Review: Ant-Man

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Director: Peyton Reed
Cast: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Michael Pena, Evangeline Lilly

The Marvel Cinematic machine rolls into its third phase with another new character, and a film which has seen much discussion and speculation over the troubled production.

Ant-Man sees Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, a skilled thief who has just been released from prison.  Reuniting with his daughter, he wants to prove himself a positive role model and leave his life of crime behind.  However, he swiftly finds that it is hard to get gainful employment when you have a criminal record, and soon reunites with his old partner in crime, Luis (Michael Pena), on one last job that has landed on their laps.  Breaking into a secure vault of a wealthy industrialist, the score turns out to be a costume of some kind.  When he tries on the outfit, and triggers a switch on one of the gloves, he is suddenly reduced in size to that of an ant, and discovers that the chemicals released by the suit have granted him extraordinary abilities, with enhanced strength, agility, and speed being part of them.  He also discovers that the heist was all set up by the industrialist, Henry Pym (Michael Douglas), who wants to recruit Lang to help him stop the technology being sold for militaristic use.  Pym, and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), begin training Lang to be the Ant-Man.
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In the early stages of production, the film was in the control of Edgar Wright, writer and director of films such as Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim.  However, much was reported about some creative disagreements between Wright and the studio, which resulted in Wright exiting the process and the hiring of Peyton Reed in his place.  Naturally, as this was the first Marvel film where such disagreements and changes were reported, the knives were out and many anticipated it to be the first core Marvel film failure.  However, whilst it is early to report on the box office performance of the film, cinematically it is one of the strongest outings for the studio, and stands as one of the best origin tales to date.

The tightly paced script still has Wright’s name attached, and it is easy to see why.  Many sequences and moments echo the style that Wright brought to his previous comic book adaptation, Scott Pilgrim, along with the humoured tone.  Reed has picked up on the initial draft, and added a few extra elements of his own, then presented it in a snappy, fun, and vibrant fashion.  Running at just under 2 hours, the film never out stays it’s welcome, and uses the shrinking gimmick, and control of the legions of ants, in clever, witty, and visually striking ways to ensure that, whilst the overall film is predictable and generic, you can certainly say that you haven’t seen action like this before.
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I am going to say something now that is rare for me to say, but if you get action chance to see this film in 3D, I urge you to do so!  Yes, despite my usual hatred of the format for comic book movies (it is pointless, and action sequences are a resultant mess because of it), with Ant-Man we actually have some creative use of the format.  Additionally the film has been tailored for the IMAX screen, and it is in this format that the visuals will truly impress.  When shrinking into miniature form, the 3D bends the world around him, and adds a vertigo inducing aspect to the world.  The action is handled well to not confuse with too much happening, and some standout miniature action (including a fight in a briefcase) are well planned and executed in the 3D format, making this the first Marvel film to have genuinely utilised it as more than a gimmick.

Throw in a support cast that are generally strong, although Corey Stoll as chief bad guy Darren Cross is given woefully little to work with and is instantly forgettable, and you have one of the highlights of the summer season.  Evangeline Lilly plays well alongside and against Douglas in a troubled father/daughter relationship, whilst Pena steals every scene as Luis.  Mix in an all too brief cameo by one of the Avengers, and some scattered references to cities being dropped, wall crawling heroes, and Tales to Astonish, and Ant-Man, whilst not a perfect film, is definitely one of the best films of the summer period, with the fun factor compensating well for any shortcomings.

A final note to be made about the score by Christophe Beck.  The theme and style of soundtrack has a very retro feel to it, harking back to heist movies and spy thrillers of yesteryear, which, in the end, is what Ant-Man is at its heart.

Phase 3 is off to a strong start, and two credits scenes signpost a little of what is to come, so be sure to stick around.

Review – Avengers: Age of Ultron

**Warning – minor spoilers**

As strange as it may seem to those who know me, I wasn’t overly excited going into this second team-up of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe characters. Yes, despite being a qualified member of Stan’s Merry Marvel Marching Society, and being somewhat obsessive about the Marvel comics and films, I genuinely lost my excitement over the past month. Don’t be mistaken, I expected it to be as thrilling and action packed as previous outings, but there just wasn’t that high level of anticipation anymore. After all, we’ve come to accept that Marvel can do no wrong, so there is nothing left to hope for as we now have complete trust that they will deliver. Add into that the fact that the recent Netflix Daredevil series has shown what Marvel can genuinely achieve without any studio interference, and Avengers just seems another chapter in the ongoing film franchise. Suffice to say, the film delivered exactly as expected and whilst it was yet another great entry into the series, it was nothing more than that. Maybe Marvel have already peaked with the first Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, and to expect them to deliver more than those films is crazy. Maybe so, but it is safe to say Age of Ultron is a crowd-pleasing, action packed adventure, and nothing more.

The film kicks off right into the thick of action as the team are on a mission to take out a HYDRA base (yes, there are still HYDRA bases around, as anyone keeping up with Agents of SHIELD will already know) and retrieve Loki’s staff. We get to quickly see how the team have learned to use each other’s abilities in unison to function as a whole, and we also get to see how Hulk is tamed by Natasha. Post mission analysis on Loki’s staff reveals that the core of the gem could provide the solution to an AI problem that Stark has – how to activate the Ultron plan for an automated peacekeeping force. However, activation of the AI leads to unfortunate results as Ultron determines that humankind must evolve or die, and thus declares war on the planet. Added to the mix are the twins, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, one with the power of super-speed, and one with telekinesis and mind control/manipulation powers. Together they will confuse and manipulate the Avengers, turning them against each other.

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From the offset, there is a bit of a flaw with this new entry into the Marvel Cinematic timeline, as it appears that all the events of Iron Man 3 have been forgotten, and Tony’s arc in that film (traumatised after seeing an alien fleet, clamouring to build lots of defence drones to combat any menace, but to then realise that none of it matters as the man inside the suit is more important) seems pointless as we start to repeat his paranoia again, thus leading to the creation of Ultron. It does beg the question, why did they not actually introduce the Ultron program in Iron Man 3, and then springboard it to life in this film (much as Loki was introduced in Thor, then made sense as a villain in Avengers). The result is a sudden burst of exposition to pluck the Ultron concept out of thin air, as well as another project that suddenly pops up that came from no-where, and a film that is a series of action set pieces held together by a ropey plot. Now, I’m aware that Marvel films have always been scant on plot (heck, there are articles online that highlight how Guardians of the Galaxy is exactly the same film as Avengers), and what matters most is the action and the wit, but is this right and should we accept it? Surely if the films are just going to progress to be a series of bigger, more spectacular explosions, then it is weakening what is so important about Marvel’s comic stories. Maybe it is more the fact that this current team of Avengers are far too familiar now, and it just seems there isn’t anything new to claw at. Phase 3 will hopefully inject that aura of anticipated excitement again as new characters and histories come to the franchise in Ant-Man, Black Panther, and Doctor Strange. With the next team up (Infinity War) being a two-parter, I only hope that it does take time to grow a story rather than just throw lots of things into the mix and hope the action distracts the audience from the weak exposition.

Reading back through that paragraph I’m aware that it may seem that I didn’t enjoy the film, but far from it, I was caught up in the moment and loved the banter between the team, and there were some excellent sub-elements that worked really well. Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton, for example, who was extremely short-changed on the last film, here gets possibly the best role in the film. Close behind is Natasha ‘Black Widow’ Romanoff, whose past we explore a bit more, and her relationship with Banner in and out of Hulk mode too. The Maximoff twins are superb additions, as is Vision (who comes into play in the latter half of the film), and I look forward to seeing more of those characters in future films. But the general story feels like an afterthought, and doesn’t end the second phase in the same manner the first Avengers film did. In fact it feel more like a set-up for Phase 3, with hints and nods toward what is to come, which unfortunately means that Ultron feels short-changed in his villain role. The menace we saw in the trailer seems somewhat subdued in the end product, and whilst the safety of the world is still in jeapordy, it feels like ‘just another day at the office’ for the team. Even the attempt to divide the group and turn them on each other doesn’t really have the impact it promised, although maybe Civil War will work that one better.

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All in all, the film just feels like it was made just because the fans wanted another team up, yet it delivers much less than Iron Man 3 or Winter Soldier did, and fails to feel like it is pushing the overall story forward any further. For fans of comics there are a smattering of nods and references to keep a keen eye out for, some subtle (Jocasta), some blatant (Klaw), and there is a mid credit sequence that comic book fans will hate simply because they now have to spend the next year or so explaining it to the non fans (seriously, why do non fans stick around for these sequences? They won’t understand the reference, and will just be confused!)

If I was to score the film, I’d give it a firm 7 or 8 out of 10, with the action, excitement, and characters all working, even if the overall story doesn’t quite make it.

Review: Marvel’s Daredevil (TV Series)

Anticipation for this series, the first of Netflix’s Marvel productions, has been high.  Even staunch defenders of the Ben Affleck starring film from 2003 have been willing to admit that film didn’t quite have the right tone, and the promise by Netflix that the series would be dark, gritty, and more adult toned than other current Marvel films or shows was embraced well by the fan community.  Early news on casting and those first publicity shots confirmed that the show was going to be inspired by Frank Miller’s The Man Without Fear run on the character, which led to confusion from those who only knew the classic red devil costume, but excitement from those wanting a fitting origin tale.  The closer and closer the show got to release, the greater the anticipation, which built to such a level that it was highly possible the show wouldn’t live up to expectations.  The good news is that it not only lives up to the promises, but it actually exceeds them.

For the uninitiated, this series is a part of the core Marvel Cinematic Universe output, which , means it is set within the same timeline as Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Avengers, Agents of SHIELD, and any future films or shows created by the core Marvel brand (films such as X-Men and Fantastic Four are not a part of this universe being currently under creative control of 20th Century Fox). Whilst set within the same world and time as those fantastical films, Daredevil turns it’s eye on the seedy underbelly of criminal society, and aside from subtle references (newspaper clippings about events on the wall of journalist Ben Urich, or throwaway lines about the incident which caused property damage) the series doesn’t venture into the same territory, and thus doesn’t require any prior knowledge of the films in order to watch. In addition, the show is a lot more brutal than Marvel’s other output, and in the UK it warrants a 15 rating due to the graphic nature of the violence, so it is definitely not for kids.

The whole series is set over a short period of time, the thirteen episodes feeling less like a TV series and more like a 13 hour movie.  The origin of the character is explored via occasional flashbacks, and unlike the film we don’t jump in with a fully trained and skilled vigilante, but a rough edged masked man who is still ironing out his skills. As the series progresses we discover more about his abilities, and also meet a plethora of characters who will have importance in defining the hero that he will eventually become (because, after all, we know that he will become Daredevil, crimson mask and all, by the end of it).

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The core cast of Daredevil

A good story needs strong characters, and when it comes to film and television a strong character needs good casting. It is a rare occasion when fault cannot be found in even one member of a cast line-up, there is usually at least one person who you feel could have been better selected. However each and every member of the cast for this series, from the lead roles to the support characters, excels at their duty and truly embodies the characters from the comic series. In the lead role as Matt Murdock is Charlie Cox, who has a charm befitting of the lawyer role, and also convinces as the man in the mask. Thankfully the decision was also made not to add a gruff voice when garbed as the costumed vigilant, unlike the Affleck version (and, indeed, other costumed crusaders on screen). Thus we don’t find ourselves chuckling at strained dialogue delivery, instead Cox gets to really project into the role. In addition, the delivery of his whole role as a blind character is well researched and rehearsed. No strange cross-eyed looks or random staring at ceilings (sorry Affleck, but that was a tad amusing), instead it all seems natural staring ahead into space, never distracting or forced. Around him his close support comes from Deborah Woll as Karen Page, a client with a secret past who Matt helps and then hires, and Eldon Henson as Foggy Nelson, Matt’s close friend and law partner. The trio play well on screen together, and the relationship between Matt and Foggy in particular feels genuine and convincing.

However, the true gem in the core roles of the series comes from Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk, a role who could have been played as purely menacing and gruff, but instead is depicted in such a soft spoken and sometimes empathetic manner that you occasionally find yourself rooting for him. Taking this approach works well to help the audience understand how so many people could be taken in by his charm, and how he manages to convince people he is a well intentioned philanthropist and not one of the top men in the criminal underworld. His history is explored in one episode, offering some insight into what drives a man to become such a force, and in addition the burgeoning relationship with an art gallery worker named Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer) helps humanise the character. We are gradually introduced to Fisk by name only until the third episode, but when we meet him we see the charming man he could be, and the brutal machine he is.
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The rest of the cast, from Vondie Curtis-Hall as Ben Urich and Rosario Dawson as Claire Temple, to Matt Gerald as Melvyn Potter or Scott Glenn as Stick all help round out the proceedings, and fans of the comics will find no fault in the representations of any of the array of characters brought into the very tightly woven series.

The production as a whole is ominously dark not only in tone but in looks, with lens filters casting shadow on scenes, lending well to ensure the show makes clear that this is the gritty underbelly of Marvel society. But there are light moments, and small moments of wit and relief to break the tension. A quick mention must be made of the opening titles. As some folk know I am a fan of a strong opening title sequence, and in recent years shows such as Game of Thrones, Dexter, Hannibal, and the pilot for Man in the High Castle have been amongst the finest examples of title sequences that, regardless of how many times you have already watched them, you always feel you should sit and watch again. Daredevil, with its crimson liquid moulding out a segment of city, with blind justice and Daredevil bookending the piece is a majestic sequence to watch.

All in all, Daredevil is an example of how strong Marvel shows can be without the restrictions that network TV places on episodes and content. Using the Netflix model allows them to delve into darker areas that commercial stations would struggle with, and as a result the show has laid the groundwork for what should prove to be an excellent future in the ‘Defenders’ project.

Opinion: Don’t be ashamed to love Comics

You would imagine, what with the surge of popularity that comic book films are enjoying on the big screen these days, that those who enjoy reading the materials they are adapted from would be proud to be comic geeks (and let me make it clear that the term ‘geek’ is not offensive, and us now embraced by the community as ‘our term’).  After all, has it not become true that the biggest ‘jock’ event (to use some US terminology) of the year, the Superbowl, now sees as much excitement around it due to the showcasing of the latest comic book movies trailers as it does from the sport itself?  So why are some folk still ashamed to admit to having a cupboard full of long – boxes stuffed with poly-bagged comics?dc-comics-universe

I’ve generally encountered two types of folk who fit into this denier category.  There are those who deny any involvement at all, and those who try to add some prestige to the hobby. By this I mean they say things like, “No, I don’t read comics. I read graphic novels!” To me, these folk are worse than the straight out deniers. They want to be accepted as part of the comic community, but also position themselves above all ‘that childish nonsense’ to the outside world. “Oh, the next Avengers film is based upon the Age of Ultron graphic novel!” No it isn’t. Heck, it isn’t even adapted from the comic book event of the same name (they just used the name because it is cool). I genuinely don’t understand those who refuse to accept that their precious graphic novel collection is just a bunch of comics collected into 4 to 8 issue volumes. By reading ‘Kraven’s Last Hunt’ graphic novel format doesn’t make your enjoyment of the story any more prestigious than my reading it when it spun over the three Spidey titles at the time (Web of, Amazing, and Peter Parker the Spectacular). It is the same story, same art, and same experience.

As for the total deniers, now is the time to step out and let people know your love for comics. You will find that you suddenly become a popular person when a new film throws out a tease at the end credits. Your font of knowledge will make you like a deity to those baffled by terms such as cosmic cube, or negative zone. Embrace who you are, the days of mockery are long gone.