When “Mad Max: Fury Road” roared into theaters earlier this year, it marked a rare contrast to the standard blockbuster formula of half-baked, effects-driven mayhem released just two weeks earlier with “Avengers 2: Age of Ultron.” If “Mad Max” was something of an anomaly, it still provided a useful contrast to the idea of overwrought spectacles. “Avengers 2” was less movie than a collision of them, offering proof that Marvel’s ambitious plan to build out its cinematic universe had gone too far.
“Ant-Man” brings Marvel’s efforts back to a reasonable place, and while it may not be its grandest accomplishment, it’s the closest thing to a superhero movie of the “Mad Max” variety — smart, story-driven escapism that aims to please rather than overwhelm.
On the surface, the premise is ridiculous, but it maintains a central ingredient that upstages the pricey effects not unlike “Mad Max”: a hero that, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t want to be one. His cause only arrives by necessity.
As expert safecracker Scott Lang, Paul Rudd comes across as an everyman of the Frank Capra variety — divorced and out of prison, he just wants to get his life back together. Scheming doctor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) has other plans: He tracks down Scott for help with stealing back a suit the researcher designed long ago that enables its wearer to shrink down to microscopic levels, preventing the menacing efforts of Pym’s former protege (Corey Stoll) of exploiting it for profit. Scott’s initial attempt to rebuff Hank’s task is a canny means of putting this lighthearted heist movie in a broader context. “I think we should just call the Avengers,” he says.
Unlike the costumed heroes at the center of those movies, Scott has no valiant ambitions — and neither, refreshingly, does “Ant-Man.” Like “Mad Max,” it spends more time generating a crowdpleasing energy around its central premise than complicating it with absurd backstories and hectic battle scenes. Though the effects go a long way toward making Scott’s feats as a pea-sized human into a visceral ride, they play more like slapstick — the constantly shifting, disproportionate sense of scale provides terrific fodder for visual humor (one memorable bit finds Scott attempting to shrink through a key hole while charging at the door in full-size).
Of course, “Ant-Man” lacks the visual poetry of “Mad Max” and ultimately does sag into a familiar plot involving scheming villains and a dramatic showdown where Scott must save his family. Still, the climax reaches beyond the plot conventions for a psychedelic tangent in which Scott faces the threat of going subatomic. The twist parallels the end of the brilliant 1957 thriller “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” another outwardly silly high concept story that managed to push the material in profound, even cosmic, directions. Once again, the protagonist isn’t so much a hero as a survivor who fights only because he has no other choice. Similarly, Ant-Man scurries along and just tries not to get squished. Mad Max can certainly relate.
The proliferation of these anti-heroes in big summer action movies hints at a refreshing direction for the superhero paradigm. Whereas “Avengers 2” crowds the frame with charismatic figures who never seem all that imperiled, “Ant-Man” gives us a smaller figure — sometimes much smaller — faced with a world indifferent to his concerns. This is a thoroughly modern concept in an age dominated by ongoing revolts against institutional control, an era where Edward Snowden and Julian Assange may command headlines, but inhabit a strange moral plane impossible to resolve in the public eye. The idea of ethically thorny attempts to subvert the system from the inside out is at the forefront of twenty-first century debates. To that end, “Ant-Man” sits comfortably within the confines of the zeitgeist.
Admittedly, it’s also another studio product designed to entertain above all else. However, these sentiments percolate throughout movies found far beyond the biggest summer titles. Another new release, opening in far fewer theaters this week, the masterful “Court” follows the admirable efforts of a committed Mumbai lawyer (Vivek Gomber) to help an aging Indian folk singer and activist from being recurrently incarcerated for the anti-government slant of his songs. Faced with trumped-up charges illogically linked to the death of a miner who attended one of his shows, the man is accused by an apathetic judge for inspiring lunacy among his followers. The sober arguments from the defense go a long way toward cutting through the propaganda, but can only get so far when faced with the insurmountable foe of India’s ideologically-motivated judicial process.
The remarkably confident debut of writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane, “Court” calls to mind Asgar Farhadi’s “A Separation” for the way it ekes out a slow-burn tension from a battle of the wits unfolding in the drab interiors of the courtroom. At the same time, it manages to develop a far broader portrait of modern India, most notably during a fascinating digression when the seemingly cold-hearted judge is seen offering advice to a disciple. The movie asserts that oppression is a systematic problem only assailable from minute forces creeping in. In essence, it argues that we need more Ant-Mans — and fewer Avengers.
“Ant-Man” opens nationwide on Friday. “Court” opens Wednesday at New York’s Film Forum ahead of other cities in the coming weeks.