Director: Peyton Reed
Production Company: Marvel Studios
I remember when Marvel was a comic book company, creators of sometimes-cheesy print heroes like Spiderman, Iron Man, and the Incredible Hulk. Now they are multi-billion dollar entertainment company, with enough bank revenue for Stan Lee to retire on a private Caribbean island (probably), largely thanks to the insanely popular Marvel Cinematic Universe, kickstarted back in 2008 with Robert Downey Jr.’s inimitable turn as Iron Man.
Superheroes have never been more popular. According to Wikipedia, the first true ‘superhero’ movie was The Mark of Zorro, back in 1920. I would argue that Zorro isn’t quite superhero material, but Batman is, and made his first big screen debut played by Adam West in 1966 (based on the still-amazing TV series). However, I would argue that the true age of comic book superhero movies started in 1978, with Richard Donner‘s Superman. To this day, there is something profoundly memorable about Christopher Reeve‘s portrayal as the Man of Steel, and Donner truly captured the essence of the comics.
What Marvel have managed to do … since Iron Man … is nothing short of astounding.
In this regard, DC Comics truly reigned supreme for the first decade and a half, with 1989’s Batman introducing us to the darker side of comics (one could hardly argue there is much darkness in Adam West), despite the sequels becoming increasingly cringeworthy. Superman and Batman, already the bread and butter of the comic book world, triumphed in the cinematic universe, and Marvel remained sidelined as a second-rate imitator (the same year as Tim Burton‘s Batman, Marvel’s The Punisher was released direct to video).
The mid-to-late nineties then became a dead zone, dotted sparsely with independent gems such as The Crow and Judge Dredd (though this last was surprisingly superseded by 2012’s Dredd). This all changed in 2000, with the release of X-Men. To everyone’s surprise, Marvel’s joint venture with 20th Century Fox resulted in a superhero movie that was not only laden with excellent special effects and action set-pieces, but remarkably homely in its story, playing with character’s emotions and motivations more than anyone might have guessed, while remaining faithful to the comic book origins. Over the following eight years, Marvel released no less than fourteen superhero/comic book adaptations of varying successes, with the X-Men franchise rooted squarely in the center.
But then things changed a little. In 2005, the rights to a live-action version of a lesser-known (to the world) superhero was returned to Marvel, after nearly fifteen years of unsuccessful development. Bolstered by their successes (and their laden coffers) from the early 2000s, Marvel went on to self-finance Iron Man, which rapidly became one of the highest-grossing superhero movies of all time. And thus the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born.
What Marvel have managed to do in the seven years since Iron Man was released is nothing short of astounding. By choosing to create their own movie production department, rather than rely on the whims of big-name studio directors, they could steer the direction of the films where they wanted. And what’s ended up happening is, in many ways, the closest comic books have ever come to being replicated on film. Not only are Marvel’s staple heroes finally enjoying their time in the limelight, but Marvel had the incredible foresight to plan out an unbelievable 20+ feature films, short films and TV series, all of which connect to each other. This is something that had rarely, if ever, been done in cinema: a series of stand-alone films that nonetheless support and reinforce each other.
At first, it was nothing more than flippant references that the average movie-goer would miss entirely; since most people don’t bother to stay until the end of the credits, many would have missed the reference to the Avengers—a full four years before the eponymous movie would be released. Of course, the first phase of this cinematic universe (as it’s come to be known) was really about setting the pieces in place: even the first Avengers movie was really about uniting the superheroes for the sake of further adventures.
After The Avengers in 2012, we start to see that the films aren’t really stand-alone movies at all; Iron Man 3 is more of a sequel to The Avengers than it is to the previous two Iron Man films. Thor: The Dark World takes on the direct consequences of the plot of The Avengers, and even Captain America: The Winter Soldier plays of the events of this ensemble movie, although it remains closer to a direct sequel than the others.
Then came Avengers: Age of Ultron, which reunites the heroes in the face of a self-made disaster. Although Age of Ultron is billed as being the closer for the second phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s really the set-up for everything that’s to come: phase three, which will see Spiderman finally brought into the fold of the Avengers, and quite possibly a collaboration between the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy.
And after all of this, we are left with Ant-Man, the most recent release in this epic universe of film. I went to see it this weekend with Little Satis and Mrs. Satis, and although it was very much enjoyable, it starts to show the signs of this no longer being about stand-alone films. It would be difficult, I think, to watch Ant-Man alone without the context of the wider world in which it takes place. So many references to other films are made that it would be someone confusing to the uninitiated. And in a way, Marvel seem to accept this: starting with Doctor Strange next year, rumor has it that the subsequent films will no long contain origin-stories; rather, the characters will be introduced fully-fledged as existing superheroes.
In this regard, I can’t give Ant-Man quite a raving review. It has action; it has emotion. It has all the hallmarks of a deftly-woven superhero pop story, with a thematic core that is nearly cliché at this point. The science involved is also pretty flimsy. It’s believable that a man could build a flying suit; slightly less so that radiation could turn someone into a raging hulk. I can buy a genetically-altering serum for creating super soldiers, and of course Thor’s a god, so anything goes. But a suit that relies on a serum that relies on a particle that shrinks the distance between atoms? I just don’t know. To top it off, the reasoning is that Ant-Man has the strength—and weight—of a full-grown man at an ant’s size, yet fails to crush the ant he rides on. My suspension of disbelief is starting to unravel … just a touch.
We’ll see where Marvel takes this next. I’m looking forward to Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, and of course the final Avengers movies should be epic, even if their plot has a hole the size of the sun. But don’t expect to understand the films fully anymore as they are; more context is going to be needed going forward. To that extent, I highly recommend you go back to Iron Man, and relive just how groundbreaking that movie truly was.