Ant-Man, the latest episode, err, entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe scurries into theaters this weekend. Kevin Nye will be providing our full review of the film early next week, so I’m not going to get into too many “review-ish” specifics here. I’ll let him handle the 50-times-his-own-body-weight heavy lifting on this one. I’ll just say that Ant-Man is fun and more fleet-footed than its world-avenging older brothers. It’s a smaller movie (no pun intended) than most superhero fare, subsituting heist-caper hijinks for endangered-Earth exploits. Ant-Man is aware of this too, and includes a humerous one-liner at one point to make sure we’re aware that it’s aware. I enjoyed Ant-Man quite a bit.
Ant-Man’s production history has been more troubled than other Marvel movies, and that conflict is evident on screen. There’s another smarter, more sarcastic, more visually inventive film crawling around just beneath the surface of this movie. That movie would have clashed with the style and tone of the rest of the Marvel movies, so maybe it’s good that Marvel was successful at keeping the ants in the farm on this one. They do have a product to protect, after all, and the financial stakes are too high to let an off-kilter sensibility expose the cracks in their meta-narrative and method.
Maybe 2016 will be the year when we reach peak superhero movie saturation—there are six superhero films slated for 2016 at this point—and filmmakers will begin to poke at the superhero genre in ways that do more than bolster its most beloved aspects. Six superhero films in a year sounds like a lot. It only feels like a lot though because of the amount of marketing surrounding these films. In the hey-day (or should it be hay-day) of the Western genre, studios were cranking out more than one hundred Westerns per year. Film were released differently then, and the kind of marketing we’re used to now didn’t emerge until the late 1970s, so more movies likely felt like less movies. I think that when some of us critics say we’re tired of superhero movies, what we might actually be tired of is the hoopla surrounding them.
We, or at least I, long for the kind of 1960s revisionism that followed peak 1950s Western production. Revisionism picks at the underlying assumptions that fuel a genre, and the Superhero genre, with all its gee-golly hero worship, thinly veiled jingoism, and wobbly world-building, seems ripe for the picking. Revisionism is helped by having the same actors who made the genre famous step into revisionist roles. Think of John Wayne in The Searchers, where “the Duke’s” long-subterranean racism is exposed for the horror it is, or Henry Fonda in Once Upon A Time in the West, where the paragon of 50’s virtue dons a black hat and uses and manipulates everyone in sight to get whatever he wants, or, perhaps most famously, Clint Eastwood in Leone’s Dollars trilogy, where Rawhide’s good-natured but volatile Rowdy Yates finally lets loose.
Maybe they made Watchmen too soon. We need another version, since remakes are the bread and butter of the superhero film industry anyway. Chris Evans and Jennifer Lawrence can play Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II, respectively. I think they’d both enjoy that. Cast Christian Bale as Rorschach, Hugh Jackman as the Comedian, Robert Downey Jr. as Ozymandias, and a fully shaved Chris Pratt as Dr. Manhattan. Can we get Tarantino to direct it? A boy can dream.
In the meantime though, we have Ant-Man, the Suicide Squad, Batman—versus—Superman, Fantastic Four and Spider-Man and Deadpool regurgitations, more X-Men (and X-Women) than I could ever name, Dr. Strange(?), Wonder Woman (finally), and a host of other super-powered heroes and villains to contend with on a regular basis. At least the productions employ thousands of people. At least the movies aren’t boring. At least a whole sub-culture of people finally feels validated on an international level. At least Mystery Men exists, and at least Batman: The Animated Series is available to stream via Amazon Prime any time I need to be reminded how great superhero cinema can be when it doesn’t pretend to be the most important thing in the world.