Friday, July 24, 2015

Worth Mentioning - The Most Powerful Man in the World

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody marvels at a tiny hero.

ANT-MAN (2015)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe began in 2008 with the release of Iron Man, but in an alternate universe it might have begun with an Ant-Man movie directed by Edgar Wright. When Marvel announced in 2005 that they were going to start producing films in-house that they would have complete creative control over, one of the projects on their slate was Ant-Man, to be written and directed by Wright, whose recognition had received a huge boost from the release of Shaun of the Dead the previous year. But while the MCU was being built film-by-film, Wright held off on Ant-Man for a long time, making Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The World's End, contributing a fake trailer to Grindhouse, co-writing The Adventures of Tintin, and doing various other things before finally getting around to his Marvel project.

Unfortunately, as everyone knows, things went south for Wright once Ant-Man began to near its production start date and he ended up departing the film over creative differences, having bristled at Marvel wanting revisions made to the script that would more firmly set the story within the MCU. Some of the actors Wright had cast moved on before filming began, while others, like the leads he had put in place - Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, and Evangeline Lilly - stuck around. Not only did Rudd stay on, he even handled rewrites of the script with his Anchorman/Anchorman 2 director Adam McKay, the pair doing so much work on the last draft written by Wright and Joe Cornish that all four receive screenplay credit on the finished film.

Wright was replaced at the helm by Peyton Reed, who nearly directed a Fantastic Four movie more than a decade ago, before that project became the Tim Story-directed film that reached theatres in 2005. Ant-Man went into production as scheduled.

The connections to the broader MCU are established right in the opening scene. Hank Pym (Douglas) was a soldier for S.H.I.E.L.D. in the 1980s, donning a shrinking suit he created after discovering the "Pym particle" and using it to battle Cold War enemies. When S.H.I.E.L.D., represented here by John Slattery as Howard "father of Tony" Stark (a role Slattery previously played in Iron Man 2, before Dominic Cooper stepped in to play a younger version of the character in Captain America: The First Avenger and the Agent Carter TV show), Agent Peggy Carter (an aged-up Hayley Atwell, who always plays the character regardless of whether the story is set in the 1940s or the 2010s), and Martin Donovan as Agent Mitchell Carson, request that Pym hand his tech over to them in 1989, the scientist/superhero takes his suit and walks.

The MCU might be quite different if Ant-Man had been made earlier. One example of how things might have changed is Ultron, the villain of this year's Avengers: Age of Ultron. In the MCU, he was created by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner with the use of an Infinity Stone. In the comics, Ultron was created by Hank Pym. His experience at S.H.I.E.L.D. has caused Pym to hold a grudge against the Starks and in the film he makes a derisive reference to a city dropping out of the sky, an nearly apocalyptic event that occurred in Age of Ultron and was essentially Tony's fault. In an alternate MCU, it could have been Pym's.

Since his 1980s heyday, Pym has even lost control of his own company, Pym Industries, which is now run by the unscrupulous Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who is seeking to re-discover the Pym particle and use it to construct an army of "Yellowjacket" shrinking war machine suits. Tech which, as it turns out, Cross then plans to sell to the villainous organization Hydra, as represented by  Mitchell Carson, one of the many S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who were working for the enemy, a twist revealed in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

To thwart Cross, Pym needs the help of his daughter Hope (Lilly), who is his inside woman at Pym Industries, and an unlikely protégé, modern Robin Hood cat burglar Scott Lang (Rudd), who has recently been released from prison and is struggling to earn enough money to make child support payments. His ex will only let him see his young daughter Cassie if he can make those payments. Returning to crime seems like his only option, until Pym approaches him to pull off a burglary much bigger than anything he has ever done before. And to do it, Lang is going to have to put on Pym's old costume and learn how to be the new Ant-Man.

Fittingly for the character, Ant-Man feels like a much smaller film than most of the other entries in the MCU. It plays out on a smaller scale than recent Marvel movies - there are no large battle sequences, no alien invasion or cities dropping out of the sky - and for the most part it's a character-based origin story, but it did have a budget comparable to the Phase One films and boasts some impressive visual effects and good action. Fights occur inside a briefcase and on a Thomas the Tank Engine train set, but that doesn't make them any less cool than the typical superhero slugfest.

In a different Marvel movie, the story might have built up to Ant-Man having to take on an actual army of Yellowjackets (something along the lines of the climax of Iron Man 2), but this is, as the filmmakers have described it, a heist film, with the characters working to steal the sole Yellowjacket suit and destroy Cross's research before anyone has to deal with an army situation.

This makes Ant-Man unique within Marvel's output, and the heist element is very entertaining. The heist aspect also enabled Rudd and McKay to add an MCU connection that was not requested by Marvel, although many viewers familiar with Wright's reason for leaving will probably suspect that it was. They decided to put in a sequence before the big heist where the characters have to pull off a smaller heist to steal an item that will help them with the bigger one. The item they need is housed within a building that used to be a Stark storage facility... but, as seen at the end of Age of Ultron, this storage facility is now the new base for the Avengers, and when Ant-Man shows up to rob the place, one of the Avengers is home.

When it comes time for the big job, not even a legion of ants, who Lang is able to control with a piece of Pym tech (and are much more helpful than you might think) are enough to help our heroes do it properly. Lang has to bring in some street criminal associates of his who provide the film with some good laughs; Michael Peña as Luis, T.I. as Dave, and David Dastmalchian as Kurt.

As you'd expect with the participation of Wright, Rudd, and McKay, Ant-Man does lean toward the comedic, which is fine by me, I prefer my superhero movies to have a lighter tone. At the same time, Rudd plays Lang in a more serious manner than I really expected him to, although he does have some humorous reactions to information and scenarios, and he still exudes that natural charisma that always makes Rudd a welcome screen presence.

I've been a fan of Rudd's ever since he played the troubled Tommy Doyle in Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers twenty years ago. Watching his performance in that film, I didn't expect him to go on to become a comedy star, but it's been a pleasant surprise. Lang is a well-written character, we get to know him and understand his motivations, and it's fun to watch this guy become a superhero. It's also fun to watch Rudd's interactions with Douglas and Lilly, who do great work in their roles, and the three of them have great chemistry with each other.

Anyone who replaced Wright in the director's chair was going to have a rough time proving themselves, since Wright has such a strong fan base and his split with Marvel was such a big, public deal. It was somewhat brave of Reed to take the gig, and although the finished film isn't a mind-blowing accomplishment, he did a capable job bringing the project to the screen. Ant-Man doesn't instantly rank as one of my favorite Marvel movies, but it's certainly not the disaster many expected it to be. It's an entertaining story with a bunch of likeable characters, and watching it was a fun two hours.

It will be interesting to see where Scott Lang's Ant-Man goes from here. The end credits promise that Ant-Man Will Return, and we know that he will be making his return in next year's Captain America: Civil War. That's also a film that will be introducing the MCU's version of Spider-Man, who is subtly set up with a line of dialogue in this film. If Ant-Man and Spider-Man are going to be crossing paths, someone has to make a comment about their similar names.

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