On-screen chemistry helps Ant-Man punch above its weight

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The seeds of success for Marvel’s movies were sown way back in 2008 with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. What differentiated this film from other successful superhero flicks of the past decade was the light-hearted banter and repartee between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts, which then became the framework for all subsequent films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

This undefinable, magical thing called ‘chemistry’ sits at the heart of Marvel’s latest cinematic production Ant-Man. While sub-atomic chemistry in the form of ‘Pym Particles’ is the source of Ant-Man’s shrinking power, it’s the on-screen chemistry that powers this film and makes it a candidate for repeat viewing. There are so many emotional bonds interconnected in a complex tug-of-war here – veteran scientist Dr. Henry Pym trying to draw his estranged daughter Hope Van Dyne away from his megalomaniac former protégé Darren Cross; ex-con Scott Lang trying to go straight while his well-meaning buddies Luis, Kurt & Dave entice him into another heist job; Lang’s young daughter trying to adjust to her mother’s new married life with upright cop Paxton, while pining for her absent dad; Lang reluctantly being tutored by Dr. Pym under the critical eye of Hope; Dr. Pym’s on-going rivalry with his ex-SHIELD colleague/ antagonist Mitchell Carson, who is now a potential business associate with Darren Cross.

With so much character interplay, the casting choices for this film were critical and the filmmakers went for some interesting choices…all of which worked! Comedian Paul Rudd (who I have never particularly cared for) was cast against type as the reluctant superhero. Acting thesp Michael Douglas who has previously played intense characters fighting real world adversaries, was cast as Dr. Henry Pym, the creator of the Pym Particles, the original Ant-Man and now a reclusive retired billionaire. Evangeline Lilly who was very convincing as the elf Tauriel in The Hobbit movies is perfectly cast as Hope Van Dyne; comic fans will note that her on-screen appearance (especially the hair) is a spitting image of the character’s mother Janet Van Dyne, aka The Wasp. Corey Stoll who made a big impact in House of Cards S1 and is the lead in The Strain plays the bad guy Darren Cross.

But besides these lead roles, the supporting cast has really lifted the movie and deserves special mention:-

Michael Peña previously played typical Latino supporting roles in ensemble action films like Fury and Battle: Los Angeles, with occasional meaty roles as co-lead (End of Watch and World Trade Center) or lead (Cesar Chavez) in serious dramatic fare. In Ant-Man, he shows off his funny side as Luis, Scott Lang’s former cellmate who tries to get Lang back on his feet when he gets out of jail. Peña is the comedic lynchpin in the film, stealing every scene he’s in, particularly a couple of brilliant exposition dialogues (referred to as ‘tip montages’) written by uncredited writers Gabriel Ferrari and Andrew Barrer that will surely end up on YouTube soon. I also loved the clever touch of him whistling “It’s a small world after all” at the start of the climactic heist scene.

The hard-working Bobby Cannavale plays Paxton, a cop who is married to Scott Lang’s ex-wife. Cannavale rose to prominence on TV (Boardwalk Empire, Nurse Jackie) and then broke out onto the big screen playing the Marlon Brando role in Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s reimagining of A Streetcar Named Desire. Earlier this summer, he was very good as Al Pacino’s estranged son in the highly watchable Danny Collins. In Ant-Man, Cannavale’s Paxton is someone who genuinely wants the best for his new family, which means having to cut some slack for his wife’s ex-con ex-husband, while staying true to his job as a cop. He is the straight foil to all the other over-the-top stuff going on in the movie.

Young Abby Ryder Fortson plays Scott Lang’s daughter Cassie with a lot of gumption and charm. I suspect we will see her in a lot of cute and sassy child roles in the years to come.

Another aspect of the movie that worked for me was the music. Christophe Beck (the guy who created the theme for Buffy the Vampire Slayer) delivers the best superhero movie soundtrack since Henry Jackman’s work in X-Men: First Class. It has an old world spy movie feel to it, but also elements of playfulness with the horns, big band and latin sounds. The closing piece Tales to Astonish reminds me of Dick Dale’s Misirlou. Lots of percussion; definitely worth listening to on its own.

Scriptwriters Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish would have been fully justified in telling a conventional origin story about Dr. Henry Pym’s discovery of the rare sub-atomic Pym Particles that allow him to shrink in size and communicate with insects. That’s how Marvel introduced Iron Man, Captain America and Thor. But over time, audiences have become fatigued with origin stories which have been accused of just being a set-up for a sequel. Rather than ‘waste’ an entire movie on it, Ant-Man’s origins are explained through dialogue referring to Dr. Pym’s undercover exploits way back in the ’80s (yes, that’s what ‘the past’ is for this generation; for me, it would be the ‘50s and ‘60s) and there is also a short but thrilling flashback segment which shows the original Ant-Man and his partner The Wasp in action trying to dismantle a rogue ICBM.

So, instead of a padded up origin story, Ant-Man has been set up as a heist movie…and in the case of Scott Lang’s character, it also plays out as an ‘underdog-beats-the-odds’ movie. Especially in the latter context, the vibe between Michael Douglas and Paul Rudd reminded me at times of Burgess Meredith and Sylvester Stallone in Rocky or Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid.

Going forward, Paul Rudd will reprise the character in next year’s Captain America: Civil War and I guess he will show up in The Avengers sequels scheduled for 2018 and 2019. Currently, there is no Ant-Man sequel scheduled, so I’m not sure if we will ever get a chance to see this entire ensemble of actors together again, which would be a great pity. I hope the brains trust at Marvel is thinking about bringing this magical chemistry back to the screen again soon!

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3 thoughts on “On-screen chemistry helps Ant-Man punch above its weight

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yes, you’re right, that look on Hank Pym’s face after Lang survived the Microverse excursion was put into the film exactly for that reason. Not sure where they will fit it into this crowded slate over the next 3 years though. Hopefully, it won’t be treated as just a side-light in one of the 2 Avengers movies!

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