Monthly Archives: August 2015

Ant-Man: More Brainless Than Any Insect

You’ve got to hand it to Marvel for playing the long game. Nobody’s ever tried what they’re doing with their Cinematic Universe. DC had their Animated Universe in the 90s, but those were half-hour cartoons, not massive blockbuster movies running parallel but interconnected narratives.

Thor, Iron Man and Captain America, plus the rest of the Avengers pile up to a significant confluence of awesome, especially with Joss Whedon somewhere in the equation.

But as I said when Guardians of the Galaxy came out, I’m beginning to think they were a little too ambitious; now with even more ensembles joining the franchise, it’s hard to believe that they can evenly distribute funding and talent in effects, acting and particularly writing across the whole franchise.

Guardians of the Galaxy was a first warning sign. It’s fun enough but undeniably a B-Movie against the Avengers.

And when I looked and saw that the next movie in the offing for the MCU was called ‘Ant-Man’ I half-expected somebody to shout “April Fools” because that’s the dorkiest name for a superhero I think I’ve ever heard. And, as it turns out, the movie lives up to its title. Or maybe, down to it.

Our hero is Scott Something-Something, a professional burglar who has just been released from prison. He can’t hold even a nothing job, and is stuck in a crappy apartment with his three gangster bros. His ex-wife, now married to a Javert-esque cop won’t let him see his daughter until he gets back on the straight and narrow and pays child support. Driven to desperation, he is recruited by supergenius Hank Pym and his Ice Queen daughter Hope to operate an incredible shrinking suit to break into Pym’s old company and steal the prototype for a weaponized shrinking suit before it can be put on the market to the highest bidder and oh, ye gods and little demons, does this movie have a single original thought in its head?

Well, no. No it does not.

When the dorky guy who can’t hold a job and longs to be reunited with his daughter thing came up, plus the ex now married to a big manly-man jerk for good measure, I thought, “Has anyone at Marvel seen a movie since 1997?” Because this is essentially Marvel doing the plot of Liar, Liar or Mrs. Doubtfire. They only barely managed to restrain themselves from having the ex dump the big manly jerk and go back to our dorky protagonist.

Speaking of whom, if Chris Pratt in Jurassic World was generic white Anglo-Saxon protagonist #18445, then the most you can say of Paul Rudd as Ant-Man is that he’s…generic white Anglo-Saxon protagonist #18446. He has a few clever lines and is generally pretty intelligent, but at the end of the day there’s nothing distinguished about him. He’s the standard redemption-arc action guy with a dry wit, designer stubble and who always gets the girl.

His bland white-guyness would not be so glaring were it not for the three racist stereotypes he trails around with him. His roommates – I persist in thinking of them of them as his ‘bros’ because of the way they are always hanging out in their apartment playing videogames, making waffles and giving each other braindead platitudes – are a Hispanic guy with lots of cousins who give him tips in gangster-speak about crimes to commit, an Eastern European with broken English and a dread of gypsy curses suffered by nobody since the fall of the House of Romanov, and a black guy who…is a black guy. That’s about the most you can say about him. And they drive around in a van that plays ‘La Cucaracha’ when you hit the horn.

I won’t say too much about this because I’m not learned enough in racial stereotyping to know whether, when I ask for characters to act less stereotypical, what I’m actually doing is not asking them to act more like middle-class Anglo-Saxons. Nevertheless, every minute these guys were on screen made you feel like you were about to weep blood. Their function as comic relief not only isn’t funny, but it clashes completely with the dramatic, principled side of the story. You can either have an uplifiting story about redemption and taking a stand or a madcap buddy comedy. Not both. Not this way, anyway.

Michael Douglas as Hank Pym is the only performance that doesn’t feel like a performance. He’s actually acting and is quite an interesting character – the anti-Tony Stark in many ways. But at the same time he’s a vehicle for more stupidity. His relationship with his daughter is so tiresome it feels like it came out of 19th Century literature. Despite her obvious skill and courage, he insists she not take up the suit, and has never opened up about the risks of the suit and the death of her mother because, in his exact words, “I was trying to protect you.” They have a tearful reconciliation moment which is then broken comically by Scott in a very Whedonesque way. Or it would have been if it weren’t for the fact that up until then the writers appeared to mean it and then their alternate personalities took over and switched back to the buddy comedy thing.

Hope demonstrates repeatedly that she doesn’t need protecting, but she still steps quiescently aside at last to let the men take charge. And then she and Scott get together, despite never having had a conversation that wasn’t a tactical briefing. She’s the girl, he’s the hero, she’s his prize. Murders have been committed by guys who’ve internalized this idiotic trope, and here it is yet again, without a trace of irony or subversion. Honestly…

After the reconciliation of father and daughter, the movie ends with Pym and Hope going to work on a prototype suit Pym and Hope’s mother hadn’t finished, clearing the path for Hope to become Wasp, her mother’s old mantle, to which she responds, “about damn time.” No, writers, ‘about damn time’ would have been at the other end of this movie, before you steamrollered it into a committee-designed dramatic plateau!

When DC started getting pigheaded about a Wonder Woman movie and let fly their sexist cover art, I thought that Marvel, replete with superheroines as it is, would show us the way. Black Widow in Avengers looked like a promising start, to say nothing of Joss Whedon being in charge. However, my faith in that has deteriorated badly. I suspect that the execs aren’t letting Whedon get away with doing what he’s best at, and that the MCU at large is now so big an investment that they don’t want to risk doing anything daring, going back to ticking the same old boxes. Black Panther and Captain Marvel, two more unconventional additions to the franchise, are still a long way off and if Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy are any indication, then they will have to be pretty amazing to have been worth the wait.

Despite my skepticism, I wanted to give Ant-Man a fair go, but there is nothing in it. I have seldom seen a movie so undistinguished in its every slightest aspect. You could have made it twenty years ago and the only thing that would stand out would be the visual effects. The onus is on Marvel to make me want to stick with this, but if this is where they decide the gripping new direction lies, then I’m out.

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Posted by on August 28, 2015 in Movie


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Terms of Enlistment: I’m On Board

I’m interested in writing, and if you want to write science fiction, then a handy resource is the website Atomic Rockets. Not exactly a wiki, but an extensive resource for scientific and artistic precedents for a number of tropes and tricks in the field of space settings, starships and futuristic tech.

Doing Science Fiction Spring a few months back gave me the idea of shopping around it looking for any names of authors I hadn’t heard of, and stumbled upon one that caught my eye as being a relatively recent military sci-fi, and a little different than most.

Terms of Enlistment by German-American author Marko Kloos features Andrew Grayson, a plebeian living in a decrepit, dead-end public housing project in the megacity that used to be Boston. He’s made up his mind to leave the foul air, squalid housing, black marketeering and inedible synthetic food dole to enlist in the military, as a way to make his fortune and as a final insult to his dying deadbeat father, who himself washed out of the Basic Training program.

Grayson endures the rigors of Basic, has a heady romance with a hotshot young pilot-to-be, and then is dismayed to find himself assigned to the Territorial Army, rather than to the spacegoing navy or marines. His duty is to fight agents of minor governments and rebels, proxies of the other super blocs running the Earth, and sometimes his own fellow plebs when they rise up.

However, following a disastrous fight against uncannily well-armed rioters in Detroit, Grayson narrowly avoids being scapegoated with the help of his highly-honoured sergeant and is transferred to being a technical rating in the navy. But no sooner are his beloved and he reunited than they are sent to a colony world under threat, and find themselves in the middle of the very first alien invasion humankind has ever undergone.

If I seem to have given a rather more indepth explanation of the plot than usual, it’s because any less would make this story seem a lot more two dimensional than it is. It’s written in first person, but otherwise is the first in a series written in the classic ‘Military Career’ narrative that includes such vaunted series as Horatio Hornblower, Sharpe and Honor Harrington.

In that context, the plot structure of the story is a bit odd. Not bad, just odd. Grayson starts out in the Territorials, has two engagements, is in the process of learning the ropes, hits his first crisis and…transfers to another branch. All the characters built up around him are set aside – not discarded, but no longer active in the story – and it’s as if it all starts over again. The author is playing a long game here, and one supposes that the first round of buildup is going to prove important later. Still, it would be nice if I had some assurance of that. My personal preference is that the first book in a series should be able to stand on its own. Sabriel is a good example of this, as are longer series like the Laundry and Dresden Files and the early Honor Harrington books. But even books like the Hunger Games or Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone are structured in such a way that the narrative is tied off at the end – you know there’s more to come, but you’ve been satisfied for the time being. Ending on a complete cliffhanger – also something Leviathan and Divergent do – don’t so much entice you to read the next book as require you to.

That said, if I was going to be required to read this series, I wouldn’t mind. It reminds me of a lot of things. The government dole and dilapidated housing Grayson rises from reminds me of the dolists from the People’s Republic of Haven in Honor Harrington. The dismal lifestyle on a polluted Earth and the popularity of exodus to new colonies among the stars evokes Blade Runner.

It’s interesting to note that the author has himself done soldiering. And that’s probably behind the fact that while it has resemblances to both, I find it more palatable than, say Ender’s Game or Starship Troopers (the movie, that is).

A lot of the story is taken up with Grayson’s endurance of Basic, the initial training course that tests new recruits before they’re dispatched to their service branches and more specialized training. But it’s kind of interesting and nuanced to show the trainers as tough-but-fair, the training intensive but not inhumane.

Despite occasional echoes of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the society – a huge underclass in a world of political super-blocs operating under limited rules of conflict – there is no political indoctrination or brainwashing. Despite the echoes of Ender’s Game – a young man confronted with the oncoming threat to humankind – the uniformed characters are rough-edged, flawed, but well-rounded characters, not a monotony of violent psychopaths. They also develop esprit de corps, respecting and working with each other, rather than being trained the Ender’s Game/Divergent way of fighting and bullying one another.

At the same time, the society has noticeably changed in positive ways as well. Nobody bats an eye at gender integration of the military – as in Starship Troopers, even the showers are co-ed – and enormous leaps in technology have taken place.

I suppose if anything I’m not completely sold on the nanny-state dystopia that Grayson grows up in, when a cyber punk coporatocracy a la Blade Runner seems a lot more relevant (and likely) at this point in history, and in the setting as depicted, but that’s dangerously close to the ‘not what I would have written’ style of critique. I do like the idea that terraforming other planets has rendered them habitable but not exactly familiar or pleasant, and the aliens are, to put it mildly, quite unusual.

This is a young adult book, I think. There’s very little nuanced political commentary of a work aimed at older readers. It is interesting and varied, not ultra-profound, but a fascinating everyman perspective, not relentlessly bleak or loudly ideological. At the same time, it is, essentially, a jolly good read.

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Posted by on August 12, 2015 in Book


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