Hard-Traveling Fanboys: Off the Page (Ant-Man)

Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. But with that love of comics and the characters they feature comes an intense interest in the various adaptations that have been made of comic characters. Each month, in Off the Page, the Fanboys will take a look at a piece of comic-inspired media, whether that be a movie, television show, live performance or even a radio drama.

Nick: We’re back, and for the first time in what seems like months, there were no unscheduled breaks or delays! Hooray for punctuality!

Greg: I feel like this is a new beginning for us, one where we meet our weekly goals and establish an unceasing publication schedule.

Nick: With a new ending coming soon.

Greg: If it’s a Big Ending, I’ll be OK.

Wrestling reference.
Wrestling reference.

Nick: In any event, we’re not only punctual, but also topical this week, as we are here to review a film that you can currently see on the big screen at your local theater. No, we’re not talking about Pixels! Who in their right mind would pay to see such a thing?

Greg: ANYWAY, let’s get down to brass tacks, whatever that means. As we mentioned a couple columns ago in our MCU countdown, Marvel’s Ant-Man opened in July and proved to be another hit for the studio, albeit not quite to the same level as other efforts from the seemingly unstoppable Marvel juggernaut.

antman-posterWe had a chance to see a 2D showing (the only kind of movie showing I’m interested in, typically) recently and have decided to “grace” you, our beloved readers, with a review of the Peyton Reed-helmed movie.

Nick: That’s a master class in deflection, folks. But I digress. We’re actually here to talk about Ant-Man, not the poor theatrical choices of a certain Hard-Traveling Fanboy whose name begins with the letter “G.”

Coming in to Ant-Man, my expectations were pretty low. The much-publicized departure of onetime writer and director Edgar Wright was one of the few PR black eyes Marvel Studios has suffered in the eyes of fans, and it left a bit of a pall over the movie’s production and marketing. It won me back a bit with the casting of Paul Rudd as Scott Lang. Anyone who knows me knows I love me some Paul Rudd, so to see him get a shot in a comedic superhero film was like a dream come true.

But, my good will was soon erased by a series of trailers that were, well, painfully unfunny. Seriously, the “jokes” used in the trailers didn’t land with me at all. I knew they were supposed to be humorous and I saw other people laughing, but they just didn’t do anything for me at all.

So, coming in, I was preparing for the previously unthinkable — a legitimately bad movie from Marvel Studios.

Greg: I am in complete agreement regarding the trailers. They were prime examples of what NOT to do when cutting a trailer. The early trailers presented a comedy that wasn’t funny, and the later trailers presented a “serious movie” that looked like a clone of several better movies before it, and without any humor at all. Couple it with Edgar Wright’s somewhat-messy departure and the rather lackluster history of quality Ant-Man stories, and we had plenty of cause for concern.

Nick: Luckily, the finished product played much better than its promotional material, although that’s not really saying much. There were some laughs to be had, and the special effects were well done, providing a unique perspective on the typical Marvel action scene.

Let’s start with the man himself. Rudd’s Scott Lang was plenty likable and Rudd’s charm at times carried entire scenes during stretches where the movie seemed to be biding its time. Greg, your thoughts?

Greg: I admittedly have no idea what Scott Lang is like in the comics, but if he’s anything like Paul Rudd in this film, I’m sure I’d love to read his adventures. Rudd is one of the increasingly rare comedic actors with whom I always feel I can relate. One of my chief concerns about this project was that the notoriously controlling Marvel Studios wouldn’t give him the latitude to be himself and imbue Scott with some of the quirks and insecurities that make Rudd so lovable.

The dork to which we can all relate.
The dork to which we can all relate.

Thankfully, those fears were completely unfounded. Rudd is his usual charming self here, playing a hard-luck hero who tries earnestly but fails at seemingly every turn. It’s in step with Marvel’s human approach to superheroics, and he has an unwitting charm about him that makes even the most laughable of heroes seem like he belongs.

Nick: And the supporting cast wasn’t too shabby themselves. Michael Douglas, in particular, made for a great take on an older Hank Pym. The flashbacks to his previous adventures as the original Ant-Man were, in my opinion, often more interesting than the present-day story being told. His Pym had a dry sarcasm that played off of Rudd’s charm well.

Evangeline Lilly was also….there. She played a fairly generic character, to be honest. Not much to write home about.

Michael Pena was probably the best of the non-Ant-Man supporting actors. His Luis, a member of Scott’s high-stakes robbery crew, brought plenty of laughs to the proceedings, even if he was a bit overused for my tastes. Still, him being overused is far better than asking T.I. or random crazy thug from The Dark Knight and Wendy’s commercials to carry their comedic weight.

The unlikely breakout star of Ant-Man.
The unlikely breakout star of Ant-Man.

Greg: Interestingly, this is one of the areas where we diverge on this movie. I also liked the supporting cast, but my love was not so restrained for Mr. Pena. He absolutely stole the movie. Each of his scenes delivered in a big way, and I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t become a star in Hollywood after this performance. His timing was great and his delivery was better. There were times I found myself hoping for another Luis scene, particularly during some of Yellowjacket’s monologues.

I also thought T.I. and the awesomely named David Dastmalchian turned in entertaining performances, though admittedly Dastmalchian turned up the cheese a bit with his performance as Kurt. It worked for me overall, but there were times it wore thin.

Lilly’s Hope van Dyne, sadly, is kind of generic. It’s not her fault, and she does manage to kick some butt when it counts and deliver a terrific emotional scene opposite Douglas, but there’s just not a lot unique or interesting about the character presented here. Perhaps future installments, should they come about, will let her show off more.

If Pena was the biggest positive surprise for me, Michael Douglas was the biggest disappointment. Look, I love the guy and respect his work tremendously. I liked several of his scenes in the film, too. But I have to be honest: there were stretches where I felt he was phoning it in. I’m not sure I ever fully bought the drama when he was around, with the exception of the aforementioned father-daughter bonding moment. It wasn’t a bad job, but when compared with the inspired job done by another Hollywood veteran, Robert Redford, in last year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I ended up questioning Douglas’ commitment to the Hank Pym character.

A young Michael Douglas with what can only be described as pristine hair.
Granny Klump’s favorite actor.

That all sounds a lot harsher than I intended, because I still enjoyed his performance.

Nick: Agree to disagree on the supporting cast for the most part. We both used the word “generic” to describe Lilly as Hope Van Dyne, but no character in this movie or perhaps any other movie thus far in the MCU embodies generic the way Darren Cross does here. Corey Stoll is tasked with playing a character whose casting call must have read “just another uninteresting Marvel villain,” because of all the lackluster villains Marvel has brought to the big screen, his might take the cake.

Seriously, there was nothing intriguing, entertaining or even bad enough to enjoy ironically about this character or performance. Just a brick wall that not even Rudd can bounce enough charisma off of.

Greg: I think you referred to him as “basically the same guy as Obadiah Stane” when we left the movie theater, and I have to agree. Rich apprentice to even richer inventor? Check. Bitter about a technology not being exploited by his company? Check. Bald guy? Check. Supervillain suit that is basically the inverse of the titular character? Rinse and repeat.

We're Ant Mongers, Tony.
We’re Ant Mongers, Tony.

None of this is Stoll’s fault. He does what he can with a cookie cutter, run-of-the-mill bad guy role, but it’s disappointing given Marvel’s string of uninventive, indistinct supervillains on the big screen (Loki and Ultron being the prominent exceptions). The movie was at its worst when focusing on Yellowjacket, simply because I felt I’d seen the same beats done to death in previous MCU movies.

Nick: Couldn’t agree more.

But one aspect that wasn’t generic was the movie’s action scenes and special effects. The shrinking effects were extremely well done, and were used nearly perfectly in the film’s action scenes. A throwdown between Lang and a full-fledged Avenger I won’t spoil here for anyone who somehow hasn’t heard about his appearance yet was probably my favorite scene in the movie, as it showed how Lang can hold his own with the big boys if need be,

Greg: Absolutely! The action scenes were clever throughout, finding interesting ways to utilize Ant-Man’s peculiar abilities. Whether it was a life-sized Thomas the Tank Engine crashing through a wall or an ant-back stampede, Peyton Reed did a masterful job orchestrating this one, and the special effects team more than carried its weight.

The battle at Avengers HQ was indeed the bees’ knees, as was the cameo from said Avenger. The movie picks up steam and never looks back at that point.

Sadly, nobody lets off any steam during this movie.
Sadly, nobody lets off any steam during this movie.

Though Wright didn’t direct, and though the script went through numerous revisions, his presence was felt nonetheless, which is why he retains co-writing credit. Pena’s scenes, in particular, scream “Edgar Wright,” especially the flashback gag that pops up a few times in the movie.

It’s weird that I’m not generally a fan of Edgar Wright films, yet I found the quirky, eccentric Wright-like scenes to be the best in the film. They helped lend a uniqueness to the proceedings, where I felt the plot itself was too paint-by-the-numbers to get heavily invested. Where the narrative failed me, the jokes, banter and action picked up the slack. It adds up to an uneven but ultimately rewarding experience.

Nick: I’m much more lukewarm on this one than you are, to be sure. There were moments I liked, but none I loved. There were moments I disliked, but none I outright hated. You used the word “uneven,” and that’s a perfect word for this. A pretty boring first act, followed by a decent second act and then capped off with a good third act adds up to a film that I can only call decent. Make no mistake, Marvel Studios still hasn’t made what I’d call a bad movie — it’s just they’ve finally¬† a movie that I just call “OK,” rather than outright good. Because of that, Ant-Man instantly takes its place at the bottom of the MCU barrel. Perhaps rewatches will be kind.

Greg: Yeah, we definitely disagree on its placement in the pantheon. I didn’t love Ant-Man, but I think I liked it a little more than the first Captain America movie and The Incredible Hulk, both also good movies. I recommend anyone with a passing interest in summer blockbusters should check this one out, as it’s got plenty of laughs and entertainment for the whole family. I can’t muster too passionate an argument about it, but it did its job and gave me probably the best movie one could possibly make about Ant-Man.

Nick: Sadly, we’ll never know if that’s the case. Count me as among the camp that believes Wright’s presence might have made for a better, even more unique finished product.

Greg: It’s a fair question. I think this is the movie that, more than any other in Marvel’s pantheon, reflects the effects (positively and otherwise) of the studio exerting total control over its properties.

Nick: Absolutely. Well, that about wraps it up for this week. Be sure to check back next week as we……write…..something?

Greg: It’ll be time for another Countdown, though even we aren’t entirely sure of the topic yet. We’ll surprise ourselves, and you readers, next week! And be sure to check back in two weeks, when we don our Longbook Hunters attire to examine Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s “Old Man Logan.”

Nick: Indeed. Until next time, let us hear your thoughts on Marvel’s latest big screen offering! Hit us up on Twitter (@gphillips8652 and @nickduke87), email (GregP@placetobenation.com and NickD@placetobenation.com) or through the Place to Be Nation Comics Facebook page.