Monday, July 20, 2015

ANT-MAN (2015)

Still my favorite poster of the year
Thank God for Ant-Man.

Let me say that again....

THANK GOD for Ant-Man.

Just when Marvel's The Avengers: Age of Ultron made me despair for both the Marvel Cinematic Universe AND Joss Whedon, somehow the Kevin Feige-led company has managed to snatch a victory out of the jaws of impending backlash. Ant-Man had long been developed by Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Shawn of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), who unceremoniously left the project weeks before filming, after having cast the film, presumably due to Marvel's corporate-synergy mindset and insistence that every Marvel film should be able to be readily bolted into the unfolding continuity of the series.

So, Wright and his partner Joe Cornish pulled the ejector seat, and now-committed leading man Paul Rudd and Adam McKay (Anchorman) jumped in to try to re-format the story into something that would appease Fiege's need to insert Ant-Man (along with virtually every other character who's ever appeared anywhere in the MCU) into Captain America: Civil War. Meanwhile, Peyton Reed (a personal favorite for no reason other than Down With Love) stepped into the director's chair and proceeded to wrestle the visual challenges into line.

When a filmmaker with such a committed following as Wright leaves a project that he's been shepherding for so long (this project has been in development since BEFORE Iron Man) so dramatically, there is always calls of doom. I've been hearing that Ant-Man would be Marvel's first disaster for over a year.

Well, it's not.

In fact, it's probably the best template on how to proceed with the MCU from this point on. The connections to the rest of the franchise are obvious and clear, but never bog down the story, or get so lost in setting up crap for 2-3 movies down the line as to become annoying. This is streamlined, concise storytelling within a shared universe, and it works. The only point it doesn't is an ill-considered, rather perfunctory trip to Avengers HQ and a fight with The Falcon (Anthonny Mackie). A sequence glaringly not written by Wright, Cornish, Rudd or McKay, but by Civil War scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and directed not by Reed, but by the Civil War directing team of Joe and Anthony Russo.

Now, I actually like that creative team, but the sheer mercenary nature of that choice is kind of gross. It's not that the visuals don't line up, Marvel has perfected "bland" for the visual palate of their shared stories, but just that it's so vastly removed from the story being told, and the connective tissue so weak, you just know you're watching a trailer for the NEXT film, rather than a organic part of this story. The one you're invested in RIGHT NOW.

That's a goddamn shame, because this film is worth focusing on. Paul Rudd has provided Marvel with a charming leading man to match Robert Downey Jr, and without all the smugness and smarm. I confess, I have had more than enough of RDJ's Stark at this point. Rudd gives the audience a ultra-appealing lead, and while he doesn't reach the perfection of Chris Evans' Steve Rogers/Captain America, he's the kind of lead an audience can build a long-term connection with.

The film is simply a lot of fun to watch, funny, clever and exciting. Michael Douglas hits the perfect flinty tone for Hank Pym, Scott's mentor and the original Ant-Man. Evangeline Lilly finally makes an impression with me as Pym's daughter, Hope Van Dyne, and Cory Stoll provides a fun, if undercooked villain (which is the case more often than not with Marvel films).

The macro-photography that allows us to see the world from Ant-Man's perspective is never less than visually arresting, and the effects pretty seamless. It's really odd to even talk about because what it does is allows the film to function as a story. I never doubted what I was seeing, and so I could focus on Scott's story.

The story is straightforward and pretty basic. A heist film, and a fairly decent one. All with the underpinning of two fathers trying to re-connect with their daughters, and it makes the story matter. I don't want to harp on it, but, at no point during Age of Ultron, save the side trip to the Barton farm, where the film suddenly came alive for a few minutes before rushing headlong back into dullness, did I really feel like what I was watching matters. It was a cog in a machine. A part of a multi-billion dollar investment that needs to be fed.

By keeping small (no pun intended), Ant-Man made me care. I cared what was happening, and how it would affect the characters I had grown to care about. There was no need to have endless scenes of Avengers putting people on buses out of the combat zone to create a false sense of danger, because the people in danger were right in front of me. The story was immediate, fun, exciting, and worth your money.

Even in 3-D.

Post-Credits: There are two post-credits scenes, and, like the film, the successful one is tied to the story just told rather than the one coming next year.

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