A Review of “Ant-Man”

Image of Ant-Man Film Poster. Used under Creative Commons.Each time a super-hero team arrives on the big screen, the “starting lineup,” as it were, tends to differ a bit from the comic literature. The reasons for this are various, but it generally works if you have the right casting. Even serious purists would be hesitant to denounce a film based upon the starting lineup differences, I would think, partly because we’ve just come to accept it at this point.

To that end, the Avengers cinematic canon is no different. While there are certain characters that really had to be included in the beginning (it’s pretty difficult to have the Avengers without Captain America), there are others who are mixed in early even though they appeared later in the comics (like the Black Widow…not that I’m complaining), while others are omitted (at least we finally got Mockingbird in Agents of SHIELD).

So, I’ve been wondering when the Ant-Man would make his cinematic appearance. I didn’t really ever think it was a question of whether or not he would, as Ant-Man is a founding member of the Avengers in comic history…I was just waiting, and was pleasantly surprised to see that this is how Marvel Studios decided to wrap Phase 2 (originally this was the launch of Phase 3, but is now considered the end of Phase 2 as Marvel once again has the rights to Spider-Man…and will hopefully redeem the Friendly Neighborhood hero from a history of films that we’d rather forget. But, that’s for another post entirely).

I’ll preface this up front by saying that I’m not a huge fan of Paul Rudd as an actor. That’s not to say that he doesn’t deliver in this role, because he does, at least for the most part. There’s just something that he brings to his performances that tends to detract from the character for me.

That said…

There have been multiple Ant-Men in Marvel history, several heroes having donned the costume, and several more have derived their abilities from the Pym Particle. So, while you might see Ant-Man on the surface and think something to the effect of, “how quaint,” know that his history is deep and extremely influential in the Marvel universe. We’re introduced to Scott Lang’s Ant-Man here, and Marvel has written the screenplay to follow the comic story arc very closely, something that I was very happy to see (significant liberties with the Wasp notwithstanding). They have also done an excellent job of connecting the plot to the larger canon of films by re-telling Dr. Pym’s adventures as Ant-Man during the war, which is very thorough, and something that the writers of all the Marvel films have done such an excellent job of handling since we first saw Iron Man so many years ago. Where the screenplay does depart from the historical arc is with Hope, the daughter of Dr. Pym, and the story of the Wasp. Still, they’ve introduced the character (also a founding member of the Avengers in the literature) strongly, as she deserved, and I can’t wait to see what they do with her in the future.

I really appreciate how Ant-Man is not portrayed as a small, or secondary, character. He’s a powerful hero, and he’s a motivated hero. Scott Lang’s story is closer to us than any hero that we’ve encountered so far from Marvel in many ways, because his is a story of redemption from some tragically poor choices. His redemption isn’t motivated even for his own best interest, but for that of his daughter. This makes Lang more of an everyman character for the audience, displaying a part of the nature of a hero that has proven elusive in many of the other characters in the Avengers universe. There is a lot that has been, and can be, done with this character, and Marvel has now made it clear that they intend to fulfill that potential.

Where Ant-Man falls short is in what Rudd brings to the role…overly and awkwardly comedic instances that feel injected arbitrarily in the story, either by poor improv or bad directorial choices, and that broke my suspension of disbelief on at least three occasions. This is not creative comedy (like Guardians of the Galaxy), but an offbeat, disingenuous sort of addition that was unmerited. Disappointing, but not enough to detract from the movie as a whole.

The climactic battle of the film smacked more that a little of the first Iron Man, something I doubt was intentional as much as it was in need of more inventive possibilities. I think that this un-necessary attempt to replay the first Iron Man…a correlation which leaped out to me twice while in the theatre… is the other disappointment for me. I almost feel as though Peyton Reed was uncertain in his directing, and borrowed more heavily than needed from the established history.

Ant-Man is decidedly different from the Avengers films so far, which is good, because it will introduce a new dynamic into the team in the future (the interaction between Ant-Man and the Falcon is excellent). While weaker than the other movies, this is still a solid offering and one worth seeing and having in your collection. Stay for the hidden endings…there are two of them…and see if you concur that Ant-Man is a good 3.5 star movie.

Image attribution: Global Panorama under Creative Commons.

Polar Opposites

One of the things that Karen and I try to take advantage of since moving to the Southeast again is visiting friends that we didn’t get to see while living in New England. We’re within a two-hour drive of many old friends in most cases, and we make every attempt to take advantage of the opportunity to visit them.

A couple of months ago, we went back to the city in Virginia where we met and married, and where we lived for some time after. We had a wonderful, if all too brief, weekend, in which we saw as many friends as we possibly could, as well as driving by the landmarks…the old apartments, old workplaces, the memories that accompany a life lived.

When we were planning our trip, we began organizing and arranging times to meet with our friends. Our closest friends sprang to the forefront of my mind, and I began contacting those who I was looking so forward to seeing again, some of whom I hadn’t spoken to in nearly two years, occasional social media interactions notwithstanding.

One of our close friends is an author and professor. He and I became friends while acting and directing in a theatre ministry at our local faith community. Theatre forms a sort of fox-hole experience. There are long nights, intense debates and emotions, and sets of experiences that no one who hasn’t been involved in practicing that particular creative pursuit can truly understand. This is a friend with whom I had spent the long hours and held the passionate debates, with whom I had celebrated the publishing of his book, and who had graciously read some of my own manuscripts. This is a friend whom I met at a restaurant in the wee hours of the morning for coffee when something tragic had just happened. His daughter would babysit our daughter. Even with distance between us, we’re close.

What’s surprising about this is that, in several ways, you couldn’t get more opposite than he and I are. Yes, we’re both odd creative types. He, however, is a scientist by day and at heart, and I have always been quite the opposite of that, immersed in the humanities. Politically, you really couldn’t imagine two more opposite perspectives, as he leans far to the right of my own views. He eschews Mac computers on principle, and I use them exclusively.

We regularly engage in Twitter banter that makes others assume we can’t stand each other, and yet we know that we have each others’ backs.

When I think of how opposite we are, I think of how some say that opposites attract, but, more importantly, about how, despite our polarizing differences, we’ve always respected each other, always known that we’ve had a friend in each other. We’ve seen what we’ve held in common more prominently than we’ve engaged our differences. I think that this is a standard to which I need to live up to more, something that only has good results. If I generalize this, after all, I become a kinder person, less prone to anger and frustration with others, less prone to bitterness that clings long after I wish it gone.

Sometimes there are insurmountable differences between two people. I’m not so optimistic or naive as to think that this isn’t sometimes the case. I think, however, that the things that we see as insurmountable are, in fact, often not. The minutiae of our theological bent, our political views, our subcultural associations…more of these than we care to admit are autobiographical preferences at the end of the day. I wonder how much less prone we would be to anger and violence…and how much more prone we might be to healing…if we took the time to focus on our similarities instead of becoming so increasingly, arbitrarily polarized.

Because I think that it takes both sides of many of these perspectives to form a holistic truth, perhaps one of which none of us are capable of realizing on our own.

Well, except for the part where some people don’t like Macs. That’s just wrong…

A Review of “The Clockwork Dagger”

Screenshot of the cover for Clockwork DaggerI knew next to nothing about steampunk, other than the fact that it attracts a devoted following and looks like a really interesting genre. I wasn’t even completely certain how attracted I would be once I truly explored it, but, finding the visual aesthetic appealing in the handful of films I’ve watched, and the conventions that some friends attend, I wanted to explore what steampunk was like on the printed page, how it played out in deeper story-telling. The Clockwork Dagger seemed a popular choice, so I decided to make it my entry point.

This is Beth Cato’s first full-length novel, and we all know that first novels deserve a certain understanding in some areas. Many authors are still finding their voice with that first publication, and so some faults are to be expected. That said, I was impressed with how strongly our protagonist, Octavia Leander’s, voice came through. I could hear this character speaking clearly on the first page, the cadences and tone of her voice clear in my perception, and growing clearer with each chapter. I’m quite impressed with how Cato developed Leander through the course of these 200 + pages, and I felt that I had met a character that I truly knew by the time I closed the book. The other primary characters receive an equally just treatment..all are developed thoroughly and carefully. Occasionally, a piece of reflective or introspective dialogue felt forced, but this was rare, and ultimately never broke my suspension of disbelief. The greatest strength of Cato’s writing in this debut is the care with which she permits her characters to come to life. This is accomplished in no small regard due to her handling of the language, which is clever and inventive, merging well a period piece and modern language as seems a requirement for this genre.

Second would be the world-building. This novel is as steampunk as they come. We’re introduced to a nice balance of Victorian dialogue, whirring machinations and inventions, magical spells and curses, and a mystery playing out aboard a dirigible. I was surprised by the magical components of the book…surprised in a good way. It’s just that I hadn’t really known how much a part of steampunk that magic is, but there you have it…this was a part of my education. I’m actually surprised with the depth of complexity that Cato captures in this world, given that the novel is relatively concise in length, but every nuance of the political structure, the economic issues between nations, and an industrial revolution run amok in war are designed with each detail considered and completely working. The warring nations and corrupt leadership form a fascinating backdrop to the story, without becoming overly didactic in their metaphor.

What Cato tackles head-on in this work is the seeming conflict between faith and science.

Octavia Leander, you see, is a medician…a healer who understands the natural ways to heal that the earth provides, as well as possessing magical means of mending broken people. More than this, these magical abilities are derived from a religious faith, a faith in the Lady and her Tree. Legend holds that the Lady received her power after asking God for the ability to heal more people, and the medicians follower her order. Octavia is ridiculed by many who trust in the rapid new technological developments of the age, yet her abilities cannot be questioned. She is a gifted healer, perhaps the most gifted known in recent memory, and it is for this reason that she is hunted. Most simply end up accepting her abilities with some awe, while concluding that such a path is not for them, thus walking away and attempting to reconcile the visible effects of an unseen faith with the measurable, quantifiable and tactile world of technological advances around them. That reconciliation seems to occur on mostly a surface level, never delved into too deeply…just as in our culture today. I think that this faith in a more ancient knowledge is the thesis of the novel, and what I especially appreciate is that Cato handles it adeptly without ever leaving the reader groaning or resentful. She never develops this into any sort of theology. She is content with the imagery that she is presenting, and it does its job well.

There’s a romantic sub-plot that the book could simply live without. Each development in this regard feels forced and un-natural, and, on the rare occasions in which I did feel that something was out of place, it was in those moments. That said, I have no interest (and barely any tolerance) for the romantic genre, so this could just be my own clouded perceptions, and I’m willing to own that.

The ending feels a bit…stretched…but not to a point in which I feel anything is lost. Simply, proportions of things seem to become very large and epic very quickly, an abrupt step from the heavily interpersonal plot that Cato has developed up to that point. I think that it would have worked better with a bit more transition, but, while trying to avoid spoilers, I’ll say that this could also be seen as a device to further her emphasis on the power of faith.

I expected steampunk to be a bit of escapism, as it has always felt a bit whimsical in my previous (brief) experiences. I certainly didn’t expect it to deal with something deeper and thought-provoking, but I was pleasantly surprised here. I’m certain that, if you’re already a fan, this is already on your list or on your shelf. If, like me, you’re just exploring what this whole thing is all about, then this is a good first read…the kind of novel that stays with for a bit after you’ve finished. I think Cato’s future works will get better, but I’m glad that I’ve met Octavia Leander.