Chuckle brother: life-or-death adventure meets schmaltzy humour in Ant-Man
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Like its insectoid hero, Ant-man is a film with an identity crisis

There's a struggle at the heart of Ant-Man between the corporate and the ­eccentric.

Ant-Man (12A)
dir: Peyton Reed

Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz) had been developing the Marvel ­superhero adaptation Ant-Man for eight or nine years before he walked away over creative differences. It seemed curious that this idiosyncratic British film-maker had teamed up with Marvel Studios, which is devoted to brand compatibility, cross-platform merchandising and all the other romantic notions that first inspired the Lumière brothers in the late 19th century. Even if David and Goliath become playmates, it won’t be the big fella who gets trampled in the excitement.

The result, directed by the less distinctive Peyton Reed (who made the Jim Carrey ­vehicle Yes Man), falls towards the upper end of expectations. Ant-Man is a salvage job but a good one. In common with Guardians of the Galaxy, it exhibits a B-movie nuttiness not permitted in the studio’s flagship films: your Iron Man, your Avengers. Vital to this is its star, Paul Rudd (who also helped revise the original script by Wright and Joe Cornish). With his sparkly, ingenuous eyes, he seems to be chuckling at a film that is already chuckling at itself.

Rudd plays Scott Lang, a safecracker singled out by an exiled scientist, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), for an unusual mission. In 1989, Hank developed a serum that can shrink a person to insect size. This does not seem terribly sensible. Had he bothered to see Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, released the same year, he might have gone back to the drawing board.

Not being a comic-book aficionado, I was sceptical about a superhero modelled on an ant. Would his powers extend to more than the ruin of a perfectly decent picnic? In fact, once Scott is miniaturised, wearing a retro costume that is all scuffed leathers and wire flex, his strength remains intact; it is simply concentrated into that tiny form. He also has at his beck and call thousands of militarised insects. The film has fun with the hero training montage, which includes the usual physical exercise as well as things Rocky never had to do, such as persuading an ant to nudge a sugar cube towards a cup of tea.

Developed to create armies of teeny-weeny soldiers, the serum has fallen into the hands of Hank’s former protégé Darren (Corey Stoll). Scott’s mission is to retrieve it. As plots go, you could write it on the back of an ant. But the film is crammed with colour. The rapport between Scott and his former cellmate Luis (Michael Peña) has an infectious screwball mania. The action sequences are affectionately detailed, especially the climax, which takes place in a child’s bedroom; a life-or-death battle unfolds in full view of Thomas the Tank Engine, his eyes spinning deliriously. The sequence is a metaphor for the comic-book world. From the outside, it looks like playtime. Up close, to those immersed in its dramas, it really matters.

Like Ant-Man himself, torn between worlds of conflicting scale, this is a film with an identity crisis. The screenplay is full of the calculated patterning routine in Hollywood. Hank wants to win back the love of his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), while Scott is trying to make amends with his. Cheesy slogans (“Be the hero she already thinks you are!”) are the order of the day. But the movie tries to be both hip and square. After some heartfelt reflection by Hank, Scott will pop up to say, “Darn, that was a good speech!” If the emotional effect is going to be mocked, it seems a waste of time to bother with it in the first place.

This mirrors the struggle at the heart of Ant-Man between the corporate and the ­eccentric. Since 2008’s Iron Man Marvel has been building the Marvel Cinematic Universe, striving for continuity between all its business interests – or “movies”, as they are sometimes known. Nick Fury might pop up to say “hello” in a Thor film; Iron Man could borrow a cup of sugar from the Hulk. One of the Avengers has a cameo in Ant-Man but it’s as crass as product placement. Any film-maker who signs up with Marvel is, to some extent, going into battle. Despite Wright’s departure, it is the little guys, the weirdos, who have the edge in Ant-Man. Just. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

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Marvel has moved past the post-credits teaser, and it's all the better for it

Individual stories are suddenly taking precedence over franchise building.

The lasting contribution of 2008’s Iron Man to contemporary cinema comes not from the content of the film itself, but in its Avengers-teasing post-credits scene featuring an eyepatch-sporting Samuel L. Jackson. While post-credits scenes were not invented by Marvel, their widespread adoption in other blockbusters is a testament to Marvel using them to titillate and frustrate.

Fast forward nine years and Marvel’s direction has significantly altered. Having moved to a three-film-a-year structure ahead of next year’s climactic Infinity War, their two releases this summer have featured less explicit connective tissue, using post-credits scenes that are, in typical Marvel fashion, self-reflexive and fun – but this time with no teases for films to come.

Where previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films have trailed characters donning superhero mantles, confrontations to come, or more light-hearted team ups, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 decided to lovingly poke fun at Marvel grandmaster Stan Lee, leaving him stranded on a godforsaken space rock in the outer reaches of the stars. Spider-Man: Meanwhile Homecoming targeted filmgoers who had stayed until the end in expectation of a tease, only to receive a Captain America educational video on the virtues of “patience”.

That isn’t to say that connective tissue isn’t there. Marvel seems to be pursuing world building not through post-credits stingers, but through plot and character. In the past, teasing how awful big bad Thanos is ahead of the Avengers battling him in Infinity War would have been done through a menacing post-credits scene, as in both Avengers films to date. Instead Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 uses character as a tool to explore the world at large.

Nebula’s seething rage is, rather than just a weak excuse for an antagonist’s arc, actually grounded in character, explaining to Sean Gunn’s loveable space pirate Kraglin that Thanos would pit his daughters, her and Gamora, against each other, and replace a part of her body with machine each time she failed – and she failed every time. It’s effective. Thanos’ menace is developed, and you feel sympathy for Nebula, something Marvel has historically failed to do well for its antagnoists. Her parting promise – to kill her father – not only foreshadows the events of Infinity War, but also hints at the conclusion of a fully formed arc for her character.

In the high-school-set Spider-Man: Homecoming, the stakes quite rightly feel smaller. The inexperienced wall-crawler gets his chance to save the day not with the galaxy at risk, but with an equipment shipment owned by Iron Man alter-ego and billionaire inventor Tony Stark hanging in the balance. While such a clear metaphor for widespread change in the MCU might be a little on the nose, the set-up is effective at plaing the film at street level while also hinting at overall changes to the structure of the universe.

Stark gifting Peter a new (and oh so shiny) suit is a key set piece at the end of the film, whereas in 2015's Ant-Man’s Hope Pym inheriting her mother’s own miniaturising suit it is relegated to a teaser. Peter’s decision to turn it down not only completes Peter’s transition past seeking the approval of Stark’s unwitting father figure, but it also leaves the Avengers in an as-yet unknown state, still fragmented and incomplete after the events of 2016’s Civil War. To anticipate Spider-Man joining the Avengers proper is to anticipate the forming of the team as a whole – keeping our collective breath held until we stump up for tickets to Infinity War.

With this happy marriage of the macro and the micro, individual stories are suddenly taking precedence in the MCU, rather than being lost in the rush to signpost the foundations for the next instalment in the franchise. It’s a refreshingly filmic approach, and one which is long overdue. To suggest that Marvel is hesitant to overinflate Infinity War too early is supported by their refusal to share the footage of the film screened to audiences at the D23 and San Diego Comic Con events in recent weeks. Instead, the limelight is staying firmly on this November’s Thor: Ragnarok, and next February’s Black Panther.

Stan Lee, at the end of his Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 post credits scene, cries, “I’ve got so many more stories to tell!”, a hopeful counterpoint to a weary Captain America asking “How many more of these are there?” at the end of Homecoming. With Disney having planned-out new MCU releases all the way into 2020, entries in the highest-grossing franchise of all time won’t slow any time soon. We can, at least, hope that they continue their recent trend of combining writerly craft with blockbuster bombast. While the resulting lack of gratuitousness in Marvel’s storytelling might frustrate in the short term, fans would do well to bear in mind Captain America’s call for patience.