If you are not already beginning to feel the fatigue of the summer blockbuster, then you need to check your pulse. You might be as dead as the horse that every major production studio has spent the past few months beating. The best example for worn out property being brought out for one more go (unless they make mountains of cash, which spoiler: all of them do) is Minions.
I can’t say I really understand the phenomena. After Despicable Me, I was like, “I need more of these crazy things.” After the second, I was satisfied. What I never wanted was a movie dedicated to their gibberish. But the movie doesn’t really bother me that much. It’s the marketing. If your life hasn’t turned into some weird yellow-pill themed version of what it was 4 months ago, then you are insanely off the grid. These mischievously masochistic monsters have become such a cultural fixture during their nearly year-long ad campaign, that I really haven’t even stopped to question the implications of them being on the box that I just had delivered from Amazon.
This isn’t the only franchise that has made a huge – if not disappointing – splash this summer. The Terminator franchise continues to go back in time, brutalizing what was once the most interesting and perfect action franchise of all time. Jurassic World revitalized a franchise that was last seen with talking raptors, and this is when I knew miracles were possible. Even Mad Max got a reboot, and that movie was freaking entertaining as all get out. This is my dilemma. I don’t want them to stop even if that means one franchise a summer has to take the dive from good to bad or bad to pathetic. I have too much fun.
Well, I usually do. This summer has been different. I have enjoyed a lot that the box office has to offer, but I also have this growing nervousness that my summers are slowly being consolidated into three or four universes that are getting more and more bloated. This prospect is no more real and frightening than the continued growth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I have been geeking out at every premiere since Avengers. I feel emotionally invested in their success in a way that I know is unhealthy. But, I just love it so much. Unfortunately, Age of Ultron made me nervous. Was this going too deep into comic lore that the average person doesn’t and probably shouldn’t care about? Were there too many characters to follow? Can the stakes continue to get bigger? There are even more concerns that I choose to ignore because of how biased I am, but this is not the mood you want surrounding the next installment in the Marvel Universe.
It also doesn’t help that Marvel is starting to feel like the Kobe in a game being played by Curry’s. Fox and Warner Brothers are both taking huge first steps in the beginning of their shared universes, and they made sure we knew about it after this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. We got Fantastic Four, Deadpool, Batman v. Superman, and Suicide Squad trailers, all of which blew me away. Teasers, team-ups, and surprise guests were abound, and things were eerily quiet in the Marvel camp. Because their presence was noticeably absent since last year’s major slate reveal, Ant-Man (being released only four days later) was not the source of any of my excitement, and the idea of it seemed insignificant and silly compared to what was coming up next year. I sat down at the premiere that I wasn’t particularly jazzed to attend, and saw the smallest and oldest crowd that I have ever seen at a premiere.
Great. What have I gotten myself into?
I left the theatre with a definite answer to that question. A ton of fun. Ant-Man is by no means the best piece of property the MCU has right now, especially after the killer run of Winter Soldier/Guardians of the Galaxy/Daredevil. However, it may save the Marvel Universe from drowning in unprecedented competition in 2016. How did a movie that is basically a mix of Oceans 11 and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids save a franchise that has two of top six highest grossing movies of all time? Ant-Man is incredibly self-aware, true to its nature, and old-fashioned enough to be a welcome breath of fresh air amongst the growing levels of DC-style self-seriousness that Age of Ultron began to employ.
Ant-Man gives us the first origin story that the Marvel universe has offered since Captain America: The First Avenger. This is something that I never thought I would miss that much, but there is a nonchalance to superpowers at this point (Avengers apparently pass the time by playing with Thor’s hammer), that it was really cool to see someone who isn’t super-rich or super-smart struggle to comprehend and use new-found powers. This idea of the “average-joe,” who can’t hold down a job at Baskin Robins becoming someone who all of a sudden has extraordinary power is something that is very appealing to us.
We want to be the one with the powers to protect those closest to us. Ant-Man does an excellent job appealing to this desire, which is far more simple and understandable than the motivations of heroes such as Thor or Captain America.
The cast also does a fantastic job of bringing a light-hearted energy to the film that sold me on this return to the origin idea. Critics have been describing Paul Rudd’s performance as charming, and I feel like this is the perfect descriptor. I either love Rudd or hate Rudd and it depends on which persona he is embodying. The douchey Rudd of recent years is zero fun for me, but the one that is caring, down-on-his luck, and almost blissfully unaware is pure gold to me. Fortunately, the latter is what we got, and this made me very happy. Evangeline Lilly is a goddess, and also seems to be the powerful female character that Marvel has been so desperately searching for in their small list of female characters that they have the rights to. I still have some issues with the portrayal of Black Widow and Gamora (“If a chick doesn’t have emotions, that makes her cool and powerful, right?” – Marvel, circa 2012). Scarlet Witch began to solve some of those problems for me, but Lilly’s portrayal of Hope van Dyne really sealed the deal for me. She was amazing in the role; however, no one could touch the performance of Michael Pena. Perfectly endowed with the voice of Edgar Wright, the original writer/director/reason this movie exists, Pena’s performance makes this movie as memorable as it is. He destroys every scene that he is in, including the hilariously long-winded stories of how he gets job tips, and he adds yet another impressive performance to his already well-rounded resume. Get an idea of how awesome he is in this TV spot.
Ant-Man is not without its hiccups. The villain is almost entirely forgettable. He is either over-sold or under-developed, but either way, he is not a significant addition to the trophy case of Marvel’s vanquished foes. The pacing of the movie is super confusing at points, and it is hard to tell if that was due to Edgar Wright’s playful use of time, or just a misunderstanding in the editing process. The science mumbo jumbo is all together bad, and I know people will go to town on the “feasibility” of all of this, but I am far less concerned with that and more concerned with the science behind the fact that Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly haven’t aged in the past ten years. Maybe anything is possible. Maybe Michael Douglas did all their aging for them.
That kind of stuff just was inconsequential to me by the end of the movie though. Marvel has successfully told a story of a normal person. It really hasn’t happened before. Their cast is a bunch of hyper-tormented super-spies, geniuses, billionaires, and a god. Ant-Man is a beautifully grounded addition to the universe that seems like it was created to prepare us for projects that were going to bring the stakes back to the street-level again. We are getting more shows within the Netflix universe soon, Spidey is about to be introduced, and even Civil War should feel much more concerned with the day-to-day impact of super hero activity. Ant-Man doesn’t bore us with a world that involves plummeting cities, infinity stones, or talking raccoons. It make us recognize the incredible nature of our immediate surroundings. There is a beautiful scene that occurs solely within a brief case that is unlike anything that I have ever seen before. This kind of wonder would not have been accomplished without an intense commitment to the lives of its heroes and an understanding of them as more than a list of super powers, but as humans. Ant-Man does not bother to fool with a bigger conflict or grander scales, but instead trades that for an equally large heart that left me incredibly satisfied.