Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp delivers a fun and action-packed Marvel feast

Image courtesy of Digital Spy

Movie: Ant-Man and the Wasp
Director: Peyton Reed
Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas

Paul Rudd returns as The Incredible Shrinking Ex-Convict returns for his second film in the franchise alongside Evangeline Lilly and Michael Douglas, and while this new installment in Marvel’s most light-hearted series contains a few strange mood shifts and rushes a bit too quickly to develop its tragic villain, it sprouts with the right balance of action and laughs to keep audiences from shrinking back in horror.

In depth:
Over two years ago, I reviewed Captain America: Civil War, and amidst all the praise I doled out to the stellar cast and smart writing laid a short bit of eulogizing for actor-comedian Paul Rudd. With crack comedic timing and a spark of fun, Rudd's Ant-Man sparkled in the film along with newbie web-head Tom Holland, and I had promised myself that I would catch up with the first Ant-Man flick to see him in his native environment. Unfortunately, I keep promises the same way Ridley Scott makes quality films: inconsistently, despite my best efforts. Thankfully the newly released sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp, is big enough to stand on its own, and strong character dynamics and a tight, streamlined story ensure an entertaining movie experience despite hitting a few snags along the way.

We start off with an exposition of the past, as brilliant scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) reminiscence on how they lost Janet Pym (Michelle Pfeifer) to a quasi-mythical subatomic nexus known as the “Quantum Realm” during a mission gone wrong. However, knowledge that Scott Lang (Rudd), master thief-turn-new Ant-Man, had come back alive and well from that supposed point of no return fills Pym with hope that they can bring his wife home after 30 years. We then cut to Lang, our bumbling, lovable rogue as he entertains his daughter while under house arrest for his part in the scuffle back in Germany. His daily routine is dull, safe, and unspectacular, until Janet, whom he unknowingly encountered in the Quantum Realm, drops a line from the otherside in the form of vision. Perturbed, he makes a spur-of-the-moment phone call to the Pyms, who since Germany don’t exactly have him high on their Christmas wish list. This innocuous little action ends up kicking the whole plot off, as multiple parties hunt him and the Pyms down to gain access to the secrets locked inside his brain — with both his freedom and even his life on the line.

Not exactly the Wonder Twins here
Ant-Man and the Wasp is a very streamlined film, remarkable in its stark linearity compared to most Marvel movies. This isn’t a bad thing, as it avoids meandering through some distant tangent in the name of misplace "development" as so many movies do. Less really is more at times, and Ant-Man proves it by tunneling audience focus to the essentials: the teeth-clenched teamwork of our three main leads, and the various factions giving chase throughout the film.  

Rudd is still an absolute joy, and seeing him in his home series drew out even more of his magic. He somehow always finds the right balance in his scenes: between a generous giver and a selfish cad; or between a dashing and competent hero, and a bumbling yet well-meaning oaf. This is nowhere near as easy as I make it sound, and yet he accomplishes it with a natural flair and humor. Lilly pays Hope Pym with quiet strength and brilliance, being the main draw for the flick’s frenetic fight scenes, her graceful yet precise skills as a fighter forming a perfect contrast to Scott’s improvised power brawling heavily reliant on the element of surprise. It’s nice that she avoids falling into the dreaded “girlfriend syndrome” as in the old-school Marvel films, though based on what I understand, the previous movie was one of the MCU's worst offenders. Rounding out the power trio is Hank Pym, the surly yet brilliant scientist played by the legendary Michael Douglas. A good veteran actor can turn even a polished turd of a flick into a chance to shine; an actor of Douglas’s caliber, supported by a well-stitched plot and an equally competent cast, goes beyond that, bringing the complex character of Pym, with all of his complications and insecurities, his drive and arrogance, to life.

Though the MCU as a whole tends to veer away from grimdark and peppers its films with a
Expect to see scenes like this. A lot.
dash of humor, Ant-Man and the Wasp stand out in just how light-hearted it is, even compared to other relatively “fluffy” movies in the franchise like Spider-Man: Homecoming. Lang, of course, is a signature driver in this, always lightening the mood with a bumble or a short quip that, through smart writing and perfect timing, usually avoids poisoning the atmosphere. Still, the film occasionally suffers from the tragically overused trope of “We don’t have time for this!” - typically uttered by Hank Pym when Scott and Hope spend longer than necessary getting doe-eyed with each other.

But it’s Michael Peña, reprising his role as Lang’s partner in crime Luis, who gives the film its real comedic kick, being a fulcrum of its infectious and good-natured humor in rare moments when the focus isn’t on our main cast. What could have been an obnoxious or even offensive caricature of an ex-con morphs into one of the most endearing and enjoyable parts of the film.  Peña plays off everyone around him so naturally as equal parts nervous motor mouth, dutiful sidekick, and sarcastic devotee. He brings a quiet charisma, and pulls out some truly Abbott and Costello level of comedic artistry that at times threatens to steal the whole show. Standing out in such a talented cast can be tough, but Peña manages to snag scenes right from under the noses of cast-mates - even in the middle of an action scene supposedly out of his element.

If I could finger once area where the movie lacks, besides the rare points when bathos interrupts pathos, it’s in the construction of its principle tragic villains: the quantum phaser and assassin Ghost, played by Hannah John-Kamen, and the incomparable Laurence Fishburne as her handler Dr. Bill Foster, an old "friend" and rival of Hank Pym. I have nothing against how the actors played their roles; John-Hannah steps up admirably as a troubled yet dangerous loose cannon on the brink of desperation, while Fishburne is as much an old movie hand as Douglas or Pfeiffer, so a strong performance from him is almost a given. But how Marvel handled their motives rubs me a bit wrong.  Ever since Homecoming, the MCU has apparently heeded the criticisms of their infamous shallow villain problem, and have worked hard to reverse the trend. In most cases, like the brilliant rendition of Erik Killmonger a la Black Panther, it flows near flawlessly from an organic development over the course of the film. But here, it feels like the creators tried a little too hard to stress Ghost’s tragic backstory; it feels rushed, and comes off as played up in order to make her seem sympathetic. Even the private talks she has with Foster feel ham-fisted, as if plugged in solely to make our antagonists, particularly Foster, look more noble by repeatedly drumming ad nauseum how there are certain line he will not cross.  

Besides the above critiques, though, there’s not much to complain about. The heavy tilt towards the silly and optimistic may be an acquired taste for some, but I find it refreshing, similar to Homecoming’s more down-to-earth approach to the superhero paradigm. Janet’s actions in the end (no spoiler) can come off as a deus ex machina if you squint hard enough, but only rank pedants would comb the plot that closely to find something to criticize. Ant-Man and the Wasp is far from perfect, but this smart, funny, action fantasy flick proves just the right size to pack a serious cinema wallop.

Grade: B+  

Monday, July 2, 2018

July Releases

July Releases

July's here, baby, and Mo McRae and others are already setting off fireworks this Tuesday with the release of The First Purge, the latest installment in James DeMonaco's infamous film series covering - you guessed it - the first Purge, a concept that somehow manages to make less sense as the series expands. Marvel takes another stab at box office glory with Ant-Man and the Wasp, while Hotel Transylvania 3, Teen Titans GO to the Movies, and Netflix release Duck Duck Goose are likely to remind all of us yet again why Disney/Pixar has snagged 12 out of 17 Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature. Rounding out the box office are a couple of sequels, which are sure to sate everyone's high-flying, bad guy-blasting, summer blockbuster needs.

Check out below for more of what's coming out this July:




See you at the movies! 

Saturday, June 2, 2018

June Releases

June Releases

You know what time it is...
We're hitting the mid-year stride, and the first month of summer blockbusters already reels us in with some major hits in the cinema game.  The two most anticipated films are undoubtedly Pixar's long-awaited sequel to their 2004 flash of superhero brilliance, The Incredibles; and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, a continuation of the less-brilliant-but-still-fun Jurassic World.  Not sure what it says that when the two hottest tickets in a month are both emblematic of Hollywood's sequelitis, but eh - moving on...

Friday, May 25, 2018

One Punch Man: Deconstruction and Reconstruction - Part Two


 (This is Part Two of my analysis of the deconstructive elements of One Punch Man; click here to see part one.)
(WARNING: Contains manga/webcomic spoilers for those who have only watched the anime.  Consider yourself warned)

A couple of moons ago, I made a post outlining some of the key features that made manga creator ONE’s signature series, One-Punch Man.  This superhero parody took the anime world by storm when it premiered, launching a loyal (some might say rabid) fandom and inviting endless questions about how we’re supposed to approach it: Is it merely a parody?  A straight send-up?  How seriously does it take the archetypes and tropes it plays around with so ruthlessly?  In the last post, I pushed forward the argument that One-Punch Man, far from being a “gag manga,” is a pretty effective deconstruction of both the superhero and shonen genres, despite being a seinen series.  In this respect, it is a close elder cousin of My Hero Academia by Kohei Horikoshi (an excellent series in its own right, which demands an examination all of its own) in that both are popular takes on the superhero convention from a Japanese perspective with some deconstructive elements thrown in.  But while the generally straight-shooting and optimistic MHA uses deconstruction as a tool to shore up narrative weaknesses in the shonen paradigm and create a stronger and more original storyline, One-Punch Man, at least initially, definitely aimed for ridicule and and a rather cynical take on what happens when heroism becomes a commodity. 

But things started shifting a bit after the Boros Arc.  True, the concept of heroism as a cash-cow business still gets a merciless skewering, and by ways sharper and more vicious than even MHA at its darkest.  It also continues to make Swiss cheese out of some standard superhero tropes, like the superhero team-up, or even the power of anger/drive/love/whatever to turn the tide of a battle.  But as a whole, One-Punch Man takes a somewhat kinder and more generous approach to the idea of heroism itself after awhile.  This is different and indeed, the inverse from a series like My Hero Academia; there, the general shonen archetypes are followed, with the occasional dark deconstruction thrown in to shake things up and spur on character development.  The value of both heroism and the nature of heroes, meanwhile, is taken as granted, with the question “What makes a true hero?” posed only by characters who are murderous and/or hypocritical.  For One-Punch Man, though, the heroic luster has clearly rubbed off, while the nature of the hero business is rot and corruption, with glory hounds and sharks all vying for the public eye.

But acts of heroism itself are still held up favorably by the narrative, and I suspect that ONE is trying to get us to see heroism in a different light; not as a business, or even as a vehicle for exploring the drives and passions of youth, but as an act performed for the benefits of others.  He employs this via a gradual shift away from Saitama’s perspective and towards those of other characters in the story, thereby maintaining the deconstructive parody, but giving flashes of light which help to reconstruct heroism as an ideal, if not necessarily a profession or reality. 

The Deconstructive Elephant in the Room
Of course, our stalwart “hero” Saitama hasn’t changed much; he remains the same lazy, lackadaisical, brutally-efficient parody force he’s always been.  He seems to have drifted a bit towards a more ideal hero as the webcomic goes by and he gets more comfortable with actually instructing (however unintentionally) the people he encounters.  But his main purpose remains to mock and destroy any semblance of conventional hero and/or manga tropes the fall within his languid reach.  His character has all the dynamism and spontaneity of static cling, but that’s not a bad thing at all in this case.  Rather, it gives the other characters in the series a stepping point as well as a benchmark by which they can measure their growth and see how closely they approach the ideal of heroism.  Remember: the primary marker distinguishing  One-Punch Man from something like My Hero Academia - rooted in the demographic difference between the two - is the degree to which cynicism entwines itself into the plotline of the former, while remaining only a necessary but avoidable element in the latter.  And Saitama, our lazy, destructive little protagonist, points to a rebuilding of these hero tropes just by standing in contrast to the small but steady trickle of optimism slowly seeping into the story.

Meaning of a Hero
I brought up the Deep Sea King arc in part one, but it’s worth revisiting here to get a sense of how the reconstruction of the story builds up even at this point.  That arc was a first glimpse of what would be a recurring pattern for the series: a bunch of heroes gain tremendous amounts of resolve, trudge through dung heaps of doubt, before finding the will to fight on - and get utterly curb-stomped for their efforts before Saitama swoops in and cleans house in his own lazy way.  While an obvious knock against the whole hero paradigm, it also quietly opens the conversation on what, exactly, makes a hero.  The fat heckler towards the end had his own opinions, of course; a hero beats monsters, and anyone who can’t doesn’t deserve the moniker.  But Saitama begs to differ, for despite his lackadaisical nature, he grasps more than anyone in the crowd what makes a hero: the willingness to fight, not because you’re guaranteed to win, but because of the dire consequences if you do nothing at all.

“If the hero runs away, who’s left to help?”
All through the Deep Sea King fight, the titular antagonist racked up an impressive casualty count among the heroes.  Much of his rampage served only to hammer home the problems and flaws of the Hero Association system, but amidst the darkness, a few flashes of genuine heroism came to light.  The most well-known - and inspiring - of these is of course Mumen Rider’s famous Last Stand against the vile villain.  I brought it up last time just to show how One-Punch Man knocks down the second wind archetype so often abused in shounen series against all logic and reality.  But the C-Class hero’s speech while facing down the creature is what really sets it apart.  On the surface, it’s just another defiant stance, a mental pep talk to set up the nakarma power-up that gets dashed by the show’s deconstructive railroad.  But beneath the viciousness lies a resolve of heroism as, not a job or an ego boost, but an ideal: the act of giving your life for the safety and protection of another.  Mumen Rider understood that it wasn’t about winning, necessarily, but buying time for the people under his watch.  The same may be said for All Black Man, the cowardly hero in the evacuation dome.  Though he’s probably best known to for pissing his pants in fright when the Deep Sea King showed up, he still braved the danger said villain presented, even if only bolstered by the false reassurance of three other heroes backing him up.  No matter how hopeless the odds or impossible the enemy, these heroes and all the others who laid down their lives against old fish-face still rose to the challenge.  Their courage and skill levels may have varied, but all still heeded the maxim Saitama himself stated just a few episodes prior: “If the hero runs away, who’s left to help?”

Giving Credit where it is Due
But Saitama doesn't just spout occasionally insightful nonsense; he actually walks the walk.  He doesn’t sit back and pontificate the true essence of being a hero, but he puts it to practice, even at great cost to himself.  After his signature one punch victory against the Deep Sea King and the heckling loser’s tirade against the Hero Association, our hero beats back the cynicism by playing the cheat, making the spectators turn on him to hoist the other heroes to a better light.  In any other anime, this might have been a scene just to show a hidden faucet of Saitama’s character - to give the fans a glimpse of the man beneath the apathy.  But in this case, it had a social function as well.  The spectators, in turning against Saitama, developed a newfound appreciation for the weaker heroes who nonetheless put their lives on the line for them.  And indeed, there’s more than a little truth in Saitama’s grandstanding; while his yarn on fighting the Deep Sea King in a “weakened” state is demonstrably false, many of the evacuees, and even some of the heroes, wouldn’t be there were it not for the defiant actions of Mumen Rider, Genos, All-Black and even Snake-fist Sneck, among others.  Saitama, in effect, wasn’t giving credit to the others; he merely distributed the credit they deserved for their roles in protecting the peace and saving lives.

The Elephant Revisited
We come back full circle with a reexamination of Saitama’s unique and pivotal role in the deconstruction-reconstruction seesaw this series goes through.  The Deep Sea King arc, as mentioned, merely lays the groundwork for what will become a recurring pattern in the series as it moves forward.  Though mentioned earlier how Saitama often serves the roll of reluctant mentor while interacting with the other heroes, he just as often leaves the spotlight altogether, letting focus shift to the struggles of the other heroes.  These characters go through a whole panoramic of character development while facing the arc’s villain: an initial arrogance or dismissiveness, followed by a big ole’ dose of humility and a resolve to become better - whether a better hero, or simply a better person.  Saitama often plays no role in this development whatsoever; while his laziness often belies a tendency to dole out advice like some latter-day bodhisattva, sometimes, he really is just that lazy, and true to form, throws all attempts to paint his actions in a higher light out the window.  He still usually saves the day in the end, but only as a sort of deus ex machina, sweeping in to mop up after the focal character has had his or her epiphany after their moment in the light.  Even then, none of that diminishes what that character went through.  For Saitama, it was just another boring battle; but for the other character, an eye-opening insight into what makes them tick - and, often enough, what makes a real hero.

The above ties the various threads of this series together.  ONE created an almost textbook deconstruction of the superhero genre in the first part, where he keeps the focus on Saitama and his existential malaise, but after a while, he opens the floor a bit to let other players in.  With the inclusion of folks considerably less overpowered and more introspective, the series shifts away from the deconstructive inclinations of a bald-headed demigod.  Instead, One-Punch Man gently transitions into a look at what it means to be a hero through the angsts and actions of characters like Genos, Fubuki, and Mumen Rider - with Saitama playing the role of unlikely, and unintentional, facilitator.  While Saitama's presence alone ensures the series never strays far from its deconstructive roots, and it certainly never reaches the optimistic heights of My Hero Academia, ONE shows that he’s not afraid to crack open a few windows in his snarky and cynical parody.