Boomer’s Top Films of 2018

Let’s get this out of the way: 2018 was a miserable year for yours truly. From March to June, I was locked in a constant battle with the manager of the property where I live with regards to a phantom leak that they “observed,” leading to them cutting a 4′ square section of my bathroom ceiling being cut, without being repaired or replaced, for three months. I picked up a staph infection while on vacation, arrived home after nearly a day-and-a-half of travel due to an overnight layover in Dublin, only to find that my luggage had been lost and that my refrigerator was abloom with monstrous polyps and fungi due to its motor failing while I was gone. And then in October, I was standing innocently at the corner of 7th and Colorado Streets in downtown Austin, waiting for my bus to take me home after a long Monday, when a man in a pickup truck ran the red light, was struck by another vehicle, spun out, and then ultimately hopped the curb and pinned my leg to the bus stop bench and dragging me the length of it before coming to rest in a position that trapped me and rendered me immobile. This broke my fibular neck and left me with extensive tissue damage, including an internal degloving event (don’t look it up unless you’ve got a strong stomach), and trapped me in my apartment for six weeks; I only got out to go to the doctor and to vote, because it’s going to take a lot more than being mangled and nearly killed to keep your boy from voting. As a result, anything that was released after October 15 pretty much flew under my radar. There was so much I wanted to see this year: I had tickets to Bad Times at the El Royale for the day after the collision that has (temporarily, fingers crossed) hobbled me, and a pass to Good Manners (As boas maneiras) for that weekend, both of which went unused. Perhaps the greatest crime is that I, the self-proclaimed foremost expert on Dario Argento’s body of work among all the people that you know (unless you know Maitland McDonagh, in which case, can you introduce me?), still have not seen the remake of Suspiria. Of course, this year also blessed me in some places: I took my first vacation since 2014 and got to go out of the country for the first time for it as well! Also, Black Panther came out and my cat outlived (and continues to outlive) the veterinarian’s projections, so here we are. Also, I’m not going to see Boy Erased. It’s just too triggering and personal.

All the movies that I wanted to see but did not in 2018, and thus should not be considered omissions from this list for lack of quality, but simply due to availability and my getting mangled: Bad Times at the El Royale, Foxtrot, Three Identical Strangers, Summer of ’84, Green Fog, Call Me By Your Name, Isle of Dogs, American Animals, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Blackkklansman, The Kindergarten Teacher, Let the Corpses Tan, Good Behavior, and If Beale Street Could Talk. Also, probably that one about the Spiders-men.

2017 Hangover
(Movies I Wish I Saw Last Year So They Could Have Been on My 2017 List)

The Babysitter: Every word of Brandon’s review of this one is correct: it is a sugar rush of gory absurdity, in the vein of Turbo Kid, one of my favorites of the past few years. I, too, could have done without some of the elements that were designed to pander to the lowest denominator of movie viewers, with their foundationally eradicated attention spans (more on that in a minute). The pop-up text on screen (especially anything to do with the pocketknife) was distracting and fundamentally lowered the level of discourse we can have about this movie, but I was still enthralled from minute to minute, even after walking shirtless scene Robbie Amell took his plunge. This one gets a strong recommendation from me.

I, Tonya: Although this fine crew found each other through the sheer force of will and love for cinematic Things That Should Not Be, we are not of one mind, and I, Tonya is a pretty clear example of that. Brandon was not impressed, but I was enraptured by every moment of it. I can’t remember the last time that I was so sucked into a movie that I watched it again almost immediately, and then a third time just a few days later. There’s violence aplenty, which I think was the main detraction for our Dear Leader, but while the omnipresent domestic abuse that permeated the film was so true-to-life that I wasn’t pushed out of the scene by it, but was only drawn further in, even in the moments that it got very close to home. It’s certainly a movie that needs a trigger warning, and I have my issues with a sympathetic portrait of a person whose political views are, um, bad, but I nonetheless found this utterly compelling.

It Comes at Night: Holy shit is this a great movie. From the disorienting refusal to clarify anything about the layout of the house in which all of the action takes place, to the twists and turns in plotting, this is another great A24 release, even if it comes so soon after the similarly plotted Into the Forest (2015, also distributed by A24), which found Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood as two sisters alone in a deteriorating cabin in another undisclosed location somewhere in otherwise idyllic wilderness. What I liked most about this one was the dread atmosphere that takes hold from the first moment, when an elder member of the clan meets his heartbreaking demise: it makes you side with the first family that you meet, although another film could just as easily follow the other family. What if their inconsistent information about their past is just the result of not wanting to give too much about themselves away in case their apparent saviors aren’t all that they appear to be (which . . . ends up being the case, essentially). This one is on Amazon Prime now and Into the Forest is on Netflix, so treat yourself to this double feature. Read Brandon’s review here.

Honorable Mentions

Sierra Burgess is a Loser: While certainly not the great follow up to the surprise Netflix hit To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before that Netflix was hoping it would be, given the reappearance of the internet’s newest celebrity boyfriend, Noah Centineo, and the presence of Shannon Purser (a.k.a. Barb from Stranger Things), Sierra Burgess is a Loser is a perfectly serviceable little teen romcom that retells the well-worn Cyrano de Bergerac story: a physically “imperfect” suitor woos a perfect specimen with the help of a more attractive counterpart. It’s not groundbreaking, even with the gender flip that lands Purser as loser Sierra Burgess trying to win the heart of Centineo’s Jamey through surrogate Veronica (Kristine Froseth), a mean girl with a rough home life whom Sierra ultimately befriends, albeit with some bumps along the way. Much of the negative reaction to this one, I’m assuming, stems from the desire for another pitch-perfect romantic comedy like TATBILB, not the movie’s actual quality. First time screen-writer Lindsey Beer does a pretty good job here, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of her work.

Bird Box: My roommate read Josh Malerman’s novel Bird Box a couple of years ago and was super excited when he learned that it was being adapted into a film, citing the book as one of the scariest things he had ever seen. From his description of the novel, I was sitting in a movie theater in November 2017 to see Lady Bird and saw the trailer for A Quiet Place and thought “wow, they got that into production faster than I would have expected,” before realizing that it was not a trailer for Bird Box that was playing out before me. Here it is, over a year later, and the comparisons to A Quiet Place and The Happening are still rolling around out there on the internet, largely in response to (and revolt against) Netflix’s bizarre (but effective) meme-heavy marketing strategy. Still, derivative though the film may seem now after the release of other similarly themed apocalyptic titles in the years since the book was first released, this is a pretty effective little thriller with a star-studded cast and a new dimension from lead Sandra Bullock, who has rarely had the opportunity to play a character who is both sentimental and hardened, at turns charming and unlikable. The biggest drawback here is that the film somehow manages to feel both overstuffed and somewhat overlong as well, with a lot of plot points that should have been given more time to be explored, but having too many of these to make a film with a pat running time. This one should have been a miniseries.

The Haunting of Hill House: Speaking of miniseries (or limited series), I’m giving a special mention to The Haunting of Hill House, a breakout ten-episode mini that Netflix released this year. Very loosely based on the Shirley Jackson novel of the same name, Hill House follows the story of the Crains, a large family headed by patriarch Hugh Crain (Henry Thomas in the past and Timothy Hutton in the present), a house flipper before that term really existed. He and architect wife Olivia (Carla Gugino), who looks forward to the day when the family can finally build their “forever house,” have moved their five children into the Hill House mansion, where a series of escalating supernatural events leaves the family broken and traumatized, with that trauma spilling over into their adult lives: Stephen (Michael Huisman) is a skeptic who writes books about other supposed hauntings; Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is a mortician who resents that Stephen’s books have dragged the family’s history into the public eye; Theodora (Kate Siegel) is a queer social worker unable to form relationships because of her psychic sensitivity; and twins Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Nell (Victoria Pedretti), the former of whom is a drug addict who has burned his family more times than can be counted and the latter of whom was the most affected by the house in her youth and has never really recovered. I’m putting this on my list because it’s not a movie, in any technical or real way, but it does stretch the boundaries of what we can consider a movie, as it feels less like a series of episodes and more like a ten hour movie broken into manageable chunks. There’s also a one-shot in the sixth episode that blows away any competition from actual films on my list as far as technical mastery. As with Bird Box, I’ve seen the split on my Facebook feed between people who loved this and people who hated it, but unlike with BB there’s a notable difference: the only people I’ve seen consistently hating on Hill House are those who have terminally limited attention spans and who don’t have the patience to watch a whole movie, let alone a miniseries, without checking their phones every 5 minutes (sorry if you feel called out by this, but you know it’s true). If that’s you, stick to Vine compilations, but if you have the ability to, you know, watch things, give this a try.

Dishonorable Mentions

Solo: A Star Wars Story: I may have given a lukewarm defense of this one in my review of it last summer, but this movie really doesn’t work. Ehrenreich is charming in everything, and I got a kick out of L3-37, but further reflection on this film has really not been kind to my remembrance of it. It helps that so much of it was forgettable, and I’m hoping that we’ll see more of Ehrenreich and Donald Glover on the big screen in years to come, but I’m not holding my breath.

Deadpool 2: I fell asleep during this movie, in a theater. That disqualifies me from reviewing it unless I see it again, and through to the end, but honestly, I’m just not sure I’m up for it. I’ve always been a Domino fan, and her character is about the only thing that I remember from the film, but I just couldn’t bring myself to care (or keep my eyes open). Luckily, Brandon managed to stay awake through it.

Avengers: Infinity War: “What’s this?” you say. “He didn’t like Infinity War? But everyone liked Infinity War!” Well, sorry to break anyone’s hearts, but my opinion of this movie has only gone down following my review last summer. I even gave it a slightly higher star review at the time than I felt in my heart, because the people I had seen it with had enjoyed themselves so thoroughly and I wanted it to be better than it was. But while it was technically proficient, visually stimulating, and managed to weld together nearly two dozen characters into a plot that was serviceable and well-executed, it left me so cold. I didn’t feel anything in this movie, not even for a moment. I thought maybe I was just in a bad mood when I saw it the first time, so I gave it another watch a couple of months later and I was even less engaged the second time around. I should have loved this movie. I wanted to love this movie. And I just didn’t.

Ready Player One: Holy shit was this a pile of self congratulatory garbage. I’d diatribe here about the way that this reinforces toxic gatekeeper culture and also about how it’s still pretty vapid and shitty despite all of that (“You’d love me but not my birthmark!”), but this isn’t a movie worth investing that kind of emotional energy and labor into. Just read Brandon’s review or Vox‘s primer.

Open House: Britnee beat me to it with her review of this stinker a full year ago, but I stuck it in my Netflix queue last January, largely based on my fondness for Dylan Minnette, where I promptly forgot about it until I was housebound and working my way through those things I hadn’t watched yet. Having run out of Star Trek: Voyager, Haunting of Hill House, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and, god forgive me, Riverdale, I turned my sights on movies in my queue. I watched the Australian movie where Robin Wright and Naomi Watts bang each others’ sons; I watched a horrible coming of age movie called SPF-18 in which the most exciting thing that happens is that Noah Centineo breaks a disco ball; I even watched a boner comedy by way of Groundhog Day called Premature about a high school kid who is stuck in a repeating day that restarts every time he, well, ejaculates (prematurely). But by far the most disappointing one was Open House, a mediocre rehash of every “creepy things happen in a remote house to a family in crisis” movie that you’ve ever seen, but without the kind of twist or resolution that a film of this type needs to be memorable, or at the very least the catharsis that it needs to be passable. Forbes reviewer Paul Tassi wrote that Open House made him feel like someone was asleep at the switch in Netflix’s quality control, but if they managed to let this movie out into the world, the person in charge of QC must have died at the wheel.

And now . . . Boomer’s Top 15(ish) Movies of 2018

15. Mary and the Witch’s Flower: Make no mistake, this is a children’s movie. It’s also not a Hayao Miyazaki movie, or even a Studio Ghibli film, although you can be forgiven for assuming either given the film’s visual style. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, formerly of Ghibli (first working as a clean-up animator on Princess Mononoke before doing key animation on Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Tales from Earthsea, among others) and now well-known for his directorial debut The Secret World of Arrietty and, a few years later, his Oscar nomination for When Marnie was There, turns a fairly thin story about a young girl who encounters a world of magic and sorcery through the discovery of the titular “witch’s flower,” a kind of bud that, when burst, grants those whose juice it touches temporary access to magic. The film’s strong opening sequence, breathtaking flying scenes, and the exploration of the visually entrancing and dynamic magical college that Mary finds in the clouds elevate what would otherwise be just another The Worst Witch/Harry Potter knock-off (although one with a stronger pedigree: the source novel, The Little Broom, was published in 1971, a full three years before the first Worst Witch book). Read Brandon’s review here.

14. A Simple Favor: A bit of an uneven movie, this comedy thriller is held aloft by some decent twists and turns coupled with strong performances from Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. Read more in my review here.

13. Love, Simon/To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: I’m taking the coward’s way out on this one, since neither of these films is really “quality” enough to belong on this list under its own merits. Upon Love, Simon‘s release, I was largely against it, even in theory. “Why do we need stories like this one?” I asked myself. “Where are the radical queer stories?” And then I went and saw it, and I was completely enraptured by its earnestness and clarity of vision. I wanted to hate Love, Simon, but instead found myself feeling a kind of warmth and sincerity that I haven’t felt in a long time. (The one moment of sarcasm that I allowed myself was when I leaned over to my companion during the scene in which Simon waits for his online friend “Blue,” and said “If this were Degrassi, a pedophile would show up right about now.” I also had a moment where I was like “Oh, Josh Duhamel is in this, just like Broken Hearts Club, which I guess lends this some gay romcom credibility” before I remembered that it was Timothy Olyphant in that one; I also realized in that moment that I am old.)  Likewise, I slept on To All the Boys I Loved Before because I didn’t think that I could get much joy out of a movie that generates that many posts on BuzzFeed with shirtless .gifs and quizzes about which boy from TATBILB you, BuzzFeed reader, should be with. And yet, in my time of need, I gave this one a try, and was utterly charmed by it. It’s certainly better than other efforts with leading man Noah Centineo (I refer you back to the aforementioned SPF-18), and it wears its social media age Sixteen Candles lineage on its sleeve. Lana Condor’s Lara Jean is effortlessly charming. If you just need a little warmth in your heart, either one of these would make good medicine.

12. Ant-Man and the Wasp: A fun follow-up to 2015’s Ant-Man, read my thoughts on this one here.

11. Game Night: I was warmer to this one than Brandon was; he liked it, but I really, really got on board with this one. Directors John Francis Daley (didn’t think that I would be mentioning a Freaks and Geeks alum on the same list in 2018, but here we are) and Jonathan Goldstein have churned out a fun little heist comedy that utilizes the talent of all of its participants. Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) have great chemistry, and Billy Magnussen is doing great work making a truly stupid character likable enough that you don’t find yourself doubting why he’s even friends with the others. Sharon Horgan also turns in a command performance with her continuing exasperation at Magnussen’s character’s idiocy. If I had one qualm, it would be that Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury are given little to do other than playing off of each other rather than the whole group, as Morris’s character’s obsession with the idea that his wife may have slept with one other person before they were married consistently puts the two of them in little joke cul-de-sacs rather than keeping them more central to the narrative.

10. Upgrade: Leigh Whannell’s latest is a sleek, fun, trashy romp through a futuristic Death Wish-style roaring rampage of revenge, with a cyberpunk twist. Blumhouse accidentally made a prestige picture in 2017 and has been riding that success for a while; a friend who will be doing some work on one of their upcoming TV projects told me that the first question that you would ask when you got tapped for a Blumhouse production was “Is it union?”, but now it’s a solid bet that you might end up working on something great. Upgrade may not be the greatest sci-fi, but it’s a super fun thrill ride with Logan Marshall-Green as a truly likable guy with a magnetic screen presence. While others might consider him a poor man’s Tom Hardy, he does great work here, especially when he’s in “conversation” with an AI that no one else can hear. It’s twisty, it’s turny: it’s Upgrade. Read Brandon’s glowing review here.

9. The Endless: I added this one to my Netflix queue some time ago based simply on the premise: two brothers who, years before, escaped from a UFO death cult return to the commune after receiving a strange video from one of its members. Younger brother Aaron (Aaron Moorhead) was apparently too young when they left to remember all of the truly creepy goings-on that older brother Justin (Justin Benson) has always told him they were lucky to escape, but Aaron is insistent that the video they received could mean that the UFO they were waiting for has finally arrived. Realizing that his younger brother will never be at peace until he sees the place for himself, Justin takes Aaron on a road trip, seeing a few portents of the irrational along the way. Once they arrive, things seem almost too perfect, although strange happenings and optical illusions (or are they?) begin to make the men wonder if they will be able to escape before something truly terrible happens. It’s a low budget indie sci-fi that occasionally shows it lack of money (there’s a scene in which a house is supposedly aflame but the fire itself is terribly unconvincing), but its heart is in the right place and the tension can’t be beaten. Read Brandon’s review of The Endless and its sister film Resolution here.

8. The Ritual: A kind of modern day Blair Witch Project (minus the found footage element) paired with a heaping dose of morbid survivor’s guilt and including a pretty original… let’s say “monster,” for lack of a better term, The Ritual follows four men who venture onto a Swedish nature hiking trail to honor a fallen friend. Luke (Rafe Spall) entered a liquor store with Rob (Paul Reid) after a boy’s night out with his university buds, only to discover that the place is in the middle of an armed robbery. Luke hides but Rob is seen by the thieves and, upon refusing to cooperate, is killed. As Rob’s wish was to take this hiking trip, Luke joins hardass Hutch (Robert James-Collier), gone-soft family man Dom (Sam Troughton), and nervous Phil (Arsher Ali). When Dom injures himself along the trail, the group opts to take a shortcut back to their last occupied way station through the deep, dark woods. Fair enough, until they take shelter in an abandoned shack during a heavy rain storm and emerge the next morning to find that the storm prevented them from noticing all the runes carved into nearby trees, and that’s not even getting into the bizarre effigy in a room upstairs, or the fact that they discover a dead elk pinned in a tree like an offering. At every turn, Luke is confronted by memories and hallucinations of Rob’s last fateful moments. Is he cracking up in another stressful situation, or is there something in the woods that’s forcing him to relive that night over and over again? Although not the most original story, it makes up for its flaws with a haunting ambiance and a reveal of a… being that is truly unique. Check it out, and read Brandon’s review here.

7. Sorry to Bother You: This is a movie that’s only gone up in my opinion since I first saw it. Read my review here.

6. Phantom Thread: I’ve previously mentioned my theory that if a film that comes out after December 20th, it really should only count on lists for the following year, so I’m including Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest (and supposedly Daniel Day Lewis’s last) film here. There’s so much to say about this movie, and so much of it has already been said, but I would say that this is a movie worth seeing, for all of the passive aggressive eating if nothing else. Read Brandon’s review here.

5. Black Panther: I’m not sure that there’s much more that I can (or am qualified to) contribute to the discourse on this movie that I haven’t already, so just read my review here.

4. You Were Never Really Here: Brandon said everything I could say about this movie better than I could here. This movie hypnotizes and mesmerizes, but not in an uplifting way, just a way that makes you feel alone.

3. Unsane: I can say without a moment’s hesitation or mental evasion that Unsane is hands-down the most unsettling and disturbing film that I have ever seen. I have never, in my entire life, been more uncomfortable than I was when watching this movie. I know that Unsane is trading on a lot of worn-out cliches and tired tropes of the Unspeakable Horrors of the American Mental Health System, or the general Scary Asylum genre. I don’t care: this movie knows exactly where every single one of my psychological pressure points are and just how much weight to apply to each one in sequence to make me physically ill. My reaction watching this film was like my friend’s reaction to seeing Raw for the first time and being unable to handle it at all: I almost had a panic attack. It’s not the most original movie in the world, or the most sympathetic or responsible, but it made me sick. Read Brandon’s review here.

2. Annihilation: Our bodies and our minds will be fragmented into their smallest parts until not one part remains. Read my review here. For those of us in parts of the world where this wasn’t released straight to Netflix, it’s now streaming on Hulu.

1. Hereditary: My favorite thing about Hereditary is that it actually effectively gaslights you, the audience member. Spoilers ahoy, so just skip this if you haven’t seen it: there’s some weirdness at the beginning with odd sigils appearing in places that make sense and which do not, strange mourners, and unearthly glowing and droning. But then after the event (you know the one), the film instead turns into a fairly down-to-earth exploration of mourning, rage, helplessness, and complete surrender to the abyss of grief, and you convince yourself that all of the signs of supernatural interference that you saw must have just been things you thought you saw. The movie teaches you to mistrust yourself, then turns another hairpin corner and says, nope, there were demonic shenanigans all along. Or, to put it another way: this movie was marketed as The Bad Seed and appears to be this at the beginning before turning into Ordinary People for an hour before morphing once again into Rosemary’s Baby. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Read my original review here.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

On July 20, 2015, my first Swampflix contribution was published: a review of the Peyton Reed by-way-of Edgar Wright Marvel flick Ant-Man, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Since then, I’ve written 102 solo reviews, participated in 35 Movie of the Month roundtables, and written or contributed 27 additional articles – including eight under the Late Great Planet Mirth label alone and thirteen collaborations with Brandon as an Agent of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Now, three years later, Marvel has released the first direct follow-up to that film that was my first review, and, hey, it’s pretty great! Not perfect, but great!

As the film opens, we find Scott “Ant-Man” Lang (Paul Rudd) under house arrest following his participation in (and pursuant violation of the Sikovia Accords as a result of) the events of Civil War. He’s only three days away from being a free man, but his situation is jeopardized when he finds himself once again embroiled in the activities of former Ant-Man, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and his daughter Hope “The Wasp” van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). The two believe that Scott’s trip into and return from the “Quantum Realm” at the end of the first film means that there is a possibility that the previous generation’s Wasp, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), may still have a chance to be rescued, 30 years after her disappearance. Their efforts are complicated by the Pym family’s own fugitive status, as well as opposition from Sonny Burch (Walter Goggins), a crime lord who wants to capitalize on Pym’s technology, and Ava “Ghost” Starr (Hannah John-Kamen of Killjoys), a former SHIELD asset who exists in a state of molecular instability as the result of the accident that killed her parents as a child and who hopes the secrets of the Quantum Realm can restore her to a state of stability. Along for the ride are old friends like Scott’s fellow ex-con Luis (Michael Peña) and his crew and Scott’s daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Forston), as well as new allies/antagonists like Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), a former colleague and professional frenemy of Pym’s, and Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), the FBI agent tasked with overseeing Scott’s “rehabilitation,” which in practice means trying to catch the Ant-Man in his extramural exploits.

Like the first film, Ant-Man and the Wasp prioritizes fun shenanigans over the more superheroics of its MCU brethren. 2015’s Ant-Man was following in the footsteps of what was arguably the franchise’s first true comedy outing in Guardians of the Galaxy, but by foresaking that film’s space operatics for the more terrestrial mundanity of a heist film, it cemented a move that has come to be one of the motivating forces of why people love these movies and keep forking over money for them: humor, plain and simple. This is not a heist film, however, and unlike other outright comedic entries in the MCU (Thor: Ragnarok = synth-heavy 80s-style gladiator opera, Guardians 2 = manchild coming-of-age narrative, Spider-Man: Homecoming = John Hughes-style eighties high school flick), there’s not an easily-identifiable genre or style that director Reed has grafted the Ant-Man team onto this time around. There’s a little bit of Ferris Bueller energy floating around here, especially with Scott constantly having to return home before the FBI (herein acting with the same vaguely-menacing but largely bumbling inefficiency as Ferris’s principal), and while that’s central to the narrative, it’s not the central plot.

There are flaws here, but they’re small, and you have to go down to the nitty-gritty to find them. My largest issue here is that there are several points that feel uneven, the largest of which is anything involving of the Quantum Realm, which is a weirder concept than anything in the first film and feels out-of-place here, all things considered. The idea that our characters could go so microcosmic that they enter another dimension is fine, but some plot points are glossed over too quickly: How does Janet know how long her family has to find her? How does she know that if they don’t find her within that time limit that it’ll be another century before there’s another chance to attempt a rescue? What makes Ghost so certain that the Quantum Realm will repair her damaged body/cells? Why did the Pyms get mixed up in working with Burch in the first place, given that Wasp could easily get the parts they need for the quantum tunnel without having to ally with, essentially, a thug? I’m not one to get a bee in my bonnet about plot holes that are generally minor, but the cumulative effect of them in this film makes it feel sloppy in comparison to its predecessor, which was as trim and tight as a comedy that was equal parts origin story and episode of Leverage could possibly be.

Recently, Reed joined some of the ScreenJunkies boys for a commentary on their Honest Trailer for the original Ant-Man, wherein he confirmed that the idea that the film should be a heist movie was always Edgar Wright’s. This comes as no surprise to fans of Wright’s: you may be able to criticize him for being self-indulgent or esoteric in his references (not that I do or would; I adore his work), but you could never accuse him of being anything less than a ruthlessly efficient artist when it comes to writing and directing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I adore Hot Fuzz not just because it’s hilarious (which it definitely is), but because it’s a crime mystery whose detective protagonist come to a logically sound and reasonable conclusion based upon available evidence, but which also happens to be completely incorrect. Although I wrote at the time that we would never know how much of the first Ant-Man was an invention of Wright’s and not Reed’s, I feel like this movie proves there was more Wright in the film than one would have initially thought, given that once Reed had free reign he made a film that lacked the tight cohesion and plotting of its antecedent.

Not that this isn’t still a delightful movie. Some disappointment is understandable given that, even more than other films in the MCU, each of this film’s major action beats was included in the trailer in some way. The marketing for Civil War did a great job of hiding the fact that Scott was going to go “big” in that film, which made for an exciting reveal in the film proper, but no such luck here. The giant PEZ dispenser, Wasp running along a knife, re-enlarging a tiny vehicle to crash another, etc.: there’s a cool moment in every one of the action sequences that was already shown in the previews, which makes some of them feel underwhelming, but rejecting the film outright on these grounds is absurd as they’re still lots of fun, kinetic, and really make the small-big-small-big roundabout work. There’s also a new Luis-explains-things montage, which is again delightful, and the chemistry between Team Ant-Man (and the Wasp!) has grown in an organic way, which makes the film a delight to watch.

Ghost is a bit of an underwhelming villain, but I’ll also go out on a limb here (mild spoilers through the end of this paragraph) and say that, although the character isn’t terribly interesting, her arc certainly is. Discounting the fact that you, dear reader, are one of those people who loves Tom Hiddleston so much that you forgive Loki all his sins, then this is the first film in which the primary antagonist is not defeated (or in the case of Thanos, is the victor). The conflict here has nothing to do with the end of the world or even stopping a villain from stealing a bunch of weapons. Instead, for the first time, Marvel has given us a film in which our heroes win not by trouncing their enemies, but by redeeming them. It’s a lovely sentiment, and I enjoyed it.

Overall, despite being less cohesive than the first film, this sequel is still a lot of fun and definitely worth the cost of admission. Just maybe be prepared for an uplifting ending followed immediately by despair. It’s great!

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Ant-Man (2015)

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & had, at the start of this project, seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: Ant-Man came very close to being the second Marvel feature, as a script was shopped around to different studios just a few years after the release of George Lucas’s Howard the Duck. In 1989, Stan Lee presented a basic script treatment to New World Entertainment, of which Marvel Comics was a subsidiary at the time (if you’re wondering about how the film corp that gifted us such cult classics as Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and The Slumber Party Massacre came to own the House of Ideas, I recommend checking out Chuck Sonnenberg’s “The Rise and Fall of the Comic Empire”). Ultimately, production began but was never completed because Disney was working on Honey, I Shrunk the Kids at the time. Depending upon conflicting reports, New World either didn’t want to put out a film that would have similar concepts as the much higher-budgeted Disney film, or they didn’t want to be perceived as copycatting the more successful studio; whatever the reason, the movie was not meant to be. Over a decade later in 2000, after the surprising success of Private Parts, shock DJ extraordinaire Howard Stern attempted to purchase the rights to make an Ant-Man film, but this concept never came to fruition either.

In 2003, a couple of years after the end of his successful British comedy series Spaced (starring frequent collaborators Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, as well as Jessica Hynes nee Stephenson, who won a best newcomer award for her performance on the program) but a year before the release of surprise cult hit Shaun of the Dead, writer/director Edgar Wright and his writing partner generated a treatment for Ant-Man. There are still large parts of Cornish/Wright’s ideas present in the final film despite the number of cooks who had a hand in the broth, like the idea that Scott Lang is a burglar, but Wright himself has said he doesn’t think the script ever made it very high up the chain at Artisan, where it was being pitched. Wright also cited influence from the novels of Elmore Leonard, author of Rum Punch (i.e., the source material for Jackie Brown) and Get Shorty, but was advised to make the script more family friendly, which he did before pitching a new script to Kevin Feige in 2004. This script had even more conceits that filtered into the 2015 film, like the inclusion of both Lang and original Ant-Man Hank Pym, and that the plot point that the two would become reluctant partners. Feige loved the concept, and when the first partnerships that would eventually bring the MCU into being were being forged in 2006, Marvel officially hired Wright to handle the Ant-Man film.

The development of the film from there was slow. Wright made occasional announcements about the film over the next five years; as Ant-Man was not a flagship character like Captain America who could carry a tentpole feature, production on the film was a fairly low priority, with Wright and Feige working on refining the script over the course of a few years. As a result, the MCU took off and gained popularity while Wright’s script kept being polished; by 2010, Wright had announced at SDCC that the film would not line up with The Avengers (putting to bed rumors that Ant-Man would be a founding Avenger, as he was in the comics). This further fueled speculation that Ant-Man wouldn’t be anchored in the greater narrative of the MCU at all, as Wright said his origin story didn’t quite fit. This, too, became a part of the final film, as the origin story for the original Ant-Man takes place in a time period not previously seen in the MCU, with Hank Pym acting as a secret hero during the Vietnam War. Finally, in 2013, Feige announced that Ant-Man would be produced as part of Marvel’s Phase Three, although the film would ultimately end up closing out Phase Two instead.

In March of 2014, rumors began to swirl that Wright might be leaving the picture. By this time, Michael Douglas and Paul Rudd had both been cast in their roles as Pym and Lang respectively, and Evangeline Lilly had just joined the film as Hope van Dyne. The film was on either its fifth or sixth draft, and Wright seemed to be increasingly frustrated with Marvel’s attempts to cram in as many connections to the rest of the franchise as possible, which Wright felt cheapened his vision. Two months later, Wright and Marvel announced that he had left production, and it was unclear what would happen to the project; Variety suggested that Cornish could take over, but Marvel chose not to go that way. Director Adam McKay, who was best known for his collaborations with SNL alum Will Ferrell (including Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Stepbrothers, and The Other Guys), was tapped as a potential new director, but his campaign for the role ended after a single day. McKay was kept on to rework the script (along with Rudd), and Peyton Reed (who had helmed Bring It On as well as a few episodes of the last season of Mr. Show, including the acclaimed finale) was brought on to direct. Although there was some concern that the shake-up would lead to a lack of success for the film, it garnered a decent enough box office return to secure a sequel.

Brandon, what did you think of Ant-Man?

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threehalfstar

Brandon: When trying to piece together exactly where Ant-Man fits in with the rest of the MCU, it seems that Guardians of the Galaxy is the only viable comparison point. Both properties exist almost in total isolation from the rest of the franchise (so far), tenuously connected only through a brief cameo from lower-tier characters like Falcon or Thanos or S.H.I.E.L.D.. More importantly, though, due to this isolation they’re both the only MCU properties allowed a certain amount of freedom in straying from Marvel’s so-called “house style”. In Guardians of the Galaxy, director James Gunn’s usual madman sadism was tempered somewhat by the PG-13 mold Marvel has aimed for in each of its individual properties, but the compromise between the two extremes wound up producing one of the best, most crowd-pleasing works in the franchise to date. Ant-Man is less of a success story in the tiny auteur vs. gigantic corporation divide. Edgar Wright has a very strong comedic voice that carries across as distinctly his own in films like Shaun of the Dead & Hot Fuzz and it’s that very voice that made the idea of him directing Paul Rudd in a movie about an ant-sized superhero super exciting. (I’m currently going through the same excitement phase with Taika Waititi’s upcoming Thor sequel.) Wright was ultimately less able to compromise with Marvel than Gunn over how much creative control he was willing to cede and the movie suffers somewhat from him having been pulled from the project before completion. Bring It On‘s Peyton Reed was a serviceable replacement & there’s still tons of Wright’s personality lurking under the surface here, but it’s difficult to watch Ant-Man without wistfully imagining the film that could’ve been with Wright fully at the helm.

Whether or not the final product is somewhat compromised by the behind-the-scenes shenanigans, Ant-Man is still remarkably charming as is. There’s honestly too much going in the film’s favor for it not to be. I mean, Paul Rudd is cute & all, but a miniature Paul Rudd? Who could resist that? I have, as I’m sure many people do, a bad habit of geeking out over how cute miniature models are, so whenever they pop up in a film like Beetlejuice or Pee-wee’s Big Holiday much of my critical eye goes completely blind & I’m enraptured. For instance, while recently watching the animated Batman movie Mask of the Phantasm I was fascinated by the climactic brawl with the Joker inside his Gotham miniature and it ended up being my favorite hand to hand combat scene in any Batman film. Ant-Man features a somewhat similar climactic battle involving a child’s train set that’s likely to be the closest we’ll ever come to seeing a live action version of that altercation in a superhero film. That’s not the only aspect of the film that checked off my particular boxes either. I went on a huge kick of watching films about giant ant attacks last year (there’s more than you’d think!) that put in me in the exact right frame of mind for this movie’s insectoid thrills. The innerspace visuals of microscopic shrinking-down touched on my affinity for cosmic psychedelia. The classic comedy structure of the film’s plot was a perfect primer for the silliness of its premise (where a Nolan-level of seriousness would’ve failed miserably). On paper Ant-Man does everything exactly right, if not exactly Wright.

So much of Ant-Man is endearing merely by default that it’s almost disappointing that it’s a really good film instead of a stunningly great one. As a self-contained episode within a franchise that has to bend over backwards to include all of its moving parts in films like Age of  Ultron it’s  a a nice break from the norm. There’s no true way to tell if the film could’ve been more than that if Wright had stayed in the driver’s seat, but that nagging question will always remain. I guess we’ll have to see how the promised sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp, does without his guidance entirely.

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fourhalfstar

Boomer: My review of Ant-Man was the first thing I wrote for Swampflix, and after re-watching it, I stand by my high score of it and my appreciation for its themes, scope, imagery, and ideas. The sight of tiny Scott Lang running around in ant tunnels and riding a flying insect like a mighty steed is perfection, and I wouldn’t have wanted anything other that what we have here.

On the other hand, it would have been a lot of fun to see how the film would have been composed if Wright had been kept on to complete production. Shaun of the Dead might be his most popular original film, but I have the softest of spots in my heart for Hot Fuzz; when I’m having a bad day and need to laugh a lot, Hot Fuzz is the movie I turn to in order to lift my spirits. It’s a comedy that parodies over-the-top buddy cop flicks, but the best thing about it is that it doesn’t sacrifice a good mystery plot in order to focus on references and allusions. The film presents you with enough hints that you can solve the mystery alongside Pegg’s Sergeant Angel, but when he reveals his solution to the crime he’s wrong, despite all of his logic being completely sound and his assumptions being consistent with all available clues. That’s a stroke of brilliance that most best-selling mystery peddlers can’t pull off, and Wright managed to do it in a film that was first and foremost a pastiche comedy. As good as Ant-Man was, I can only assume that most of its best moments came from Wright, and I wish I could see the film as he wanted it to be seen.

I’ll also reiterate how much better this film is than Age of Ultron. When I first saw Ant-Man, it had been a few months since I saw the Avengers sequel, and I had only seen both films once. Although my opinion of Ultron has actually gone up in the intervening time, as I mentioned in our Agents review of that film, Ant-Man still stands head and shoulders above that film in regards to characterization and fun. The bedroom-based fight between Lang and Yellowjacket, for instance, is more dynamic and exciting than ten overlong Sikovian slow-mo panorama fights, no matter how much we were being directed to find those sequences epic. I’ll admit it: Thomas the Tank Engine being thrown through the air and bursting out of Paxton’s house was more exciting than watching a knock-off CGI-garbage Transformer make a city fly off from its moorings. I can’t say enough good things about Ant-Man, except to say that if you’re reading this and you miss the days when “nerd humor” was actually nerdy and not regurgitated trash like The Big Bang Theory, you should really check out Spaced.

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Lagniappe

Brandon: Paul Rudd is very funny in this film & deserves all the attention he gets in the starring role, but Michael Peña steals the show for me. He nails the film’s oddball humor with every line-reading afforded him, which is no surprise given Peña’s history in excelling in comedic scumbag roles. What did surprise me, though, is that the actor more or less resurrected his exact character from the underappreciated Jody Hill black comedy Observe & Report here. Both Peña roles are a wonderfully absurd collection of self-contradictions & pitch-perfect deadpan and if you love what Peña delivers in Ant-Man I highly recommend giving Observe & Report a gander, since his gives his particular weirdness a little more room to breathe.

Boomer: So, where does this film fit into the larger MCU? Well, we get another look at the new Avengers facility after the team relocated to an abandoned Stark production plant following the realization that putting their headquarters in the middle of New York was a horrible idea (I will miss the tower, though). We also get to see Anthony Mackie again, which is always a lot of fun, and the scene between Falcon and Ant-Man (while probably the kind of thing that Wright was looking to avoid) was a good way to connect this film to the larger universe without making room for more heroes. The plot also has Lang ask why the Avengers shouldn’t be called in to help out in this situation (a question that a lot of viewers have, although this has never been something that mattered to me), and we get the legitimate answer that not a lot of people have faith in them, which will tie into the plot of the upcoming Civil War. And I personally can never get enough of best-MCU- character Peggy Carter, so getting to see her as an older S.H.I.E.L.D. leader was delightful.

This may also be the last time that Hydra plays a significant role in the MCU as (spoilers for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), this week’s episode “Singularity” saw Coulson and Agent May watching as the evil organization’s remaining bases of operation were wiped off the map. This comes on the heels of a season and a half of plots that mostly focused on the rise of the Inhumans, and recently tied the two together with the revelation that pre-Nazi Hydra was a cult devoted to worshipping an ancient Inhuman that was banished to a distant planet. It was a bit of an (intentionally) anticlimactic end to an organization that went from being a relatively character-specific antagonistic force to the unified faction of evil that permeated many of the films (and programs) that followed, but I’m looking forward to an MCU that doesn’t feel the need to tie all of its antagonists back to Hydra in some way. This was another one of Ant-Man’s strengths, insofar as Yellowjacket’s plans to sell the suit prototype to Hydra was a matter of irresponsible capitalism (the greatest of evils) and not a devotion to their questionable ideals. Given that Marvel has withdrawn the upcoming Inhumans film from its production schedule, it looks like there may be even more divergence between the film and TV franchises in the future.

As a comic book reader, the thing that I liked least about the way that the MCU has adapted different plotlines is that Scott Lang’s inclusion in this film meant that the Scott-Luke-Jessica love triangle that was so well handled in Brian Michael Bendis’s Alias (the inspiration for Netflix’s Jessica Jones) couldn’t end up on the JJ show. I was always a fan of how Jessica’s relationship with the two different men and their respective worlds (with Scott as a member of the Avengers and Luke as a man who was more on Jessica’s level) said a lot about Jessica as a person and the things that were important to her. Still, Jessica Jones was a great show and definitely worth the minimal time investment it asks of you.

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Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Ant-Man (2015)

fourstar

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.

Marabunta Cinema: Eight Feature Films & Eight Television Episodes about Killer Ants (2nd Ed.)

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When I first reviewed the 1974 oddity Phase IV, I noted that the film was very different from what I would have expected from a sci-fi movie about killer ants. When I pictured the film in my mind I imagined the gigantic monster insect movies from the 1950s, when everything from leeches to adorable bunny rabbits were blown out of proportion by atomic radiation and turned into Godzilla-type suburban threats. Phase IV turned out to be a much stranger film than I pictured, but my hunch wasn’t far off. The 1954 creature feature Them! is widely credited as the very first of the 1950s nuclear monster movies as well as the first “big bug” movie ever. Them!, like Phase IV, also happens to be about murderous ants. It turns out that the tiny pests have served as an endless source of cinematic fascination over the past 60 years, racking up eight feature films and several television episodes since Them!’s initial release. There are definite patterns & tropes common to the way killer ants, often called “marabunta,” are portrayed in cinema, but the quality of the tactics & results vary greatly from film to film. Them! & Phase IV certainly represent the apex of the killer ants genre, but they don’t capture the full extent of its capabilities.

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If Them! is the very first nuclear monster & big bug movie of the 1950s, it was an impressively prescient one. So many of the films that followed borrow so much from its essential elements that it basically serves as a Rosetta Stone for the marabunta genre. For instance, the film opens with a child in danger. A young girl, newly orphaned, roams the desert alone, in a state of shock after witnessing her family being murdered by “Them! Them! Them!” (a titular line she shrieks in horror when prodded for details). Children in danger is a surprisingly common theme for a lot of the marabunta films to come, along with the desert setting, and their roots are established in Them!’s opening minutes. Other tropes, like attempting to destroy the hive by attacking the Queen’s chamber, the use of nature footage as a scientific lecture on ant behavior, the ants’ high-pitch squeaks, and the blaming of pollution (in this case nuclear fallout) as the cause of the ants’ size & behavior would be frequently echoed in the 60 years that followed. What was most prescient of all, however, was just the basic concept: killer ants. No killer bug movies (as we know them) preceded it, but plenty followed and Them! is truly the pioneer of them all.

When I first imagined what Phase IV might be like, I was actually imagining Them! I pictured late night, black & white schlock (in the same vein as The Brainiac or Frankestein Meets the Space Monster) about giant killer bugs with an atomic age metaphor attempting to justify its true purpose: giant ant models, hairy like gorillas & eager to kill. When a scientist opines in the final scene, “When Man entered the Atomic Age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict,” it feels more like an afterthought than anything else. The gigantic ant models were obviously a point of focus for the filmmakers and it paid off well. They look fantastic, never to truly be topped by the killer ant films that followed. It’s also a testament to Them!’s quality that the tension building atmosphere in its first act is still strikingly effective despite modern audiences knowing what the “they” in Them! are long before they grace the screen. Them! may be the standard execution of what a killer ants movie would look like, but it’s extremely well crafted for its pedigree and deserves to be respected as a pioneer in the natural horror genre at large, much less marabunta cinema.

Ant size: “They” are gigantic.
Fire delivery method: In almost all of the marabunta movies, the ants are attacked with fire through various methods. This practice, like many other tropes mentioned, can be traced back even to the original marabunta movie, Them! In Them!, fire is initially delivered to the giant ants through bullets & rocket launchers, but it’s the use of flame throwers that ultimately save the day, as will become a popular choice as the genre marches on.

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If Them! is the Rosetta Stone of marabunta cinema, The Naked Jungle is its furthest outlier, the most difficult film to read in the context of the genre. Released the same year as Them!, The Naked Jungle refuses to play along with its killer ants compatriots even in the most basic terms of genre. Instead of working within a horror context, The Naked Jungle is an old-fashioned big studio romance epic where the killer ants are a natural disaster not very distinct from a flood or a landslide. The movie is mostly a vehicle for (a mostly shirtless) Charlton Heston & (a similarly undressed) Elanor Parker, who star as a South American cocoa plantation owner and his mail order bride (shipped to him via New Orleans!) whose personalities are too big & too stubborn to mix cohesively. Their initial hatred of one another is palpable in quips like “I’m trying not to irritate you.” “I noticed that. I find it irritating,” and in a key exchange when Heston is upset that his new bride is a widow instead of the virgin he requested and she retorts “If you knew more about music, you’d know that a piano is better when it’s played.” This dynamic, of course, gradually shifts from hostile to sensual and the sweaty (it is South America, after all) tension between the two drives a lot of the movie’s runtime.

Then, in the last third of the film, the ants arrive. Millions of ants. Not the gigantic, atomic ants of Them!, but rather a hoard of regular army ants, marabunta. They’re described in the film as “40 square miles of agonizing death” that operates as an organized, trained army. The initial horror of the ants picking a skeleton clean is a bit goofy & melodramatic, but once you get to the real shots of real insects crawling all over actors’ very real skin, it actually gets pretty disturbing. Some of the painted backdrops & dialogue in The Naked Jungle are unfortunate. Its depictions of native savages that depend on Heston’s white man knowledge to survive are especially disappointing. However, it’s a mostly enjoyable movie that, thanks to Heston & Parker’s love/hate dynamic, feels like a Tennessee Williams play drowning in marabunta, which distinguishes it from every other film in the genre.

Ant size: Regular.
Fire delivery method: There’s some torch tossing & explosives use, but the fire that matters the most in The Naked Jungle is the fire burning in the two leads’ loins.

Outer Limits: “The Zanti Misfits” (1963)

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As if murderous insects made gigantic by nuclear fallout weren’t strange enough, this is where the marabunta genre takes a bizarre left turn. In its inaugural season of television, The Outer Limits tried to prove itself to be more than just a hard-sci-fi answer to the much looser The Twilight Zone. Its hour long episodes often had enough big ideas & practical effects to support a decent feature-length B-picture if they had just been stretched a little further. The episode “The Zanti Misfits” certainly had potential to support a longer runtime based on the scope of its ideas alone. At the very least, it came up with a creative reason as to why its killer ants would be so murderous & destructive in the first place. No other marabunta picture I’ve seen put nearly as much thought as to the ants’ motivation for killing.

Well, “ant” is a little bit of a misnomer in this case. As the story goes, a superior extraterrestrial race named The Zanti demands that Earth host a penal colony for its most undesirable criminal population, in other words, its misfits. The Zanti are very much ant-like in their appearance, but with the enlarged size of an average rodent & the horrifying detail of their humanoid faces. Most of the Zanti population are supposedly a peaceful group, but what arrives on Earth is their criminal throwaways, so, of course, chaos ensues as they attempt a prison break & the U.S. military guns them down. Discontent to merely thank Eathlings for doing them a favor, Zanti officials instead gloat that they’re far superior to our bloodthirsty nature as “practiced executioners” and any gratitude that could be detected is severely muddled. With its stop-motion animated humanoid ants, hand-made UFO models, and oldschool sci-fi moralizing, “The Zanti Misfits” is a neat little addition to the marabunta genre, as well as one of its strangest concoctions.

Ant size: About the size of a rat.
Fire delivery method: Liberally tossed hand grenades.

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I’ve already dropped almost 700 words on Phase IV, so I’ll try to keep it brief here. It’s almost as much of an marabunta outlier as The Naked Jungle due to its reluctance to adhere to a traditional monster movie format. However, instead of framing itself as a romance epic, Phase IV is posited as psychedelic sci-fi. Droning, loopy synths accompany the movie’s expertly manipulated nature footage to create a strange world where ants evolve at astounding rates, learning to systematically destroy their predators (including humans, of course), dismantle electronics and weaponize reflected light. In most films listed here, the nature footage is less-than-seamlessly integrated into the plot by means of scientific lectures or Ed Wood-esque asides, but in Phase IV it’s integral to the film’s narrative. The extensive, close-up ant footage provides a disturbing authenticity to the film’s story of an insect takeover. In a lot of ways the ants in Phase IV are much more convincing actors than their human co-stars.

There’s some campy appeal to the pseudo-science of Phase IV’s bleep bloop machines and (its somewhat prescient) hazmat suit aesthetic, but the film is for the most part genuinely successful in being a sci-fi creep-out. The killer, droning synths are a large part of this success, as they add an otherworldly atmosphere to the already alien-looking close-ups of the marabunta. Also unnerving is the film’s somewhat open ending, which was cut short by the film studio for its pessimism & psychedelia. The threat of the ants in Phase IV feels truly insurmountable and, well, it very well may be.

Ant size: Regular.
Fire delivery method: No fire at all, which very well might explain the pessimism of the conclusion. In fact, the ants deliver fire of their own when they all-too-wisely convert a pick-up truck into a homemade bomb.

Empire of the Ants (1977) EPSON MFP imagetwohalfstar

If Them! & Phase IV are the prime examples of the heights marabunta cinema, Empire of the Ants is an entertaining sample of its depths. With production, direction, and visual effects all provided by shlock peddler Burt I. Gordon, Empire of the Ants shares a lot with the (much more fun) killer rabbits movie Night of the Lepus, both good & bad. For example, the exact dimensions of the ants fluctuate from scene to scene, depending on the technique used to make them appear large (which includes over-sized props and rear projection trick photography). That variation in the ants’ exact size & shape does wonders for the film’s camp value, but the dialogue that surrounds it (including a performance from why-are-you-here? Joan Collins) deflates a lot of its charms. It also doesn’t help that there are no killer ants in the first third of the film, so the dialogue is all you have to chew on. Much like with Night of the Lepus, Empire of the Ants has a disturbing habit of playing into old-fashioned genre clichés, but in this case it tips the film firmly in the direction of pure boredom. It’s incredible that Empire of the Ants was released three years after the much more experimental Phase IV, as it feels like an ancient dinosaur by comparison.

As far as hitting the marabunta genre touchstones goes, Empire of the Ants is fairly sufficient. It gets the nature footage requirement out of the way as soon as the opening prologue, with an off-screen narrator warning the audience, “This is the ant. Treat it with respect, for it may very well be the next dominant lifeform on our planet.” Much like with other marabunta movies, the ants were mutated into their monstrous form through radioactive waste, there’s a reliance on a hazmat suit aesthetic to lend the film sci-fi authenticity, and there are a multiple shots taken from the ants’ perspective, or “ant cam” if you will. In this film, the ant cam is represented as concentric circles, as opposed to the honeycomb look employed in Phase IV, but the effect is more or less the same. There are even some innovations to the marabunta genre in the plot’s focus on the queen ant’s obedience-inducing hormones that command humans to do her evil bidding. I also appreciated Empire’s pedigree as a shameless Jaws knock-off, with not so subtle nods to the Spielberg film’s infamous score in its soundtrack. Despite how entertaining all that sounds, however, Empire of the Ants mostly feels like a slog, struggling to recover from the opening segment where the dialogue endlessly drones on about valuable real estate and all kinds of other who-cares nonsense. As a collection of alternately impressive & inept practical effects, it’s an entertaining mess; as a feature-length film it’s a chore.

Ant size: Gigantic, but seemingly fluctuating from scene to scene due to the varied methods of Gordon’s visual effects.
Fire delivery method: Explosives used to blow up the sugar mill where the ant queen prefers to dine. Pretty smart.

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Ants! (also known as It Happened at Lakewood Manor & Panic At Lakewood Manor) marks the beginning of the killer ants’ genre being tethered to the small screen, a format they’ve been unable to escape for nearly 40 years running. A made-for-TV movie starring Suzanne Somors, Ants! is an admittedly awful film, but one with enough melodrama and laughably bad acting to make it work as a campy pleasure. It plays like a Lifetime Original Movie about a family struggling to hold onto their hotel resort in the modern business word (with swarms of killer ants playing mostly as an afterthought). In addition to the new made-for-TV-movie format, Ants! also introduces the marabunta genre to a new plot structure, framing its story as more of a disaster movie (like Towering Inferno or Airport 1975) than a creature feature (like Them!). The ants that plague Lakewood Manor are treated collectively as a natural disaster (something only hinted at before in The Naked Jungle), not an aggressive hoard of tiny monsters. As explained by a mid-film science lecture (again, with accompanying nature footage) this widespread disaster was created by the ants’ exposure to increasingly strong pesticides. According to the film’s resident killer ants expert, “We’re the ones that forced them to live in a toxic world,” which prompted the ants to absorb our pesticides and weaponize them as their own poisons. His audience’s horrified reaction to this news? “I don’t like it.” The film’s ridiculous dialogue saves it from the doldrums of Empire of the Ants, even though Empire had much better practical effects for its marabunta. If only they had combined those two elements, we’d have a veritable cult classic on our hands.

As cheesy as the dialogue is in Ants!, the sheer swarms of insects that accumulate actually make for an unnerving climax. The characters’ plan to survive the natural marabunta disaster is to remain motionless, allowing the bugs to crawl all over their skin. It’s legitimately terrifying (and more than a little gross) and I hope the actors were well compensated, even if those were sugar ants. There was also a return to endangered (and, for the first time, harmed) children in Ants!, something that’s rare in any horror film and hadn’t graced the marabunta screen since the likes of Them! On the cultural relic front, there’s an unexpected appearance from Brian Dennehy and it’s surprisingly entertaining to watch ants crawl all over Susanne Somers. Ants! is far from the most memorable film in its genre, but it does have its own corny charms as a made-for-TV trifle that features bugs crawling over a Three’s Company castmember’s half-dressed body. Blech.

Ant size: Regular
Fire delivery method: A flaming, hand-dug pool of gasoline meant to keep the ants at bay.

MacGyver: “Trumbo’s World” (1985) EPSON MFP imagetwostar

What can I say? I’ve never seen a MacGyver episode before “Trumbo’s World” so I have no idea how its quality compares to others. MacGyver’s preposterous, makeshift gadgets were amusing, there was some hilarious pseudo-science in lines like one describing a substance as nitroglycerin’s “chemical kissing cousin”, I genuinely loved the nifty soft synth soundtrack, and there were a couple great one liners like when MacGyver drowns a gang of “bad guys” and quips, “Chances are, those guys are all washed up.” For the most part, though, I still consider myself more of a MacGruber guy at heart. There just wasn’t much here worth going out of your way for, especially since the episode plays like a cover version of The Naked Jungle.

At first I thought the similarities to The Naked Jungle were incidental, due to the shared setting of a South American wilderness and, of course, the swarms of killer ants, but as the coincidental resemblance started to build I began to notice exact images borrowed wholesale from the Heston-Parker romance epic. The plantation-owner-refuses-to-leave-without-a-fight plot, the fleeing animals, the increasingly uncomfortable (still, 30 years later) depictions of native savages were all way to close to The Naked Jungle to be pure coincidence, but then exact footage lifted from the film, including both ant attacks and action shots of Heston-from-behind, sealed their connection. I’m not sure if all MacGyver episodes are cover versions of old movies hardly anyone remembers, but I’ve definitely seen the likes of “Trumbo’s World” before—and not that long ago.

Ant size: Regular, same as The Naked Jungle.
Fire delivery method: Flame thrower. Solid choice.

Skysurfer Strike Force: “Killer Ants” (1995) EPSON MFP imagethree star

In sharp contrast with the I’ve-seen-this-all-before familiarity of “Trumbo’s World”, the animated television show Skysurfer Strike Force plays like nothing I’ve ever encountered in my life. Its 1990s Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic is certainly familiar to me, especially as a decorated survivor of such dire properties of that era as Street Sharks and Captain Simian & The Space Monkeys, but there’s still something special about Skysurfer Strike Force’s lunacy in comparison. It’s one of those total shit-shows whose basic concept is difficult to capture in critical description so I’ll just urge you to see it for yourself in the YouTube clip of its intro and this Wikipedia-provided plot description: “The show featured five heroes, named the Skysurfers, which protected the world from the vile Cybron and his bio-borgs. The Skysurfers used technologically advanced watches that transformed them from their casual clothing to their battle attire and weapons, similar to the Choujin Sentai Jetman. During the transformations, their cars transform into rocket-powered surfboards that they can ride in the air.” It’s wickedly entertaining in its unnecessarily complicated mythology & complete detachment from reality.

As promised in its succinct title, the episode “Killer Ants” finds Skysurfer Strike Force joining the marabunta genre. Early in the episode gigantic ants (as in the size of dogs, not elephants) attack an unsuspecting truck driver on a mysterious late night highway, foreshadowing the evil Cybron’s world-domination-scheme-of-the-week. You’ve got to hand it to Cybron; for a cyborg supervillain he’s got some fresh ideas. Must be the stolen computer-brain. His plot to rule us all with killer ants was conceived as the perfect crime, as everyone would assume the ants were a natural disaster that he himself could not be blamed for. Pretty smart, as well as a wholly unique approach in the marabunta genre. The episode adds other unique details like the ants communicating through vibrations (instead of the usual pheromone route in other titles) and that instead of being killed when eventually conquered, they’re made to perform as circus animals. Skysurfer Strike Force may on the surface seem to be a half-assed children’s show bankrupt of any nourishing value, but it’s actually packing an excess of ideas & face-value virtues that add a surprising amount of new developments to both the marabunta & half-baked 90s children’s cartoon genres.

Ant size: Gigantic, but not too gigantic. Mid-sized giant ants.
Fire delivery method: Rocket launchers & tanks.

Goosebumps: “Awesome Ants” (1998) EPSON MFP imagetwohalfstar

Goosebumps gets by on charm more than it does on fresh ideas, bucking the unexpected quality jump in Skysurfer Strike Force. A live action television show based on the popular children’s book series, Goosebumps fits snuggly among the ranks of several sub-X Files monster of the week children’s properties of the 90s—shows like Eerie, Indiana & Are You Afraid of the Dark? In the episode titled “Awesome Ants” the monster of the week is, you guessed it, gigantic killer ants.

Ordered through the mail from a nefarious back-of-a-magazine company, a child’s ant farm science project gets out of control when he overfeeds his population (despite a pamphlet’s specific warnings not to, of course). The resulting killer ants are surprisingly well visualized, using a multi-faceted, Empire of the Ants kind of approach that combines over-sized props and green screen gimmicks to create the menace. This is all mildly amusing here or there, but what really sets this episode apart from any other installment in the marabunta genre is its wicked, Twilight Zone conclusion where (spoiler) the kid wakes to find himself as part of a human farm run by even larger ants, the tables having been turned. I gotta admit, that’s pretty “awesome”.

Ant size: Gigantic, and then even more gigantic.
Fire delivery method: None, which again might explain why the ants won.

Legion of Fire: Killer Ants! (1998) EPSON MFP imageonehalfstar

Starting with the Suzanne Somers melodrama Ants!, marabunta cinema has seemingly been banished to television purgatory for its sins of repetition. Not helping the case for the genre at all is the made-for-TV snoozer Legion of Fire: Killer Ants! (also known simply as Marabunta). Legion of Fire was not made for just any TV, mind you; it was made for late-90s Fox, which has to be the most tasteless era of television in this writer’s (admittedly limited) memory. Getting some of that trademark Fox Attitude (as well as the nature footage trope) out of the way early, the film opens with the gall to claim that “This is not science fiction. This is science fact. The story you are about to see could happen tomorrow.” It could. It most likely never will, but I guess it could. It already takes some considerable hubris to posit a made-for-TV monster movie starring “Skinner” from X-Files & “that dude” from Caroline in the City as “science fact”, but the claim becomes even more preposterous as soon as the first kill, which features a newlywed couple on a hike being physically dragged into the depths of an over-sized ant pile. Nice. Even in its opening minutes Legions of Fire can’t decide if it wants to be a believable scare film about South American ants (likened to the era’s similarly-feared “Africanized bees”) or an absurd sci-fi monster movie. Frankly it fails to be entertaining as either.

Legion of Fire’s dialogue is mostly of the dull, Empire of the Ants variety, with a couple isolated gems like “I never met a bug I didn’t like,” and “And my mom used to say that being an etymologist would be boring . . .” There’s also some limited camp value in a few action scenes like when an (endangered!) child is dragged into a hive or a pilot thrashes about as if the film’s CGI ants are actually eating his face, leading to one of the most slowly-progressing helicopter crashes I’ve ever seen in a movie. Speaking of the CGI, Legion of Fire’s most depressing development is that the golden era of practical effects is firmly in the rearview, giving way to shoddy CGI ants carrying even faker-looking human body parts on their not-real-at-all backs. It’s no surprise, then, that the most fun the film has with its premise is in the practical effects when the killer ants drag people into the gasoline filled holes meant to set the colony ablaze, followed promptly by explosions. If I could pick out one thing Legion of Fire needed more of, it’s people being dragged into holes and then exploding, not Windows screensaver-quality insects “crawling” all over some nobody’s horrified face. Legion of Fire is a disheartening low point for the marabunta genre, easily the most unimaginative feature film in the bunch—even if it is “science fact”.

Ant size: Regular, but seemingly fluctuating from scene to scene due to the cheap CGI.
Fire delivery method: Flame throwers & exploding, gasoline-filled holes.

The Bone Snatcher (2003) EPSON MFP imagetwohalfstar

The Bone Snatcher was a promising improvement from the dire viewing experience of Legion of Fire (which is one I hope to never repeat), but it’s an ultimately disappointing film when considered in its own right. It was the first & only marabunta movie not made for television in the near-three decades since Empire of the Ants, but since it was released straight-to-DVD it’s somewhat of a hollow victory. The Bone Snatcher is an Alien-esque creature feature that opts more for tension building than it does for a body count, which is a frequent mistake for low-budget horror. Look, everyone loves Alien, but there’s a reason why it’s one of the most memorable horror/sci-fi films of all time. It’s an extremely well made and handsomely budgeted film that a lot of independent horror movies just aren’t going to be able to replicate. The Bone Snatcher’s failed attempt at Alien-levels of tension instead of a high body count gore fest is particularly disappointing because the film’s creature looked so cool and was obviously cheap to film (thanks to CGI). There just wasn’t enough of it onscreen to make the film recommendable.

The creature in question here is a gigantic sasquatch-looking specter that, upon closer inspection, reveals itself to be a collection of highly-organized killer ants that collect to form a single gestalt being, a “bone snatcher” if you will. The title of “bone snatcher” is afforded to this ants-monster through its affinity for using the remains of its victims as a structural support for its gigantic, undulating body. Sometimes the bone snatcher even wears the face of its victims (literally), which is disturbing enough even when that face isn’t spitting out a stream of ants. The unnerving & clever physical attributes of the bone snatcher itself made want to love the film that surrounded it, but there’s just not much there to love. Borrowing some of the hazmat suit & militaristic desertscape aesthetic from marabunta pioneers like Phase IV, the film has a little bit of spooky atmosphere to work with, just not enough to carry the film on its own.

There are also some new touches added to well-established marabunta tropes, like picked-clean bones (common as far back as The Naked Jungle) now being stained red from blood and the ant cam POV (offered in Empire of the Ants & Phase IV), now looking like a sepia-tone brethren of the Vin Diesel sleeper Pitch Black. There’s also some disturbing gore that arrives with the appearance of the bone snatcher, including skin being carried off by endless floods of ants and muscle melted off the bone by their toxins. The problem is that it’s too little too late and much of the film’s action is pushed off until the final half hour of the runtime. The tension-building atmosphere is competent, but not nearly entertaining enough to carry a film whose best quality is its creature design. If the film had let its freak flag fly and given the titular bone snatcher more time in the sun it could’ve been something really special. Instead it was mostly a well-intentioned bore with a few admirably disturbing ideas.

Ant size: Regular, but coming together to form a gigantic gestalt creature.
Fire delivery system: None. The bone snatcher’s victims opted for stabbing instead, probably due to limited resources.

Atomic Betty: “Atomic Betty Vs the Giant Killer Ants” (2004) EPSON MFP imageonestar

If Legion of Fire is the moment when CGI unfortunately makes for lazy live-action filmmaking in the marabunta genre, Atomic Betty is where it similarly sinks animation. Taken at face value, I appreciate that there’s a children’s show (and we’re talking super-young children) within which a female moppet of a superhero periodically saves the world from 50s style B-movie plots, taking her assignments from a talking fish. If there were an actual 1950s movie called Atomic Betty Vs the Giant Killer Ants you’d be safe to bet I’d be eating that schlock up greedily. As a lazily-animated, mid-2000s cartoon the prospect is less tantalizing. There’s really nothing of interest added to the marabunta genre here. Betty is told by her fish boss that there are some killer ants on the loose (made gigantic by “multi-plasma nectar”), she flies over, and then puts a stop to the threat post haste. I hope it was riveting for its pint-sized target audience, but for our purposes here it doesn’t have much to add to the marabunta genre, outside of maybe the “multi-plasma nectar”. I’ve never heard that one before.

Ant size: Gigantic, duh. It’s right there in the title.
Fire delivery method: None. Nothing of interest here at all.

The Hive (2008) EPSON MFP imagethreehalfstar

There was a truly disheartening quality to the arrival of the CGI slog Legion of Fire. It felt in a lot of ways like the party was over, like it was the end of an era where campy practical effects can save an otherwise hopeless affair like Empire of the Ants from devolving into sheer boredom. The Bone Snatcher teased the possibility that the marabunta party was indeed still raging on, putting the CGI to good use by creating a physically impossible gestalt monster out of millions of computer-generated insects. There just wasn’t enough of the monster on screen to fully make it an essential piece of marabunta cinema. Made just five years later, The Hive seemingly learned from that mistake, pushing the ridiculousness allowed by CGI to its full limits, throwing out as many ridiculous ideas as it can, given the time & budget. Where The Bone Snatcher held back on the on-screen ants and mistakenly attempted atmospheric tension, The Hive knows its limits and offers as many cheap thrills as it possibly can while it lasts.

The most surprising thing about The Hive’s likeability is that it was not only made-for-TV, but it was made specifically for the Syfy Channel, which has a long record of offering bland, empty CGI schlock that features long stretches of boring dialogue and a few short scenes of sci-fi action. The Hive, by contrast, bends over backwards to entertain. It might not be the most unique film listed here, but it borrows so much from so many sources that it’s a very fun experience, one that feels well informed of its marabunta ancestry. For example, just like in other marabunta films, The Hive features children in danger, but it goes a step further by featuring the youngest endangered child yet: a baby. In the opening scene a baby is successfully eaten by a swarm of killer ants. It’s quite the introduction. The movie also plays off of the hazmat suit trope and includes the genre’s required nature footage (this time with mixed with news reports about rampaging swarms of killer ants). Best of all, it returns to the collective, gestalt creature of The Bone Snatcher, but this time the ants form all sorts of shapes: tentacles, constellations, functioning computers, and most entertaining of all, a gigantic ant made of tiny ants.

The Hive survives on the charms of its excess. It just has so many dumb ideas: liquid nitrogen cannons, ants controlling people’s minds, an evil corporation called Thorax Industries, and the idea that the marabunta are controlled by an insect spirit from outer space (seriously). Most important of all, though, it has an excess of ants, easily the most ants out of any film listed here, so many ants that they just fall from the sky in solid blankets of ant rain. Legion of Fire felt like the death of marabunta cinema, while The Hive felt like its unexpected (and so far unanswered) rebirth. It was the rare occurrence in cheap horror where CGI allows the film to push itself do so much more, instead of getting by on doing less.

Ant size: Regular, except for that gigantic one made of regular ones.
Fire delivery method: Flame throwers & a suicide bombing

Phineas & Ferb: “Gi-Ants” (2012) EPSON MFP imagetwohalfstar

Just as formally inconsequential as Atomic Betty, Phineas & Ferb at least one-ups the computer animated competition in the freshness of its ideas. In the episode “Gi-ants” the titular stepbrothers gather their neighborhood cronies (I really know so little about this show) together to come check out their latest quixotic scheme (again, so little): a gigantic ant farm that the kids can tour as a sort of museum. The purposefully-created “gi-ants” in this ant farm never become murderous despite their incredible size. Instead, their presence is menacing only because they mutate at an alarming rate, evolving from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural one to their own Industrial Revolution to the information age to total transcendent enlightenment (which I doubt is what’s next for us), all in the space of a single afternoon. The episode just barely qualifies as part of the marabunta genre if you squint at it the right way, but it’s a mostly harmless, cute diversion with a couple unique ideas within marabunta cinema. I especially appreciated how far they pushed the idea of rapidly evolving ants, first introduced in Phase IV, to a ludicrous point where the insects transcended space-time. That was nifty.

Ant size: Gigantic. Giant. Giant ants. Gi-ants. Oh, I get it.
Fire delivery method: Not necessary; the ants have evolved past the stage of petty human wars, instead opting to travel to the next dimension or outer space or something along those lines.

American Dad!: “The Shrink” (2015)

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I may have been a little too eager to poke fun at the Phineas & Ferb wordplay with “Gi-ant”. It was at the very least more clever than the pun in the title of the American Dad! episode “The Shrink”.  In the episode, the protagonist Sam Smith is assigned to see “a shrink” in order to deal with his anxiety, but he finds a much more satisfying therapy in “a shrink ray” that allows him to trap his family in a homemade miniature that he believes he can exert better control over. Shrink, shrink ray, haha. Ha. After his extraterrestrial housemate spills some red wine (in an exhaustingly aimless B-plot) some ants are attracted to the miniature, where they terrorize Smith & his family in the episode’s third act. There’s really no reason to track this episode down unless you find Seth MacFarlane’s brand of humor particularly funny (God help you), but it was the most recent example of marabunta cinema I could find & it was mostly harmless outside of being desperately unfunny.

Ant size: Normal, but with even tinier victims to terrorize.
Fire delivery method: This time they opted for water, something that hadn’t been done since “Trumbo’s World” (a.k.a. The Naked Jungle Jr.)

LagniappeEPSON MFP image

It would be fair to assume that over eight feature films and six television episodes the marabunta genre would be exhausted for new ideas, but there are some glimmers of hope for unexplored territory in projects like The Hive and The Bone Snatcher. If anyone’s looking for a fresh angle for their own killer ants movie, I’m going to offer you an idea on the house: humans transforming into ants once bitten, like the pseudo-zombie transformations in films like Black Sheep (2006) & Zombeavers. There were at least three films on this list (Phase IV, The Bone Snatcher, and The Hive) where I suspected that a poisoned human was going to make the full transition into humanoid ant, but they never reached their full marabunta potential.

In the wonderful 1993 Joe Dante picture Matinee, John Goodman plays a William Castle type who is peddling a B-movie called Mant! As a movie within a movie, Mant! unfortunately didn’t quite make for a proper entry on this list, but it does deserve a mention at the very least for exploring the ant transformation teased in The Hive & The Bone Snatcher. Utilizing gimmicks like Atomovision & Rumble Rama as well as taglines like “Half man, half ant, all terror” & the same fluctuating ant size as Empire of the Ants, the clips of Mant! featured in Matinee feel like a blueprint for the ant transformation film that the marabunta lovers of the world need & deserve. For those who would claim that there’s no fresh territory left for marabunta cinema, I offer that concept as the next frontier, with Joe Dante already having penciled in most of the details.

I also would like to note that I did not include Antie from 1989’s Honey I Shrunk the Kids on this list because Antie was a true hero whose name shouldn’t be soiled by the likes of killer marabunta. For a full length eulogy recognizing Antie’s bravery & accomplishments, I suggest reading the “Remembering Antie” piece from MTV.com. Similarly, in this year’s MCU action comedy Ant-Man there are swarms of heroic ants that help save the world from certain doom, but none deserve nearly as much praise as Ant-Man’s flying sidekick Antony, who gave everything he had so that we could live in peace, bless his insect heart.

The only other film I can think of with marabunta content that wasn’t included here was Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. There is a very brief sequence about 90min into the movie where some killer ants disintegrate a few Soviet baddies in the heat of an extended car & foot chase. Amongst all the other mindless spectacles of the film (which includes some space alien silliness & the infamously laughable scene where Indy survives a nuclear blast by chilling in a refrigerator), the marabunta aren’t much more than a brief diversion. Honestly, the whole film is sort of a bland wash of difficult-to-remember action, so even if the whole movie were crawling with killer ants, I probably still would’ve forgotten to give it a proper listing above.

If there are any other killer ants you think I’ve missed, please let me know and I’ll be sure to hunt them down.

-Brandon Ledet

Ant-Man (2015)

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fourhalfstar

When I was a kid, I had a deep and abiding fondness for any film or movie property that featured small people finding novel uses for normal-sized implements. I voraciously read The Borrowers and the sequels to it that my local library happened to have, and I have clear memories of the television series The Littles airing in the mornings before kindergarten, although I’m sure it was well into syndication by then. My absolute favorite, however, was always Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, with its theme park-esque magnification of the trials and travails of one’s own backyard (including one particularly nasty scorpion, which I have no doubt instilled a phobia of the arachnid in an entire generation of children, myself included). Ant-Man has many moments that directly reminded me of sequences in Honey. Part of that might be that the Alamo Drafthouses specialize in editing together interesting footage tangentially related to the film being screened, and my nostalgia goggles were primed due to the inclusion of the scene from Honey in which the Szalinski’s daughter first befriends Anty; moreover, Ant-Man takes pleasure in revisiting the magic of the ant’s eye view. Overall, it’s a fun ride.

Comedy staple Paul Rudd stars as Scott Lang, a recently released ex-con who was incarcerated after hacking into a corporation’s computer system in order to refund millions that were acquired through overcharging customers. His primary goal now is to once again become a part of the life of his young daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson; fellow Young Avengers fans know Cassie as the future Stature). In order to do so, Scott has to convince his ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer, reduced here to playing “somebody’s mom/ex-wife” as she so undeservedly often is; see also: Jurassic World) that he’s capable of handling that kind of responsibility. Complicating matters is Paxton (Bobby Canavale), a San Francisco detective and Maggie’s new fiancé. At the core, this is a pretty domestic story. You’ve probably seen that movie before; I know I have. That’s where the super-science comes in.

In 1989, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), creator and original occupant of the Ant-Man suit, walked away from S.H.I.E.L.D. in the hopes of preventing them from weaponizing the technology to create an army of insect-sized soldiers. Now, several years deep into retirement, Pym is back to prevent his unbalanced former protégé (Corey Stoll), who has recreated his technology and foresees its potential use as a weapon both for the military and for suppressing civilian protest and dissent, from auctioning his “Yellowjacket” technology to the highest bidder. While Scott is unable to find gainful employment due to his past conviction, Hank sets a plan in motion to enlist Scott’s burgling skills to infiltrate his old company and destroy the Yellowjacket project before S.H.I.E.L.D.–or HYDRA–can get their hands on it.

There are a lot of pleasant surprises here, but first: the negatives. I still think it’s absurd that we’ve gotten an Ant-Man movie before a Black Widow feature, and it’s telling that the bare-bones recap above doesn’t mention Luis (Michael Peña) or Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), both of whom play ostensibly major roles in the film but who can be excised from a plot summary without losing significant detail. If the final battle between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket seems familiar, that’s probably because it’s incredibly similar to the final battle from the first Iron Man: two men in similarly powered suits fight each other, and the hero defeats the bald, progressively less sane villain using his superior knowledge of the suit’s technology and that technology’s limitations. It’s a bit of a retread of other movies, both within and without the Marvel Universe, right down to the way that Hope eventually falls for Scott—not that I can blame her. I mean, have you ever looked at Paul Rudd’s eyes? He’s a dreamboat.

My initial skepticism about this movie mirrored my early skepticism for Guardians of the Galaxy: “Sure, expand the scope of the franchise–but why this property?” Ant-Man couldn’t possible live up to the standard of a movie that turned schlubby everyman Chris Pratt into a legitimate movie star, but the hype for Rudd’s vehicle doesn’t oversell the inarguably fun, likable, watchable movie that Ant-Man is. As a CGI-heavy flick, it had the potential to look like computer generated garbage (again, see also: Jurassic World), but at no point did the imagery take me out of the moment the way other recent movies have. Although Lilly is underutilized, the groundwork for her larger future involvement in the franchise is laid well (comic book fans will probably guess in what capacity, but I won’t spoil that here), and Peña works well as a character suited both for comic relief and surprising heroism. An extended cameo from the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) seems somewhat tacked on, but does well to remind us that this relatively grounded entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still part of a larger narrative, and Mackie is always a welcome screen presence. Unlike gloating trillionaire Tony Stark, Scott Lang is a much more identifiable, sympathetic, and likable character, which makes for a more interesting and compelling character. And, as cited above, the sequences that feature tiny Scott navigating the normal world, but magnified, are a treasure—Scott flying around on the back of his flying ant steed, Antony, was a particular highlight.

And, I’ll go out on a limb to hang myself here, Ant-Man was a better movie than Age of Ultron was. The second Avengers movie was never going to be able to recreate the magic of the first, because the novelty of seeing heroes team up had, if not “worn off,” at least dulled. AoU suffered from too many characters and a plot that was more interesting in theory than in practice, and the studio-mandated trimming of certain storylines left the film feeling sloppy and unrefined in many places. Ant-Man, on the other hand, makes for a much more satisfying film by grounding itself with realistic and relatable character arcs for most of the main cast and focusing on one major event, the heist, instead of over-inundating the audience with by attempting to create an endless series of “Wow” moments. It’s not the best of the Marvel franchise, but it is the best of 2015, and I’m more excited to see what lies ahead for Ant-Man than I am for other, more popular MCU characters.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond