MOVIE REVIEW: Ant-Man

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"ANT-MAN"-- 4 STARS

Ever since Marvel Films started their tremendously successful cinematic universe with "Iron Man" in 2008, they have had their work cut out for them in terms of selling the general moviegoing public on obscure and non-A-list superheroes.  When Universal Pictures and Sony trotted out "Hulk" in 2003 and Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" in 2002 respectively, they had it easy with well-known character commodities.  For the majority, other than ardent geeks and die-hard comic fans, that wasn't the case with characters like Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America.  Through deft filmmaking and solid creative choices, Marvel has elevated those B-level heroes into superstars with the individual films and the two "Avengers" team-ups. 

Each movie Marvel Films has attempted has strengthened the power of its brand, no matter the obscurity of the character or source material.  There is no greater proof of that strength than the success of last year's "Guardians of the Galaxy," the team of D-list heroes that reigned as the top-grossing film of 2014 until "American Sniper" stretched its profit run into 2015.  They are changing straw to gold down there at Walt Disney, Marvel's parent company.  The skeptics have always poked around to ask how far Marvel can take this momentum and brand power.  How do you top the miracle that is "Guardians of the Galaxy?"  At what point does Marvel peak, bite off more than it can chew, or fail under greedy hubris?

If you read the well-documented production strife coming out of "Ant-Man," which debuts this weekend, you can see why many insiders had earmarked this film early to be Marvel's first flop and failure.  The peak of that bad juju was having its original director, genre fan-favorite Edgar Wright ("Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World" and "Shaun of the Dead"), walk out and be replaced by Peyton Reed ("Bring It On" and "The Break-Up"), a bit of a chump who hasn't led a film in seven years.  Wright and his frequent collaborator Joe Cornish share half of the screenwriting credit with Will Ferrell's go-to director Adam McKay and star Paul Rudd.  Also, as this release has drawn closer, many have felt that the trailers and marketing revealed too much and tried far too hard to get audiences to buy "Ant-Man" as an equal to the outstanding Avengers roster of superstars.  Those are all fair red flags and potentially damaging flaws.

Creative differences, bad PR, and terrible marketing have sunk greater and lesser films.  "Ant-Man" survives each those kisses of death to be a fun, entertaining, and clever blockbuster.  The creativity is more than present to veer away from Marvel's usually enormous scale of worldwide crisis-aversion and give us a true small-scale (literally and figuratively) "regular guy" hero that was missing among the billionaires, scientists, soldiers, assassins, and demi-gods Marvel has elevated so far to its cinematic pedestals.  "Ant-Man" is packed with a plentiful amount of humor, spirit, and surprises that trump both the bad PR and overindulgent marketing.  It was saving some aces up its sleeve.  If you enjoyed the energy and lighter tone of "Guardians of the Galaxy," then this one will be right up your alley and then some.  It may be the only Marvel movie you will ever see that opens with its iconic logos played against mariachi music.  That's the kind of cheeky fun being had here.

The origins and history of "Ant-Man" begin with Michael Douglas's innovator Hank Pym.  In the 1960's, Hank developed a special formula and particle that could reduce the space between molecules at the atomic level to essentially strengthen, yet condense any material.  With a special containment suit and helmet, Pym could even shrink himself and reap the benefits of having 50 times the normal strength at an undetectable size.  As a tinkering entomologist, Hank harnessed the control of different varieties of ants to aid in his micro-sized heroics.  By the end of the Cold War in the 1980's, Hank's colleagues at S.H.I.E.L.D., including Howard Stark (John Slattery, reprising the older version he played in "Iron Man 2") and Mitchell Carson (Martin Donovan), saw vast potential of military application with Pym's Ant-Man technology.  Pym refuses to relinquish his science and shelves everything away.

By the present day, Pym has tried to steer his company towards other endeavors under the stewardship of his hand-picked protege Darren Cross (TV and stage star Corey Stoll).  Now advanced in age, Hank has been phased out to emeritus status by Cross and his own estranged daughter Hope ("Lost" and "The Hobbit" trilogy star Evangeline Lilly).  Cross is on the cusp of re-engineering a new version of the special particle that Pym discovered and stashed away.  His vision is the "Yellowjacket" prototype of shrinking mechanized soldiers that clearly ventures down that weaponized path Hank found to be troublesome.  Secretly, Pym becomes determined to stop Cross and, despite their strained relationship, Hope is his inside help.  He's too old to do it himself.  

That's where our man Scott Lang comes in, played by everyone's favorite regular guy movie star Paul Rudd.  Scott is a Robin Hood burglar trying to go straight while squatting with his former cell mate (Michael Pena, the 21st century Luis Guzman Hispanic sidekick of choice).  He is a gifted electrical engineer that recently finished a stint at San Quentin State Prison for hacking and exposing his own former crooked tech conglomerate after it was stealing from its costumers.  His prison time and status as a former felon keep him from any contact and custody of his young daughter Cassie.  Hank sees potential in Scott as a guy needing a break and skillful intellect, especially after he sets Scott up to steal and try on the Ant-Man suit in action.  With a new protege, Pym trains and teaches Lang how to be the Ant-Man in time to infiltrate and stop Cross's plans.

"Ant-Man" is essentially a caper flick disguised as a superhero film.  This a thief preparing with a sage mentor to be ready for the big score.  Because this is "Ant-Man" and not "Iron Man," this is a C-level hero with C-level stakes.  Honestly, for as much as that is, more or less, a large step down from the usual world destruction ramifications of the "Avengers" films and "Guardians of the Galaxy," the shift in scale and tone is welcome and appreciated.  Marvel and company slowed things a touch for this standalone film.  The threads are present to connect it to the bigger "Avengers" universe, but the essence at work was getting back to cradling and creating strong, engaging characters instead of piling on the theatrics.  Not every comic book film or project with a Marvel logo affixed to it needs to be massively huge in importance.  They don't always need to be epic and filled with cataclysmic mayhem.  Can't it just be cool, fun, and fit its design and purpose?  If "Ant-Man" was a Quentin Taratino film, it would be the smooth "Jackie Brown" compared to the bigger whirlwinds of "Inglouroious Basterds," "Kill Bill," and "Django Unchained," where everything gets bloated and gaudy in a hurry.

That's the enormous draw and success of "Ant-Man."  To throw one more anecdotal comparison out there, in honor of baseball season, "Ant-Man" is a bases-clearing double off the wall instead of a towering solo home run that leaves the stadium.  The home run is a more powerful event and impressive highlight, no doubt, but the double gets the job done and then some.  A crucial extra base hit takes hustle to execute over one big swing and a lazy home run trot.  By downshifting to roll as a heist film, "Ant-Man" works harder for its reward and earns it.

The fun starts with the great cast.  Taking on, of all things, a superhero role, Paul Rudd ascends to the top of the Everyman mountain of Hollywood today.  The guy who used to be an ensemble sidekick in Will Ferrell and Judd Apatow comedies is now a legit leading man.  Someday, mark my words, he's going to be the next Tom Hanks and a future national treasure.  His gung-ho sarcastic and comedic appeal, devoid of any wussy reluctant-hero-with-angst issues that has plagued other superhero origin stories (yeah you, "Green Lantern" and every iteration of "Spider-Man" ever), balances the tension and excitement perfectly.  And Rudd's not even the funniest act in the movie.  That would be Michael Pena as his partner-in-crime Luis.  He's an unpredictable, smiling riot who gets all the big zingers.  Finally, since it can't all be jokes and metaphorical butt-spanking, the invested presence of two-time Academy Award winner Michael Douglas supplies a huge chunk of gravitas equal to what Robert Redford provided for "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" last year.  His Hank is the anchor that keeps the Rudd-Pena show from being unfocused, too light, a too loose to go off the rails.

Powered by its brilliantly-created shrinking scenes of different movements and action styles, "Ant-Man" is a must-see experience in 3D.  Credit here is due to Oscar-winning cinematographer and former James Cameron collaborator Russell Carpenter for diving into these wild realm of making small things look and loom large.  We've come along way since "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids" and the dynamics jump off the screen.  The playful and fluid changes of size and depth make this movie a rare and exemplary use of the 3D gimmick that is normally superfluous fluff meant to drive up ticket prices.  This one is worth it and a flawless fit.  As always, you are crazy if you leave the theater before the closing credits are over.  There are two post-movie scenes that plant major seeds for the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  It has to be said again.  "Ant-Man" didn't need to top what Marvel has accomplished before.  It just had to be its cool and unique self.  The result is a fun change of pace that is highly recommended.

LESSON #1: BREAK THE ONE CARDINAL RULE THE SMART GUY TELLS YOU TO AVOID WHEN DIRE CIRCUMSTANCES AND A MOVIE CLIMAX REQUIRES YOUR DRASTIC ACTION-- There is an "Inception"-like "limbo level" and "Ghostbusters"-esque "don't cross the streams" rule of the Ant-Man suit's ability to shrink that is catastrophic at all costs.  Naturally, that clause is harked upon early in the movie, which means it is the rule that will likely be broken at the precise necessary time to save the day.  You never see a movie that drops one of those that actually comes true and destroys the good guy.  Everyone returns from the point of no return.  That would be a nice change of pace.

LESSON #2: EARNING THE REDEMPTION THAT COMES FROM A DESERVED SECOND CHANCE-- Scott Lang, as a former felon, is learning that employers aren't going to look past his misdeeds to see the advanced degree engineer on the resume.  When the going gets tough, he falls back to crime as the easy way out and that's his flaw.  He's a well-meaning guy that deserves a second chance at being a father and a productive member of society, but he has to earn that redemption.  As a new hero with a mission, Hank gives Scott that chance and power to do just that.

LESSON #3: FATHERS ARE THEIR DAUGHTERS' FIRST AND GREATEST HEROES-- When you strip away all the super-suits, insects, science, and swashbuckling from "Ant-Man," you have two proud fathers (Hank and Scott) that have screwed up their relationships with their respective daughters.  Both men want a better world for their daughter and want to mend the broken connection.  Both daughters, even Hope at her grown age, still revere their fathers as their biggest heroes.  That's the beauty of that instinctual bond and it's not too late for either Hank or Scott to build that back.  This is where that redemption from Lesson #2 becomes the second chance to be fathers over personal legacy or stopping the bad guy.

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