Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

Posted on February 14, 2023 at 5:57 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School

What I’ve always loved about the “Ant-Man” movies, aside from the ever-lovable Paul Rudd in the title role, is the slightly hand-made quality, in contrast to the high-tech, hight-gloss, high-CGI aesthetic of the rest of the MCU. The opening of the second film in the series sets the tone. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), under house arrest following the parole violation of saving the world with the Avengers, has created a cardboard thrill ride for his daughter, Cassie. The Ant-Man series had some goofy humor with Scott’s relationship with his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her new husband (Bobby Cannavale), the cop who can’t decide whether to arrest him or befriend him (Randall Park), and with the discursive stories from his friend and colleague Luis (Michael Peña). The production design truly set the stage with more lived-in spaces than in the other Marvel movies.

Not so much this time. Of course, this is a Marvel movie and there are imaginative and exciting action sequences, especially as Scott develops his use of his powers. It has a nice mix of comedy and action, with characters we are invested in, not just as individuals but in the way they are connected to each other.

As the title tells us, this movie takes place in the least hand-made setting imaginable, the quantum realm. As wonderfully imaginative as it is, suggesting a mash-up of Alice in Wonderland, the Pastoral Symphony section of Disney’s “Fantasia,” the wildest anime creatures of Hayao Miyazaki, and video games like Minecraft and No Man’s Sky, plus last year’s “Strange World,” there is a pristine quality that removes much of the distinctive charm we expect from Ant-Man. Plus, talk about the forest and the trees. There is just so much detail here, with the endless settings and characters so overwhelming that they make it hard to keep track of what is going on. It’s not enough that a character’s head looks like a stalk of broccoli. Someone has to say, “His head looks like broccoli.” And then we don’t have much to do with him again. There’s a lot to see and much of it is enticing, but not enough of it relates to anything that relates to the stakes, the abilities or vulnerabilities of the good guys or characteristics that would help us understand who they are and how they behave. The issue of understanding each others’ language is handled briskly but other properties are not developed or explored.

The title says it all because the story is more about the place than about what happens there. After a brief prologue, with John Sebastian’s theme from “Welcome Back, Kotter” on the soundtrack, we hear from Scott about how lucky he feels. He is an Avenger, universally loved for saving the world, even if that means people always ask him for photos (with their dogs!) and they don’t always remember which insect superhero he is. His daughter is doing well, he and Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) are happily in love and she is out saving the world with wonderful programs to help people who need housing or other kinds of support. Scott has written a new book about his life, and enjoys appearing at book-readings.

But it turns out Cassie (Kathryn Newton of “Freaky,” excellent in the role) has been stirring up trouble by appearing at protests and experimenting with a probe into the quantum realm. Before Janet (Michele Pfeiffer), who spent 30 years there and has refused to give any details, can stop her, Scott, Casssie, Hope, Janet, and Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) are all sucked into the quantum realm, and that is where they stay for almost all of the rest of the film.

There is a long stretch where we meet an assortment of colorful characters. Some of them are fun, including a goofy return from one of the earlier films. It is always good to see William Jackson Harper (“The Good Place”) as a frustrated telepath who is way over hearing all of the disgusting thoughts of everyone around him and a jell-o-like character very interested in how many “holes” humanoids have in their bodies and what goes into and out of them. A major star appears for a few minutes for no real purpose.

There’s a very “Star Wars”-ish vibe with the diverse good guys wearing rough cloth and carrying spears and the homogenous and faceless bad guys with the high tech weapons that somehow are not very accurate as the armor-less good guys seem to have no problem dodging the bullets.

As I have often said, superhero movies rise and fall on the quality of the bad guy, who has to be evil enough to be a serious threat but not omni-powerful enough to make it impossible to defeat him. With Thanos gone, the Marvel character Kang the Conqueror has been refashioned in his image. Free of the reality-based limits of time and space, Kang’s calculus about wiping out whole universes is for him just straightening the pictures on the wall — except that it turns out there is a strong element of revenge behind his decisions about who and what needs to be wiped out.

Jonathan Majors, who we’ll be seeing as the antagonist in another huge franchise series in a few weeks, “Creed III,” makes Kang intriguing as he shifts from vulnerable and companionable to canny negotiations to imperious orders to white-hot fury. But it also makes him so all over the place that it is hard to invest in the battles. It does not help that the other side is so complicated that we do not attach to most of the new characters, and characters we love, including Woo and Luis and, worst of all, Hope, are pushed to the side.

“There’s always room to grow,” Scott tells his readers, and those reassuring words come back to inspire the good guys later on. But in this case, taking Ant-Man out of the smaller world of the first two films shows that all that room may not be what this story needs.

NOTE: Stay through the end credits for two extra scenes, one tying the next chapter to some favorite Marvel characters.

Parents should know that this movie has extended peril and violence with some disturbing images. Characters use some strong language.

Family discussion: How should Scott have responded to Kang’s threat? Why didn’t Janet tell anyone about her experience?

If you like this, try: the other “Ant-Man” and MCU movies

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Ant-Man and the Wasp

Posted on July 3, 2018 at 4:15 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sci-fi action violence
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book/action peril and violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 6, 2018
Date Released to DVD: October 15, 2018
Copyright 2018 Marvel

I like Ant-Man. He’s literally down to earth — after the intergalactic super-villain Thanos plotting the wiping out of half the universe, it’s nice to see our hero up against an ordinary, non-super thug of a bad guy. And it’s also nice to see, 20 movies in, a female superhero in the title of the film. I like the slightly retro, slightly bookish look of the Ant-Man films (outstanding work from production designer Shepherd Frankel). And I like the fun they have with scale. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) can do more than shrink himself to the size of an ant and call on his ant friends to help him out. He can make himself and objects around him get bigger or smaller almost instantly. And the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) can do all of that AND fly and use her wrist blasters.

Scott has three more days to go under house arrest, wearing an ankle bracelet, with frequent check-ins by the local authorities, led by Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), who can’t seem to decide whether he wants to lock Scott up or become his BFF. He’s going a little stir-crazy, though he enjoys the elaborate games he creates for his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). The terms of his parole forbid him from having contact with Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) or his daughter Hope (Lilly), but that has not been a problem. They are not speaking to him after they think he betrayed them by making their technology public in “Captain America: Civil War.”

But something else that happened in “Civil War” is the reason they have to find him again. Pym’s wife and Hope’s mother, the brilliant scientist Janet Pym (Michelle Pfeiffer), became too small and they thought she was lost forever in the “quantum entanglement.” Scott was able to return from the quantum entanglement, though, and they want to find out how and send him back there to see if Janet can be rescued. This is a job for two superheroes, and so it’s time for Hope to suit up.

An all-around crime boss named Sonny Burch (Walt Goggins) wants to stop them from getting the material they need to make that work. A character whose backstory I won’t spoil but who can vibrate through matter also wants it. And the cops are trying to capture the Pyms as well. So, lots of chases, lots of hand-offs and near misses. Director Peyton Reed and his writers (including Rudd) have a lot of fun with scale, sizing the vehicles up and down in an instant and Scott himself getting as big as the Statue of Liberty (which is exhausting for him) and as tiny as an atom. His suit does not always work correctly, though, and his judgment does not always work correctly, either.

The distinctive humor of the first film continues in this one, with Michael Pena returning as Scott’s loquacious fellow ex-con and business partner. His circuitous story-telling was funny in the first film, and it gets funnier here when he is questioned under the effects of what could be a truth serum (whether it is or not is a point of contention). Random topics that also come up for discussion include close-up magic, the Slavic folklore character Baba Yaga, loading the dishwasher, and playing the drums. There are some great action sequences, especially one in a kitchen and the chase scenes, and crisp pacing to balance the more laid-back comedy. Its biggest failing is the dumb nicknames for the daughters of the characters. Really, Peanut? Jellybean? Those girls deserve something as witty and distinctive as the rest of the film.

NOTE: Stay through the credits for a brief update on the “Infinity War” cliffhanger, and then all the way to the end for an even briefer and very silly little second extra that has an important clue.

Parents should know that this film includes extended comic book/action peril and violence, characters injured and killed, some scary images, mild language, and some parent-child issues.

Family discussion: What changes do you think the quantum experience has on people who travel there? How is Ant-Man different from the other Avengers?

If you like this, try: the first “Ant-Man” and the Avengers movies

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Behind the Scenes: Making Michael Douglas Younger in “Ant-Man” and Wigs and Makeup for Key and Peele

Posted on July 26, 2015 at 8:00 am

“Ant-Man” begins with a flashback to 1989, with Michael Douglas appearing not as he looks to day but as he looked 25 years ago. How did they do that? Special effects that are called “digital make-up.” New York Magazine’s Vulture has the story. They spoke to Trent Claus of Lola VFX, who had both the advantage and disadvantage of a ton of reference material.

Unlike on previous transformations, they had a plenty of reference material — multiple feature films’ worth — of exactly what a 45-year-old Michael Douglas would look like. To hear Claus tell it, this was both a blessing and a curse. “It helped us a lot to have that reference,” he said, “but it made us work harder, because the audience already knew what he looked like at that age. There wasn’t a whole lot of leeway.”

De-aging an actor is essentially giving them a digital face-lift, and Lola’s team do the same work with digital composites a skilled plastic surgeon would do with a scalpel. The two professions turn out to have similar ways of talking. “The most obvious thing is that the skin along the jaw in most people tends to get lower and lower and sag a little bit as you get older. Particularly around the throat and the Adam’s Apple area, you’ll get a build-up of extra skin down there,” Claus told me. “One thing we’ll have to do to de-age someone is restore that elasticity and try to not only to remove the excess skin, but pull it back up to where it once was.”

Our cheeks thin out and sink as we get older, so Lola also added a little more fat to the middle of Douglas’s cheeks. And since human ears and noses never stop growing, they also had to shrink Douglas’s back to their 1980s’ sizes, as well as remove some of his ear wrinkles. Then it came time to restore what Claus called Douglas’s “youthful glow,” adding shine to his skin and hiding the blood vessels in his nose.

Equally transformative are the “practical” (real-life) effects created by the magnificent wig and makeup team for “Key and Peele.” It is almost impossible to imagine that all of these characters are played by just two actors.

Slate has a great story about Amanda Mofield, the show’s hair stylist, and Scott Wheeler, their makeup artist. Describing the college bowl sketch, Wheeler said, “We shot the first one—we did 32 characters, made them up, wigged them and shot them—in two hours, total. The way we made that work was … we were doing very small tweaks on each character, and slowly building up the facial hair. And then when they showed the characters, they showed them out of the order from how we made them up, so they looked like bigger jumps. And that was our master plan that worked perfectly.”

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Ant-Man

Posted on July 16, 2015 at 5:48 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence
Profanity: A few bad words
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive comic-book style action violence, characters injured
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 17, 2015
Date Released to DVD: December 7, 2015
Amazon.com ASIN: B011DHP3GY

San Diego Comic-Con is known for big, loud, and splashy promotions for movies and television series, especially those featuring superheroes.  So it was a delight to come across the tiny “billboard” for “Ant-Man,” smaller than a shoebox, that was the only indication that a major comic book movie was about to open.   That same wry, refreshingly unassuming tone lends a lot of charm to a superhero character whose powers may seem at first unimpressive.

Copyright Disney 2015
Copyright Disney 2015

And the man who plays that character brings a lot of charm as well.  Paul Rudd, for two decades one of the most appealing actors in Hollywood, plays Scott, an electrical engineer turned Occupy Wall Street-style Robin Hood, about to be released from prison after three years, and determined to go straight and spend as much time as possible with his young daughter.

But no one wants to hire an ex-con, and when he gets a job at Baskin-Robbins by not telling them about his record, they find out and fire him.  Desperate to make the child support payments he needs to be able to get visitation rights, he agrees to crack a safe that his friend Luis (Michael Peña) promises him is a sure thing.  It isn’t.  The only thing in the safe is a strange-looking suit.

It is the invention of Dr. Pym (Michael Douglas), who trains Scott to become Ant-Man, able to shrink himself to the size of an ant and to bring with him legions of ants.  He can ride a flying ant and he can send stinging ants to torment his foes.

His foe in this case is a rival scientist who wants to weaponize the shrinking technology.  And there is also the rival scientist’s most trusted colleague, Hope (Evangeline Lilly).

There is a “Honey I Shrunk the Superhero” element to the story, and director Peyton Reed has a lot of fun with it.  Scott has one scene in an architect’s model rendering of a new facility and another in a child’s room, where the thundering locomotive turns out to be, to normal-sized eyes, a Thomas the Tank engine toy.  Rudd is just right as the sincere, smart guy who wants to do the right thing and Douglas is terrifically charismatic as Pym.  There’s nothing snarky or air quote-ish about the story, but there is a recognition that this is a superhero the size of a grain of rice.  In this case, that’s super enough.

NOTE: Stay THROUGH the credits for TWO extra scenes, one involving members of a very special group of crime-fighters starting with an A.

Parents should know that this film includes extensive comic-book/superhero peril and violence, guns, fights, animal and human characters injured ad killed, some disturbing images, family issues including divorce, child support, and custody, some strong language

Family discussion:  Why did Dr. Pym trust Scott?  Which of Ant-Man’s powers would you like to have and how would you use them?

If you like this, try: “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “The Avengers,” and “Iron Man” and some other shrinking person movies like “The Incredible Shrinking Man” and “Fantastic Voyage”

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