Thursday, August 20, 2015

Ant-Man & Fanstastic Four are the same movie. So why... fact, almost all superhero movies are exactly the same frickin' movie. If you have seen any number of them, you should know this by now, but for the record, let me break it down for you...

1. Protagonist has a problem.
2. Protagonist tries to do something because of the problem.
3. Protagonist gains the ability to become a superhero.
4. Super-feats occur.
5. Villain threatens something protagonist cares about.
6. Protagonist defeats villain with more super-feats.

To add depth and meaning to the story and give it a more satisfying payoff, often the villain will have something to do with the hero's initial problem and/or the way the hero gained his ability to be a superhero.
I could list of all the examples of movies in which this pattern is played out, but I have to get up in the morning and I don't feel like staying up that late. However there are a few movies that do attempt to deviate from that, and are better than your average superhero movie in that regard. "X-Men 2" and "Batman Forever" are among them (though a case can be made that Catwoman was the protagonist in the latter, in which case, it reverts back to the formula).

The latest two superhero movies, "Fantastic Four" and "Ant-Man" fit the formula like they came out of the same cookbook. In both movies, co-protagonists (on the one hand, the students, on the other, Hank Pym and Scott Lang) are having trouble with authority. They all do something about it, in these cases, making unauthorized use of some high-tech.  Their powers are revealed, and then the true threat is revealed. In both cases (Dr. Doom and Darren Cross) the threat was involved with the incident that gave the protagonists their powers. In fact, the villains in both of these movies wind up with powers of their own from the same source as the heroes, and they wind up battling it out with those powers.

So why did one movie set new levels on enjoyableness while the other  was a mercifully brief waste of time?

It was the ingredients, and the skill with which the chef combined them.

Ant-Man, from its Latino music over the Marvel studio logo, was set as an urban comedy, with inner-city low-level underworld types with hearts of gold bringing their ethnic flavor to every scene. This was not just comic relief, but the undercurrent of the entire film. From Luis' rambling non-sequitors to Kurt's Eastern-European accent and syntax to the reactions of Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, there was hardly a scene without a laugh. Add to this the tension between the protagonist and the female lead, the realized comic potential of an ant-sized man discovering the world around him for the first time, and constant insect references, and it is very possible that you could be laughing from beginning to end.

And yet, all this comedy did not detract from the gravitas of the conflict. Rather, it helped us grow sympathetic to the protagonist and actually care that he would come out ahead.

On the other hand, "Fantastic Four" deftly avoided taking advantage of any opportunity for humor. This made the movie mercifully short, for the previous version of this franchise had padded their films with all sorts of attempts at humor, many of which fell flat.

It is not enough to have humor in a movie, it has to actually be funny. "Ant-Man" took advantage of certain cinematic techniques (in a couple of notable instances, quick-cutting to follow a story, and having actors lip-synch the narrrator, even when such words would have never come out of such a character's mouth) etc; The earlier "Fantastic Four" movies used very few cinematic tricks for comedy, and the jokes and gags came accross as pedestrian. A waste of time really.

So if you are not going to have humor, you need to have...something else, something to make us care about these characters and what they do. If they are supposed to be heroes, we should sympathize with their need to do heroic things so we can cheer at their successes and feel tension when they come near to failure.

And I must have missed the Stan Lee cameo in "Fantastic Four."

So that's how two movies that tell the same damn story can be so different in how much you enjoy them.

One other weird thing about "FF": At the very end, after the credits, there was a tile card that said, in bold letters with no serifs, how long it had taken to produce and how many people it employed. But why was that important to say? We obviously know that it employed lots of people, we had just sat through six minutes of double-column credits. Are you that insecure about the reception of this movie that the best thing you can say about it is that it kept some people off the unemployment rolls for a while? WTF?

And let's face it, if you were to take out the stupid pop-culture references, "Superhero Movie" was every bit  as satisfying a superhero movie as just about any superhero movie. More so, even, than "Fantastic Four."