Hollywood abhors a vacuum more than nature, and in the absence of any “adult” film genre producing work that’s commercially or critically successful, the comic book movie seems to be spreading like kudzu, annexing other genres and putting nearly everyone in Hollywood at work looking anxious and purposeful in vast secret lairs or stuffing themselves into unitards.
After the unexpected success of Guardians of the Galaxy last year, Marvel pictures discovered that Howard the Duck had been forgotten and that comedy was not actually incompatible with stories where alien creatures who look like they’re carved from basalt glower and threaten to wipe out the solar system from what look like orbiting Aztec pyramids. Upping the ante, they’ve cast Paul Rudd - an actor best known for bringing to the smirk what Richard Burton brought to the anguished bellow - as Ant Man, launching yet another subsidiary to the Avengers franchise.
Let’s be honest – when it came time to play superheroes as a kid, nobody ever wanted to play Ant Man. Shrinking so that you could hide in pocket lint and communicating with insects seemed like the short straw when the other options were lightning speed, super strength, bursting into flame and flying. If Ant Man has any notable shortcoming, it’s that the filmmakers didn’t make nearly enough of this basic fact, known to any 10-year-old boy.
So the film begin with a bit of earnest exposition, rewinding to 1989 and one of those Bond villain boardrooms where Dr. Hank Pym confronts two suits who’ve been trying to discover what’s in his “Pym particle” – the “is it science or magic?” substance that allows him to shrink. John Slattery (Mad Men) reprises Howard Stark, father of Tony, and Martin Donovan plays Mitchell Carson, the sort of evil chief executive whose constant reinvention in action franchises ensures that Naomi Klein will always have a fresh supply of anti-capitalist protesters.
Pym is played by Michael Douglas – or rather Douglas provides the model for a substantially younger digital iteration of himself onscreen. After witnessing Arnold Schwarzenegger pumped up and wrinkle-free for early scenes in Terminator Genisys, I can confidently predict that we’re going to be seeing more of these youthful computer-generated Golems in films, especially as the last generation of really bankable movie stars age well past the point where plastic surgery has any effect.
The film jumps forward to the present day, where Pym’s former assistant Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) announces that he’s on the verge of perfecting his own Pym particle, which forces a reassuringly wrinkly Douglas to look for someone new to wear the Ant Man suit. He settles on Scott Lang (Rudd,) an ex-con with a conscience and years owing in child support. He tempts him with the promise of a clean slate and the chance to be a hero if he puts on the suit and helps spoil Cross’ party.
What follows is sometimes funny, mostly action-packed and ultimately trippy, with plenty of firm anchors launched into the main body of the Avengers storyline, teased out with the final scene of the film and the ritual coda embedded in the credits. We will, to be sure, be seeing more of Ant Man.
And so with a film that almost feels casually tossed off, Marvel Studios absorbs Michael Douglas along with Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peña and Judy Greer into a film series that could potentially employ anyone paying rent between Simi Valley, Pasadena and Newport Beach. The Avengers marathon will likely give way to the Avengers Channel.
I look forward to Real Housewives of Asgard, Gardening with Groot, Quentin Tarantino’s faux-blaxploitation trilogy featuring Black Panther and Falcon, and a wry buddy film where Captain America briefly tries to retire as an appraisal expert on the Antiques Roadshow, competing for the attention of Emma Stone with his former business partner, played by Michael Sheen. I hear they’ve attached Woody Allen to the script.
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