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Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Ant-Man’s barnstorming finale can’t disguise the fact Marvel’s movie formula is growing noticeably stale

Review

Ant-Man
Director: Peyton Reed
Starring: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll
Running time: 117mins



Exactly when did Marvel stop creating compelling villains? I only ask because the bad guy in Ant-Man – Darren Cross/Yellowjacket (Corey Stoll) – is a 24-carat dullard. He’s a one-dimensional evildoer, whose only character traits are arrogance and sneering. If he turned up in an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or Daredevil you’d simply yawn and see what else was on. For such an unimaginative, lacklustre character to be front and centre in a multi-million-dollar film is pretty much unforgiveable.

Come to think of it, quite a few of Marvel’s movie villains have failed to hit the mark recently: even James Spader couldn’t make Ultron interesting in an Avengers film actually named after the character, while Ronan and Nebula were the weakest elements in the otherwise terrific Guardians of the Galaxy. Nor was Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith in Thor 2: The Dark World anything to write home about. I vaguely remember Robert Redford being quite good in the last Captain America movie but I couldn’t tell you his character’s name even with a gun to my head. Yes, I get that Loki and the Winter Soldier are great bad-guys… and that’s precisely why they stick out like a pair of sore thumbs right now.

Could it be Marvel are so distracted by introducing new characters, crossovers (Ant-Man meets the Falcon here) and cranking out movie after movie that they are neglecting the very thing that gives their heroes meaning in the first place – namely, villains that are scary, charismatic and memorable? Waiting a couple more years for Thanos to make his move frankly isn’t good enough.

In Ant-Man, Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, an anti-corporate burglar, fresh out of prison and desperate to go straight for the sake of his young daughter, Cassie. However, when post-clink life repeatedly kicks him in the shins, he soon falls back into bad habits, agreeing to rob the home of wealthy inventor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). When successfully cracking Pym’s almost-impregnable vault turns up not jewels and cash but a weird rubber suit, Lang’s bad luck looks set to continue. However, it turns out the whole thing has been a set-up and that Pym and daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) want to turn him into a size-shifting superhero, code-named Ant-Man, and recruit him to their cause.

Years before Pym had created a shrinking formula then hid it in case it fell into the wrong hands. But villainous Darren Cross (a name more redolent of a Premier League midfielder than a world-class super villain) is now in charge of Pym’s old company and, worse still, is close to perfecting his own version of the miraculous potion with which he plans to do bad things. Ant-Lang – plus the army of insects he telepathically controls – must break into the company’s HQ and destroy the formula to save the world.



Peyton Reed’s film takes an age to get going. Mildly amusing comedy moments and Rudd’s easygoing charm only get you so far when the exposition comes thick and fast, and the plot creaks like one of Stan Lee’s increasingly unwelcome cameos. Worse still, Douglas and Bobby Cannavale (as the partner of Lang’s ex-wife) are wasted in lightweight supporting roles when either one would have made a great villain here. Cannavale is an extremely versatile actor whose finest role to date came not in a movie but as a monstrous senior doctor in the Showtime drama Nurse Jackie – his Dr Mike Cruz was a pent-up ball of anguish and spite who’d have eaten Yellowjacket for breakfast. And just imagine Douglas – that wicked twinkle in his eye – channelling a bit of Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko or a smidgeon of ‘D-Fens’ from Falling Down, and you realise Marvel may have missed a trick…

I could also have done without two of the only people of colour in the entire film – Michael Peña and Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris, playing Ant-Man's buddies/back-up  being used as little more than lazy comic relief. As Richard Lawson's review in Vanity Fair had it: "At times it seems that the only thing funny about them is that they’re not white." Meanwhile, elements of the plot – bald bad guy takes over hero’s company and attempts to use its technology for evil – seem to have been lifted straight out of Iron Man (still, incidentally, the best Marvel movie by a considerable distance).

Thankfully, a bravura final half-hour or so really pulls Ant-Man’s fat out of the fire, including as it does three visually stunning set-pieces. The punch-up between Lang and Yellowjacket in Cassie’s bedroom towards the end –  featuring both a Thomas the Tank Engine toy set and a giant ant – is easily the movie’s finest moment, mixing as it does deranged creativity, laugh-out-loud comedy and pulse-pounding action to impressive effect.

Either side of that, we get the two miniaturised antagonists beating the crap out of each other in a briefcase falling from a helicopter and Lang becoming so tiny he enters a bizarre ‘quantum universe’ (disappointingly he doesn’t encounter the Incredible Shrinking Man there). Any one of the three sequences would have been a treat but placed together – pretty much one after the other – provides a genuine rush and a terrific finale.

Most impressive of all, though, is that, unlike every other blogger and critic on the planet, I made it through my entire review without once mentioning original director Edgar Wright. Oops!

Rating:
WW

Ant-Man is in cinemas now

Ratings

WWWW = Wonderful
WWW = Worthy
WW = Watchable
W = Woeful

3 comments:

  1. That's a good point about the villains; aside from the two you mention, the only other decent one is Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2, and maybe Stryker in X-Men 2.

    Marvel aren't lacking in villains, but they don't seem to be able to translate them to the screen, even in their better films. I dread to think how they're going to waste Doom again in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot.

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    1. The villains I mentioned all seem very underwritten, like they're an afterthought almost. Or maybe Marvel think as long as they get decent actors (and to be fair Marvel bad-guys are always played by decent actors) the problem will take care of itself. I'm intrigued by the FF reboot - surely they can't mess Doom up again!

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    2. Nothing I've seen of it convinces me it will be anything other than terrible. We'll see.

      You are right about the villains. It's difficult to tell what they stand for and what they want, and not even the best actor can cover that up.

      It may also be a reflection of a general shift of emphasis in the comics; as far as I can tell most of the big events of the past few years have been about heroes fighting heroes, with almost no actual villainy.

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