Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Oh boy oh boy oh boy! It’s here! It’s finally here! We’re in the Endgame now. All good things must come to an end, after all.

Speaking of all good things, remember how that was the title of the series finale for Star Trek: The Next Generation? And how that episode showed our dearly beloved Captain Picard visiting the past and the future, solving a mystery that spanned decades and giving the audience a chance to revisit where that series had started and where it could go in the future, while also putting a nice little bow on the journey of Picard and his cohort? Going into Endgame, I had the same feeling, and as it turns out, this was intentional, going as far back as last March, when Marvel Films bigwig Kevin Feige cited “All Good Things … ” as an influence on this latest (last?) Avengers picture. So for once, I’m not just inserting a Star Trek reference where it doesn’t belong; it’s relevant.

Here there by spoilers! You have been warned! There’s virtually no way to talk about this movie without them, so saddle up buckaroos.

The film opens exactly as Infinity War ends, with Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) at a family picnic teaching his daughter archery. He turns his back for a moment and looks back, only to find that his entire family has been raptured turned to ash as part of Thanos (Josh Brolin)’s stupid, stupid plan to end scarcity across the universe by killing half of all living things. (This is also the plan of Kodos the Executioner from the classic Star Trek episode “The Conscience of the King,” because you should know by now that you can’t trust me not to insert Star Trek references were they don’t belong from time to time as well.) Three weeks later, the devastated remains of the team, Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and War Machine/Rhodey (Don Cheadle) are joined by the only surviving Guardian of the Galaxy, Rocket (Bradley Cooper) in their existential depression. Luckily, Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and his companion Nebula (Karen Gillan) are found in deep space by Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) just in time to prevent their suffocation, and she brings the two back to earth. With Nebula’s help, they locate Thanos’s little retirement farm and head straight there to retrieve the Infinity Stones and bring back everyone who was raptured dusted. When they get there, however, they learn that Thanos has already destroyed the Stones to prevent exactly this thing; Thor beheads the mad titan unceremoniously.

Five years later, people are still struggling. Struggling with depression, struggling with moving on. Cap goes to group counseling meetings. Natasha keeps the mechanisms of the Avengers in place, coordinating efforts to keep the peace, overseeing outreach and relief. Captain Marvel’s in deep space, helping the planets that don’t have the benefit of superheroes looking after them. Banner has managed to reconcile his two selves and lives full time as an intelligent Hulk. Tony has retired to a lakehouse with wife Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) and adorable daughter Morgan. And Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is still stuck in the Phantom Zone Quantum Realm until his equipment is accidentally reactivated, popping him back out into the regular world so that he can have a tearful reunion with now-teenage daughter Cassie (Emma Fuhrmann) and heads to Avengers headquarters, where he tells Cap and Natasha that it’s only been five hours for him, not years. With help from a hesitant Tony, the team works out how to use the Ant-Man equipment to stage an elaborate “time heist,” plucking the Infinity Stones out of time to recreate Thanos’s gauntlet and undo the damage he wrought. It’s “All Good Things … ”! But Marvel! And I cried! I really did!

You don’t need the ins and outs of how all this shakes out. There’s that Marvel house style of comedy that you’ve come to know and (probably) love, coupled with the emotional devastation that you would expect in a world where half of the population has disappeared. Clint’s taken on the Ronin persona from the comics (although this codename is never used on screen), tracking down and murdering criminals as the result of having no moral tether after the loss of his family. Scott’s headlong run across San Francisco to try and find his daughter only to discover a memorial to the lost, which he searches frantically in the hopes that her name won’t be there. Natasha puts on a brave face, but you can tell that she counts every life lost as red in her ledger (she clears every crimson drop by the end of the movie, and then some). An unnamed grief-stricken man in Cap’s support group recounts a first date with another man; they both break down in tears over the course of the evening, but this is the status quo now, so they’re seeing each other again (so, you know, the post-snap world isn’t all bad).

The time travel premise lets us revisit past events from new perspectives, which makes for a lot of fun to counterbalance all that drear. This includes contemporary smart Hulk having to act like his brutish past self, much to his embarrassment and consternation. Tony’s interactions with his daughter are adorable, and went a long way toward making him more relatable and likable, especially after I’ve been pretty anti-Iron Man for a while. One of the most moving parts of the movie also comes as a result of its comedic elements; we learn that the remaining refugees from Asgard have set up a “New Asgard,” where a broken Thor has retired and let himself go (he’s got pretty standard dad-bod, but the internet has reacted as if he looks like Pearl from Blade, just in case you were wondering if bodyshaming was still a thing). Once the heist kicks off, this means that Thor and Rocket have to travel to the time of Thor: The Dark World to get the Aether from Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), giving our favorite Asgardian hunk a chance to have an affirming heart-to-heart with his departed mother Frigga (Rene Russo), retroactively adding more depth to her character in a lovely way.

I’m burying the lede, though, since what really matters about all these time travel shenanigans is that we get to see Peggy (Hayley Atwell) again. PEGGY! As soon as there was a wrinkle in the time plan and they mentioned having to go back to the seventies, I knew where we were headed and could barely contain my excitement. If I remember nothing else from this movie on my deathbed, I will remember the thrill of seeing Peggy one last time (and then again). That doesn’t even include the fact that Tony gets to have a nice moment with his father (John Slattery), too, and that there are appearances from every character.

Look, this is the perfect capstone for this franchise. If there were never another MCU film, it would be totally fine, because as a finale, this is pitch perfect. Every important and semi-important character (other than Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia, because she was presumably busy shooting Us) gets a moment to shine, as the Snap is undone (come on, you knew it would be). There’s even a moment where every living lady hero from the entire MCU is onscreen at once, and it is delightful, although I’m sure the internet is already full of comments about how it was “forced” or “cheesy,” but I don’t feed trolls and I try not to cross the bridges that they live under, so I wouldn’t know. But, as the people behind the MCU have noted, this is a finale, not the finale. We get to say our goodbyes to many of our favorites, but the future is in good hands with Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) taking up the mantle and shield of Captain America, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) taking her place as the new leader of the Asgardians in diaspora, and the possibility of future adventures of Pepper Potts as the heir apparent to Iron Man. The future is now, and it couldn’t be brighter.

-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

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

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fourhalfstar

Captain America: Civil War was a lot of fun! I went into the film expecting it to be a bit of a letdown after how much I loved Winter Soldier, and while it’s not as good as the last Cap flick, it’s certainly worthy of the positive critical reception that it has been garnering. I expected that there would be more of a backlash against it given that the negative reception of Batman v Superman was characterized by proponents of that film as being the result of a pro-Marvel bias among the blogosphere. Instead, the film’s 90% positive professional critic score and 92% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes reflects a generally positive reaction, and the film deserves it. While there are some detractors who are critical of the film, citing the distinct division between plot lines (one focused on the titular conflict between the different members of the Avengers and one which is devoted to following up on the plotline surrounding the Winter Soldier and his past), I’m in agreement with the general public in that I found this film a worthy successor and a great introduction to the new direction of the MCU as Phase Three revs its engine.

I’ll be saving my comparisons to other films and my discussion of the spoilery elements of the film for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. dual review, but I’ll talk about my favorite elements here. Unlike Age of Ultron, which likewise had a large number of characters and introduced new ones, this film felt neither overstuffed nor imbalanced. There’s more of Cap than anyone else, but that’s to be expected, and every other character gets at least a few minutes of screentime that develops them as individuals and reveals something about their personal philosophy. Notable among these is Scarlet Witch, who is basically filling the Kitty Pryde role on this team as the youngest member/trainee, getting tips on superheroing from Cap and Black Widow in the field. Elizabeth Olsen plays the hell out of Wanda’s insecurities and independence, and it’s a testament to her strength as an actress that the audience fully understands her character after just a couple of films in which she plays a role that doesn’t get a lot of screen time. Although Scarlett Johannson’s role here is much more brief than her meatier presence in Winter Soldier, the Russo brothers effectively understand that her relationship with Steve would be strained by their placement on opposite sides of the Sokovia Accord issue; I won’t get into detail here, but she gets a few scenes that allow the actress to play this conflict, and ScarJo nails it despite being arguably underused. Vision also feels a lot more like Vision this time around: a weird android whose utter incomprehensibility of human social norms is both charming and unnerving at the same time. The movie also gets a lot of subtle comedy out of the character’s uncanniness; there’s something utterly surreal about a blockbuster comic book movie featuring a character whose unusual body shape is covered by the kind of sweater that your grandmother orders out of a J. Crew catalog.

I also really enjoyed that, for the first time in the MCU, we got to see a team fight another group.In most of the films, the final confrontation boils down to a one-on- one fight (Iron Man, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man), the protagonist and maybe a sidekick facing off against a single villain and his attendant faceless horde (IM2, IM3, Thor 2), or a group facing off against a single villain and his attendant faceless horde (Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers 2). It’s not surprising that the only film from Phases One and Two that doesn’t fit into one of these boxes is Winter Soldier, which sees the individual members of Cap’s team in different places and fulfilling the roles that were best suited to each. This did mean that we didn’t get to see, for instance, a moment of pure four-color glory like Cap using his shield as a refractor for Iron Man’s blasts like in Avengers; what it does accomplish is raising the emotional stakes when the villains are well-developed and individual rather than being mass market Chitauri, Dark Elves, Ultron bodies, or the Sting-Winger things from Guardians. Here, it’s a full team against a full team, using their powers in new and inventive ways and showing how these personalities play off of each other, especially with regards to the more mature members of each team and their more green teammates. Ant-Man is a particular delight (despite some questionable CGI in a few scenes), with Paul Rudd effectively playing up Scott Lang’s awe at meeting Captain America; the serious affectation he puts into the line “Here’s your shield, Captain America” got the film’s biggest chuckle out of me, although Spider-Man’s sincere fascination with Bucky’s metal arm was great as well.

The fight scenes are frenetic in the best way, and they all push the plot forward rather than simply occurring at the anticipated intervals in which we’ve been conditioned to expect them. That’s not to say that this is a fun movie throughout, however. The length of the scenes featuring Holland’s precocious, quipping Spider-Man are balanced out by a conspiracy plot that reflects the darker elements of Winter Soldier. These revisitations don’t resonate as strongly this time around, but the revelations about the Winter Soldier program and one character’s motivations for wanting to bring this information to light are effective in their Manchurian qualities. This actually leads into the question that the marketing for the film has played up, one that was much more straightforward in the source material (which we’ll talk about in the Agents review): whose side are you on?

Where do I stand? There’s a great underlying throughline in this film that shows that, in a way, Tony Stark is right. It’s almost easy to write off Steve’s motivations as being too personal and lacking in professional distance; his desire to not only save but redeem Bucky may be the most ethical motivation in play, but it’s undeniable that this morality isn’t what motivates Cap. Steve Rogers’s desperate desire not to lose one of the last tenuous connections that he has to a home that no longer exists is understandable. On the other hand, it’s not hypocrisy on Cap’s part that he does not want to defer to the potentially unethical whims of a questionably impartial caucus while engaging in ambiguously unlawful activity himself to defend Bucky. It’s totally in line with what he claims is his goal: assuming personal responsibility. It’s also understandable that Tony would be the person most in favor of the accords: his ego and compulsion to take personal responsibility for protecting the entire earth led to the creation of Ultron. Of course Tony feels more of a need for oversight than Cap, who had heretofore never been on the wrong side of any moral conflict. In the end, however, the stakes become as personal for Tony as they are for Steve, leading him to act out violently using his technological advantage. Further, this conflict comes as a result of manipulation by a basic human for whom the stakes are also too personal. Supersoldier, genius inventor, and haunted family man: all give in to their worst instincts, tearing down empires and threatening worldwide political ramifications of the future because of the limited horizons of their own pain. This movie is both an embodiment of the need for accountability as made manifest in the lives of three different men, but also a demonstration of the infeasibility of the accords themselves.

Some situations require action faster than a committee can authorize it. This is a world where an alien portal can open up over New York or interdimensional monsters could appear in London and end life as we know it while some U.N. page is just trying to get enough people together to make a motion to deploy the Avengers. What if everyone was at lunch? And then, boom, humanity is enslaved to the Skrulls or consumed by Galactus because all they had to do was attack during everyone’s smoke break or a particularly nasty flu season. There really is no side that’s entirely right or wrong, which is the film’s greatest strength. There are a lot of people making comparisons to Batman v Superman and with good reason, considering that there is a weird overlap in some of the plot elements, but what really stands out to me is that BvS has what is essentially a sitcom stock plot where Character A and Character B are in conflict because they don’t communicate with each other. Then things get blown further and further out of proportion while shenanigans ensue, until they realize that, hey, being honest is important and everyone learns a lesson about teamwork and friendship. In Civil War, the conflicts are ideological and thus more rooted in the humanity of its characters. That’s the core of what makes this film work, and it’s a great start for the next wave of Marvel’s flicks.

-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.

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