I made an analogy between a film's use of CGI and a addict's use of heroin. Marvel's cinematic universe is the prime example of the addict sprawled out on the dirty mattress; virtually every film in every series relies on CGI so much that one might wonder whether or not one were actually watching a Pixar film, or at what points in the films there was any actual acting. Perhaps it can be argued that I am holding the Marvel movies to an unfair standard insofar as it would seem like any superhero movie will inevitably have obscene levels of CGI, simply by the nature of it being a superhero movie. However, if Chris Nolan's Dark Knight series taught us anything, it taught us two things: 1) it is possible to have a superhero film with compelling characters and equal parts action and drama, and 2) it is possible to have all of this without relying on CGI.
          For the purposes of an Ant-Man review, I should perhaps focus specifically on the two Avengers films, insofar as Ant-Man is purported to be the next major player in the Avengers roster. In all honesty, I consider the two Avengers films to be among the lowest points for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One might counter by pointing out that Age of Ultron was record-breaking, and that, at the end of its theatrical run, it became one of the highest-grossing films of 2015. However, after seeing Age of Ultron, I look at this statistic not as a testament to how good Age of Ultron actually is, but rather more as a confirmation of my suspicion that the average American movie-goer is borderline brain dead. The Avengers films are more or less what any sensible person would expect when you have a Norse god fighting alongside a guy in robot suit fighting alongside American-Flag Man against an invading alien force or an artificial intelligence gone rogue: one large clusterfuck, dripping with a fresh coat of CGI, without any semblance of depth or character. The plots of both films are tissue-thin; in the first Avengers, for example, Loki opens a portal to an invading alien force in order to try and subjugate Earth, and the Avengers have to stop him. That's it. I've tried to look at it in many other ways, for the sake of playing devil's advocate, to see if one can actually sympathize with Loki, and it turns out that one can't. It's black-and-white. And, as one can imagine, the ending is just as predictable as ever: they stop Loki. The good guys win and the bad guys lose. And Age of Ultron is a lot more of the same; a rogue artificial intelligence is bent on wiping out the human race, and the Avengers have to stop it - which they do. Unlike the first Avengers, however, Age of Ultron at least makes an attempt to try and get the viewer to sympathize with Ultron, such as when Ultron says how sick and twisted humanity is right after he is created. And this might have been an interesting twist indeed...if the film actually succeeded at doing this. In order to get us to sympathize with Ultron, one would need to witness first-hand the flaws and horrors of humanity in such a way as to think that humanity truly is a horrible thing, which the film doesn't do. Ultron simply tells us that humans are bad, he doesn't actually show us why humans are bad.
          Beyond the poor plots, the fight scenes in both movies illustrate the aforementioned clusterfuck. One simply has to look at the ending fight scene in Age of Ultron as evidence; everything that was unique about the characters in their individual IPs is lost during the ending fight against Ultron. Every character can be categorized as someone that either punches stuff or shoots energy beams out of his or her face. Captain America punches stuff. Thor punches stuff. The Hulk punches stuff really hard. Iron man shoots energy beams. Even The Scarlet Witch, a character that was introduced at the beginning of the film as an Eastern European refugee with psychic powers, a potentially unique kind of antagonist for the Avengers (it was interesting to watch her manipulate the dreams and mental states of our heroes throughout the first half of the film), simply resorts to shooting energy beams by the end of the film. Indeed, I found myself wondering what exactly it was about The Scarlet Witch that made her a 'witch' (she clearly didn't have anything in common with Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and I'm trying to imagine how The Blair Witch Project would have turned out if the Witch in that film was anything like The Scarlet Witch, or how closely any of the aforementioned 'witches' relate to the historical witches of the Salem Witch Trials). And let us not forget The Vision, a character that was introduced five minutes before the final fight against Ultron, who immediately just starts shooting energy beams. In short, every semblance of character is lost in the fight scenes; in Age of Ultron, I could have replaced the Avengers with Rock-em Sock-em Robots and achieved the same effect. There is no explanation as to why it has to be Captain America or why it has to be Hawkeye that fights Ultron. And this also confirms my earlier suspicion about the average American movie-goer; the fact that they keep hyping up the ending fight scene in Age of Ultron tells me that none of them actually stopped for a second and asked exactly what the fuck is going on (essentially, this .gif illustrates the ending fight scene in Age of Ultron well:
          Now with the appropriate context on The Avengers given, I can start to focus on Ant-Man. It is also from this point that I write having actually seen it - and I must say, I was fairly impressed. And this is actually saying something; not only have I been historically skeptical of superhero films, but I have never been a Paul Rudd fan. I have never been able to make it through five minutes of any of Rudd's previous films without either finding something else to watch or leaving the building altogether. However, Rudd's performance actually delivers in Ant-Man. Rudd plays Scott Lang, a misunderstood thief trying to rebuild his life after being released from San Quentin State Prison in the San Francisco Bay Area. He takes up some dead-end jobs to try and generate a modest income (it should be noted that Lang's interactions with both customers and co-workers at Baskin Robbins are not too far removed from what it is actually like working in the minimum wage service industry - i.e. cancerous), with the ultimate aim of re-earning the favor of his ex-wife in order to be able to see his daughter again, both of whom now live with her new fiancee, who also happens to be a seasoned cop. Meanwhile, Darren Cross, a prodigy in biological engineering, is on the verge of discovering a way to shrink a biological organism to minuscule size, a breakthrough he intends to incorporate into his Yellowjacket combat suit and sell to various contractors and organizations. However, the technology had previously been discovered and harnessed by Cross' mentor, Hank Pym (portrayed by Michael Douglas), who, after seeing the destructive and volatile potential of the technology, locked it away, refusing to share it with Cross and reveal it to the rest of the world. Upon learning that Cross is on the verge of perfecting the Yellowjacket prototype, Pym enlists the help of the struggling Lang to try and steal it. Pym introduces Lang to the Ant-Suit, a shrinking suit that Pym used for covert operations during the Cold War. Harnessing the power of the suit, and with the help of Pym, Pym's daughter, Hope, and his ex-con roommates, Lang sets out to infiltrate Cross' laboratories, destroy the Yellowjacket suit, and stop Cross.
          Scott Lang/Ant-Man is distinct from other Avengers characters, due in large part to Rudd's performance. Rudd makes the character unique, gives him an individual identity, much in the same way that Downey Jr. sets Tony Stark/Iron Man apart from the other Avengers. This is to be contrasted with Chris Hemsworth's Thor and Chris Evans' Captain America, where one could simply reverse the roles and have Evans portray Thor and Hemsworth portray Captain American, and it would amount to absolutely zero difference in any of the Thor, Captain America, or Avengers films. Even on a conceptual level, Ant-Man stands out from the rest of the Avengers; there is something much more intriguing about an ex-con thief who wears an ant costume and can shrink down to minuscule size than a guy from Brooklyn wearing an American flag going around punching Nazis (the former requires at least some degree of imagination, while anyone can replicate the latter by stapling a swastika to his clothing and then proceeding to get punched in the face, which would be guaranteed to sell). Speaking of the Ant-Suit, I think praise is in order for the costume design. Despite the fact that I haven't been the biggest fan of Marvel's Cinematic Universe, one aspect of it that I always thought was extremely well done was the costume design, and Ant-Man is no exception. Perhaps this is because the Ant-Suit itself refers back to that "suspension of disbelief" I had mentioned earlier on; the suit is by no means over-the-top, and, in fact, when Lang first finds it in Pym's house, he refers to it as an old motorcycle outfit, albeit a slightly strange one. The simplicity in both its presentation as an upgraded leather motorcycle outfit, together with its equally straightforward black and red color theme, is further augmented by the fact that the helmet actually looks like an ant, also without being too over-the-top. If the designers wanted to be silly, for example, the helmet for the Ant-Suit could have been something complete with antennae and pincers which, through some bizarre process, could have molded onto Lang's head, rendering Lang as some frightful hybrid of Zorak from Space Ghost and Jeff Goldblum's Fly. Instead, the helmet for the Ant-Suit is better compared to a futuristic gas mask with a black and red color theme, still resembling an ant, but only in very subtle ways. Speaking of the "suspension of disbelief", perhaps my overall satisfaction with Ant-Man can be summarized by pointing out that, unlike some other installments of the Avengers films, Ant-Man actually succeeds in getting the viewer to suspend his or her disbelief. The idea that a genius scientist discovers a technology that can shrink biological organisms, and then incorporates that technology into a suit that only subtly looks like an ant, is not too far-fetched, or, at least, it's not as ridiculous as a guy running around wearing an American flag that throws a shield that somehow always manages to come back to him while knocking every bad guy unconscious in the process.
          However, despite its strong points, Ant-Man isn't flawless. The most glaring error that Ant-Man makes is what I sometimes refer as "backstory padding". Pym and his conflict with Cross and the Yellowjacket suit were all introduced in the first 5 minutes of the film - and then this conflict isn't really addressed again until about an hour in, when the film is halfway over. Everything leading up to that point was more or less backstory on both Lang and Pym, as well as Lang training with the Ant-Suit. For example, it could be said that the first half hour of the film was kind of like a documentary on Lang's life immediately following hist release from prison; we see the kinds of jobs he takes up, how strained his relationship with his wife is, and how his daughter is the most important thing to him. At the same time, we also see how Pym struggles with his efforts to hide his shrinking technology, his rocky relationship with his daughter, and how he copes with the loss of his wife. Again, it feels as if the larger issue - Cross and the Yellowjacket suit - is just a footnote to this, something briefly mentioned in passing. And the second half hour of the film only inches us closer to dealing with the Yellowjacket prototype; one could say that the second half hour is actually just a montage of clips of Lang learning how to use the suit and how to mind-control ants, and such a summary wouldn't be too disingenuous. This error of "backstory padding" is also not new to the Avengers films; the first Captain America film is perhaps the worst perpetrator of this. The first fifteen minutes of Captain America introduces us to how Rogers undergoes the experiments that turn him into the supersoldier that he is, while the next hour or so is a montage of scenes of him punching Nazis on the various battlefields of World War II. His first confrontation with Red Skull doesn't come until much later. One might argue that such a thorough illustration of backstory is necessary in order to properly introduce the characters, and, therefore, that my criticisms of these "introductory" films on these grounds is unjust. But, interestingly, one can also point to a different Avenger's introductory film as an example of one that presented the backstory correctly. The first Iron Man film wasted no time in cutting to the chase; the movie opens up with the only really relevant scene in Tony Stark's backstory as far as the plot of the first film in concerned - the explosion in the Middle East the riddled him with shrapnel. After that, Iron Man only spent about 20 minutes providing context to this, and then, before long, the Iron Man suit is touching down in terrorist strongholds, liberating hostages. A lot more could have been done with both Captain America and Ant-Man if they didn't fall into the trap of "backstory padding", and illustrated the backstory narrative more in the fashion of Iron Man.
          If I were to try and summarize my satisfaction with Ant-Man in a brief one or two sentences, there are, I think, two core things that it does well: 1) it takes an already unique concept (that of a man who can shrink down to the size of an ant) and gives it character and personality, and 2) it does a good job at understanding and manipulating the notion of the "suspension of disbelief". Despite it's slightly drawn out backstory, Ant-Man paints a picture of an ex-con who is not necessarily a bad person, just misunderstood, down on his luck, who only desires to be with his daughter again. His world is turned inside-out when a scientific genius offers him the chance to don a suit that allows him to shrink down to the size of an ant, a concept that is much more intriguing than an American supersoldier fighting Nazis in World War II, a concept that, at this point, is so overdone that one might wonder whether or not there is any imagination left in Hollywood. Speaking of scientific geniuses and advanced technology, Ant-Man also draws from good science fiction films and presents its narrative as feasible in a modern context, where we are asked to suspend our disbelief and imagine that, for just a brief moment, we were to wake up tomorrow and such a shrinking technology became the latest engineering breakthrough, and illustrates to us potential worlds in which that shrinking technology falls into the wrong hands.

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