When we heard of Marvel Studios’ overarching plans for a film series adapted from a few of their comic books, and we heard the number of films to be made and released as part of the series, and we heard that this series would not be known as a franchise but, rather dauntingly, as a Universe, I’m sure there was more than a handful of us who blanched. As we all know, a Bond film every two or three years makes for the right blend of lasting interest and good taste, with just enough disdain shaken in, and no stirring up of desperation. At least one massive
CGI-laden blockbuster every six months threatens,
initially, a bombardment, and, afterwards, a stream of discrete non-events. For
if every entry is a spectacle and a gratifying thrill, then soon enough none of
them is all that spectacular nor all that thrilling. We had also learned, from
the few superhero movies made before this mighty plan was announced, that the
ignorant among us are not often provided for in a superhero movie’s exposition.
Of course, by now, even the unschooled heathen such as myself have learned that
the hoary, leathery pensioner who ubiquitously crops up in each entry is none
other than Stan Lee, whose imagination we have to blame or to thank for the
recent insurgence; and that no vat of toxic waste (a trusty MacGuffin if ever
there was one) is ever far away enough from a Hollywood star to allow the
incredulous among us to settle comfortably in our seats. But still I found,
with equal measures of annoyance and disconcertment, that I was required to
have seen Iron Man (preferably along with its sequel), some attempt at a
film about The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America
before watching The Avengers – or at least be familiar with the premises
and outcomes of each of these films – unless I wished to be deprived of much of
my sure footing for most of that amalgamate film’s setup.
And, now having completed Phase 2 of the overall scheme, the critical reaction to the results seems not to have been overly joyous, though box office success persists. Critics have repeatedly complained of replicated plots and storylines, of thin and uninteresting characters, of over-reliance on digital imagery, and of a general (and, if I may say so, vaguely demonstrated) breakdown in culture. I do not align myself with these consensus critical views: I have written that conventional and simplistic storylines are not inherently weak; I find that a character does not only consist of the text he or she speaks, but also of the actor’s performance, and these have not been found wanting nearly as often or as dismally as some critics would have you think; I think any filmmaker is entitled to use as much digital imagery as he deems necessary or suitable, and this also is not in itself a weakness; and I don’t see how this titanic influx of films to our theatres is in any way a depletion of culture. It’s absurd to think, as it seems some critics do, that if there weren’t Marvel blockbusters, or at least not so many, that those who flock to see them would instead be going to see black and white Polish films about nuns, or adaptations of Thomas Hardy novels. Rather, Marvel is keeping audiences gazing at screens instead of looking away.
Still, a blockbuster is a large undertaking for a studio, and executives like to keep their investments safe. Because hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent on these movies, they have to stick to a considerable degree to some formula and a number of conventions, so that profit is a nearly sure thing, and filmmakers are not granted much artistic freedom. We commentators must recognise that we cannot expect the audacious profound personal expression found in a film by, say, Wes Anderson from a Marvel Studios movie, and, while these movies usually do inhere a considerable amount of fun and spectacle, and while it’s reassuring to know that many very good artists are being paid handsomely for their work (which means they risk less when they take on much smaller, more personal projects), one does grow a little tired of having to tell readers, This movie is good … for a superhero movie. This movie ranks high … among comic book films. Well, finally, Marvel has given us the movie that we – or I, at the very least – can congratulate without such a qualifier. Ant-Man is a good movie. (I think internet film commentary customs dictate that I’m meant to qualify that with the phrase “in my opinion,” or, if this blog were so inclined, the abbreviation IMHO; but I think you all know that that proviso is tacked onto most of what I write anyway. Frequently adding it to statements gives, I think, the impression of diminishing the value of what is stated.)
One of the wearying aspects of the Marvel Universe is the tiresomeness of having to think so big so often. Richard Brody offers, in his review of Ant-Man, a delightful comparison between superhero films and religious scripture:
The default tone - and the downfall of even the better superhero movies - is grandiosity. It results from the quasi-religious devotion that the genre attracts, and that it needs in order to maintain its validity. Superhero movies are secular visions of the primal conflict between good and evil, aided by gods on Earth who serve justice. They have to stage miracles that deliver more shock and awe than a burning bush or a serpent-staff, and they have as little room for jokes as the Bible does, because one good self-mocking pinprick and the whole enterprise crumbles in ridicule. That's why Ant-Man is a bracing, giddy delight. ... It's the non-bombastic superhero movie. ... It's a film for nonbelievers that nonetheless provides a reminder of the underlying emotions - and fictions - that give rise to belief.
A principle on which the classic director Howard Hawks is said to have based much of his filmmaking attitude, is that 'A man is more expressive rolling a cigarette than saving the world,' and the movies that I almost invariably favour over their alternatives are the ones in which small private details, and idiosyncrasies and inflections, are of greater import on the viewer's consciousness than vast, heroic, or history-making deeds are. Ant-Man is just such a film, with actors endowing their characters with quick glances, and particular tones and pitches in their speech; and with sights and visuals of a particular distinctiveness among the Marvel output. Peyton Reed, the director of Ant-Man, who also gave us one of my very favourite films of last decade, The Break-Up, is a contemporary master of just such saturation of peculiarity, and succeeds once again in giving us a work of dazzling personal connection. One specific element of delightful invention is the two flashback scenes, frenziedly paced, and colossally entertaining.
I wrote once of how Black Swan, one great film of this decade, is an antidote among backstage movies for the dully frenetic backstage wanderings in Birdman, one rather overvalued film, obstructing the view of much better art released at the same time. Now I'd like to acknowledge a scene in Ant-Man which should (but, I regret to say, probably will not) occlude a somewhat similar scene in another unjustly beloved film released last year, namely Christopher Nolan's Intersterllar. There is a function in Ant-Man's suit which allows him to shrink even smaller than the size of an ant - to a level even beyond microscopic. He shrinks until he is dwarfed by the nuclei of atoms, and, like subatomic particles, floats around them, gliding through orbitals and energy levels, having lost any recognition of space or time. It is unclear whether he will ever return to normal, although, if I understood it correctly, if he stays as he is, the implication is that he will not die. Reed fills the screen here with astoundingly hypnotic images. We don't recognise what we see as atoms, or protons or neutrons. We're given a sense of infinite incomprehension of the most basic (as Democritus called them) building blocks of the world. There is such a strangeness to everything we see here, and such immersive wonderment, that we feel that what we're looking at - although we know them to be necessarily a part and a foundation of our material world - something entirely separate from the place and concept of where we live. This is in direct contrast with the scene near the end of Interstellar, inside the black hole, where Christopher Nolan's team's effects are most certainly detailed and painstakingly thought out and intricate, but barren of any awe or wonder. Ant-Man, the comic little sub-super superhero movie, manages to typify for a brief time the vast cosmic spectacle that Nolan forgot to put into his space travel epic. Irony is the stuff of a meaningful life, and often makes for absorbing art; and if this displacement of celestial vision is of any trope at all, it's ironic. It's the final pole vault that earns Ant-Man its label as "Art" alongside its foregone classification, "Entertainment".
Ant-Man is available on DVD.
Ant-Man is directed by Peyton Reed; written by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and Paul Rudd, based on the Marvel Comics characters by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby; music by Christophe Beck; director of photography, Russell Carpenter; edited by Dan Lebental and Colby Parker, Jr.