Tuesday, July 21, 2015

It Came From The Cineplex: Ant-Man

Ant-Man was written by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay and Paul Rudd. It was directed by Peyton Reed.

That's a pretty eclectic (and extensive) pedigree for a film. Wright was the writer and director of Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World's End and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. Cornish directed the sci-fi film Attack The Block, and co-wrote The Adventures Of Tintin: Secret Of The Unicorn with Edgar Wright and Steven Moffat (of Doctor Who fame). McKay wrote and directed most of Will Farrell's various vehicles, including Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgandy, Talledega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby, Step Brothers and the Land Of The Lost remake. Rudd is of course primarily an actor, whose sole previous big screen writing credit was Role Models. Peyton Reed was an odd choice to direct a sci-fi superhero film, previously having helmed comedies and chick flicks such as Bring It On, Down With Love, The Break-Up and Yes Man.

Amazingly, despite these bizarre credits, the film's actually quite good.

That the film exists at all is nothing short of a miracle, as it's had a very long and tortuous route to the screen. Ant-Man creator Stan Lee first pitched the idea to New World Pictures way back in the late 1980s. Unfortunately Disney released Honey, I Shrunk The Kids around that time, which put the kibosh on those plans for many years.

In 2000, Howard Stern (!) tried to buy the rights to Ant-Man. Thank the film gods that deal didn't go through. No doubt Stern wanted to produce a flatulent version of the character.

Cut to 2003, when director Edgar Wright wrote a script treatment for the film. He pitched the idea to Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige in 2004. In 2006, two years before Iron Man was released, Marvel hired Wright to direct Ant-Man as part of their first foray into making their own films.

The script went through various drafts and revisions over the next few years. In 2012 Wright shot some test footage of Ant-Man (played by an unknown actor) to see how his powers would look on the big screen. In 2013 Wright announced he'd finished the script, and filming would begin in 2014.

Then on May 24, 2014, Marvel announced Wright was leaving the project due to "creative differences" (meaning of course they fired him) and Peyton Reed would now direct. Whew! I told you it was a tortuous route. Somebody really, really wanted Ant-Man to be made!

There are numerous conflicting reports as to why Edgar Wright was fired from the project, but the most likely reason comes down to Ant-Man's relationship with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Wright supposedly wanted it to be a standalone film, while Marvel of course wanted cameos from other characters to help it fit in with their already established film world. Whether that's truly the reason or not, only Marvel and Wright can say.

It was nice to see a Marvel movie with relatively smaller (!) stakes; one that doesn't involve the destruction of the entire world. As long as you have a strong storyline, it's not necessary to blow up the planet every time. In fact I think I enjoyed this film more than I did Avengers: Age Of Ultron. It's got a light, breezy tone, and most of all it's a lot of fun. Unlike DC, Marvel seems to understand that superhero movies need to have a sense of fun about them, and not be dreary, grim and humorless dramas that beat the audience about the head with their own self-importance.

For months before the film came out, critics and naysayers were predicting this would be Marvel's first big flop. "No one's ever heard of the character," "The concept's too weird," and on and on. They said the exact same things about last year's Guardians Of The Galaxy. Fortunately Marvel knows what they're doing and once again proved everyone wrong. Only they could make a top-notch, entertaining and successful superhero romp about a man who shrinks and rides around on an ant.

MICRO SPOILERS AHEAD!

The Plot:
The film opens in 1989, as volatile scientist Hank Pym (played by Michael Douglas) angrily resigns from S.H.I.E.L.D. after learning the super secret spy organization wants to use his shrinking technology as a weapon. Agent Peggy Carter and Howard Stark try to placate him (and give the audience their cameo fix), but he vows to hide his technology as long as he lives.

Cut to the present day. Pym's estranged daughter Hope van Dyne (played by Evangeline Lilly), along with his former protege Darren Cross (played by Corey Stoll), have voted him out of his own company, changing the name from Pym Technologies to Cross Technologies. Cross has reverse-engineered Pym's shrinking process, planning to build a high tech battle suit called Yellowjacket for military use. Pym is terrified of this prospect, believing it will plunge the world into chaos. Well, more so than it already is.

Meanwhile self-styled "cat burglar" Scott Lang (played by Paul Rudd) is released from prison. Scott was convicted when he discovered his employer was embezzling funds from their customers, and hacked into their system to return the stolen millions back to the deserving victims. Having nowhere else to go, Scott moves in with his old cellmate, Luis (played by Michael Peña). Scott's ex-wife Maggie forbids him to see his daughter Cassie until he gets an apartment, a steady job and begins paying child support. Unfortunately Scott has trouble holding down even a minimum wage job due to his criminal record.

In desperation, Scott agrees to join Luis and his makeshift gang (including Dave, the driver and Kurt, the computer hacker) to commit a burglary in the home of a wealthy industrialist. Scott breaks into the home and easily cracks a formidable safe in the basement.

Scott is puzzled to find the safe contains no money, but what he believes is an old motorcycle suit. In desperation, he steals the suit and returns to Luis' apartment. He tries on the suit, and discovers it allows the wearer to shrink to the size of an insect. He slips through a crack in the floor and into the middle of a party, barely avoiding the dozens of giant (to him) dancing feet. He flees into another apartment, where he's sucked up by a vacuum cleaner. He eventually manages to free himself and run outside. Rattled by the experience, Scott stupidly tries to return the suit to the owner's safe, and is arrested.

Scott is visited in jail by Hank Pym, who offers him a choice: life in prison or follow his instructions. An army of ants drags the shrinking suit into Scott's cell. He puts it on and shrinks, then rides on the back of a flying ant to escape.

The ant takes Scott back to Pym's mansion. Pym tells him that he invented the suit years ago and wore it as the crime fighting hero Ant-Man. He manipulated Scott into stealing the suit as a test, and wants him to become the new Ant-Man and steal the Yellowjacket tech from Darren Cross.

Hope then reveals that despite her strained relationship with her father, she's decided to help him defeat Cross, who she believes has become dangerous and unbalanced. She helps Scott learn to use the suit, as well as to fight. Pym teaches Scott to use a special earpiece so he can communicate with, and control various species of ants to help him. Hope reveals to Scott that her problems with her father stem from the fact that he's never told her the circumstances of her mother's untimely death.

Pym tells Scott he'll need a special piece of tech to steal the Yellowjacket suit, but unfortunately it's stored in an abandoned S.H.I.E.L.D. warehouse. Scott shrinks and infiltrates the warehouse, which unknown to him has now become the new Avengers headquarters (as seen earlier this summer in Avengers: Age Of Ultron). He's detected by the Falcon, and the two fight briefly. Scott crawls inside the Falcon's jetpack and disables it, allowing him to escape with the tech.

When Scott returns, Pym finally decides to tell Hope what happened to her mother. Decades ago the two of them fought crime as Ant-Man and the Wasp. They were trying to disable a Russian missile headed for the U.S., but couldn't get into it even at insect size. The Wasp then shrunk even further, slipping between the molecules of the missile. She managed to deactivate it, but unfortunately kept shrinking down to subatomic size, and was lost in the mysterious quantum realm.

Meanwhile, Darren Cross has finally perfected the Yellowjacket suit. He invites Pym and Hope to the unveiling, where he reveals he's selling the suit to the highest bidder, which just happens to be HYDRA.

Scott enlists Luis and his gang to help enter the Cross Tech building and steal the Yellowjacket suit. Their plan works, and Scott rigs the building with explosives. Unfortunately right before Scott can steal the suit, he's caught in a glass cage by Darren. Scott breaks free and takes out the HYDRA agents. Darren puts on the Yellowjacket suit and escapes in a waiting copter as the building explodes.

Scott leads an army of flying ants into the copter, where he confronts Yellowjacket. The two battle inside a briefcase (!) in the copter. The case falls through the air and Yellowjacket escapes. He goes to Scott's ex-wife's house, where he threatens Cassie, hoping to draw out Scott.

Scott confronts Yellowjacket and they have an epic battle inside Cassie's bedroom. The only way Scott can defeat Yellowjacket is to get inside his suit, but that would involve shrinking to subatomic size. He does so, entering and sabotaging the Yellowjacket suit. The suit then malfunctions, causing Yellowjacket to shrink into nothing. Unfortunately the size regulator on Scott's suit is also damaged, and he continues to shrink, entering the bizarre quantum realm. Just as he's about to be trapped there forever, he somehow hears Cassie's voice. He focuses on her long enough to rewire the suit and grow back to normal size.

When Pym hears that Scott survived and escaped the quantum realm, he wonders if his wife Janet might still be alive, but that's a question for the inevitable sequel. Luis tells Scott that the word on the street is Falcon's looking for him, presumably to join the Avengers.

In the post credits scenes, Pym shows Hope a new version of the Wasp suit he and his wife were working on, and offers it to her. Meanwhile, Captain America and the Falcon have finally captured the Winter Soldier, and discuss what to do next. They decide not to tell Iron Man about it, and the Falcon says he knows who to contact, implying he means Ant-Man.

Thoughts:
• By Stan Lee's Toupee! That is one butt-ugly movie poster! The desaturated red/blue color scheme is very off-putting, as is the ghastly blue pallor of all the characters. I guess they're supposed to be shrouded by the thick San Francisco mist? Every single face is lit by a completely different light source too, as the artist obviously cut and pasted up shots from a dozen different sources. 

I'm definitely not a fan of this lame photo-collage style that's been infecting the cineplex for the past decade or so. Give me an illustrated Drew Struzan movie poster any day!


• About that opening scene. I was very impressed with the younger-looking Michael Douglas effects. Looks like CGI de-aging technology has improved quite a bit since it was used in X-Men: The Last Stand and TRON Legacy. It was great to see Peggy Carter in action again too.

Oddly enough John Slattery (of Mad Men fame) reprises his role here as Howard Stark (see bottom image above), who he last played in Iron Man 2. This is odd, as Dominic Cooper has seemingly taken over the role, playing Stark in Captain America: The First Avenger and on the Agent Carter TV series. In fact Cooper's logged much more screen time as Stark than Slattery has. I suppose Cooper's playing the young version, while Slattery's supposed to represent the older Stark. Unfortunately the two actors look absolutely nothing alike. I'm sure many audience members had no idea who Slattery was supposed to be.

They put old age makeup on Haley Atwell as Peggy Carter, so why not do the same with Cooper? Was he not available? Marvel most definitely needs to pick a Howard Stark and stick with him.

Ant-Man's storyline is very, very similar to that of the original Iron Man. Both feature a cocky, brilliant inventor who wears a high tech super powered suit. In both films, the inventor is being elbowed out of the very company he founded by a bald, evil industrialist co-worker, who wants to steal the tech for nefarious purposes. Both feature end battles between the hero and the villain, who wears a slightly different version of the suit. Not to mention both heroes have sassy gal-pals who are privy to their secret and help train them.

Apparently Marvel figures if the formula ain't broke, don't fix it. Still, it would have been nice to change the plot up a little.

• Long time readers of my blog know that it irks me when trailers feature scenes that aren't in the actual film, which feels like false advertising to me. That said, there's a scene in the trailer that I'm glad isn't in the final film. In the trailer, Hank Pym solemnly tells Scott Lang he wants him to give him a second chance and become a hero, saying "I need you to become the Ant-Man." Scott accepts, but says, "One question. Is it too late to change the name?" Waaah-waaaaaaaaah.

I'm glad that scene's not in the film. Not only does it disrespect the character, but it's winking and nudging the audience to do so as well. When you're dealing with a movie like this, you don't want to remind the audience how preposterous it is.


• The film makes very good use of macro photography and tilt-shift to make the environments looks huge and Ant-Man look small. I especially liked the inclusion of large specks of dust floating around Scott when he was in ant mode.

• Marvel really, really needs to work on their villains. Seriously. They need to stop whatever they're doing and call an emergency meeting with all their producers and head honchos, to deal with this issue, today.

They've always had a problem with weak villains, and Darren Cross may just be the weakest one yet. He never feels like much of a threat, and spends much of the film acting like a petulant child, pouting over the way Hank Pym treated him. Any second I expected him to shout, "It's not fair! I hate you!" and run tearfully to his room and bury his face in his pillow.

It's not until the very end of the movie, when he dons the Yellowjacket armor, that he finally becomes somewhat dangerous.

• I think Anthony Mackie got more screen time as the Falcon in this film than he did in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Not that that's a bad thing, mind you! I really like the character and am always glad to see him.

• Michael Peña practically stole the show as Scott's friend Luis. Expect to see him in any sequels, as he supposedly signed a three picture deal with Marvel.

• Judy Greer plays Scott's ex-wife, and mother of his daughter Cassie. So far this year she played Casey Newton's mom in Tomorrowland, Zach and Gray's mom in Jurassic World, and now Cassie's mom here in Ant-Man. Apparently Greer is the new go-to actress when you need a screen mom. She's fast becoming the Dee Wallace of the new millennium.

• Since this is a Marvel movie, there were tons of shout-outs and Easter Eggs. Here are a few I noticed.

After his release from prison, we see Scott lives in the Milgrim Hotel. That was obviously a nod to comic book artist Al Milgrom, who oddly enough never drew any Ant-Man stories.

During Darren Cross' presentation, he shows classified footage of the original Ant-Man. He says the rumors of an ant-sized hero were gossip, and "tales to astonish." Ant-Man debuted in a Marvel anthology comic called Tales To Astonish. Hank Pym made his first (non-costumed appearance) in issue #27, and first appeared as Ant-Man in #35.

Scott's daughter Cassie is actually in the comics as well. She grows up to follow in her father's footsteps, becoming the size-changing superhero known as Stature, which is definitely a contender for the worst codename ever. Stature was a member of the Young Avengers.

Scott escapes jail by shrinking and flying away on the back of an ant, buzzing a streetcar as he lands on a man's newspaper. The headline on the paper reads "Who's To Blame For Sokovia?" That's the country the Avengers struggled to save in Avengers: Age Of Ultron.

Garrett Morris has a brief cameo as a perplexed cab driver. Why an appearance from such an obscure performer? Because Morris played Ant-Man in a Saturday Night Live sketch way back in 1979. Somebody on the writing staff has a good memory!

When Darren Cross is attempting to sell his Yellowjacket tech to the highest bidder, one of the potential customers has a tattoo on his neck. It's the symbol of the Ten Rings, the terrorist group that kidnapped Tony Stark in Iron Man.

When Luis is posing as a security guard, he whistles the tune from It's A Small World. Gosh, I wonder how Marvel got the rights to that song.

At the end of the film, the Falcon references several superheroes, including one that can jump, one that swings, and one that crawls on walls. Obviously he's talking about Spider-Man here, who finally, at long last, has become an official member of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. According to Marvel executive Kevin Fiege, the line was a happy coincidence. The scene was filmed long before the Spider-Man deal between Sony and Marvel, so it was originally just a generic reference. Now that the deal's been made, the line takes on even more relevance.

• Although I really enjoyed the film, I have to admit it contains some ridiculous science that would make Ed Wood roll his eyes. The writers don't seem to understand the concept of mass.

Hank Pym says his shrinking process works by "altering the distance between molecules." Fair enough, but that wouldn't change an object or person's mass. If Ant-Man weighs two hundred pounds and the Pym Particles compress him, he's still going to weigh two hundred pounds. Yet somehow this inch-high, two hundred pound man stands on Luis' shoulder with no ill effects, and even runs along the barrel of a gun without affecting the shooter's aim. He's even able to somehow ride on the back of a tiny, fragile flying ant without crushing it.

The only way any of this could possibly work is if he's somehow reducing his mass along with his size (and regaining it when he returns to normal). Unfortunately dialog indicates this isn't the case. Pym tells Scott that when jumps through the air as he shrinks, his body will become "like a bullet." Hope also says that Scott's strength will increase as he shrinks, presumably referencing the old "ants can lift fifty times their body weight" trope. In fact we see him punch grown men across the room while he's insect sized.

Sorry guys, but none of this makes any sense. If Scott shrinks, he's going to have to shed his mass to keep from crushing things, which means his strength would be virtually nonexistent. If you want him to have super strength while shrunken, then he's going to have to keep his mass. It's one or the other.

Hank Pym adds to the problem when he reveals that his keychain, which resembles a tiny toy army tank, is in fact real— it's actually a full sized tank that's been shrunken. If the shrinking process just compresses things, that means Pym is somehow carrying a tank around in his pocket. Pretty impressive for an old man!

Then late in the film, Scott uses one of his "enlarging disks" on a Thomas The Tank Engine toy, causing it grow to the size of a real locomotive engine and crash through the side of his ex-wife's house. If this enlarging process is just altering the space between molecules, then this now full-sized train would weigh the same as it did when it was a toy— just a few ounces. Hence it wouldn't go crashing through the side of the house.

I realize that this is a comic book movie, so I shouldn't expect realistic science. Still, this is a pretty significant error.

• A couple more things about that tank. Hank enlarges his tank keychain and he and Hope get inside it. They then drive it through the side of the Pym building seconds before it explodes. The tank then crashes to the ground hundreds of feet below, yet somehow they're not turned into chunky salsa after bouncing around inside it.

Secondly, when the tank hits the ground, we see there's an enormous chain and keyring attached to the back of it. It was kind of amusing, but it makes zero sense. Did Hank construct a gigantic novelty keychain to a full sized tank and then shrink the whole lot? If so, why? Why not just shrink the tank and then attached a normal keychain to it?

I suppose it's possible that the keychain was normal sized, but was caught in the "enlarging field" and grew along with the tank. If objects and surfaces that Ant-Man is touching can be affected by the Pym particle, that ain't good either. That means every time Ant-Man changes size, chunks of the floor he's standing on should shrink or grow.

Once again it's best to just try and ignore all this dodgy "science" and go along with the film.

• Scott and his crew concoct an elaborate scheme to get past all of Cross Technologies' increased security, in order to steal the Yellowjacket armor. But Pym has been invited to the Yellowjacket unveiling ceremony. Why couldn't Scott just hide inside Pym's tank keychain until he's inside, then hop out while no one's looking? Whoops!

• I want one of those ant communication devices that Hank Pym uses. Then I could finally keep the stinkin' ants out of my house.

• Speaking of ants, note that no matter what they're doing throughout the movie, the writers are very careful to never show any of them being hurt or killed (with one big exception). Even when Ant-Man is sailing through the water pipes on a "raft" that's literally made of ants, we see them very specifically crawl to safety after they deliver him to his rendezvous point. Can't have the nut jobs at PETA protesting this movie, after all!

Note that Ant-Man never hurts any of his ants, but Darren Cross actually kills a few. That's because he's the bad guy, dontcha know.

• Hank tells Scott to never shrink without wearing the Ant-Man helmet, as it will protect him from energies that could affect his mind. 

Later on, Hope says Darren has been driven insane because he hasn't properly protected himself from the shrinking energies. But wait a minute— Darren's Yellowjacket armor has a helmet. So shouldn't he be protected?

I suppose we could say that Ant-Man's helmet protects the wearer because Hank Pym knew what he was doing, but because Darren reverse engineered his suit, it doesn't insulate him. I suppose we could say that, but...

• At the end of the film, Hank Pym stares at a photo of his wife Janet, realizing she may still be alive in the quantum realm. Note that at no point in the film do we ever see Janet's face. Even in the photo, her face is obscured by a large sun bonnet (who keeps a photo of a loved one whose face is hidden?).

Obviously Janet's being set up for an appearance in the inevitable sequel, and hasn't been cast yet. This way they can take their time and cast an actress when the time comes, instead of committing to one now.

• In the comics, Janet shrinks to subatomic size and is lost in the Microverse, which is Marvel's name for its tiny little universe. It was also home to The Micronauts, who had their own comic book in the 1980s.

Unfortunately corporate law once again raises its ugly head. For legal reasons, Marvel can't use the name Microverse in the film, hence the term "quantum realm."

• In the comics, Ant-Man (as well as the Wasp) was a founding member of the Avengers. By the second issue though, Stan Lee apparently realized that a man who can shrink to ant size wasn't all that mighty, so he had Ant-Man turn his size regulator the other way and become Giant Man.

I wonder is something similar will happen in the movies? Will we eventually see Scott grow to giant size?

Ant-Man is a light-hearted superhero romp that's big on humor and light on scientific accuracy. The excellent cast helps elevate what could easily have been a disaster. I give it an A-.

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