Can’t, Man

Let’s start with a branding exegesis:

Marvel’s introductory pre-movie credit sequence perfectly reflects the undue artistic pressure the studio imposes on their hired hands.

Sorry, on their “filmmakers”.

Stretching at least 30 seconds (it honestly feels longer in the theatre while waiting for the impending boredom), this little animated montage shuffles through (get it? LIKE COMIC BOOK PAGES?!?! Marvel is many things, but subtle is not one of them) their litany of lucrative characters. The extreme length of this insignificant addition almost seems like an admission of the obvious on Marvel’s part: “You’re not here for the screenwriterS (god forbid they’re willing to trust only ONE writer!). You’re not here for the director. You’re here for US. You’re here for the exact same formula we’ve perfected, AKA pounded into submission, over the last ten years.”

The artists first entrusted to introduce these would-be-franchises to audiences a decade ago were undeniably legitimate artists — seducing us with an inviting hello is harder than maintaining interest, at least in the short-term. Though Marvel still hires talented folks, they’re just not granted the same level of artistic freedom. Thus, they can’t really be labeled as filmmakers, since they’re not the ones actually making the movies. Instead, in recent years, Marvel’s been factory-producing its (I usually prefer to refer to companies in the plural sense, since they’re really just collections of individuals. But for the automated Marvel? It will suffice) output like a television series, with the multiple installments per year acting like overly-long episodes. Despite technically boasting different names in the credits, they’re all, for the most part, aesthetically, structurally, and dramatically the same.     

As much as I resent Marvel for feeding — and, in my opinion, perpetuating — the infantile fanboy fandom of audiences the world over, and reshaping Hollywood around that image, most of their products are, admittedly, competent. For all of us chaps who prefer some individuality in their art, they’re boring…but still competent. Even the recent standouts from their overbearing norm aren’t as revolutionary as their press spin would have you believe. Thor 3’s eye-popping tonal visuals and Black Panther’s sociopolitically-resonant script overcame studio pressure to normalize everything, but even wunderkinds like Thor’s Taika Waititi and Black Panther’s Ryan Coogler couldn’t avoid, respectively, a formulaic narrative structure and a blasé visual palette.

Marvel’s outings should be judged on a sliding scale, evaluated within the current context of Hollywood’s commercial landscape, which Marvel — and, for that matter, Disney — basically molded. We should assess the quality of each offering with respect to these questions: how much smaller-fare — which studios would more frequently green-light back in the day —  could be funded with the marketing budget alone of, and could play on the screens occupied by, Ant-Man and the Wasp?

Maybe it’s just my growing fatigue with the economic equation that churns out profitable results lacking in personal artistry, but Ant-Man and the Wasp can barely even qualify as competent; it’s the epitome of heartlessly going through the motions. It’s just so flat, fruitlessly searching for a novel utilization of the concept’s potential which even the superior first didn’t come close to fully actualizing. Much of the blame lies on the shoulders of, well, no shoulders. There’s no personal touch on display anywhere, no mark of a living, breathing, flesh-and-blood creator, no self expression other than a yearning to appease the sycophant viewers. Without a guiding hand, the insipidness — movies that can afford so much can’t afford such bland point-and-shoot cinematography — is made even worse by the beats lacking organic flow, courtesy of the choppy editing. Welcome to filmmaking by committee.

Only Michael Pena manages to elevate the shoddy material (what a waste of Michelle Pfeiffer, who’s barely onscreen). But the cast is by no means to blame for the dullness, which infects nearly every component here, right on down to the clunky, rigid suits, bearing unfortunate shades of Willem Dafoe’s infamous Green Goblin costume from the first Spider-Man. Basically, they look like glorified action figures.

In the movie’s defense, maybe that handmade artifice is intended, since the credits are little dioramas of the movie’s biggest scenes, recreated with action-figure depictions of the main players and set pieces. But…like…why not animate more of the movie like that?! Craft a story that justifies animated segments! The credits alone have more charm than the rest (the definition of way too little, so late).

Ant-Man and the Wasp isn’t all bad; it transcends and even defies Marvel’s crushing tropes in certain ways. Instead of forcing these superheroes to save the world, they’re merely on a quest to the Quantum Realm (don’t ask) to save a loved one. The lower stakes are pretty refreshing, even if the powers-that-be fail to mine the rescue-mission genre for the sort of goofy pulp dripping from the title (which is only missing an exclamation point to finish the effect).

Though the obligatory extended-climax somewhat captures the genre’s signature thrill induced by multiple parties, in pursuit of the heist’s desired object, descending on the final battle at once, and even though the shrinking-car device hints at the only trace of the imaginative fun of life-in-miniature from the first’s toy-train chase — which wouldn’t be possible if the movie had adhered to my following suggestion — but why not just place the whole story in the Quantum Realm, the only tidbits of any visual splendor (or maybe I just wanted more time with Pfeiffer, since that’s where she’s relegated throughout)? If you’re going to punish us with relentless CGI, go ALL-IN!!!

(But maybe hold off on digitally youthifying the older actors; just hire younger alternatives for these brief scenes. Trust me, it’s creepy. Not everything should be left to post, dudes. It’s almost like everyone involved with these spectacles believes that people are only paying to see what’s created in post-production, instead of post-production merely enhancing what’s already on the page).

So much of Ant-Man just isn’t trying. There’s such blatant exposition in parts that it’s almost like Marvel stopped exerting even a modicum of effort to hide its crude mechanics. I mean, why bother? As long as we keep lumbering to the theater like sheep, they’ll keep shitting out diminishing returns. Maybe if we stop bothering, they’ll start bothering to care about more than printing money.

So to Ant-Man — and the rest of Marvel’s toy chest, most of whom are featured in the aforementioned pre-credit sequence — I just can’t do it anymore. I just can’t, man.

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