Resizing heroes could be back. And not before time. As a sub genre within science fiction and the fantastical, resizing fiction’s range and quality has provided exceptionally imaginative worlds from it’s birthings in literature with Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels through to film with Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man to Irwin Allen’s Land Of The Giants for TV. But movies have for too long been missing tricks large and small in practically ignoring the imaginative utility that this cross sub genre has to offer. Which is why Ant-Man, whilst not a film that redefines in any way, nonetheless feels like a substantial enough shift away from what has become in the superhero genre a laboured and predictable foundation for telling stories.
Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man is very good, but not quite great, and one can’t help thinking that had it’s original director, Edgar Wright, not fallen into “creative differences” with the big boys at Marvel, this film would almost certainly have been the latter. Scene upon scene feels like a room in which Wright has just left. It’s a movie that seemingly bounces along very nicely on the echoes of an original vision that is tantalisingly close but ultimately realised through eleventh-hour manoeuvres in the shapes of it’s new director and additional scribes.
But while Ant-Man suffers only marginally from fulfilling maximum potential, it provides much in the way of damn good movie making. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) hit rate has been phenomenal over the preceding decade and the current ‘phrase craze’ (of which Ant-Man is the latest and last within the Phase Two canon) is arguably the leading and largest franchise in recent cinematic history. That said, there is ample evidence to suggest that an ever drying formula is ever so slightly rounding an already smooth edge. Not so with Ant-Man. With the exception of 2014’s brilliant Guardians Of The Galaxy, there is much to distinguish it from pretty much everything Marvel has chosen to lift from the comic page and assign extra dimensional status.
The universe in which Marvel’s ‘Super’s’ are simultaneously destroying and in most cases just about saving are immediately recognisable to us. One might argue that Thor’s Asgard, Thor (2011), with all of it’s chintzy aesthetic, is sufficiently removed from the now laboured ‘earth city somewhere’ environments that seem to double up as climactic battleground kapow fests. But even Asgard plays by the fundamental rules of a proportional universe, with the exception of the haircuts. Ant-Man goes further. Much further. Here, the superhero’s immediate and far off universe is simultaneously macro, micro and quantum, and this very quickly helps the film stand out among the others.
A new kind of attention to detail is being made. In this case the detail is environment. Resizing brings with it formidable landscapes, and the worlds – macro/micro/sub atomic – that Ant-Man has to negotiate make for a much more compelling journey. And within each, classical tropes and themes (The Quest, Voyage and Return etc) are simultaneously at work. Ant-Man, like Gulliver, Alice (Wonderland), Carey (Shrinking Man) et al, is at some time or another coping, failing, learning and succeeding as a hero in a universe that compromises only on it’s own terms. Strangers in a strange land. The irony here of course is that the mundane becomes alien by virtue of it becoming literally too familiar – too large or too small and in the case of Ant-Man, when he’s resized for the quantum, too obscure.
One hopes that Ant-Man will now see in the gradual return of such ideas within movies. Larger, smaller and ultimately braver worlds in which to test it’s heroes.