Ant-Man and the Wasp: I hope this ends here

I don’t know what it is with Ant-Man movies. They are simply not great.

This movie is less dumb than its prequel, and has some genuinely enjoyable sequences. But ultimately, the movie is just lukewarm. I don’t think it’s because Ant-Man isn’t a serious superhero. I mean, the Guardians of the Galaxy films are light and fun, but never venture into the territory of silliness. The movies are pretty intense, all things considered, and the stakes are sky-high (literally :P). The problem with Ant-Man, in my opinion, is that in trying to make the films light and cool, they fail to make them memorable. I think that is because of two reasons. First, in order for a film to be memorable, it should succeed in engaging the audience. This will happen only if the viewer is as concerned about the stakes in the story as the characters. Second, since this is a superhero movie, the tech/powers that are integral to the movie need to be understandable and believable for the audience. Ant-Man fails on both these counts.

Let us first look at the stakes in Ant-Man and the Wasp. Hank Pym, the physicist who invented the Ant-Man suit wants to go into the quantum realm to find his wife who got lost there many years ago. Keep in mind, this is the twentieth film in the MCU. By now I am used to the fate of the universe being at stake. This film turns that trope around by making the stakes the lives of two women – Pym’s wife in the quantum realm and Ava Starr/Ghost, the daughter of a former associate of Pym’s whose body is disintegrating due to quantum phasing (there is a lot of ‘quantum’ in this film that I will discuss in the next part of the review). So far so good. Not every superhero film needs to be about saving the galaxy from supervillains. But they do need situations and characters the audience can care about. Good movies in the MCU have done that by having the antagonists pose moral quandaries in addition to physical challenges for the protagonists.

In this case, the two antagonists – Sonny, a black-market tech-dealer, and Ghost didn’t do anything of the sort. Instead, the challenge they presented was entirely in the form of chase and action sequences. Ghost had started to make herself credible by stating that her condition was as a result of her father being discredited by Pym, but rather than explore that threat, the film quickly resolved it by establishing her father as a liar and a thief. Even the one person who was helping her, another pissed-off former associate of Pym’s (the guy managed to piss off every single person he interacted with), abruptly changed his tune and began supporting Pym’s mission to find his wife instead of his own goal of harnessing Van Dyne’s energy from the quantum realm to cure Ghost of her affliction. Even Ghost’s affliction loses its seriousness towards the end of the film, when a newly returned Van Dyne can cure her simply by touching her and passing on the quantum energy she supposedly absorbed over the years.

This brings me to my second point. This film explores the quantum realm, an area where physics changes character completely. The problem is that the film overuses the concept and spews out ideas that must impress the audience simply because they have the word ‘quantum’ before them. The film acknowledges this by having Ant-Man say, “Do you guys just put the word ‘quantum’ in front of everything?” Far-fetched quantum mechanics is supposed to explain everything – how Van Dyne managed to survive for years in the quantum realm, how she managed to make an antenna, meet with and plug it on to Ant-Man when he entered the quantum realm, understand that there is healing energy in the quantum realm, harness that energy in her own body… All of this is simply too far-fetched, even for a universe that tells us stories about adventures in outer space.

So, if you’re still wondering why Ant-Man wasn’t called to be a part of the Avengers in Infinity War, you know that the silliness of the series probably had more than a small part to play in it.

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Iron Man 2: Solving the Villain Problem

Day 3, Iron Man 2. Overall, a fun, slightly cheesy movie. Honestly, all I could think of while watching this film was how they had managed to solve the villain problem from the first film. From the very outset, the villain, Ivan Vanko (played by Mickey Rourke), is introduced as formidable and having a stake in dethroning Iron Man. He understands the Stark Industries’ arc reactor and has the knowledge to make the miniaturised version that Iron Man uses to power his suit. More importantly, he has nothing to lose. This makes for a gripping story, but the writers, director and editor have gone a step further to also make it a good cinematic experience.

They have done this in two ways. First, the writing has made sure that the antagonist is the protagonist’s equal. If Stark developed the miniaturised arc reactor while in captivity in Afghanistan, Vanko did so while living in poverty in Russia. Stark may have a suit, but Vanko wreaked havoc on Iron Man even without one. Both Stark and Vanko inherited the knowledge required to build the arc reactor from their fathers (who worked together on the project). Stark has a legacy to protect. His motivations are driven by what has name represents. While Vanko isn’t acting out of the desire to protect the Vanko name, he too wants to honour his father’s legacy by taking forward the work he did. Vanko’s vitriolic hatred for Stark translates into him developing sophisticated technology that can challenge the latter. The film couples that with shattering the myth of invincibility around Iron Man. Iron Man has a powerful suit that can help him fly around the world and dodge attacks from powerful weapons. But the suit can’t prevent palladium poisoning and unless Iron Man can replace palladium in the arc reactor keeping him alive with another metal (hello Vibranium), he is going to die. This raises the challenge for the protagonist and keeps the audience from getting comfortable in the movie.

The second device the director and editor use to engage the audience is to intersperse the protagonist’s and antagonist’s actions. So, as we are watching Iron Man indulge in silly antics or worry about palladium poisoning, we see Vanko becoming stronger. Unlike in Iron Man, the antagonist’s gradually increasing power and Iron Man’s vulnerability reach a crescendo. Now the protagonist can only win if rises to the antagonist’s challenge. Iron Man proves himself to the audience which keeps them invested in him as the film ends. Even though Iron Man 2 isn’t as highly rated as the first part in the series, I personally enjoyed it more because of these storytelling techniques.

Aside from techniques, what also impressed me about Iron Man 2 was that it gave Stark’s character more layers. In the first film, Stark was arrogant, pompous and erratic. You don’t learn anything more about the character. In this film, confronted with the enormity of his creation and his own impending mortality, we see the character have questions about his work, where he is heading and what he wants. His descent into debauchery is out of frustration at not arriving at straightforward conclusions to existential questions rather than carelessness. Even though I still find Stark’s character insufferable, I understand him a bit better and have more empathy for him.  This makes the character richer, more relatable and sets him up for the role he will play in subsequent movies. And that is a real win for writing.

Here goes Day 3. Tomorrow it’s time for Thor, a film that has been on my list for weeks. I cannot wait!