Wednesday, August 12, 2015

ANT-MAN (2015)

PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, psychological*

At a 2015 convention, a fan asked Stan Lee if there were any little-known Marvel characters he wanted to see adapted to the cinema. Lee didn't really seem to understand the question, because he merely started talking about Marvel characters already in the development pipeline, like the Black Panther. It's most likely that the fan was someone who had enjoyed how Marvel Studios had managed to generate huge success with a conglomeration of obscure characters in 2014's GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. Perhaps the same fan looked forward to seeing what Marvel would do with Ant-Man come summer, and hoped to see more such miracles of adaptation performed in future.

I don't imagine Stan Lee nurtured any deep nostalgia for Ant-Man, or for his subsequent incarnation Giant-Man, for both of these identities for size-shifting scientist Henry Pym came a cropper in sales. The Ant-Man/Giant-Man franchise was the first major failure of the Marvel Comics line, and the character only became important in Marvel history when he became part of the Avengers franchise-- though during that tenure Henry Pym spent much more time under the sobriquets of Goliath and Yellowjacket (his third and fourth re-namings, respectively).  Later there was an attempt to revive Pym's Ant-Man in a sort of INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN format, and still later Marvel took a shot at putting a new and younger face under the ant-helmet, one Scott Lang.

The 1979 storyline which introduced Lang serves as the template for the Marvel Studios film. Henry Pym's participation in that storyline was only minimal, but here, Pym is the "older, wiser hero" who initiates the younger man into the ways of heroism. This Pym has never been connected with the Avengers, but to keep him in the Marvel Studios continuity, a flashback establishes that he was once associated with Howard Stark (father of Tony ("Iron Man") Stark. Both he and his wife Janet (aka "The Wasp") were not public superheroes as they were in the comics, but apparently served the U.S. government as covert operatives, using Pym's shrinking-formula to accomplish special missions. One of those missions claims the life of Pym's wife, so he hangs it up in typical "mourning hero" fashion, though the flashback teases the comics-insider with the possibility that Janet might have suffered some darker fate, in keeping with the complicated history of the comics-characters.

As in the comics feature, Lang is an ex-con who was sent up for burglary, and his primary mission upon getting out is to find gainful employment in order to get visitation rights to his small daughter Cassie, who is currently being raised by his ex-wife and her new cop-husband.  Henry Pym and his daughter Hope lure Lang into their own agenda, which has to do with stopping Pym's former protege, industrialist Darren Cross, who plans to weaponize Pym's shrinking process into a miniature armor-suit styled "Yellowjacket" (a cute shout-out to one of Pym's multiple identities). Cross also plans to sell the armor to the evil folks at Hydra, which, as Pym tells Lang, will lead to evilness, chaos, and lotsa bad stuff. Lang is more or less dragooned into taking on the Ant-Man identity-- part of the "persuasion process" involves Lang getting convicted for burglary-- and to my recollection, not a lot is said about what sort of "gainful employment" he obtains as a result of playing hero. Of course, by the film's end, he's not only saved his daughter's life and impressed her stepfather, it's hinted that Avenger-hood may be around for both Lang and possibly for Hope, who's set up to assume the persona of a "new Wasp." Thus it may be expected that at that point the mundane problems of earning one's daily bread will go out the window.

The plot-material regarding Cross' weapons-threat is easily the most pedestrian aspect of ANT-MAN, though it's certainly in line with many of Marvel Studios' criticisms of the multi-national arms race.  Cross as a villain isn't much better: he's largely a cipher who is defined, as is Hope, by "daddy issues." Pym even admits that at one point Cross was like the son Pym never had-- so does that mean that when Cross tries to cozy up to Hope, he's actually trying to have sex with his symbolic sister?  If this had been played up, Cross would have come closer to the Oedipal territory suggested by the comics-version of the villainous Ultron-- Pym's Frankenstein-monster creation-- than anything audiences got from the cinematic Ultron. The more things change, etc.

By far the film's strongest scenes are those involving Lang's mastery of the many talents of the Ant-Man-- fighting, jumping through keyholes, and commanding ants. Easily the best comics-stories of the original Ant-Man were those by Lee, Larry Leiber and Jack Kirby, which placed great emphasis on placing the mini-hero in strange situations with sewers and popsicle sticks. Director Peyton Reed and the four writers of the script get lots of mileage out of analogous situations, and it's to their credit that the many, many scenes of Ant-Man contending with Very Big Things never become tedious. Perhaps this is because the cinematic Ant-Man is more powerful than the comics-version, for while the latter had the strength of a human being despite his ant-size, he didn't have much in the way of mobility, being dependent on flying ants and the like. The film's Ant-Man can leap around like a miniature version of the Hulk-- which actually would have made just as much sense in the comics. After all, if Pym had a man's normal strength at his diminished size, why *wouldn't * he have been able to jump around? Maybe the comics-creators were afraid readers might comment that he acted more like a "Flea-Man?"  Still, with that extra bit of power the comic-book Ant-Man might have survived the decade in his own feature-- or at least, he might not have become the joke he became when Garrett Morris (who has a cameo in the film) played him on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

The psychological aspects of ANT-MAN are minor at best, but the cosmological content is quite good, including Lang's accidental journey into the subatomic realm, for all that the film telegraphs that This is Sure to Happen. Principal players Michael Douglas (Pym0, Evangeline Lilly (Hope), and Corey Stoll (Cross) all do pretty well with their roles. Rudd, primarily known as a comic actor, assumes a basic "self-effacing dork" persona that gets boring at times, and I would hope that if there is a second Ant-Man film, the writers will expand on his rather two-dimensional personality.

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