Thursday, July 30, 2015

I prefer Ant-Man in his own universe

I was really digging Ant-Man. In fact, I was toying early on with giving it a four-star rating. As just one example, I loved that scene where Michael Pena recounts how he learned about the potentially unguarded safe, and all the characters in his story mouth the words of his story as he's saying them. That was probably Peyton Reed's best Edgar Wright impersonation of the film. Not because that's something Wright would actually do, but because it's in the spirit of something Wright would actually do.

But then, the Marvel Cinematic Universe had to come along and screw it all up.

"I think the first thing we should do is contact the Avengers," says Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), with a completely straight face, at what I would guess was the film's 40-minute mark.

The first thing I thought was, Wow, that line was delivered really awkwardly.

The second thing I thought was, Wait, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is not laughing.

The third thing I thought was, Wait, how does this civilian know about the Avengers?

The fourth thing I thought was, Oh yeah, because all the events of all the previous Marvel movies are things that actually happened in this world, and were covered by all the major media outlets. This guy knows about the Avengers because the Avengers are the most famous people in the world.

Yeah, that universe.

This was exactly the moment when Ant-Man lost a full star rating and never recovered it. A few moments later, Pym makes reference to something that happened at the end of the second Avengers movie, which I haven't seen but which I know about anyway. It's such a bad joke that you can almost hear the rim shot that accompanies it. He also makes mention of Tony Stark.

Here we go, I thought.

And here we went. A few scenes later, Lang is unwittingly trying to break into some kind of Avenger headquarters, and must face off against Falcon (Anthony Mackie). So too much attention is not drawn from our central figure, I guess, this is the only Avenger Lang actually meets, and he's one of the second-tier Avengers. (It's not the only Avenger who appears in the movie, however -- you are of course obliged to wait all the way until the end of the credits to see who else shows his face.)

I had been just fine with Ant-Man in his own cinematic universe and not a part of somebody else's. I didn't know until the closing credits (every last one of which I was compelled to sit through, even though I was in danger of missing the last tram home) that John Slattery was playing Howard Stark, Tony's father, in the opening scene. (If he played him in other movies, I either haven't seen those movies or have just plain forgotten.) But once we were reminded that Ant-Man is just a tiny cog in what is, by now, an impossibly unwieldy infrastructure of superheroes and supervillains, the movie lost its authority for me. Now everything that was going on would be subsumed into this larger narrative, a narrative so big that even its biggest players are inevitably now reduced to someone else's second fiddle.

This is why superhero movies worked for so long under this basic premise: the superhero in this movie is not only the only superhero in the world, he's also the first time the characters are even acquainted with the idea of a superhero. Most old-fashioned superhero movies -- and by "old-fashioned" I mean "more than ten years old" -- were not only origin stories for a particular superhero, but they were stories of the origin of the concept of the superhero. That's why the characters who witnessed this superhero at work were so amazed/astounded/ what have you.

But when a suit that can shrink a man to the size of an ant is only the 10th or 11th most impressive superhero trick out there, something is lost. This is a world where a man turns into a giant green monster when he gets angry. This is a world where a super-powered soldier from World War II was revived 70 years later. Shit, this is a world where an alien god can travel back and forth between Earth and his planet through some kind of interstellar bridge and has an all-powerful hammer. A man the size of a bug is small potatoes compared to all that, pun absolutely intended.

Can't I just be happy with a world where Ant-Man is the world's only superhero, and the things he does astonish us as though we'd never before seen something supernatural? Can't I live in a world where this power is not only described as the world's most powerful weapon, in order to hype up the stakes of this particular film, but actually is the most powerful weapon, because everything else that exists in this world exists within a framework of realism?

I can't, because that world is dead. I'm not sure if another superhero will ever step on to your IMAX screen without the baggage of all the other superheroes who may be slightly cooler than he (or she) is. D.C. will soon be part of Marvel's game -- already is, really, since both Suicide Squad and Superman vs. Batman feel as though they've already been released -- and anyone else who has any kind of superhero will never be able to compete with the two giants.

I for one would like to marvel -- pun again intended -- over the wonders of an unfamiliar superhero as though I'm just discovering what a superhero is myself. For about 40 minutes, I did just that.

But then, the Marvel Cinematic Universe had to come along and screw it all up.

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