“&” is for Cooperation, or, Ant-Man and the Wasp

ant-manandthewasp

What’s he looking at over there? Wait. What’s she looking at up there? You’ll have to see the movie to find out!!!

More surprising to me than its lackluster box office haul was the feeling Solo: A Star Wars Story seemed to elicit in many reviewers that the film was “inessential.”

Huh?

Bro, they’re movies. They’re all inessential.

Yeah, yeah, I get it. Solo didn’t have star war and lightsabers and Skywalkers. Still, the idea that Solo is inherently lesser because of that is perplexing to me and I’ve yet to see it conveyed in any meaningful or convincing way.

With that in mind, I left Marvel Studios’ latest, Ant-Man and the Wasp, with the nagging feeling that the film had been… inessential. Like a regular pot.

But Ant-Man in the Wasp isn’t so much inessential as it is the direct follow up to Avengers: Infinity War, which is to say the galaxy spanning struggle of, like, twenty superheroes to stop a space warlord from committing universal genocide is followed up here less than three months later by a film that at one point involves seagulls. There’s a distinct sense of whiplash between the two films, one that is more jarring and less refreshing than the welcomed disparity between the cumbersome Avengers: Age of Ultron and the lean, original Ant-Man.

But scope aside, Ant-Man and the Wasp is a thematic follow up to Infinity War that proves itself, while still jarring, anything but inessential.

Infinity War finds its cast of heroes split across the universe, willingly or otherwise. It’s a film that sees a distinct lack of communication between its heavy hitters, even when they share the same geographic location. There are conflicting ideologies and strategies and motivations that muddy the waters of the Avengers’ common goal, and so while the heroes are not in open conflict as they are in Captain America: Civil War, they are lesser in their division, big or small, by choice or by circumstance.

So much of Ant-Man and the Wasp, down to its very title, is concerned with cooperation, with crossing aisles and uniting fronts. Here, crooks and physicists work together for a greater good, as do fallen-out old peers, the rich and poor, the brilliant and goofy. Human beings and ants.

Well, the ants seem like they might be straight-up slaves, but you know.

Ant-Man himself works alongside his ex-wife and her new husband to raise their daughter. The Wasp works aside her estranged father to search for her mother. This is a film about cooperation, about people helping and being helped. It paints a picture of an MCU in which hands, though sometimes more eagerly than others, are still extended in comradery. It’s not an Ant-Man movie. It’s not a Wasp movie. It’s all about that “and” baby.

Despite its great sense of humor and utterly badass antagonist, Ghost (played by Hannah John-Kamen), I’d be lying if I said Ant-Man and the Wasp made it any easier to wait for Avengers 4 next summer, but it’s thematic follow-up to that film has me chomping at the bit to concoct hot takes on the quadruple feature of what is shaping up to be a fascinating run of Marvel films; Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel and Avengers 4.

When the dust settles on phase three of the MCU after whatever fallout awaits us in Avengers 4 it’ll be very interesting to see just how essential this brief interlude becomes.

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Road to Infinity War – Ant-Man, or, So Much More Than Just Perfect Timing

Oh I did it fam. In preparation for my viewing of Avengers: Infinity War on April 26th at 7PM, I went back and rewatched the previous 18 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from Iron Man to Black Panther. Every day leading up to Infinity War I’ll be posting a short piece on each film and my most recent hot takes on nearly a decade of the MCU. I’ll also be linking back to whatever old nonsense I wrote about the movies at the time, if applicable. And if that isn’t enough, check out my ranked listed of the MCU to date on my Letterboxd account here.

ant-man

Tried. So. Hard. To find the version of this poster that is just Michael Peña and Bobby Cannavale.

Ant-Man was instantly the perfect pallet cleanser after Avengers: Age of Ultron. Coming out so quickly after the second Avengers film I still wasn’t completely admitting my disappointment with that movie when I first saw this one. I didn’t know how to feel about Age of Ultron, but I instantly felt a fondness for Ant-Man. It’s charming and fun and it never once threatens to utterly collapse in on itself under its own weight, instead focusing in on likely the smallest (yeah, yeah) stakes we’ve seen in from the MCU.

Which is a good thing.

But rewatching Ant-Man, it’s so much more than just a welcome respite from the cacophony of its immediate predecessor. Ant-Man explodes with style and flavor. Quick pans. Brilliant montages. Cops and crooks with competing motivations. Christophe Beck’s sneaky, percussive score. Ant-Man commits to the heist genre in earnest, lending it the authenticity of a heist film that happens to have a superhero in it, rather than the artificiality of a superhero film that shoehorns in a few heist movie gimmicks.

Upon its initial release Ant-Man drew myriad comparisons to the first Iron Man film, allegations that it was the same cookie with different icing, traced from the same stencil with a different pen. Similar obligations were later lobbed at Doctor Strange, which I will similarly whine about when I write about that movie again in, like, two days. Such comparisons require an incredibly broad view of the films in question. I won’t bore you with a laundry list of discrepancies here, but, to my mind, the most compelling difference between the two films is the position in society from which its protagonists hail.

Where Tony Stark is a billionaire tasked with taking responsibility for his immense economic power, Scott Lang is a recently freed convict who can’t hold down a job at Baskin-Robbins. His is a new low for heroic status quos in the MCU, and one that begs some interesting questions about how morality and justice shift and distort with size and scope. When we meet Scott Lang he’s paid the penal price and continues to pay a societal price for crimes that come nowhere close to the collateral damage caused by Tony Stark’s misguided creation of a maniacal artificial intelligence. Scott Lang is certainly established as having a moral compass, but Ant-Man largely concerns him being forced into the position of a shrinking superhero because, justified or not, society will not let him live a normal life.

With that in mind, though I’d hoped to focus on just how good this film is in its own right, Ant-Man serves not only as the perfect follow-up to Age of Ultron, but also as an excellent thematic primer for Captain America: Civil War.

There’s some issues that keep Ant-Man in the middle of the pack for me, specifically its nonsense villain and the unbearable “protection clause” cop-out it levies against Evangeline Lilly’s Hope van Dyne (though that looks to be mended with the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp).

Ant-Man was one of the Marvel movies I was least looking forward to rewatching. I’ve never disliked the film, but I couldn’t get myself excited to watch it again. It was also one of the films that surprised me the most in just how much it exceeded by remembered notions of it. I may not have been looking forward to rewatching it, but once I popped it in I had an absolute blast. This is a really fun, entertaining movie that doesn’t get enough credit for its adept execution of style and the nuance of scale it lends to the franchise as a whole.

All of this is to say: Michael Peña, am I right? Michael. Peña.

For more Ant-Man ramblings, with admittedly less to say, from the time of the film’s initial release:

August 5, 2015: Perfect Timing, or, Ant-Man

Perfect Timing, or, Ant-Man

Avengers: Age of Ultron was a massive movie. There was something like a million robots, upwards of five antagonists and one lavish, sprawling set piece after another, each in its own corner of the globe. What better way to follow up what is quite possibly the biggest superhero movie of all time than with what is most definitely the smallest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet.

Get it? Cause small? Cause ants? Cause I’m talking about Ant-Man?

SMALL ATTACK

SMALL ATTACK

Ant-Man applies Marvel Studios’ trademark, money-printing charm to the heist movie, a genre that traditionally entails far smaller conflicts than world-ending androids. The marriage of Marvel style and the heist genre winds up delivering what in many ways is the polar opposite of Age of Ultron.

Where Age of Ultron pits a genocidal robot hive mind devising an extinction-level event up against a flying aircraft carrier of speedsters, witches and more benevolent other robots in a city turned into an asteroid, Ant-Man sees a bald guy trying his hand at corporate espionage only to come up against a convict and a van full of his friends in a final battle that plays out on a toy train set. It’s exactly what the doctor order after a movie as dense, and some would argue bloated, as Age of Ultron.

Ant-Man is also great in its own right, largely because it’s hilarious. Whether you’ve heard a thousand times already or not, enough can’t be said about how fantastic Michael Peña is as Luis, one of the aforementioned friends in a van. He manages to steal the show from any and all set pieces, action sequences and Michaels Douglas.

The movie isn’t without its shortcomings, however. It aggravatingly finds its narrative almost completely reliant on the increasingly asinine “don’t tell the entirely capable, grown woman anything because she needs to be protected” trope. But the best special effects any Marvel movie has boasted so far, coupled with Michael Peña’s out-of-the-park comedic performance make Ant-Man the perfect breath of fresh air between the much bleaker Age of Ultron and the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, which is sure to be a dire tale indeed.

 

Fraction’s Fantastic, or, The Greatest Sitcom of 2013

When I think about my current favorite sitcoms my mind wanders to the likes of Suburgatory, Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn 99. But one of the best sitcoms of the last few years wasn’t even on television.

Queue theme song.

Queue theme song.

Writer Matt Fraction’s run on Fantastic Four and its sister book, Ff, was equal parts sincerity, hilarity and theoretical physics. But at the center of all of that Fraction’s run, which recently ended with the 16th issues of both series, is about family.

And superheroes and time travel and Doom. But mostly family.

Fantastic Four was never really my jam. As a fairly recent convert to comics my knowledge of Marvel’s First Family is based on what snips I’ve seen of the two live action movies. Which is to say that, to the best of my knowledge, the Fantastic Four franchise was just a fun way of implying Jessica Alba was naked in 2005.

Hawkeye, however, most assuredly is my jam. Because bow and arrows are my jam. And Matt Fraction is doing God’s work with his tales of the exploits of Clint Barton and Kate Bishop, a.k.a. Hawkeye and Hawkeye. Considering Fraction’s skill for crafting genuine characters, phenomenal dialogue and enthralling stories the least I could do was give Fantastic Four and Ff a shot. Even if, to my uninitiated eyes, the property wasn’t exactly cool.

Thank God I followed Fraction through that wormhole.

Trapped in a dinosaur. Classic sitcom.

Trapped in a dinosaur. As classic a sitcom beat as going on two dates simultaneously.

Fraction’s story begins with the Fantastic Four chilling in dinosaur times when Mr. Fantastic, Reed Richards, is bitten by, go figure, a dinosaur. But the wound, one from which his traditionally floppy and hilarious body would quickly recover, doesn’t get any better. Looking into the phenomenon Richards discovers that he’s slowly dying. Which wasn’t exactly part of his game plan.

So he packs up the rest of the Fantastic Four, along with his two kids, and sets off on a journey through time and space, which he disguises as a fun field trip, to find a cure.

But the Earth can’t be left without a Fantastic Four, so replacements are chosen. Enter Ant Man Scott Lang, Medusa, She-Hulk and Miss Thing, the quadro that look after the young geniuses of the Future Foundation in the Four’s absence.

From there Fraction weaves a tale that tackles everything from the American Revolution and the very end of all time to childhood isolation and gender identity to straight up slap-stick time travel gags. And none of it ever feels forcer or disingenuous. In fact, quite the opposite. Fraction’s characters are extremely genuine. There are sarcastic quips here and there but the book itself remains earnest throughout, more concerned with fun than grit. It’s a marriage of science fiction superheroics and charming sitcom sensibilities that birth a story unlike anything else on shelves, particularly from the big two publishers.

Words cannot express how much I love this book.

Words cannot express how much I love this book.

As is the case with any great sitcom Fraction’s Fantastic saw creative changes towards the end. Much like Zach Braff departing Scrubs or Larry David leaving Seinfeld, during the final issues of Fantastic Four and Ff Fraction handed the reigns over to Karl Kesel and Lee Allred respectively.

I enjoyed Fraction’s Fantastic to the end, but with Fraction’s waning involvement the last handful of issues did feel different. Luckily, Fraction’s narrative foundation was strong enough that the two series’ respective finales were both enjoyable despite shake ups in the creative teams behind them.

At 32 issues (plus a phenomenal Age of Ultron tie-in) and just over a year in length Fraction’s Fantastic run was pretty brief, but with any luck its influence will live on.

It’s a story that’s not content with resting on the tropes of the genre, or even the medium. More than a superhero book or a science fiction story Matt Fraction’s work on Fantastic Four and Ff was charming and fun.

It had more in common with The Cosby Show than The Dark Knight. And it was fantastic because of it.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTION:

1. Can you say “fantastic” when referring to a Fantastic Four book, or is that kind of frowned upon?

 

For more comic book coverage, including Fantastic Four and Ff, check out the Pony Tricks Comic Cast here, on SoundCloud or on iTunes.