Monday, July 20, 2015

'Ant-Man' Is Fun, Entertaining, and Suffering from Trinity Syndrome


Okay, easy stuff out of the way first: yes, Ant-Man is an eminently entertaining film. You will almost certainly enjoy watching it. The jokes are good, the running gags manage to stay relatively fresh throughout the movie, and the story is different enough from your average superhero fare to keep you guessing. I mean, not guessing too much, because this is still a movie whose ending seems written before it begins, but a little bit. It might surprise you.

But, as I'm sure you're all aware by now, I don't necessarily consider "entertaining" to be sufficient reason to like a movie. I mean, don't get me wrong, I love entertaining movies. My favorite films include such intellectual stunners as Pacific Rim and A Knight's Tale - movies that are entertaining in the extreme. 

Only they're not just entertaining. They have more going on in them, in terms of representations of class and gender and race and generally taking a more critical view of our understanding of our own reality. The movies themselves might not be especially deep, but they contain multitudes, and that's just as much of a reason for me to like them as their fun-ness.

All of this is a very backwards way of saying that while I really did enjoy watching Ant-Man, I'm also not about to put it up there on the wall and name it as one of my new favorite movies. 

It's a cute, fun movie, but it has some moments of really regressive gender politics that chafe at me and, frankly, the biggest problem I have with the movie is so big that it kind of made me utterly baffled by the plot.

So, you know, sit back, relax, and let me ruin some movie magic.

Ant-Man continues in Disney/Marvel's tradition of releasing film adaptations of the lesser known parts of their comics canon in the hopes of hitting on a, well, hit. You may recall that prior to the film, most non-comics nerds really didn't know much about Thor. And Guardians of the Galaxy? Most actual comics nerds themselves had trouble placing that one. Ant-Man is actually one of the more mainstream adaptations they're doing right now, but he's enough of an oddball that not all that many non-comics fans had heard of him before this movie started. 

Ant-Man has always sort of been a second-rate hero in the Marvel universe. I say "Ant-Man" and not Hank Pym, because technically speaking there have been four Ant-Mans. Ant-Men? Hank Pym was the first man to wear the suit, but since the superpower was the suit itself (or rather the "Pym Particles" that power it), he was able to pass it along to others. Most notably, in 1979, to Scott Lang, a disgraced electrical engineer who turned to theft when his beloved daughter fell ill. Awww. 

Hank turned the suit over - or rather let Scott steal it - because he was in mourning at the time, mourning the apparent death of his partner and wife, Janet van Dyne. For a while he even took her superhero name as a tribute. But by the 2000s, all three of them had been resurrected from their various deaths and were working together. Last I checked, Hank was going by Yellowjacket, Janet was still Wasp, and Scott was the Ant-Man. Also baby Cassie grew up to become the size-changing Young Avenger named Stature, so that's pretty cool.

All of this is relevant because, by and large, it informs the story of the movie. And don't worry, now we're going to talk about that dang film.

The movie mushes most of this history together. There's a quick flashback to begin the story, showing Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) deciding in 1989 to hide away all of his research into Pym particles and to make sure that no one ever finds it. He breaks ties with SHIELD - including an amazing cameo from Hayley Atwell - and goes off on his own. Quick cut to the present day where Pym Industries is now run by Hank's old protege, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). 

This is, for the record, a bad thing. While Pym has clearly grown up to be a curmudgeon of an old man, estranged from his daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), Cross appears to be just straight up insane. Obsessed for years with recreating the research that Hank Pym hid from the world, Cross has finally done it. He has figured out how to shrink stuff. And he's immediately decided to weaponize it, creating a horrific suit called "The Yellowjacket", that Cross claims could change warfare as we know it. Uh-oh.

Meanwhile, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is just coming out of a three year stretch in San Quentin. He's happy to be out and desperately wants to go on the straight and narrow, but it turns out that not many people are interested in hiring convicted felons who stole millions of dollars. Plus, his only place to stay is with his old cellmate, Luis (Michael Peña) and his criminal associates*, and they keep enticing him to get back in the life.

Scott manages to hold out for a good long while, but when an attempt to crash his daughter's birthday party ends with him being escorted off the property, he figures he doesn't have anything else to lose. Or rather, he has no other way to win? Scott's big goal here is to prove to his ex-wife, Maggie (Judy Greer, who needs better roles), that he's capable of paying child support and being a stable influence on their daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). The fact that Maggie's fiance happens to be a cop (played by Bobby Canavale) doesn't help either.

So Scott agrees to this crime, and it turns out that said crime involves robbing a reclusive millionaire's house. You guessed it! Scott and company break into Hank Pym's historic San Francisco mansion because he has this big safe that must be full of super valuable stuff. Only, it isn't. All that's there is an old motorcycle suit or something. Scott steals it to be sure, but he's mostly disappointed. Until he puts it on.


And then the plot is officially going! Scott quickly accidentally triggers the shrinking abilities of the suit and goes for the ride of his life. Even weirder, Hank Pym's voice is in his ear, informing him that the owner of this suit would like to talk to him. Completely freaked out, Scott tries to give the suit back (which is a thing that really does happen in the comics) but gets arrested instead. And then Hank Pym shows up at jail to give him the opportunity of a lifetime. Maybe. A very weird lifetime.

If Scott will put on the suit and come with him, he will make sure that Scott gets to see his daughter again. Naturally Scott caves.

This is when the movie really picks up because here we find out what has been going on this whole time: Hope and her father really are estranged, but they've teamed back up with a singular mission: stop Darren Cross from making his own version of the Ant-Man suit. To that end, they want to steal his prototype and destroy his research. If they can do that, then Cross will have nothing left to sell to the paramilitary organizations and terrorist groups of the world.

But their problem is that they need someone to actually put on the Ant-Man suit and do the thing. Which is where Scott comes in. Sort of.

See, from this point on in the movie it's a pretty standard heist flick. Hope and Hank and Scott all plan the heist (eventually with some help from Scott's criminal associates) while deluding Cross. Hope and Hank train Scott in how to use the suit and how to talk to ants telepathically and how to fight and all of that, in montages that cover a couple days or so of intensive training. And by the end, Scott is officially Ant-Man. He has proven himself and he can take on the big guys!

I won't spoil the rest of the film for you. Suffice to say that there are some very entertaining set pieces, the good guys win because obviously, and the schtick about things that shouldn't be big being big and things that shouldn't be small being small never actually gets old. Lessons are learned, fathers are reconciled with daughters, and generally everything turns out as you figure it ought.

We have, however, already covered my biggest problem with the film. And that, simply put, is Scott himself. Well, Scott and Hope. Because as we get further and further into the film, as we spend more and more screentime on the entertaining but kind of lengthy preparations that Scott must go through in order to become Ant-Man, we're faced with an undeniable and frustrating question:

Why the hell isn't Hope the one in the suit?

Seriously! She's incredibly qualified and well-placed. She's on the board of directors at Pym Industries so she knows where everything is. She has passcodes to get through doors. She already knows how to fight and how to communicate telepathically with ants. She understands the severity of the situation. And her alibi is airtight! Come on!

What makes it even worse is that the film itself acknowledges this multiple times. Hope is utterly miffed that her father has passed her over in favor of some ex-con. His explanation is, frankly, irritating and kind of hypocritical. Hank insists that he won't let Hope use the suit because he "can't lose [her] too!" As in, he can't lose her like he lost her mother, Janet van Dyne. So Hope is sidelined for the entire film because her father has some manpain to work out. Scott's entire presence in the film is that he's expendable. I mean, he's also a good thief, but he's really mostly there because Hank doesn't care if he dies.

And this is awful just to start with, but the more you dig into the concept of this plotline, the more uncomfortable it gets. Janet van Dyne died** while on a mission with Hank back in the day. She made a choice to sacrifice herself to save the world, and Hank has respected that choice even though his inability to tell Hope about it killed their relationship. 

The problem is that he defends his actions by saying that he respected Janet's choice to sacrifice herself and now he's refusing to respect Hope's wishes and trying to control her life and actions.

Ow. Headache.

I'm not saying that this isn't believable behavior from a grieving, emotionally stunted, kind of chauvinistic old man, but that doesn't make me enjoy seeing it. It doesn't make it a good thing to hang a plot on. The movie has to bend over backwards to figure out how to work Scott into the narrative. Everyone agrees that Hope is the better candidate for the job, including Scott. But no. She can't do it. It's Ant-Man, not Ant-Ovaries!

The problem here lies not really with the characters inside the film but with the writers outside of it. Honestly, and I hate saying this, the problem really comes from the inclusion of Hope at all, or at the very least the way she's written. Hope is a fantastic character, but her actual existence in this movie makes the movie not make sense. If Hope weren't a character, or weren't a hyper-competent, martial-arts trained, ant-telepath, then it would make total sense for Hank to seek outside help. But she is. And so the movie doesn't make sense.

It's like the writers understood that they needed to have a strong female character in their film, but they didn't think hard enough about how to create a female character who made sense in the plot. Instead, they went with "Trinity Syndrome", which is when the film introduces a female character who is competent and amazing and the best in the world at whatever the thing is, and then has her teach the male lead to do it so that he can beat her at the end of the montage and then we all bow down before him because he's the chosen one.

You know, like in The Matrix. Or Wanted. Or Edge of Tomorrow.*** I can keep going. The point is that these tropes have become a mainstay of our fiction and they suck. The idea that a woman can be super badass and amazing at what she does but then after four hours of training the white hero can beat her is honestly insulting. I'd have much rather had that Hope was a nuanced interesting character who wasn't supremely qualified to wear the suit than to have her be so amazing and relegated to the background because of reasons.

That, in a very large nutshell, is my big problem with this movie. Oh it's fun all right. It's very fun. And Hope is an amazing character who I really want to see more of, especially given that by the end of the film she is finally given her own suit. But it kind of ruins the movie for me. It makes it really hard for me to focus on what's going on, because I can't figure out if we're all supposed to just ignore how much tighter this story would be if Hope van Dyne were the main character.

I mean, to start with, you'd get a female lead superhero, which would be rad. But then you would lose huge chunks of the story that seem to exist only to kill the suspense and flow of the film. We'd get a much deeper and more compelling look at Hope and Hank's relationship. We'd probably get more about Janet. And the heist would be even more engaging because we would spend the whole time worrying about Hope and her relationship with Darren Cross and all this juicy psychological stuff.

But no. We don't get that because that "wouldn't be true to the comics."

Who cares?!

The movie already is picking and choosing what it wants from the comics. I mean, in the comics, Hank Pym is Yellowjacket and Yellowjacket is a good guy. Here the Yellowjacket suit is a cause of international turmoil and worn by Darren Cross. Hope doesn't even exist in the comics, and here she is. Why not put her in the suit? Why create her at all if you weren't going to actually follow through?

And, for that matter, why the heck did they fridge Janet van Dyne, the woman who founded the Avengers Initiative and actually named it in the original comics? There are few characters as central the Marvel universe as Janet, and to have her shunted off into the "quantum realm" where her only hope is that Hank will somehow magically figure out how to save her is really not okay.

Aside from this big stumbling block, I find the film mixed in its representations of gender. On the one hand, I really respect the movie for not making Scott's ex-wife fall back in love with him and leave her fiance or anything. Nope. She just warms up to him slightly as a human being, but appears to be very happy where she is. Plus, Scott comes to respect Cassie's step-dad as a person and they end up forming a nicely complex family unit.

Also, the contractually obligated romance between Hope and Scott is kept thankfully brief. Luis, Scott's crime friend, even turns out to be a surprisingly complex man, at least in terms of gender roles, which is a nice change of pace, even if it is played for laughs.**** But the fridging of Janet van Dyne is still really problematic, as is the way that Hope's personality seems to shift based on whatever the movie needs her to be at any moment. Urgh.

Okay, so the basic gist is this: Ant-Man is a fun movie, but it's not a very progressive one. It gives lip service to the idea of women being superheroes, but it frankly refuses to put its money where its mouth is. Ant-Man is probably worth seeing and I would bet you'll enjoy it as long as you don't think too hard about it. Entertainment isn't everything, and at some point Marvel is going to have to own up to that.

Also, I liked these guys, but I found it problematic that most of the men of color in the film were felons.
*Said criminal associates are very entertaining but don't seem to have memorable names. Basically I remember them as "that Russian guy played by David Dastmalchian" and "the one played by noted rapper T.I." As it turns out, T.I. is a pretty good actor.

**Maybe. Sort of. It's a superhero movie, so probably not for good.

***Slightly subverted here, as the article points out, in that she never becomes less amazing, the hero just largely levels up to meet her.

****Luis, also a convicted felon who seems like he should be obsessed with machismo or some other stereotype about Latinx male performativity, reveals in his long rambling stories that his preferred leisure activities involve going to wine tastings and art galleries. He has strong feelings about neo-cubism and white wine, and the narrative takes the effort to make sure this is just one facet of his personality. Also these scenes are parts of the film that feel most like Edgar Wright wrote them.

5 comments:

  1. Hope and Hank train Scott in how to use the suit and how to talk to ants telepathically and how to fight and all of that, in montages that cover a couple days or so of intensive training.

    How do Pym particles relate to communicating with ants? Or is that some other invention?

    I'm not saying that this isn't believable behavior from a grieving, emotionally stunted, kind of chauvinistic old man, but that doesn't make me enjoy seeing it.

    At least the film acknowledges that it's wrong behaviour, except that it then undermines that by making Scott the right choice anyway.

    I'd have much rather had that Hope was a nuanced interesting character who wasn't supremely qualified to wear the suit than to have her be so amazing and relegated to the background because of reasons.

    But not as much as having her be (I would assume) Wasp.

    On the plus side, it seems we will get to see that.

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    1. I am pleased (or displeasure at her not being in suit is tempered) that we don't get to see Scott be *better* qualified than Hope, or even as much as, just be qualified enough.

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    2. It's a separate invention. Kind of like an earpiece? And he seems to have a bunch of them just lying around. I guess he figured that if he was going to be tiny he might as well figure out how to communicate with ants? They don't bother explaining a whole heck of a lot in this film.

      Yeah, a lot of the problem is that the movie tells us that Hank is doing it for all the wrong reasons, but that he's absolutely right to do it. Which is lame. It doesn't work like that.

      I'm glad we're going to get to see Hope as Wasp soon, but I'm just really frustrated by how much potential is wasted in this film. Like you said, I'm glad we don't ever see Scott openly being *better* qualified than Hope, but again that goes into my issues with how because of that the plot really doesn't make sense.

      Hmmph.

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  2. If it helps, Kevin Feige said that we will be seeing the new Wasp somewhere in Phase 3.

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