I’m writing for Threat Quality Press as well now. I’ll be focusing on articles that deal with politics and social critique. Obviously, I write a lot about film, but I’ve also worked as a campaign manager, PAC fundraiser, poll model consultant, and legislative aide.
I like considering the implications of many kinds of storytelling, and too often we use polls to develop inaccurate storylines that are nothing but fables. These can be harmful and can train voters to look at politics from inauthentic angles. To me, that’s a danger. I explain why in my piece for Threat Quality Press.
Hey, you! Stop believing polls. Stop it! Stop using them to argue for your candidate or against another. Stop using them to create underdog narratives about a candidate getting 20% of the vote, or stories about an insurmountable lead by a candidate getting 20% of the vote.
Why harp on creating narratives from polls when you could be talking about the issues your candidate supports instead?
Why should you ignore the polls? Because until it starts to matter, and actual voting is around the corner, polls don’t gauge any true reflection of reality. If they did, we’d be talking about the successor to President Herman Cain right now.
Increasingly, pollsters have created a cottage industry of building narratives for the publications and news networks to which they’re attached. Those publications and news networks ignore what’s…
The big story of the weekend is that you should avoid the Fantastic Four reboot at all costs, but what should you see instead? Consider psychological thriller The Gift.
Its premise seems familiar on the surface. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move to California, close to where he grew up. An awkward former classmate of Simon’s, named Gordo (Joel Edgerton), thrusts himself into their lives with a cloying and creepy attachment. One thing leads to another, and pretty soon Simon and Robyn are terrified by Gordo. Yet The Gift holds more secrets than your average Cape Fear knockoff. It’s a tightly wound thriller of well-paced deceptions and reveals that holds moments of real fright and disturbing vengeance.
The Gift works so very well because control over its plot evolves from one act to the next. Doing this in a spoiler-free way, during the first act, Simon is making the decisions. He’s the one who guides the direction of the story. The most important element is also the most subtle: Robyn acts out of a need to fill many of the expected roles of a wife to Simon. Yet the viewer can catch blink-and-you’ll-miss-them instances that point toward Simon bullying her. He feeds her those expectations and controls her through them. She’s restless, but she doesn’t know why.
The second act is entirely Robyn’s, and it’s the most compelling. She’s paranoid and trapped in her own home, but it’s not just because of Gordo – it’s also because of the subtle pressures Simon exerts over her life. She confronts her own doubts and begins to uncover hidden truths about Simon as well.
I’ll refrain from divulging anything about the third act except to say it’s all about Gordo realizing his control. This makes for a disturbing ending that doesn’t play to any familiar expectations. The final twist is not one that you’ll guess. That’s a rare feat in cinema.
Its twist is clever because it’s right in front of you the whole time, but it’s also a jolt. Suddenly, the film is making the viewer do the work, hiding answers and forcing the viewer to create their own from whichever truth they decide to put faith in. Since most of the film is about revealing truth and getting closer to being whole, the film gives you an option of what to believe in the end. Is it a story of physical brutality, or psychological manipulation, or of discovering freedom? Only Ex Machina this year has created such a complex and challenging ending, although Ex Machina was much clearer on what homework exactly it wants the audience to take home.
Here’s where the audience will split. For those expecting a more traditional horror movie, a deliberate slow burner might not possess the right kind of big events. There’s creep factor to The Gift, and two of the most effective jump scares I’ve experienced, but this is squarely in psychological thriller territory, not pure horror.
For those wanting a psychological suspense piece with a lot of character, this is your film. It gets inside your head very well, and it keeps you guessing throughout. Its ideas are disturbing and play off the paranoid inferences our own minds start creating everywhere.
All three leads deliver superb performances. Bateman is most famous for Arrested Development, but he shows a skill for subtlety and misdirection here I didn’t expect. He has a scene two-thirds through the film that is perhaps the best moment of his career. Rebecca Hall (The Town) powers through films and has a knack for characters who feel real and accessible. Her role is quieter yet more demanding than the two men. Edgerton (Ramses in Exodus: Gods and Kings) also wrote and directed the film. You can see why he cast himself as Gordo. He’s note perfect, making a small role cast a large and toxic shadow across the rest of the film.
The three fuse and play off each other exceedingly well. Explaining the talent each actor displays on their own doesn’t quite express the devious synergy at play between them. It’s a perfect trio for this kind of film, each one charming, guarded, and needy in turn, one pulling for something the minute another pushes.
One day, The Gift will make a vicious double-feature with Gone Girl. Re-watching the trailer, I’m also impressed that half the things you’re about to see are red herrings:
Yes. Rebecca Hall plays Robyn. Allison Tolman plays Lucy. The awesomely named Busy Philipps plays Duffy. Mirrah Foulkes plays Wendy Dale. Katie Aselton plays Joan. Melinda Allen plays a real estate agent, although she remains unnamed.
Do they talk to each other?
About something other than a man?
This clearly and easily passes the Bechdel Test. It’s also interesting because so much of what Robyn speaks to her friends about results from the subtle pressures Simon puts on her to fulfill the stereotypical role of a wife. Robyn says she wants to have a family, and she feels it in a removed way, but you never get the idea that she’s made the decision about it. It’s what she wants because Simon puts pressure on her to want it.
The movie’s acts are broken up by scenes of Robyn jogging, yet this seems less for her than it does as a way of releasing something she can’t understand or deal with herself. In fact, the only times she seems to be herself are when she’s around Gordo. She objects to Simon shutting Gordo out of their lives completely, but she allows Simon to bully both her and Gordo into acquiescing to his desires.
It creates a dynamic where Robyn is concerned with stereotypical gender roles not as a self-fulfilling desire, but rather as one that fulfills Simon. Part of the reason why the ending is troublesome on the surface is because Robyn is turned into something to be possessed in the third act. Of course, this isn’t the movie’s commentary on women – it’s a commentary on how Simon views the world and how Gordo can punish Simon. It’s a commentary on men. That doesn’t change the fact that women might suffer in order to make that commentary.
It’s difficult and something of a slippery slope that will inspire a wide range of opinion, but I will say that The Gift finds a way to make many perceived realities into conjectures on the parts of different characters. You really can’t be sure walking out what does or doesn’t happen, or the degree to which someone did or didn’t suffer. In this way, The Gift has its cake and eats it, too.
The implications of all this are right there on-screen, so even if it’s cruel, it’s cruel in order to call out the toxic masculinity that Jason Bateman’s Simon exhibits. Counter-programming Bateman and Edgerton into roles that might make more sense with the casting reversed also serves to exhibit how that toxic masculinity can hide itself in many forms, not just the obvious mustache-twirling, evil villain, film versions. In many ways, The Gift lets you decide just how cruel you want its truth to be, and it forces you into a place where deciding either way is a form of cruelty on the part of the viewer. Do you want to believe in violent, paranoid cruelty or everyday, mundane cruelty?
For that, it relies on Rebecca Hall to thread a needle in a performance that will not be praised as much as Bateman’s and Edgerton’s skilled-yet-showier roles. Hall’s performance offers a third argument: the rejection of both forms of cruelty. In the end, what you walk out of the theater believing may belie your own presumptions and those presumptions that are reinforced by storytelling themes that are repeated in other media ad nauseum. That’s where the genius of The Gift lies, in all senses of the term.
Most will walk out seeing it from Simon’s or Gordo’s perspective, believing in one or the other’s presented truths. To believe in either is to put your faith in victimizers who simply operate on flip-sides of the same coin. Some will walk out recognizing a third route in Robyn’s, a conclusion that must rely on one or the other of the male truths, yet that still exists as its own reality going forward.
The Gift doesn’t say all this or handle it as perfectly as it could – it’s a clear notch below movies like Ex Machina and Gone Girl in how expertly it throws the audience between different perspectives. Yet it does have its own unique way of forcing the audience into a corner, of making us take the homework of thinking and thinking and thinking about it home with us in a way few movies do. That rarity is something special, and it’s unique in many ways to, as David Fincher once put it, “Movies that scar.”
The Gift is very unfair, and that’s the point. It’s left to the audience to decide just how fair its reality is, and how fair everything is after the credits roll, both in the movie’s world and in our own.
Every once in a while, there’s an action movie you breathe your way out of as the credits roll. You’ve been smiling the last several minutes and maybe you hadn’t even realized you were holding your breath. You’re also charged – your adrenaline’s spiking and you feel like you could do a thousand ill-advised stunts just like the action heroes on screen did. The Matrix is the poster child of this post-movie syndrome. Millions of viewers in 1999 hoped that someone would try to engage them in a kung fu battle in the theater’s parking lot. The Bourne Ultimatum made us feel like we could race across rooftops and earlier this year, Mad Max: Fury Road made passengers across America shout for exhilarated drivers to stop hairpinning every turn as if they were being chased by post-apocalyptic Viking dune buggies.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is not just the best of the Mission: Impossible films, it’s also one of the better spy movies you may ever see. There are larger than life action sequences, but the film lives and breathes its complicated spy world like none of the other Mission: Impossible films have. Each movie in this series has been an action movie first and a spy movie second. Rogue Nation reverses this trend. It ramps up the film’s spy elements without losing the breakneck action. Moreover, there are fewer technological gimmicks – Rogue Nation is a film about play and counter-play, about plots buried within plots and the personalities behind them clashing and manipulating each other.
The hallmark of the Mission: Impossible franchise is getting to see nearly every element of a well-orchestrated plan go wrong at some point. The team has to adjust on the fly. Rogue Nation remembers this, but evokes it in some different ways.
As Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his spy agency the IMF are shut down by Congress, he has to pursue a burgeoning terrorist organization without much help. Where predecessor Ghost Protocol found mileage by pairing Cruise with Jeremy Renner’s William Brandt, Rogue Nation makes a riskier gambit. Cruise is paired with Simon Pegg’s Benji for a good portion of the film. Benji isn’t just there for comic relief; he’s an agent in his own right by this point. Pegg’s impeccable timing and irreverent attitude bring a fuller human being out of Cruise this time around. Pegg’s presence allows Cruise to be less perfect, more flawed. It’s an unexpectedly enjoyable screen pairing.
The previous “best” in the series, Ghost Protocol let the viewer into the chaos even as a plan unfolded. The tension in a spy sequence relied on how our heroes were going to find ways to help each other as everything around them broke down. Rogue Nation takes a different tack by hiding several characters’ real motivations from the viewer. The tension arises from how our heroes may find ways to betray each other. It’s a fun inversion that takes particular advantage of Jeremy Renner’s skill at being such a good wet blanket.
There are two big names to know here. The first is Rebecca Ferguson. She plays Ilsa Faust, who is Ethan’s equal as an agent. This isn’t the James Bond style of “equal,” meaning she’s equal insofar as it takes to turn her into a romantic conquest. No, she is essentially as good a fighter, as good a shot, as good a driver, and as clever a spy as Ethan is. She’s also the heart of the plot, something of a quadruple agent by the time the story’s done.
This brings up the second name: Christopher McQuarrie. He directed and wrote the screenplay. You may not know him, but he once won an Oscar for writing The Usual Suspects. It was a complex crime thriller with practical style and storytelling. For inspiration, Rogue Nation hearkens back to that practical style, as well as the first Mission: Impossible film. McQuarrie has a talent for creating incredibly complex and ever-evolving stories, but he uses considerable behind-the-scenes wizardry to present a classy, raw-yet-polished style that’s free of needless flash. Audiences can easily keep up with and enjoy the complicated spy shenanigans.
We may not all be Tom Cruise fans – there are things to admire and despise about the actor himself. If you’re going to watch any recent Tom Cruise movie, this is the one to see. There’s not much ego to the film. It’s also a Rebecca Ferguson and a Simon Pegg movie. While it’s a very good action film, it’s a truly thrilling spy movie. You probably won’t see anything else like it this year.
1. Does Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation have more than one woman in it?
Yes and no. Outside Rebecca Ferguson, there is a speaking role for Hermione Corfield, but the technically correct version of this question requires more than one named woman. Corfield plays “Record Shop Girl.” A few henchmen (but still not enough) are played by women, which is refreshing, and Jingchu Zhang plays Lauren, but her role is brief and I don’t think she’s ever named in the film, just on the IMDB page.
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
Moot point if the previous answer is a no.
This is an interesting one because it goes in all directions at once, both good and bad. Paula Patton and Maggie Q were sought to reprise their roles from the fourth and third movies, much as Renner, Pegg, and Ving Rhames reprise their roles. Patton couldn’t do it because of her lead role in the Warcraft movie, while Maggie Q was filming the lead role in the now-canceled TV show Stalker.
One can be informed by what happens behind-the-scenes – I can understand why they didn’t want to introduce additional team members beyond the ones we already know. At the same time, one also has to judge by what’s on the screen, and Rogue Nation fails the Bechdel Test pretty hard.
The Bechdel Test is part of an equation, not the whole thing. It’s refreshing to see a woman who’s neither a love interest nor a junior member to the team here. Ilsa being Ethan’s equal is stressed, and Ferguson carries the action scenes incredibly well across multiple fights. On the who-saves-who scorecard, Ethan comes out owing Ilsa pretty considerably.
The film does focus on Rebecca Ferguson scantily dressed in at least three scenes. There is some level of lusting the other direction, however, as Tom Cruise is presented to us shirtless and still in better shape than most of America. It’s certainly not equal lusting. The male gaze is served much more than the female gaze. I give credit to the film for not forcing a romance between the 31 year-old Ferguson and the 53 year-old Cruise. It could have diminished the notion that she’s his equal if done wrong (most films do this wrong), as well as disrespecting the narrative of Ethan’s own complicated, still-in-love-with Michelle Monaghan backstory from the third and fourth films.
Take all of that into account. Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa is my second favorite movie badass of any gender this year after Charlize Theron’s Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road. The difference is that Furiosa was allowed to be a badass without being sexualized according to the male gaze the way Ilsa is. It’s also awkward because, given her role in the film, Ilsa doesn’t need to be so sexualized.
The end result is something complicated: there’s a positively portrayed, talented, professional woman who can spy, fight, drive, and do all the things Tom Cruise does without having to fall for him. She’s his complete equal plot-wise, but not always according to the film’s camera. At times, she’s still hyper-sexualized in a way not necessitated by the plot but that serves the male gaze in the audience. I don’t find myself angry at Rogue Nation the way I am at some films that do this. Whether that’s because Ilsa is presented so equally otherwise, or because my opinion’s been compromised by the tendencies of my own gaze, it’s difficult to tell.
Trying to return Patton and Maggie Q along with the franchise’s other actors is a positive, but not one that shows up on screen or that can be communicated to most audiences. Regardless, ending up with so few women in the film is a big negative. That Ferguson’s Ilsa is presented so capably is a big positive. That Ferguson’s Ilsa is sexualized by the camera in a way that she isn’t by the plot or through her characterization is a negative. Given the state of the industry as a whole when it comes to women, do the negatives outweigh the positives? Given the lack of strong women characters, does having that one positive outweigh the negatives? This time, I can’t really tell. There’s a lot missing from Rogue Nation in the way of women, but what it does have in Ferguson’s Ilsa is missing from a lot of the industry. This section isn’t always meant for judgment, certainly not as much as it’s meant for information. If it were meant for judgment, I would find mine pretty obscured this time out.
Tom Cruise is intriguing to me because of the number of different phases his own career has gone through – he once turned down a record-setting contract to star in Top Gun 2 so he could play second fiddle to Paul Newman and Dustin Hoffman. He was an up-and-coming character actor. He followed Mission: Impossible and Jerry Maguire with Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia. He delivered dynamite films with Steven Spielberg.
He grew up destitute, abused by his father, and attended 15 different schools. Should I admire his success in the face of such odds? He’s member to what many people think of as a cult. He’s been accused of spying on an ex-wife. Katie Holmes left him overnight to keep their child from Scientology. Should I hate him?
The truth of his character may lie somewhere in the middle, and it’s intriguing to trace the path of that career over his best performances – how they reflect his goals as an actor, how they reflect our interactions with his films. I always say, I avoid making lists unless there are greater points at hand. I do my best to get at a few here:
Recently, I wrote a piece at Article Cats about the burgeoning popularity of nation simulation. This takes a number of different forms. Some of it involves YouTube videos where users predict the future borders of countries as they break apart and assimilate each other.
A far more organized version takes place around strategy games, where game A.I.s will compete as different countries and cultures and fans will argue over who will eventually win. By now, this comes with leagues, play-by-play analysis, and color commentaries by analysts. It’s a sport, but it’s also a clash of cultural fandom. Read my full article at AC:
Over at Glamour, Jillian Kramer wrote an advice column called “13 Little Things That Can Make a Man Fall Hard for You.” Obviously, it’s chock full of wonderful advice, and I had so many thoughts in response to it that I can’t help but share them. I’ll list her thoughts in bold, and then mine:
Glamour: “1. Stocking the fridge with his favorite drinks. Bonus points: Bring him back to his fraternity days by handing him a cold one as he steps out of the shower.”
Great, now I have to put this beer back in the fridge. I’ll get the floor all wet if I do it now before I dry off, but if I don’t, then I’ll forget it in the bathroom and have warm, bathroom beer that nobody wants because it’ll be known from now on as that bottle of warm beer that got left in the bathroom.
Glamour: “2. Making him a snack after sex. It doesn’t have to be a gourmet meal – a simple grilled cheese or milk and cookies will do.”
Omelettes with cheese and peas are the best…but everyone except for me (and LL Cool J in Deep Blue Sea) is brainwashed into thinking that you have to add milk when you scramble your eggs, which makes no sense whatsoever and cuts the taste of the eggs themselves. And don’t steam the peas because that’s going to make them release water when you bite into them, and nobody wants a watery omelette. Sautee them in butter with just a little bit of browning – in fact, go back to bed, relax, and find a good show you enjoy. I’ll deliver you a late night snack in bed in 10 minutes.
Glamour: “3. Emailing him the latest online gossip about his favorite TV show. You don’t have to have a BFF at HBO. Just share applicable links from your Twitter feed and pat yourself on the back.”
No. God no. My job is as a critic. That’s why I have researchers and editors and cowriters.
E-mail me about the things that interest you, because you know what I don’t know about? Those shows I never watch that you think I should. Convince my ass to watch them. Or be like, “Here’s the latest online gossip about this hike that we should go on instead of watching TV all the time. If you forget the bug spray, I’ll kill you.” That’s hot.
Glamour: “4. Bragging about him to your friends, family, the stranger on the street corner – whomever. Proclamations of pride will make his chest puff out and his heart swell.”
This would get weird fast. Especially the stranger on the street corner; why are you giving out personal information about me to people on street corners?
Everyone likes to have good things said about them, but if it’s not natural or it’s one-sided or you’re sitting up late at night to come up with new wonderful things to say about me like it’s homework, then I have officially become school and you saying nice things about me has turned into your having to handwrite the Preamble to the Constitution 20 times because a teacher heard you say a cuss word and all of a sudden our relationship is essentially a form of 7th-grade social studies and you’re the student looking at the clock all day and I’m only sticking with this gig because I don’t want to lose my union benefits.
Glamour: “5. Answering the door in a negligee – or, better yet, naked.”
I mean, like, for the mailman? That wouldn’t make me happy. That wouldn’t make me happy at all. How long have you been seeing the mailman? Were you going to tell me about this? Were you – oh god no – were you going to send me a letter about it? Was he going to deliver it? Was he going to deliver the letter wearing a negligee in order to make me happy? WHY HAVE YOU CO-OPTED THE UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE AGAINST ME?!?
Glamour: “6. Being open to what he wants to try in the bedroom and out. An open mind is attractive no matter your playground.”
Well, sure, but that should go both ways. Like, if you’re all like, “Let’s try this crazy thing,” and I’m all like, “Oh god, no, hide the butter!” then let’s talk about it first. And if you’re like, “I’m not in the mood, let’s watch Netflix,” and I’m like, “Oh god no whyyyyy?” isn’t it keeping an open mind on my part if I respect what you want just as much as you respect what I want, and we watch one of the things you’ve been e-mailing me about instead. Wait…why are we watching The Postman Always Rings Twice ???
Glamour: “7. Letting him help solve your petty work problem. Many men don’t do gossip, but they do like to fix things.”
Yeah, news flash – men gossip. We’re just societally trained to gossip about sports and TV shows instead of, say, the interpersonal relationships that effect your life and career on a daily basis. You’re trained to call such important things “petty” when you write advice columns. But yeah, learn to enable my not dealing with emotion by asking me to solve problems that are part of your life while pretending the ones in mine all revolve around football. That’s sure the recipe for something healthy. Awesome segue:
Glamour: “8. Spitting out sports stats for his favorite team. Showing an interest in his favorite players will earn you points on and off the field.”
Oh, you know about Person X? Awesome, let me use your moment of rote memorization as an excuse to monologue at you for the next 30 minutes about all the things you’ve heard me say about sports 20 times before but that you’ll politely listen to me say again while you imagine tearing your hair out by the roots and shoving it down my throat. By the way, have you heard of our lord and savior Tom Brady?
Glamour: “9. Making a big deal of his favorite meal. Does he like hot dogs cut up into his boxed mac-and-cheese? Serve it on a fancy tray in bed to really see him smile.”
Boxed mac-and-cheese is a pristine experience. Maybe if it’s Annie’s Mexican, you cut up some fresh avocado into it, but that’s as far as I’m willing to go. I mean, I’m willing to experiment, but this is Macaroni and Cheese we’re talking about, have some respect. Plus…hot dogs. Cut up? In bed? Is that like a metaphor or something? Oh god, find 5 exits and rank them according to likelihood of escape in case she comes back with a knife. Freud was right about everything! Dear Tom Brady, I know I haven’t prayed to you in three days, but…
Glamour: “10. Treating his friends as well as you treat your own. If you win their affections, you’ll win his heart.”
As opposed to what, treating his friends worse than you treat your own? Is this how to “Make a Man Fall Hard for You” or is this “Not Being Keith Olbermann on a Daily Basis?”
Glamour: “11. Sitting side-by-side while he watches his favorite TV. It may not feel like quality time to you, but it’s the best time to him.”
No, it’s not. Look, if I’m not capable of watching TV on my own without feeling like I’m being ignored, then I’m probably not old enough to be dating. Let’s find something we both like watching – there are only 8 million TV shows on, or we can watch one thing you like and one thing I like, or I’ll leave the light on while I watch this so you can knit or play video games or study or do your lifting regimen.
Glamour: “12. Giving him a massage – happy ending completely optional. In fact, a foot rub works just fine.”
Hi, I’m the magazine Glamour, and this week in our “Things to do in a relationship” column, we’re going to recommend – listen closely now: sex. You may have heard of it, but we’re pretending the column is educational this week, so instead we’ll be coy and use language to tell women what to do that’s often reserved to describe brothels! How exciting. Next week, we’ll tell you what a good hourly rate is. Listen to all our good advice!
Glamour: “13. Taking him back to third grade-”
OK, wait, stop- what? Did you just read what you recommended in #12? And you’re going to start the next tip with “Taking him back to third grade.” OK. Sure. Let’s see where this goes:
“13. Taking him back to third grade with a gentle tease over anything from how you’ll dominate him on the basketball court to the weird way he just styled his hair.”
Hi, I’m the magazine Glamour, and this week in our “Ways to Flirt” column, we’re going to recommend flirting. You may have heard that flirting is a key component to flirting, but when flirting, please remember that flirting is involved in flirting.
The other way to take this is that they’re recommending that women start negging, which isn’t really equalizing as much as the suggestion that men stop negging might be.
Also, if you can dominate him on the basketball court, then please do it so that stupid articles like this thing from Glamour can stop reinforcing gender stereotypes that demand women hide their physicality, minds, and emotions behind trained behavior that makes everybody more dependent, less honest, and less interesting.
None of this is to call out Jillian Kramer as a writer. Looking at her articles at Glamour, she sneaks meaningful ones into the relationship listicles she’s required to write. That’s just the nature of the modern writer. My problem is with the perspective offered in her article, not with the writer herself, because that perspective is backwards, harmful, and needs to disappear.
Ant-Man is not the best Marvel movie by a long shot, but it does contain the best Marvel superhero yet. In a universe that prizes heroes who hit things really hard with a mechanical suit, hit things really hard with a magic hammer, and turn green to hit things even harder, we have a superhero whose abilities are shrinking to the size of a flea and communicating with ants.
This still involves hitting things a whole lot, but it also involves seeing two ways to tackle every problem – full-size and nearly microscopic. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a recently released burglar. With a felony on his record, he can’t seem to find work, and he needs a job in order to convince his ex-wife to let him see his daughter. Needless to say, it’s only a matter of time before he returns to a life of crime.
Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) has hidden a secret for decades – the science behind extreme miniaturization. He used to suit up as Ant-Man, a superhero who used this science to infiltrate military bases around the world. Since retired, he needs someone skilled in thievery to take on the mantle of Ant-Man and steal back the secret now that it’s in danger of falling into the wrong hands. Pym chooses Lang, who has a history of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor – it sounds like a perfect fit.
Evangeline Lilly plays Hank’s daughter Hope van Dyne. Between an accomplished comedian in Rudd and a screen legend in Douglas, you’d forgive the former Lost actress for disappearing into the woodwork of the film. Yet that’s not what happens. She’s the one who really shines here, offering the film its most complete emotional journey and most complex character. She’s on the board at Hank’s company and, at first, her character seems similar to that of Bryce Dallas Howard’s Claire in Jurassic World. That worried me – the last thing I wanted to be told (again) is that women can only be good at business if they’re bad at everything else.
Luckily, Hope convinces Hank, Scott, and the audience that she’s a far better choice to suit up as Ant-Man. She’s the better fighter, she communicates with ants better, she understands the science, and she knows the company they’re breaking into. Hope’s abilities are superior, period. It’s Hank’s own protectiveness and fear – his shortcomings – that are posed as a weakness here.
Of course, this still means that Scott’s the one who gets to suit up. It creates the most intriguing character dynamic in a Marvel film yet. In some ways, it deals with the increasingly problematic treatment of women in Disney Marvel movies. It doesn’t offer a solution, but at least it acknowledges that there is a problem. What we’re really seeing is Hope’s origin story, one in which she never gets to suit up or be a superhero. She has to watch a man be given her job and get all the credit. The focus on Hope and this element of the story is intentional, but the metaphor is dulled by the film’s drive toward action and comedy. The idea’s there, but it never feels entirely explored. I’ll talk about this more in the Bechdel section in a moment.
Ant-Man excels at folding in the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) without allowing it to encroach too far on its own story. This year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron could have learned a thing or two from Ant-Man, which manages to tell its own self-contained narrative while still riffing on the universe of the Avengers. It never feels overwhelmed by a need to be part of the larger brand the way Ultron did. With Ant-Man, I never felt like I was being sold a toy instead of being told a story.
Ant-Man isn’t as well made as parts of Ultron, but it is much more consistent in quality. Ant-Man is thoroughly good. It doesn’t stand out as something special the way last year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Guardians of the Galaxy both did, but it’s very enjoyable. When the action falters, the comedy takes over, and vice versa. It holds up to each of the other origin stories Marvel’s released on film.
Perhaps the best way to describe Ant-Man is this: it hits the spot. It reassures me that the Disney Marvel brand is still willing to aim for quirky genre films – like a heist movie – instead of simply being addicted to bigger and better explosions. The explosions take over at points, and they’re pretty creative, but costing only half as much as Avengers: Age of Ultron means that Ant-Man needs to find other ways of keeping your attention. It does this through story, character, and a lot of comedy. Lilly, Rudd, and Douglas also make one of the best sets of leads the MCU has enjoyed to-date.
Yes. Evangeline Lilly plays Hope van Dyne, Judy Greer plays Maggie Lang, Abby Ryder Fortson plays Cassie Lang, and Hayley Atwell plays Peggy Carter.
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
The rarest way of failing the Bechdel Test is to pass question 2 and fail on question 3. Ant-Man boasts a wonderful character in Lilly’s Hope, but the only two women who speak to each other are Maggie and Cassie Lang. That mother-daughter dynamic entirely centers around ex-husband and father Scott.
While Hope is acknowledged by the film to be more capable than Scott and the film briefly touches on the issues Marvel has with women, it only makes one last-ditch effort to correct this. That last-ditch effort is pretty wonderful – remember to stay through the credits – but no solution to the problem is really offered. Hope voices her discontent, and Scott sticks up for her – he insists she’s more suited to be the superhero than he is. That’s refreshing, but it’s still not realized.
Corey Stoll is all right as the villain, but he’s ultimately one of the most forgettable the Marvel films have had. In a dozen MCU movies, we’ve yet to see a woman wield the power of a villain (Guardians of the Galaxy had an excellent henchwoman in Karen Gillan’s Nebula, but she was traded between two male villains and never actually gets to fight a man). Corey Stoll’s role couldn’t have gone to a woman? You’re going to tell me Corey “let me put you to sleep in ‘The Strain’” Stoll has box office draw that no woman can match?
I don’t know what to do with Marvel anymore. I like Ant-Man, I like it a lot, but…12 movies and they still can’t manage to even have women talk about themselves or each other, even when one of them is a lead? It’s ridiculous.
Where that leaves us, who knows? Evangeline Lilly pretty much steals the film from Rudd and Douglas, and it still doesn’t matter. The movie acknowledges Marvel’s problem with portraying women through Hank and Hope’s father-daughter relationship, and it still doesn’t matter. Ant-Man comes out and tells you straight-up who the better superhero would be – Hope – and it still doesn’t matter.
Marvel needs to grow up and they need to do it quickly. Period. Ant-Man is thoroughly enjoyable and Rudd does a workmanlike job, but superheroes in this franchise have now been played by Robert, Chris, Mark, Chris, Jeremy, Don, Aaron, Paul, Anthony, their boss Samuel L., and their space counterparts Chris, Dave, Vin, and Bradley. Now you’ve added Michael and a second Paul. I’m expecting them to start writing gospels soon. Women have gotten Scarlett, Elizabeth, and Zoe. That’s 16-to-3.
I want to be careful about assigning intention, but it feels like the filmmakers do as much as possible within Marvel’s constraints to say that their own film is getting the gender of its superhero wrong. It’s not necessarily the movie’s problem – Hope feels like a way of rebelling against Marvel’s dictate of another male superhero while still presenting another male superhero. It is Marvel’s problem, though. It is a growing problem, and it is one that is going to bite them in the ass. And no, Captain Marvel in 2018 as the 20th film in the MCU and first to center on a woman is not enough to solve it. It’s a good start, but that’s all it is. If 20 films in, all they’re doing is starting to solve this big a problem, they’ll bleed audience as the superhero competition at the theater gets a lot more crowded. Many already think Avengers: Age of Ultron left more than half a billion dollars on the table worldwide. Ant-Man has the lowest per-screen average of any MCU movie. It’s Marvel’s choice if they want to stay ahead of the curve they set, or if they want to fall behind it as others surpass them.
Where did we get our awesome images? The feature image of Evangeline Lilly and Paul Rudd comes from an Evangeline Lilly interview discussed on Geek Tyrant. All other images come from Collider.