Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Ant-Man vs. Mission Impossible

I was excited for Ant-Man. I like superpowers and action flicks, and this looked like it would be funny as well. The whole ant thing was a bit weird, but hey, what makes us think Norse gods with quantum powers are normal?

But my overall opinion of Ant-Man was, "fine." It had enough cool scenes and people punching each other to divert me, but left little impression later. If the last superpowered movie wasn't the spectacularly subpar Age of Ultron, I might be even more disappointed.

First of all, the pacing of the movie felt wrong. Action would build, but before anything could happen the scene would cut to unrelated dialogue. Whole plot points were omitted, like the Crisis and the Midpoint. It made the movie feel sometimes long and other times too short. The reveals were poorly timed and the relationships, which were set up to be complex, progressed illogically and at an erratic pace.

For instance, we find out halfway through the film that the reason Dr. Pym and his daughter Hope are at odds is that he pulled away after her mother's death and won't tell Hope how her mother really died. But only a few scenes later, Dr. Pym capitulates, for reasons unknown, and tells her. The revelation is supposed to feel dramatic, but the movie didn't give me enough time to get invested in Hope's pain and anger to feel any sense of victory.

There were problems, too, with the prison narrative. Before becoming the Ant-Man, Scott Lang is released from prison and at a loss: he can't see his daughter, his divorced wife has moved on, he can't get a job, and he has nowhere to live. The only thing he can do is get favors from the only people who still believe in him: ex-prison buddies.

It was a nice commentary about the difficulties for those getting out of the prison system and how hard it is to reform when upstanding life doesn't want you.

But there were problems with Scott Lang's prisonmates, all of whom were men of color. While Scott is an upper-middle-class white guy who got a good education, is super smart with technology, and only went to prison because he tried to pull a Robin Hood and stand up for The Little Guy, his brown friends are all idiots incarcerated for stupid crimes. One of them is a computer nerd, but still not on the intellectual level of Scott.

(UPDATE: someone reminded me that the computer nerd is actually white. The problem remains of (a) few brown folks (b) only in side roles (c) playing unskilled and in this case comedic-only characters.) 

After the racial stereotypes came the gaping plot hole. We meet Hope: intelligent, devoted, already undercover. A scientist who understands ants better than anyone except her father, she's an accomplished fighter and can use the ant suit like a natural. In fact, she'd be the perfect person to take on the mission at hand.

Except for her father not wanting her to because it's unsafe. So she stands back and lets Scott, who is considerably less experienced, save the world.

Ant-Man attempted to explain away why Hope wasn't wearing the ant suit, but the excuses felt thin and contrived. Instead, Scott managed to become a superb Ant-Man in a mere three days, even accomplishing something which was deemed scientifically impossible and which killed the previous Ant-Woman (the reason Hope's dad won't let her play ball). Somehow his being a rookie never gets in the way.

I wasn't just frustrated at how things worked out for Hope. Scott's character was weakened by him getting everything right after a couple tries. The guy didn't have vulnerabilities or true struggles--nothing an afternoon of practice couldn't conquer. It made an otherwise likable character less relatable and human. The writers could have put Scott and Hope both in ant suits, so Scott wouldn't have to be magically perfect and Hope could have her day.

It's all a pity because the concept of the Ant-Man is awesome. A hero who can shrink down while retaining normal-size strength, and mentally command a legion of slaves in any location, is pretty awesome. Or could have been, if this movie had a better plot, better character arcs, and more tension.

In the end, the moviemakers focused on the concept to carry the movie, resulting in cool scenes (and a few great jokes) but not much substance. I think they just wanted to make another setup movie, like the first Captain America, in order to have Ant-Man around for the next Avengers flick. Too bad: they missed a great opportunity.

Compare all that to Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, the fifth of the Tom Cruise movies. Hilarious laughs mixed with tense action scenes that had you grabbing your seat kept this movie up to the standard I've come to expect from the Mission: Impossible franchise.

It had a decidedly white cast, even more than normal. But it brought back Luther, and while his role was smaller in this movie, he continued to stand outside of the stereotypes for black men in action movies.

This movie glowed when it came to women heroes. Really just one: Ilsa. She manages to save Ethan Hunt's life several times and they work efficiently as partners, sharing the spotlight during fight scenes. In the end it's Ilsa, and her alone, who fights and kills the Evilest of Cronies who attempted to torture our hero Ethan earlier.

This might be the best Mission: Impossible movie yet. It was far from stale and definitely had some new stunts to show off. The revelations and double-crosses were neither predictable nor convoluted.

If you're off to the theater, pass up Ant-Man in favor of Rogue Nation and have some fun instead of being disappointed.

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