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.

Heroic Actions to End Bullying

Screenshot of Rocket Racoon STOMP Out Bullying coverI’ve been intending to write about this for over a week now (he says as he blows the dust off of his neglected blog), but have you seen these variant covers that Marvel comics did for STOMP Out Bullying? If you haven’t, take a moment to look.

Marvel Entertainment was approached by the national anti-bullying organization to assist in promoting National Bullying Awareness Month, and these variant covers were the result. Particularly a nice approach by Marvel, as variant covers tend to be the sorts of things that collectors pounce on, and thus I imagine these were received well.

As you see, the covers feature prominent super heroes from the Marvel universe intervening in the sorts of situations that children face in our school systems every day, as well as situations that follow them outside of the school system (such as cyberbullying). Having spent a great deal of time working with kids who didn’t fit in with the mainstream, I’ve seen how cruel children can be to each other. It only takes one to create a herd mentality that follows the leader in targeting the one without support. More than what I’ve seen in professional pursuits, however, I know what I experienced in school. I was a geek, a misfit, the one who tried to do well in his classes. I didn’t hang out with the popular crowd, because I wasn’t accepted by them. I know the terror that comes with being isolated in a stairwell between classes by someone intent on doing me harm based simply on the fact that I was different. I know the nightmares that follow, the intentional alteration of the routes that you take through the school building. I remember that all too well. There’s been much research into what causes this phenomenon, all of which is valuable, but I will tell you this…what the child being bullied needs is to feel empowered, to know they are not alone.

The nature of a hero is that he or she with more power fights the battle that we cannot. They defend us from the evil to which we would inevitably succumb were we to not find help. Look at the covers from Marvel carefully. The heroes aren’t reacting with force against the bullies. I particularly find this striking in the cover featuring the Hulk, one of the characters that we would immediately expect to retaliate against an act of aggression. Instead, they offering compassion to the child being bullied, offering companionship. In doing so, they are empowering that child, showing the child that they are not alone, and are, in fact, very much like very good people.

The child who is bullied needs that heroism, that support. And we, each of us, can be the hero who helps them in some capacity. We can reach out to offer them that companionship, to let them know that they are not alone and that they are in good company. This is not an activity isolated to professionals…in fact, what has consistently been proven is that family and family friends have more of a positive impact on children than professionals who may be involved in the child’s life. Part of the nature of a hero is that the desire to be a hero, to help the helpless, is wrapped up so deeply in the human experience. Initiatives like this help us to see the small ways in which each of us can act on the desire to be a hero to those in our lives less powerful than ourselves.

A Review of “After the Golden Age”

After the Golden AgeAfter the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Most writing in superhero mythology paints the heroes as larger than life, more powerful than we could hope to be…gods among us, if you will…swooping in when all hope seems lost to fight the evil that we could never fight ourselves. The heroes are distant, aloof most often, typically because their position and power has left them that way, too far separated by definition from those that they pledge to defend…or, in the case of the villains, attempt to enslave. Due to their power, they can never be like us, and understand the obligation that comes with that power.

The better writing in superhero mythology explores the heroes’ struggle with that power, with a destiny that has often been thrust upon them by forces outside of themselves. They take up the mantel of defender because they have no other option. With great power, Uncle Ben reminds us, comes great responsibility.

The best writing in superhero mythology steps back from this, though, and remembers what the heroes truly are: people like the rest of us, but choosing to use what they have been given for good. Aliens, perhaps, or mutants, but still touched by a common thread of humanity that leads to a driving impulse to preserve life. Our heroes find common ground with us, even when they are so much larger than us.

There are a few explorations of the people behind the masks that are original enough to cause us to re-examine what lies behind their heroic natures, a handful that are memorable enough to, while not re-defining of a genre, certainly motivation to re-examine a genre. Somewhat out of the blue, Carrie Vaughn, a self-proclaimed lover of comic books and superheroes, has done exactly that, and done so with an interesting starting point: what if these huge, larger-than-life, indestructible heroes were but a blip in the history of heroism? What if their self-sacrificial desire to place the good of others, of their cities, before themselves were not tied to their superhuman abilities, but rather merely better facilitated by them? Wouldn’t that make them even greater heroes?

And wouldn’t that widen the definition of who we consider to be a hero, and what we consider heroism to be?

Vaughn’s protagonist, Celia West, is the daughter of the greatest superheroes that Commerce City has known. Her parents formed a team known as the Olympiad, fittingly titled protectors who watch the city from on high and strike hard against evil. Yet, she is born with no abilities, and lives in the shadow of superhuman parents whose superhuman nature has exacted a toll on their family life. Celia fights for good in her own way, however, in her role as an accountant of all things, with the same determination and passion to right wrongs that her parents hold, without all of the grandiose battles and conflicts. Yet, she is constantly compared to them, constantly made to appear to fall short…and constantly haunted by the one mistake for which she will seemingly find no forgiveness, despite her attempts to make her repentance felt.

Vaughn pays homage to the superhero tales of our youth in an offhandedly humorous but deeply respectful way that demonstrates her love for the tradition, gently touching stereotypes with the love of genre conventions without ever making anything seem unbelievable or silly. Her characters stay with you, her succinct prose and thought-provoking dialogue leave the reader with the moments that define a great book: the moments when you have to put the book down and walk away to digest what it is you’ve just read. Vaughn isn’t just de-constructing classic superhero story arcs here, she’s using the mythology to examine much larger questions: destiny vs. free will, the nature of a hero in each of us, the driving impulses behind self-sacrificing behaviors. She’s questioning what it means to be a hero from every angle, and disabusing us of many of the notions that we have held with conviction up to this point. The heroes that are most visible, we realize, perhaps aren’t the greatest heroes after all, but are merely following in the footsteps of heroes that are greater, and more normal, than we might otherwise imagine, heroes whose convictions were stronger than their powers.

This is the first novel I’ve read from Vaughn, and I’m impressed. The pacing is fluid, the story accessible and only minimally predictable. On the rare occasion in which I found myself suspecting that something didn’t fit, she made it fit within a few pages. Vaughn has done something fascinating with superhero culture here, something redemptive in it’s own right. If you grew up in love with these heroes as I did, this is a novel that will broaden the way you think. If you didn’t, you might just find yourself falling in love with the genre for the first time, because it is accessible to everyone in Vaughn’s prose.

In fact, of all the legacy that this book is likely to leave, that may well be its greatest.

An easy read at just under 400 pages, I recommend this novel for anyone.

View all my reviews

The Nature of a Hero in “Flashpoint”

Screenshot of Flashpoint coverI’m not one to watch much television. Really, I’m not (I feel defensive considering what I’m about to write). I’m certainly not one to watch more than two episodes of anything in a night, and definitely not one to blow through a season of a program on Netflix in a week.

Seriously, I’m not.

So, here’s how this went down.

Just before moving into our new apartment, Karen and I sat down late one night too tired to do anything productive, and looking for something mindless to watch for a bit. She asked what I was in the mood for, and, being a sucker for police procedural dramas, I rattled off a couple of old standbys, none of which had anything available, or at least nothing current. So, Karen did some quick exploration, and asked about a program neither of us had ever heard of called Flashpoint.
Sure, I said, it looked good. It was only for an hour, after all,  and then we were going to bed. Except we were on the edges of our seats for that hour. And the next hour. And the next.

And now, a few weeks later, I only have a few episodes left of the last season available for streaming, and I’ve lost way too much sleep to this show.

Why? Because, seriously, this is out of character for me.

It’s not just the realistic and excellently choreographed action sequences. There’s some deep character development going on here, as well. And, while I’ll be the first to point out that the screenwriters have been slacking on the dialogue quality in this most recent season, there’s explorations of things that we all consider, things with which we all struggle. In short, there’s a lot to be said about the human condition in this program.

I’ve written before about how police programs…realistic ones, at least…tend to present the nature of a hero in the most accessible way, the way in which we all desire to be the hero and the way in which we most realistically could reach this desire. These are the heroes that are not bound to the pages of fiction or graphic novels, but that run toward the real violence and danger that lurks near us to hold it at bay while the rest of us run away. As police programs go, SWAT teams are perhaps the most interesting choice for this type of exploration, because they are the heroes for the heroes, the best of the best who are called upon to handle the worst of the worst. When these teams arrive, the last resort has already been reached.

Flashpoint presents realistic heroes in this profession. They struggle with the ramifications of violent actions. They fight to push down their own instincts and desires to protect the lives that they are sworn to protect, and they don’t always win that fight. They are there, as the characters proclaim more than once, to “keep the peace,” but, moreover, to “respect, connect, protect.”

This isn’t a program where every episode ends with violent action (although there does seem to be more violent resolutions in the most recent season), but rather violent solutions occur only in a realistic number of situations. While a level of seemingly callous separation is seen in the characters (when one of the snipers has a clear shot at a suspect, the radio call is, “I have the solution”), this is balanced with the characters attempting to deal with the aftermath when they do take a life to protect someone innocent.

What’s most fascinating about this program, however, is played out in the premise. What makes the “Strategic Response Unit” upon which the show is based different from any other SWAT team is their training in psychology and negotiations. They don’t simply arrive and attempt to talk down a subject while waiting in the wings to respond with force. They dig into what’s happening in the individual’s life. The writers continuously do an excellent job of bringing out the perceived villain as an everyman character, someone who represents an extreme response to situations that would bring frustration or anger to any of us. At the end, the viewer finds themselves condemning the person’s response to the situation, but understanding how they feel.

This attempt to understand leads to not only many peaceful resolutions for the Strategic Response Unit, but discoveries of other victims that may not have otherwise been made (frequently, the perpetrator is a victim), as well as forcing them to make serious examinations of their own lives.

I think that Flashpoint exhibits yet another aspect of the nature of a hero, that of seeking to understand the villain. In short, empathy. Even those who perpetrate the most heinous of acts did not arrive at the point at which they were capable of those acts in a vacuum. We are who we are, and we do what we do, for a reason. The hero understands that there is a thin line separating them from the villain (think Batman and Catwoman), and that only the choice of how to handle a particular event marks which side of that line one is on. In short, the hero recognizes human fallibility, understands that we all make mistakes, and sees every person, both those that they protect and the villains that they fight, as worthy of mercy and redemption.

A Review of Shazam! The Conclusion

The New 52’s introduction to Shazam! concludes in Justice League #21 this month, and, unlike it’s previous installments which have ran as extra stories in the backs of Justice League issues, this takes the entire issue. This, after all, is Shazam’s “last stand,” or so the cover proclaims, and it’s only worthy of it taking the entire book.

I’ve been so impressed with where Johns and Frank have taken this character in the New 52, and I was excited to see an entire issue devoted to it this month. We begin where the previous chapter ended, with Black Adam holding Billy’s friends and adopted family, Mary and Freddy, on the edge of death if Billy does not capitulate and give over his magic to Adam. Billy must make a decision…and, I won’t spoil the story for you, but I will reveal to long-time comics readers that we see Mary Marvel in this issue.

What Johns has done with this story arc is to tie heroism to family, a good counterpoint to the image of the hero standing alone that often dominates super-hero mythology. Adam tells Billy that they are as connected as family because both have been bestowed with the magic lightning, yet Billy realizes the power in accepting the second chance offered to him by his new, adoptive family. When confronted with this act of grace, he chooses a potentially self-sacrificial path to defeat Adam in the end, realizing his true nature as a hero and overcoming his natural childhood fear.

The art in this issue is outstanding, especially in the way Frank has captured the character’s facial expressions: Billy’s childhood emotions dominating the face of a strong adult hero, Adam’s face twisted with centuries of anger, Mary’s face confused but determined. The action sequences are expertly drawn, and I’m particularly fond of a splash page in which Mary is duking it out with the demonic giant representing the Seven Deadly Sins and attacking the city. Just as striking is a beautifully drawn series of panels in which Shazam stands in the snow beneath a sign reading “No Child Should Be Alone at Xmas.” The character details, as well as the story, are illustrated with poetic, if crisp, clarity in this issue.

There were moments, though…albeit fewer of them on my second reading…that felt anticlimactic after such an excellent series. Perhaps the story was stretched to fit the full issue, I’m not certain, but there were moments…especially with the tiger (again, I’m trying to keep away from spoilers)…that felt contrived and almost as though they were filler to me. And, while I understand how Johns is tying his familial theme together, the ending fell a bit flat after such thorough character development previously.

Perhaps I’m reading this story arc slightly off its center. Perhaps it’s meant as a child’s story, a coming-of-age hero’s tale of a YA vane. If so, I’ll soften that final critique. Whichever way you want to read it, though, this issue is certainly worth picking up as the conclusion to a well-written story arc re-introducing a fascinating character for a wider audience. I’m very interested to see how Shazam (I’m still struggling with not calling him Captain Marvel, by the way) will fit into the larger universe of the New 52.