Thursday, July 23, 2015

'Ant-Man' review

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a well-oiled machine meant to churn out a satisfactory, easily digestible product each time. Not that I'm against that- far from it, actually. If you've followed my site over the years, you know that for the most part, I've enjoyed Marvel's output. Guardians of the Galaxy was a blast of pure summer fun, both Avengers installments were magnificent blockbusters, Captain America: The First Avenger and Iron Man told fantastic origin stories, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier is legitimately an action masterpiece. But when the Marvel machine goes off the rails, and the secret ingredients of tone, flavor and energy are left at the factory, we get something like Ant-Man. A movie at war against itself, Ant-Man is one giant bag of mediocrity. It's not a bad film, per say. All of the basic Marvel movie ingredients are there. But it's missing that extra something that elevates bland material to brilliance. Casual fans might embrace the inherent oddball nature of the property, yet Ant-Man still fails to deliver anything memorable.

A new hero in the MCU, Ant-Man's alter ego is Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), cat burglar and loving father who has just finished a stint in prison. When he's released, Scott's friends- Luis (Michael Pena), Dave (T.I.) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian)- try to help him get back on his feet by setting him up with a new heist. Lang is initially resistant, but after his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her new cop husband (Bobby Cannavale) refuse to let him visit his daughter until he starts paying child support, Lang succumbs to the offer. After an elaborate break-in, Lang finds a special suit- not the cash and jewels he was expecting. However, it turns out that Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) actually set up the job for Scott. Pym needs Scott to help him prevent Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) from using his technology to destroy humanity. He needs him to become the Ant-Man.

Anyone involved with the online film community knows the notorious Hollywood story of Ant-Man. For years, critic and fan favorite Edgar Wright was lobbying to get the project made, but weeks before the film was set to begin production, Wright left the film, citing "creative differences" with Marvel. For a while, it appeared that Anchorman director Adam McKay would take over the project, but the job ended up going to Peyton Reed. Wright and Joe Cornish's original script remained the framework for the film, but McKay and Paul Rudd himself came in to do some re-writes. Ultimately, all of the writers got credit and we have a film that just doesn't work at all.

Now, as an Edgar Wright superfan, it's easy to critique all of the things in the film that definitely wouldn't have happened under Wright's watch. But I'm not going to do that. We can't worry about the film that Wright didn't make- the film on screen must be judged. And unfortunately, that film just isn't very good. I think that one of the fundamental issues here is that we have a Wright screenplay not directed by Wright. The only other time that happened was with The Adventures of Tintin and look how that worked out. What I'm saying is that what Wright puts on the page can really only be directed by him. His writing suits his visual style and nobody else's. That's why some of the jokes in the film that were surely written by Wright fall flat. His sensibilities just don't match up with Reed and McKay's.

Ant-Man isn't a very consequential film to the MCU, which leaves it in a tricky situation. Kevin Feige's master plan of "everything must fit together" just doesn't really work for this film. So, instead of focusing on making an exciting and fun action comedy, Feige and co. throw in a bunch of random Avengers references just to get you pumped for what's coming (references to Spider-Man and the end credits scene that hints at Civil War) or throwback to what has already happened (a long sequence with Falcon and multiple mentions of the battle of Sokovia). Instead of making Ant-Man its own distinct film, the creative team exhausts every possible opportunity to make sure that we recognize that Ant-Man is a Marvel hero, that he's in the Marvel universe, and that he will be in more Marvel films.

Despite all of those mistakes, by far the worst thing about Ant-Man is that it's a visually and thematically generic film. It's a by-the-numbers origin story, just with a guy who shrinks. And it's as dull and uninteresting as superhero films come from a visual standpoint, except that it has some cool effects where a dude shrinks. Literally, beyond the somewhat quirky humor (which is more hit and miss than anything) and the unique effects, there's nothing special about Ant-Man. It's just another MCU origin story with all the right story beats.

I know that a lot of critics have said that Ant-Man has the most heart out of any Marvel film, but I just don't believe that's true. Sure, there are some interesting moments between Scott and his daughter as well as some good scenes between Hank and his daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). But is it the most heartfelt Marvel film? Not by a longshot. Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America both easily top Ant-Man here, and they feel like they were made by filmmakers who had a vision of what they wanted to do with the story, the setpieces and the characters. Ant-Man is just one long slog, and I never found Scott Lang to be particularly interesting.

The cast isn't bad, led by likable everyman Paul Rudd. Despite the film's issues, Lang could be a good character and I'm definitely not opposed to seeing Ant-Man in more MCU properties like Captain America: Civil War. Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly also have their moments, and Corey Stoll does solid work with an underdeveloped character. The supporting cast is led by Michael Pena, whose character has caused much controversy recently. After the initial screenings, Pena was deemed to have stole the show, but today, Heroic Hollywood's Umberto Gonzalez (who is a member of the Latino community) essentially called the character a racist caricature and compared the scenes to a minstrel show. I don't think that the character was made with racist intent, but it is an interesting conversation that should be had in regards to this film.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe will survive Ant-Man and I have no doubt that many more great Marvel films will be made in the future. But after this misfire, I have to wonder if the formula is getting stale. References to a "guy who crawls on walls" are fun, but if I don't care about the story that's on screen, then it's all pointless. Ant-Man feels stale and recycled, and despite some fun moments, there's just not much to be excited about with this one.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C                                              (5.9/10)

Image Credits: Variety, Forbes, Movie Pilot, Comic Book, Joblo

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