MAKING A MOVIE MOUNTAIN OUT OF AN ANT HILL

ANT-MAN IS A STRONG ADDITION TO MARVEL’S GROWING ROSTER OF MOVIE SUPER HEROES AND IT PROVES THAT THE STUDIO CAN MAKE BOX OFFICE GOLD OUT OF JUST ABOUT ANYTHING

Director: Peyton Reed

Starring: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Pena, Judy Greer

Studio: Marvel/Disney

Rated: PG

Running Time: 1 Hr, 57 Min.

Last summer, Marvel Studios turned an obscure, barely known property into box office gold when Guardians of the Galaxy became one of the year’s top grossing movies, launching a new gravy train in the process. The question the House of Ideas, and their corporate owners-The House of the Mouse-are asking themselves this summer is if they can capture that same lightning in a Marvel coloured bottle with the little known super hero Ant-Man. Especially during a year where they’ve been outshone by rival studio Universal Pictures, despite the success of Avengers: Age of Ultron and Pixar’s Inside/ Out. While Time will tell if Ant-Man can match Guardians box office magic, it’s a pretty good entry in Marvel’s cinematic universe and it may not only launch one hot new property for the studio, but possibly two while adding a pair of new faces to Marvel’s list of Avengers-worthy characters.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has just gotten out of prison for “burglaring” a corporation that was robbing its customers (Lang got the swindled customers their money back and publically shamed the corporation in question, making him a modern day Robin Hood). Despite having an electronic engineering degree though, Scott finds that the pickings for ex-cons in the job market are less then slim and his inability to find gainful employment prevents him from seeing his daughter, who lives with his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her uptight cop fiancé (Bobby Cannavale). Faced with the possibility of losing his daughter, Scott reluctantly falls back into his old life of crime, assisted by his makeshift gang lead by former cellmate Luis (Michael Pena). Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) on the other hand, is a reclusive scientist whose been protecting a lifetime of secrets and mourning his late wife ever since he was forced out of the company he founded by his former protégé Daren Cross (Corey Stoll). But when his greatest secret is uncovered and weaponized for profit, Pym and his estranged daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) find themselves searching for a new ally to help steal this dangerous new technology before Cross can sell it to some very unsavoury parties. The three soon find themselves in a somewhat uneasy partnership.

Ant-Man’s story is about as straight forward as possible. Villain steals a weapon that will make a lot of bad guys really, really dangerous (on a global scale) and the good guys are trying to steal it before the villain can make the world a more dangerous place. In fact the plot is pretty reminiscent of the first Iron Man movie, with themes of technological Pandora’s boxes and corporate greed. It’s well paced, with just enough humour laced through it to supply a few laughs between refreshingly original and fresh action scenes. The film’s visual effects and stunts do a perfect job of exploring a rarely explored movie frontier; the world of the microscopic. Whether it’s navigating a building’s plumbing or leading a stampede of ants through underground tunnels or battling the film’s villain inside a briefcase or on a train set, Ant-Man offers plenty of new super hero action. Director Peyton Reed does an excellent job of keeping the action and fight scenes moving smoothly and organically; the visual approach of insect sized combatants could easily become dizzying and stomach turning but Ant-Man keeps it easy on the eyes without cheaping out. Ant-Man can easily stand on its own as a super hero movie, deftly establishing the hero’s mythos for movie-goers unfamiliar with the character (which is just about everyone), but it drops plenty of references to other Marvel movies (including an fight scene with another recently introduced Avenger) and has just enough story threads woven into the script that it can integrate itself into the larger Marvel Cinematic universe. The post credit scene introduces a new character entirely and could allow Ant-Man to spring board a second property on top of it’s titular one, meaning Marvel could hit two home runs on a single pitch.

Judd is efficient as the good-natured, occasionally wise cracking Lang and Douglas does his part as the elder, slightly cantankerous Pym. Lilly steals more then a few scenes as the tough, emotionally weathered Hope and Pena dutifully serves his role as the film’s primary source of comedy. Stoll isn’t exactly intimidating as the film’s chief villain, but the story doesn’t seem to give his character much venom above his jilted corporate ambition. All in all, Ant-Man isn’t the best that Marvel has offered movie audiences, but it isn’t the worst either. In short (pardon the pun), Ant-Man is a solid addition to Marvel’s growing list of properties and should help keep fresh life in the Avengers franchise as the initial wave of characters prepares for retirement. And isn’t that all you can ask for from a summer super hero movie based on a character almost no one knows?

Shayne Kempton

ONE FOR THE AGES

AVENGERS AGE OF ULTRON DELIVERS ON THE HYPE AND HITS ANOTHER ONE OUT OF THE PARK FOR THE HOUSE OF THE MOUSE

Director: Joss Whedon

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chis Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olson, Aaron Taylor-Johnsson, Colby Smulders, Samuel L. Jackson, Paul Bettany and James Spader

Studio: Marvel/Disney

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 2 Hrs, 21 Min

Take a deep breath. Do you smell that? That’s Summer Movie Season, when Hollywood unleashes all the blockbusters they’ve been teasing us with since last summer’s Comic Con and the half time of the Super Bowl. And this summer has no shortage of epic fare for fans to spend their movie going dollars on, so it’s only fitting that Avengers: Age of Ultron kicks off this year’s popcorn season at break neck speed.

It’s three years after the Avengers first came together to thwart an alien invasion lead by Thor’s villainous brother Loki and our heroes find themselves cleaning up the rest of Hydra’s secret research bases (as seen at the end of last May’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and searching for the scepter Loki used to corrupt and enslave minds in the first Avengers film. As an aside, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) have been working on an experimental artificial intelligence to help the Avengers protect and maintain world peace and stability. The recovery of Loki’s scepter grants that vision a giant leap forward but it doesn’t take long for their intentions to go south in a hurry and after a perfect storm of mistakes and wrong turns, their pet project develops a malevolent mind of its own and Ultron is born. At first Ultron is just another would be world conqueror with daddy issues, but he quickly evolves into a genocidal despot planning to drive the entire human race into extinction. His weapons not only include an army of killer robots and an ever evolving robotic body of his own, but a cunning knack to pull our heroes emotional and psychological strings, testing their trust in one another as well as their loyalties and their motives.

            The follow up to 2012’s Marvel’s The Avengers, director Joss Whedon successfully recreates the original film’s box office busting formula of adrenaline, hyper special effects, quirky humour and generous winks at the audience while adding a new twist here and there. AoU is a movie based on one of the planet’s largest comic book franchises, and as such it’s crafted like a comic book, albeit a smart one. The story is straight forward but avoids gratuitous plot holes while Whedon laces his script with plenty of sarcastic little quips and comedic wrinkles to keep viewers chuckling, even during some of the more intense fight scenes. And the fight scenes are easily on par with the spectacle the first Avengers offered, and that movie was about fighting an invasion of bionic reptilians that rode giant space dragons through a wormhole. The city demolishing clash between the Hulk and Iron man wearing Hulkbuster power armour will leave just about anyone drooling. Some were concerned that Ultron, the CGI robot voiced by James Spader would come up short when measured against Tom Hiddleson’s Loki, everyone’s favourite villain who made it necessary for Marvel’s Greatest Heroes to assemble in the first place. But while Ultron may not be as easy to embrace as Hiddleson’s conniving Loki, he exudes a dangerous, manipulative charm at a few pivotal points, making him a villain equals the combined might of the Avengers.

            The cast does what’s needed of them, bringing their respective head smashing, shield throwing, armour wearing, bow slinging characters to life with humour and just enough believability for a comic book mega-film. Once again Robert Downey Jr. steals the show as Tony Stark/Iron Man with his signature manic quirkiness but James Spader manages to eat up plenty of scenery with just his voice. AoU also gives some of the characters a little more breathing room then the first, adding a touch of pathos to heroes who spend most of the film beating or blowing things up. We’re given a closer look at some of the supporting characters that don’t have their own solo films as well as the relationships between the heroes themselves. The party scene where everyone lets of some steam is a geektastic movie in and of itself. And the few seconds where we see Black Widow kicking serious robotic ass with Cap’s shield will send any fan boy into fits of delirium.

            Whedon deserves a healthy dose of credit as well. He keeps AoU from flying off the tracks like a roller coaster on meth while making sure the whole thing never takes itself too seriously. AoU is an amusement park ride, and it knows it, at no point does it consider itself more then a really good popcorn movie and the whole thing comes across as a huge cinematic tongue in cheek homage to its comic book inspiration armed with a hundred million dollars worth of awesome special effects.

          AoU is full of appearances from characters in previous films as well as Easter eggs for comic fans and hints dropped for future flicks in the ever-expanding Marvel Movieverse. AoU does it’s job well, offering a fun, entertaining installment in a growing franchise while setting up several future movies while acting as a transition to a new stage in Marvels’ storytelling. New characters are introduced, others see their roles expanded, some are retired and the seeds for future conflicts are planted (like the potential conflict between Tony Stark and Captain America that may be seen in next May’s Captain America: Civil War-a movie that will reportedly include a cameo or two by everyone’s favourite wall crawler). Will it be as successful as it’s predecessor? I don’t know, the first one set the bar pretty high, but AoU jumps right into the action and then slowly cranks the action meter higher and higher as the story unfolds, so if it falls short of the original Avengers movie it won’t be for lack of trying or execution. It will be interesting to see how DC/Warner Bros responds with its already struggling Justice League franchise (the Batman vs. Superman movie has already changed it’s release date twice and there are rumours of production delays on already announced films). See it in 3D if you can and don’t miss the signature credit scene after the movie ends (but spoiler alert, unlike 2012’s Avengers, there’s only one credit scene this time around). In my opinion though, this is another home run for Marvel and their owners at Disney, and it will be interesting to see how their next movie on deck, July’s Ant-Man, does when it comes up to bat. And DC/Warner? The ball’s in your court now boys.

 Shayne Kempton

If Iron Man 3 is the last time we get to see Robert Downey Jr. don the armour in his own title, it was a loud, visually impressive and decent good bye.

Following last year’s blockbuster Marvel’s The Avengers, Iron Man 3 (directed by Shane Black) picks up on Tony Stark and company’s current adventures.  Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Tony’s former assistant and current love interest, remains CEO of Stark Industries.  Happy Hogan (John Favreau) has gone from having the most pointless job in the world as Tony’s bodyguard to the head of Stark’s corporate security and Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) continues to collect a paycheque signed by Uncle Sam, only now as the United States very own hero, the Iron Patriot, instead of the government’s liaison to Tony Stark (apparently, focus groups informed the administration that the name War Machine didn’t exactly sell the idea of fresh apple pie, the Constitution and the Fourth of July all that well).  Tony, meanwhile, chills at home in his super workshop tucked nicely beneath his mansion on a cliff, whiling away the hours building new and improved suits of Iron Man armour.  And Tony has lots of hours to fill since he hasn’t been sleeping all that much since he and his fellow Avengers fought off an alien invasion over New York City.  When he does sleep, he’s troubled by nightmares that fill his days with doubt and uncertainty and the occasional freak out.  And just to toss an extra monkey wrench into the works, a new terrorist called the Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley) emerges, hijacking America’s airwaves, lecturing the United States and threatening its leaders by name.  Fancying himself a teacher, the Mandarin likes to add an extra exclamation mark to each lesson, setting off bombs that incinerate everything within their reach, reducing people to little more than shadows of ash.  The Mandarin moves like a ghost, silent, invisible and impossible to track, moving closer and closer with every attack.  And speaking of ghosts, one from both Tony and Pepper’s past reappears, the charismatic and brilliant Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), the mind behind Advanced Idea Mechanics (A.I.M. for short).  Pretty soon, Tony looks like he’s wishing he was back up to his eyeballs in alien invaders and rogue gods.

As far as action flicks go, Iron Man 3 delivers plenty of deafening, eyeball busting explosions and the climactic battle scene will leave plenty of action fans and comic book ones alike giggling in their seats.  The visuals are bold and seamlessly sewn into the action (the end credits dedicated to computer animators was almost as log as the film itself) but Iron Man could take some flak from comic purists over the Mandarin.  Originally a powerful, ancient sorcerer with ruthless ambition (a villainous genre counterbalance to Iron Man’s super technology archetype), Kingsley’s Mandarin is a political storm front, relying on modern weapons, internet propaganda and devoted followers to carry out his plans.  But what’s refreshing about Iron Man 3 is that it spends a good chunk testing Stark’s resourcefulness and courage, measuring the qualities that truly make a hero, finding out how much man is beneath the iron.  Tony’s reckless, playboy past haunts him plenty and things between him and the Mandarin become personal fast.  Before he knows it, everything Tony holds dear is threatened and he finds himself among those running for their lives while he tries to unwrap the mystery behind the Mandarin and deal with his personal drama all at the same time.  His occasional reference to his past misdeeds is a nice reminder of what he used to be and how far he’s come.

Kingsley does a great job of chewing up more than a few scenes as the Mandarin (in all his incarnations) and Pearce plays Killian to almost perfection (Aldrich reminds us of the popular, good looking kids in high school-we always liked to talk to them and felt special when they looked our way but we never entirely trusted them).  Paltrow plays Potts with her signature blend of smarts and sex appeal with plenty of Pepper’s occasional naivety thrown in for good measure.  Paltrow has pushed Potts beyond the mere damsel in distress and when she takes a turn or two as hero this time out, the audience is pretty comfortable with it.  But the real star of this movie (outside of the special effects), is undoubtedly Downey.

Downey’s mastery of quips and sarcastic one-liners made Tony Stark a character that people wanted to like even before he donned the armour.  He brings the appropriate amount of charm, empathy and overconfidence necessary for audiences to buy the character.  Downey’s Stark is far more relatable than a Bruce Wayne or a Clark Kent or a Steve Rogers. Downey was arguably the best performance in The Avengers last summer, snapping off one liners just before taking a shot from a thunder god to the head.  And that poses a problem for Marvel and parent company Disney.

Iron Man 3 seems to wrap up Tony Stark’s career as Iron Man, at least for solo movies.  Given how much box office gravy the movie raked in internationally prior to it’s north American release, it seems difficult to believe that all studios involved wouldn’t want to do a fourth instalment.  But Downey’s contract to play Tony Stark ends with Iron Man 3’s credits, and as of this writing Marvel/Disney hasn’t gotten his name on a contract to appear in Avengers 2 (currently slated for a May release in 2015). It’s pretty tough to imagine anyone other than Tony Stark wearing the armour and impossible to imagine anyone other than Downey bringing Stark to life.  Still, the probable financial success of Iron Man 3 combined with the box office expectations of The Avengers 2 means Disney should have no problem offering Downey a small fortune to keep us loving Stark for a few more years as long as they can find stories to keep him entertained.

Shayne Kempton

 Three Times the Iron