Sunday, 23 August 2015

Ant-Man (2015) - Movie Review

As my review for Magic Mike XXL demonstrated, knowledge about a film’s production history can create an unfortunate preconception about said film. However, unlike that instance, there is legitimate reason for concern this time around. Edgar Wright, AKA the guy behind the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy and easily one of the best filmmakers working today, was originally slated to direct and co-write this film. Then, word hit that he was leaving the project due to ‘creative differences’ and the script he and Joe Cornish had put together was re-worked by Paul Rudd and the guy who wrote Talladega Nights. This is like being offered a gourmet pizza and ending up with a hot dog-stuffed crust. Still, between Marvel’s relatively high standards and the fact that Wright’s fingerprints are apparently still on the script, there's still a chance that this could all work out for the best.

The plot: Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a scientist who discovered a particle that can cause people and objects to shrink down to microscopic size, discovers that his former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is on the brink of doing the same and weaponizing it. In a bid to stop him, he enlists ex-con Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) to take up his old mantle as Ant-Man and help him and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lily) pull off a heist to destroy Cross’ research before his Yellowjacket suits cause chaos on a global scale.

Had this film come out two years ago, I would have said that Ant-Man would be one of the stranger choices of superheroes to adapt to the big screen. Of course, the debut of Rocket Raccoon last year kind of changes that stance ever so slightly. Still, that doesn’t change the baggage that the character carries with him: Another hero from the Lee and Kirby stable much like Captain America, Thor and the Avengers team, a past riddled with remarkably sexist interactions with his wife in-universe, particularly in the comic debut of The Avengers where he was a founding member, enough aliases to make him an honorary member of the Wu-Tang Clan, and experiences with technology that would make any lesser man turn Amish in an instant.

Of course, it’s easy to see that the film has taken note of at least some of this background, considering this focuses on the second character to take up the mantle of Ant-Man in the official canon. There’s also a bit of scepticism present concerning not only the ethos of the character but also its placement in the same universe as the larger-than-life Avengers, something that the film handles remarkably well. Not only do they provide sufficient reasoning for why Scott himself was tapped to become Ant-Man, but for why the Avengers aren’t involved in the operation either; in keeping with their pragmatic attitude to continuity, said reasoning for not cluing Tony Stark into any of this makes even more sense after his actions from Age Of Ultron earlier this year.

But hey, enough geeking out over the original story as if that has any place here; how does the film work on its own? Well, despite the re-write, there are still hints of Edgar Wright’s writing to be found within the script. As he showcased vividly in the Cornetto trilogy, he has a knack for very heavily foreshadowing events in his film but doing it in such a way that you don’t even recognise it as such. There are definitely some elements of that to be found here, although I can’t help but think that they have mildly dumbed down, or at least that’s how they feel in comparison with his other work. To be honest though, other than the style of foreshadowing, I can’t pick out what specific parts of Wright's script survived the re-write. Paul Rudd’s dialogue, on the other hand, is very easy to pick out: A large amount of Scott’s dialogue in the film involves commenting on the events on-screen, all of which sounds ad-libbed and almost reaches points of riffing on the film. As much as I want to tell him not to do our work for us, said commentary actually helps with the proceedings and adds some very natural-feeling comedy into the mix. It’s not bad, necessarily; it’s just that it stands out.

What helps his dialogue is the fact that it fits in with the in-jokey tone of the writing of the film, which I have mixed feelings about. If I can beat this dead horse into the ground a little while longer, one of the big things that made Wright’s films so good is that he played everything dead straight: Whether it was reality show competitions involving zombies or policemen chasing geese, there was no winking at the audience. Here, it feels like the state of the film is in flux concerning that, best encapsulated in the scene where Cross shows off surveillance footage of Pym as the original Ant-Man: We get the concept made fun of in-film with comments on how silly the name ‘Ant-Man’ actually sounds, we get it played straight with consideration that a soldier with that kind of power is something the Russians would probably be scared of regardless of the nomenclature, and then we get a weird midway point between the two where Cross name-drops Tales To Astonish, the comic book series Ant-Man debuted in back in 1962.

Regardless of how seriously they chose to take the concept, what really matters is if they take the possibilities of the concept seriously and made proper use of it, lest we get a repeat of Self/Less. Well, since this is the film that features a fight scene set on a Thomas The Tank Engine track and Scott riding on a raft made of fire ants, I’m glad to say that there was actual effort put into this one. This is one of the few times where, while watching the film, I wished I was watching it in 3D as this has some damn nice looking fight scenes. The film takes advantage of the rapid shrinking and growing capabilities of the Pym particles to create some very energetic brawls, taking it to the nth degree when it comes time for the inevitable bout between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket. Points are also well deserved for some truly excellent sequences involving flying ants, making this the only film that’s been able to touch the How To Train Your Dragon series thus far in terms of awe-inspiring aerials; it’s enough to make you forget that Scott’s flying mount is nicknamed Anthony.

This is all helped by the gorgeous effects work done by Double Negative that makes for another rarity where I actively thought that going with CGI was the best option as opposed to practical effects. Let’s face it, unless your name is Terry Gilliam, it would be rather impractical to build hundreds of scale animatronic ants to make it work otherwise. The shrinking effects, the ants and their movements all look great and, aside from one home-wrecking moment, let’s just say that things get better the smaller they get across the board. There’s an easy joke to be made there, but chances are you’ve already made it for me.

Honestly, the weakest link to be found here is with Darren Cross as the villain. Not to badmouth Stoll’s acting chops, as he does really well as a deliciously evil villain. Maybe I’m just spoiled for sympathy given how even Ultron was made out to be not only a proper bad guy but one with a good motive and was even understandable to a certain degree, but this guy feels a little too flat given Marvel’s pedigree of late. It doesn’t help that he keeps acting like The Evil Overlord List is the blueprint for wusses, since he keeps making classically dumb decisions like killing off his underlings after very visible altercations and making his actions known to the heroes. However, some credit is due in that they do explain why he’s acting like this; in that, he’s gone more loopy than a faulty RC plane. I specify ‘some’ credit because even though they take the time to explain it, the explanation itself is a bit head-scratching and doesn’t hold up as well. Without giving too much away, what we’re given means that either he knows that the particles work a lot more than he lets on, or he shouldn’t be the only one who went completely crazy. Sure, the other characters aren’t exactly the most nuanced in the world but, by comparison and on their own, they’re leaps and bounds ahead of Cross’ development.

All in all, this is a good addition to the MCU canon without feeling like it needs to impotently try and top the previous films in terms of scale; I never realised how much I wanted to see a superhero heist film until this came along. The effects work is top-notch, the acting is good with Rudd and Douglas working great off each other, the action scenes show that near every attempt was made to cash in on the ideas given and the writing, while not quite up to the standard I’ve come to expect from Wright and Cornish, is still funny and makes for some nice drama at times as well. I welcome Ant-Man with open arms and look forward to his re-appearance in Captain America: Civil War… and dear Lord, I can already tell that that review is going to be a doozy.

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