Friday, February 24, 2023

Ant-man and the Wasp: Quantumania

It was nice while it lasted. 

Big, smart, iconic re-inventions of big, mythical, archetypal characters. Medium weight producers who understood and cared who these characters were. Ken Branagh's kid-self was spotted reading Thor #128 in the Belfast semi-biopic. The man in the Guardian compared Thanos with something out of a Greek Tragedy. When Steve Rogers started to pontificate about the price of freedom always being high he melted the hearts of theatres full of British liberals. Steve Rogers got all the good lines, actually. There's only one god, and I don't think he dresses like that. Hulk, smash. Captain America is the moral centre of the Marvel Universe.

I suppose that's the trouble with superheroes. They start out serious. But after a while you have to make a choice. You can tell the same story over and over again: another treatment of the strange visitor from another planet who grew to manhood among salt of the earth white people in Kansas and turned the world backwards and defeated the Klan of the Fiery Cross. Another story where the bug-kid is ready to throw in the towel but realises that God gave him his powers and it his Responsibility to use them. Flying Mammal Guy realises that Evil Clown Guy is his own distorted reflection, for the seventy fifth time.

Or else you let it turn into a soap opera. Emphasise the soap -- oh, if only I dared tell her my secret identity then I could invite her to the junior prom. Or emphasise the opera -- here I stand upon the Moon, illegitimate son of the pirate emperor of Saturn, on trial by the people of the universe for inadvertently channelling the Dark Unicorn Force. Character pieces about characters who just happen for some reason to wear tights and shoot lasers out of their earholes.

Or more likely you just throw in the towel, let things develop under their own momentum and accept that you are only producing a comic strip. With the emphasis on comic. Stupendous Man; Stupendous Boy; Stupendous Girl. Stupendous Girl's stupendous pussy cat. Stupendous Boy's stupendous puppy dog. Stupendous Dog and Stupendous Cat form a club with Stupendous Horse and Stupendous Octopus and call it the Battalion of Stupendous Pets. Everyone decamps to Soudneputs Dlrow where clocks go tok-tick, criminals arrest policemen and Kier Starmer is a socialist. Fifty years later Alan or Grant or someone will pretend it was all incredibly deep.

The tipping point was Guardians of the Galaxy. Guardians of the Galaxy was fun. Guardians of the Galaxy was loads of fun. But no-one outside the discourse knows who the hell the Guardians of the Galaxy are. So they could do what they wanted for as long as it carried on being fun. The film was like an RPG, random overpowered characters who didn't quite know what they were meant to be doing blundering through a universe of cool surfaces. Starlord is a bit of a thug, but he's a very cool thug and Han Solo to the eleventh degree is a lot more fun than the old Chris Claremont "here I am alone in the universe searching for my place within it" Starlord ever was. And then Thor became involved, and Asgardians of the Galaxy became an irresistible pun and the joke about Rocket Racoon and the joke about Groot entirely failed to wear off. God help us all, it became a Romp. We Romped through another Guardians we romped through a couple of Thors and we romped through a Doctor Strange. Even Spider-Man did not entirely refrain from Romping. Modern takes on ancient myths? Not exactly. Superheroes with super-problems? Not so much. Pretend families and groups of mates wisecracking their way through a cartoon universe is the way to go. If you attempt something serious, portentous, Marvelous and indeed Kirbyesque it will get comprehensively slammed. (Exhibit A: The Eternals.) Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe -- Stan Lee's grand vision reimagined in glorious technicolour -- survives on the TV in things like Hawkeye (which was fun) and Captain America and the Winter Soldier (which actually moved the whole superhero thing forward a couple of notches.) But in actual cinemas, whacky is the order of the day

Black Panther II was pretty good. I liked Black Panther II.

There is a serious danger that 2024 will bring on the fourth attempt at a Fantastic Four movie. (The fifth if you count the Incredibles.) The brilliant but reckless grey-haired scientist Reed Richards. His sensible maternal wife, Sue. Awkward teenaged Johnny. Ben the wise cracking thug with a heart of gold. Together, they will travel to the Negative Zone and discover an exiled Kosmic Kirby Kriminal. 

Come to think of it, there is no need to wait until 2024. It's been made. It's called Ant Man 3. Maybe that's the joke. Maybe we've used Kang's time machine and travelled to the future and plagiarised the FF before it came out?

Ant-Man is not Marvel's most interesting character. There are only so many things you can do with a guy whose main power is being small. Only one thing, in fact, and most baddies have learned to cover up their keyholes. Stan Lee's unique genius spotted that if he could shrink small he could also grow big and that the Ant Man logo could be nicely reconfigured as Gi-Ant Man. When the joke wore off he was reconfigured as Goliath. And then Yellowjacket. I think for a while he held the record for the character with the most identities. But even "being very tall" stops being thrilling after a while. Hank Pym had a nervous break down and became a domestic abuser and it all got unnecessarily heavy. For a while, a reformed burglar named Scott Lang got to borrow the name and the shrinking powers.

The movie series puts a clever little wrinkle on the accumulated Marvel Back Story. Scott Lang became the main protagonist, and a much older Hank Pym became his mentor. And it turns out that Scott can't just shrink to insect size, but right down to subatomic level, where he can interact with what is very carefully not called the Microverse. Scott forms a romantic relationship with Hank's daughter Hope, and together they rescue Janet van Dyne from the sub-atomic universe. This generates a Pretend Family: Hank and Janet as the veteran heroes; Scott and Hope as Ant-Man and the Wasp; and Scott's daughter Cassie. Cassie was young and cute in the first movies but is now all teenaged and feisty. 

The ensemble is genuinely fun: Scott, good hearted, out of his depth, an absent father making up for lost time, unable to believe the turn his life has taken. Cassie, rebellious, concerned with Issues, tentatively reestablishing her relationship with Dad. Hank, clever but naughty, enjoying adventures, demanding strong drink in alien bars. Janet, matriarchal but strong, with a Terrible Secret about what happened to her in her exile. Hope, treading a line in between her dad and her boyfriend. They Fight Crime.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with Ant Man III. It is quite definitely a Marvel Movie. Scott and the Gang fall down a Science Rabbit hole and find themselves in the Negative Zone...sorry, the Microverse....very well if you absolutely insist, the Quantum Realm. They get split up. They meet increasingly silly aliens, one of whom is played by Chidi from the Good Place and one of whom is played by Venkman from Ghostbusters. Everyone speaks of Janet as a person of great significance. They also speak of He Who Must Not Be Named; the Conquerer. The Dark Lord has turned Hank's evil apprentice, who was shrunk down to quantum level in the first movie, into an Ultimate Weapon. MODOK, the mechanised organism designed only for killing, was originally a 1960s Captain America villain. He's pretty goofy looking, only a rung or two above Pharanx the Fighting Fetus in the Kanon of Krazy Kirby Kreations, but I don't think he quite deserved being reduced to comic relief as he is here. I am quite pleased that the effects team had a good shot at reflecting the original cartoonish design: it gives me renewed hope that any future Galactus will be something other than a cloud of purple gas.

After a lot of talking and a lot of flashbacks, it transpires that the bad guy is (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER)  Kang the Kongkerer, the Avengers Time Travelling opponent, sporting a costume very like the purple and green outfit he wears in the comic books. He's been exiled to the Quantum Realm by persons unknown for doing too much conquering, and Jan, not spotting that he's a bad guy, released him. Whoops. That's the dark secret she forgot to mention in the last two movies. But she did manage to sabotage his space ship so he can't get out of the Microverse and do any large scale naughtiness upstairs. Kang blackmails Scott into retrieving the Doohickey he needs to free himself. He says he will kill and torture Scott's daughter if he doesn't comply. There is only so far you can move away from the DNA of the source material, and damsels are there to be distressed. In fairness she whimpers "don't do it dad" quite feistily. But Hank and Jan come over the hill with some CGI cavalry, and then some more CGI cavalry; and then an end of level guardian and another end of level guardian..and well, in the end it all works out okay. But according to the final credit, Kang, like 007, "will return". The final post-cred goes a bit multiversal and a bit Alan Moore. A whole football stadium full of an infinite number of Kangs, like one of those Idea Realms populated entirely by Superman variants.

Does anyone remember a thing called Phantom Menace? A 2001 space movie. I think I reviewed it at the time. Everyone said that all the newfangled CGI stuff felt weird and a bit unreal. Huge numbers of robots and fish people and space ships, crowding the actors off the screen. One quite annoying character who was entirely computer generated and not a human at all. It felt a little bit too much like the Muppet Show. But then, Return of the Jedi already felt a little bit too much like the Muppet Show. Most people really like the Muppet Show.

It would be interesting to borrow Kang's time machine and show Ant Man III to my old friend who thought Phantom Menace had raped his childhood. It, Ant-Man, is absolutely stuffed to the effing brim with stuff. The pink balloon man who is surprised that humans have holes in their bodies. Kang's minions, who have gold-fish bowls for faces. The guy with the angle-poise lamp in his head. Giant snails, big enough for people to ride like elephants. A semi-organic space-ship that looks like a manta-ray. Walking buildings. A sentient stick of broccoli which is a very good in-joke if you are one of the sixteen people who understand it. (*)

In one very audacious scene Scott meets a copy of himself, and then another, until the whole screen is full of little Scotts. This is the Quantum realm, after all, so every time he makes a choice he generates a new version of himself. Within a few minutes he is at the top of a literal mountain of duplicates. Because what every infinite version of himself has in common with every other version is the wish to rescue his daughter.  Awww.

Look at Star Wars. No, look at Dune: the Lynch version, the TV version, or the recent cinema version. Look, if you utterly insist, at Peter Jackson's Tolkien riff. They definitely create worlds. They definitely use special effects. They are definitely visually audacious. But you never felt that Lucas or Jackson or Lynch were just chucking visual ideas at the wall and seeing what stuck.

Peyton Reed includes the ideas which didn't stick. And several hundred kitchen sinks. Orson Well's described the movies as the best train set any kid ever played with (**): this is the product of a hyperactive genius let loose in the Hornby warehouse. There is no sense of any section of the Quantum world being an actual location. No sense that we are in a secondary world. No feeling of what C.S Lewis called donegality, a consistency of imagery that builds up an emotional flavour. Nothing would be out of place there. It's a pulp magazine cover acid dream that forms a backdrop to a bog standard assault on the Death Star quest narrative, with a chirpy Paul Rudd doing sterling work at giving it some some emotional centre. (I somehow keep mentally substituting Lee Mack in Not Going Out. Now there's a pitch.) It's very pretty.  It's more like one of Ditko's magic dimensions than anything we saw in Doctor Strange. But it's just landscape. Pulp sword and sorcery was often about weird landscape and not very much else. Maybe I would have enjoyed this more if it had been three solid hours of John Carter or Thongor or Elric swinging a sword through encroaching hoards, with maybe a Bo Hansson sound track. (***)

I know that Walt Disney is the very devil incardinate, and I know that El Sandifer would be VERY CROSS with me if she knew I was still highly invested in these corporate products. But Ant Man didn't start out as a corporate product. Stan Lee became immensely rich but Ant-Man and Kang were originally created by a couple of old Jewish guys with cigars in small studios working from home, hammering out ideas which seemed cool to them and would sell to the kids or just to fill in the blank spaces between the Grit adverts. It's ironic that Stan Lee's kid brother Larry gets equal billing with Jack Kirby as "creator" when he basically wrote the speech balloons for comics that Stan had lost interest in. It may very well be that I ought not to care about Ant-Man or Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four, but as a matter of fact, I do. To that extent I sympathise deeply with people who grew up with the Evil Wizard Author. You can't rewrite your own history, and you can't tell everyone that Stories Are Important and then turn around and say that stories aren't very important when a particular writer blots her copybook. Ideally I would have spent my childhood in a cave hearing stories and folksongs from a white bearded tribal elder and taken over tribal eldering when he died. Second best would have been to have lived in a castle with walls lined with Walter Scott and back numbers of the Kalevela and regenerated into Professor Kirke or Mr Chips. As a matter of fact I grew up huddled around a black and white television and looking for 5p comic books in Mr McKinnons news agent. The Lord of the Rings remains mostly a text, and comedic corporate neuterings of the Second Age can be happily ignored. The Mouse seems still to take Star Wars fundamentally seriously: you may be watching a cartoon about a Strong Guy, a Techie Guy, a Leader Guy, a Soldier Guy and an Inappropriate Cute Kid, but you still get whole episodes about politicking in the senate. I suppose the Bad Batch caters to the fans, and you probably think that catering to the fans is bad-wrong. (Have you met the fans? Ghastly people.) A multi-trillion dollar movie has clearly got to appeal to the godless bloody heathens who don't know that Rama Tut, Kang, Immortus and possibly Doctor Doom are all the same guy. The stories which matter to me are owned by Marvel and DC and Disney and Warner Brothers, and they don't stop mattering because their corporate owners have made unethical investments. Disney+ is where Luke Skywalker lives. I suppose I could become one of those people that says that Ant-man III has CHANGED and therefore RUINED the wondrous Larry Lieber Don Heck comics I grew up with, and it is irredeemably WOKE for the Wasp to ever do anything apart from faint and go shopping. But I don't want to. 

We only perceive the universe as consisting of discrete objects because we have names for them. Take away language and all you have is a constant stream of undifferentiated stuff. Which is what some people report experiencing after eating the wrong kind of mushroom; and what a Buddhist may experience in the state called enlightenment. There is only one thing but that thing is very big. Douglas Adams talks about the whole general mish-mash. The Cantina on Tatooine is silly and whacky and built out of old magazine covers and cowboy films, but it is still the Cantina on Tatooine and not any other Cantina anywhere else. The pub bar saloon in the Quantumverse is just part of a stream of undifferentiated stuff. CGI lets you do literally everything. The doors of perception are open and the Marvel Universe appears as it really is, infinite. But "literally everything" turns out not to be a very interesting thing to do. It's pretty much indistinguishable from doing absolutely nothing. 

So. Ant-Man III. Fun movie. Go see it. 

(*) In Avengers 6 (the comic in which Captain America was first defrosted) there was a rather uninteresting sub-plot about green skinned aliens called the D'Bari. It became a fan-joke to refer to them as Broccoli heads. Years later, when Chris Claremont needed Phoenix to blow up a planet for comic effect, he showed the entire civilisation of Broccoli Heads being annihilated. So that makes the creature who literally has Broccoli on his head an in-joke about an in-joke. I smiled, very nearly.

(**) That was referenced in the Fablemans, wasn't it?

(***) Music inspired by Lord of the Rings. Swedish prog-rock, I think. A bit too niche?


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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Stephen Watson said...

I saw it last night and agree it was fun, but not as fun as the other two.

However I should point out that the area full of Kangs is the mid-credit scene. The post-credit scene is something else.

Unknown said...

And just like that, I'm back to a wet and windy Saturday afternoon desperately trying to impress a girl who would never become my friend let alone my girlfriend, by playing her Bo Hansson's Music Inspired by Lord Of The Rings. Which I haven't played since the 70s and have no desire to ever again; not because of the Trauma Of Rejection (which in hindsight was justly deserved), but because it's crap.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I have it on in the background right now. It's quite pleasant, in a trippy sort of way, but I wouldn't spot it had anything to do with Lord of the Rings if I hadn't seen the cover art.