Friday, July 17, 2015

'Ant-Man' Review: Little and Hugely Entertaining


Marvel's latest installment in their big, connected cinematic universe. This particular picture in the canon was perhaps the most notorious. Previous Marvel films were troubled productions, but the original director's departure from this film caused quite a ruckus. After months of concerns and worrying, it's finally here. For this reviewer, Ant-Man proves that a troubled production can turn out to be something very worthwhile in the end...

Ant-Man, billed as the true closer to Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is like a healthy mix of all different kinds of things. This makes it unique amongst the other MCU films, in fact most of Phase 2's films have been showing that the superhero story isn't always about people in costumes fighting typical bad guys. Iron Man 3? Intimate detective thriller with some big-bang-boom stuff. Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Spy-thriller with a hint of political thriller. Guardians of the Galaxy? Bizarro space opera!

Ant-Man is a mixture of things. It's a shrinking movie, but it's also a heist movie, a redemption story, but also a surreal comedy that dabbles in sci-fi and maybe even crime comedy! It's like the "everything burger" of the MCU. Stylish? It certainly is in many parts. Peyton Reed, working off a super-fun modified Edgar Wright/Joe Cornish script, nails the quirkier parts while landing the storytelling with confidence.

The characters? This is where the Marvel movies always succeed. Right off the bat, you like Scott Lang. He's whip-smart, brilliant, he knows the ins and outs of little things, he's extremely strategic, and overall is just a funny, likable type. His break into Hank Pym's vault early on in the film effortlessly illustrates how clever he is. He's like a less snarky Tony Stark who likes to get his hands dirty, he's more of a straight man in the middle of weirdo plot. Never too grey of a character on the morality scale, his determination to better his life and Hank Pym's intentions drive the plot with no hassle.

Hank Pym on the other hand is a bit more bitter and cynical. Long retired and no longer at his firm - Pym Technologies, Pym is not too fond of The Avengers, he wants nothing to do with superheroes given how S.H.I.E.L.D. attempted to duplicate his Ant-Man formula (the "Pym Particle") in the film's 1989-set opening sequence, where we see that he didn't quite get along with Howard Stark. Guilt-ridden by the death of his wife, he makes an effort to hide the Ant-Man technology, but his equally disillusioned daughter happened to get Pym's also disillusioned protege Darren Cross ahead in the company... And he's is out to sell the tech and his own insect-inspired suit, the Yellowjacket. I at first suspected that Cross would be another Obadiah Stane, a villain - mind you - that I did not dislike. Cross shares some similarities, being the guy who wants to take Pym's technology down his path. However, he has more depth.

Pym is a strong central force in the film, creating more problems in an attempt to do the right thing. The Ant-Man suit, unlike Stark's technology or Captain America's vibranium shield, is potentially very dangerous much like Bruce Banner himself. He also functions as a perfect mentor-type character to Lang, being very likable in his own right, and he's certainly not the type that puts up with others. He's certainly snarky and isn't afraid to deal in blows, and it's all justified given everything that's happened to him. Hope is no laughing matter either, as she took up martial arts and shows a kick-ass side when training Lang to use the suit.

What they do with the technology is great! Like Guardians of the Galaxy, the film embraces the inherent silliness of the premise. "Ant-Man" is one of those things that makes people say "What?" Then you tell them, "guy shrinks down to the size of an ant", still not enticing. Of course, those in the know are aware of how cool of a superhero Ant-Man is, but for those who don't, the film doesn't trip up in making everything believable. Guardians of the Galaxy took space raccoons and talking trees and acted as if it was just a matter-in-fact thing, Peter Quill never says "a talking raccoon with a gun?" This has a similar level of confidence.

When Lang shrinks for the first time, it's thrilling. The scene of him in the bathtub is one of those "wonder" moments, where you look at what you're seeing in awe, even though shrinking person movies have been done before. Best of all, the film plays with the shrinking stuff, big time. Whether it's Lang's attempts to survive getting squashed by dancers on the club floor of an apartment building to fighting Cross' HYDRA henchmen, every ant-sized sequence is a blast. They're shot wonderfully, giving them a very big feel (not going to lie, some shots channeled A Bug's Life for me), making scenes that are actually so little feel so epic.

The third act is when the dial is cranked up. Everything that is set up in the solid first two-thirds of this film is used to make one hell of a satisfying pay-off. The first part of the fireworks climax is a really fun heist that gets more thrilling as it unfolds, but it gets ten times better, and fifty times wilder, when the second part rolls in - a hilarious and hectic fight that takes place in Lang's daughter's bedroom on a play table of various different toys including a Thomas the Tank Engine train set. Yes... The hero fights the villain on a Thomas the Tank Engine train set... In a Marvel movie. (Extra points for not destroying the Thomas locomotive or his coaches, Annie and Clarabel!) That's not all, the technology that can shrink and grow things is used here in full force, making for some truly standout moments. A dog-sized ant, a giant Thomas that's probably bigger than Thomas if he were real, trippy quantum realms... Again, all of this in a Marvel movie...

I wasn't this thrilled with a Marvel climax since the third act of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but this climax - with its unexpected thrills and its laugh-out-loud humor - is more in line with The Avengers' climax. The Thomas toy being thrown out the window and enlarged, to me, was the Hulk's Loki smackdown of the movie. I also hadn't had this much fun in a movie theater since February's Kingsman: The Secret Service. It's the perfect, perfect blend of exhilarating action and quirky comedy. But... It's not finished yet! Scott then goes into the quantum realm, the very one that took Janet away from Hank Pym, to save his daughter from Cross. It's a very trippy sequence that just adds more flair to this already eclectic smorgasbord... One "Wow!" moment after the other...

Yes, the film's third act is that good. It's worth the price of admission alone, it's probably my second favorite Marvel third act behind The Avengers, and a few clicks ahead of Winter Soldier. Marvel does good, action-packed third acts that more than conclude their films on appropriate notes, but rarely do they ever reach this level of surprise and amazement. Most blockbusters don't do this, period. I bet a lot of it came from Edgar Wright, too, showing that his pizazz was certainly not lost in Peyton Reed's movie. A real jolt, the third doesn't make the rest look boring by comparison. There's a lot of style and verve in the first 2/3 of the film, among other good things...

My only slight issue with the first two-thirds is that they are a little on the ho-hum side. Competent, but the flashes of cool keep you interested alongside the great characters. As a defender of the Marvel films, I don't think that they all "feel the same", though they do share some similarities. This film, however, like Guardians of the Galaxy, felt kind of removed from the familiar elements, from the score to the film's sense of humor to the scale of it. S.H.I.E.L.D./HYDRA has some presence, but that's about it. There's a big tech firm that's reminiscent of other Marvel ones, but it still all feels significantly different. The tone, the feel, the mixture of genres and styles, the film is unique in a way. That's not a bad thing, it only shows that Marvel does spice it up, if Phase 2's line-up didn't show that already. These are more than just "superhero" films...

The set-up stuff? Of course it has to be there. To me, only one Marvel film kind of screwed up with this element, and that was troubled production Iron Man 2. Since then, we've seen these films handle these things much better. Iron Man 3Thor: The Dark World, and Guardians of the Galaxy are pretty self-contained for the most part, Captain America: The Winter Soldier sets up so much so subtly whilst effortlessly telling its strong core story, this film sets up future films in a much different way. Ant-Man finds himself at the Avengers base in upstate New York to find a piece of tech that is vital to the heist, and fights Falcon in a very unexpected sequence, and in turn Falcon might have a helping hand for Captain America in next year's Civil War. To say nothing of Luis - one of Lang's gang members, and a show-stealer at that - informing Lang of a guy who "crawls up the walls". The links to the past? Handled wonderfully, what with the opening sequence establishing Pym's character.

It may sound cliche, but Marvel has indeed done it again. The film's third act and its many quirks elevate the seemingly-simple tale to the higher levels of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It's not the deep, psychological story that Avengers: Age of Ultron is, but it's much more creative, energetic, and out-there. It's not as consistent as, say, Iron Man 3, but it offers so many surprises to make up for some of its downfalls. It has great character work, solid storytelling, very lean pacing, and many surprises. It's a blast!

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