14 years ago one of the most acclaimed TV shows of all time ended. A time when all TV audiences expected catharsis for the characters they’d grown to know before the end. David Chase instead decided to fade to black not giving that final closure to Tony Soprano. Something that has haunted audiences since its air date. Chase returns to the Soprano’s world 30 years prior to it’s first season. Focusing on who was in power before Tony Soprano ever took over.
Dickie Moltisanti. Moltisanti, translates to Many Saints in English, of Newark. While also attempting to tackle the 1967 Newark race riots, and provide a backstory for Tony Soprano. Sounds like a lot to cover in a 120-minute film? That’s because it is.
Rarely will a film fall into the issue of being too short, more often than not it’s an issue of being too long. Many Saints is too short. The film has so much it wants to cover and gives itself far too little time to cover each of these events. This could have easily been a 150-165-minute film and it likely would’ve worked even better and been decidedly more effective. Unfortunately, David Chase’s hubris wouldn’t let him make a longer film. A tragedy for sure, because once the film began I never wanted it to end.
Chase’s new leading man is an actor that I have long loved, and have waited for him to get his big break. Something Chase and I have a shared sentiment about. The brilliant Alessandro Nivola. He has not only been good for years, he is frequently the standout in films where he is relegated to supporting roles. In The Many Saints of Newark Nivola is leading the biggest film of his career and he takes advantage of it. He embodies this mythological god that is Gentlemen Dickie Moltisanti (the father of future Tony Soprano victim Christopher Moltisanti) with such class and brutality that even Tony Soprano would be frightened.
Filling out the rest of this world is Corey Stoll as a hilarious Uncle Junior, Vera Farmiga as the wonderful asshole Livia Soprano, Jon Bernthal as a somewhat forgettable Johnny Boy Soprano, Leslie Odom Jr. as a gleefully angered Harold McBrayer, Ray Liotta pulling double duty as Hollywood Dick Moltisanti and Salvatore Moltisanti (I was just as surprised as you when I saw this for the first time.), Michaela de Rossi as Giuseppina Moltisanti, Hollywood Dick’s wife, and Gentlemen Dickie’s “goomar” (don’t ask, it just makes it even weirder.). Billy Magnussen as a pitch-perfect Paulie Walnuts, John Magaro doing his best Steven Van Zandt impression with Silvio Dante, and Samson Moeakiokla as Big Pussy. Finally, Michael Gandolfini, son of James Gandolfini, is a younger version of his father’s iconic turn as Tony Soprano.
From the get-go, we are introduced to this world with a level of respect to the audience. Chase expects you to have seen at least part of the show, if not all of it. While it is difficult to talk about the film without spoiling some fantastic reveals, I will say that watching Nivola chew up every scene he is in is a great pleasure to watch, and his, brief bits with Gandolfini are nothing short of electric, though rushed. An issue that hangs over this film like the FBI watching Tony’s house. Calling it “the formative years of Tony Soprano” is more than a bit misleading. The film treats it as an afterthought, instead of the main plot. For which the blame falls on Chase.
The time jumps in the film are not surprising but continue this overarching issue of being rushed. However in those time jumps we still are gifted with wonderful dialogue between everyone, something Chase can do brilliantly along with strong cinematography by Kramer Morgenthau. Even with all of these strengths in the film, I can’t let go of the fact that it is just too short. It needed to be longer, I think somewhere in Chase’s head he knew that, and if we get another film in this time period, he will hopefully rectify it. The final note he leaves us with is a perfect way to set up another film, while also being a great ending if he doesn’t wish to return to this world, something Christopher Moltisanti wished he could do before it was too late, but Chase will have to do it for him.
In these retrospectives, Anna will be looking back on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, providing context around the films, criticizing them, pointing out their groundwork for the future, and telling everyone her favorite scene, because her opinion is always correct and therefore her favorite scene should be everyone’s favorite scene. Ants!
Avengers: Age of Ultron was an ambitious, scrawling, sprawling mess, so worried with setting up the future MCU that it left its own plot to limp along. Ant-Man, on the other hand, switches gears, introducing a new cast and a new story, one that is largely self-contained outside of cameos from the likes of John Slattery, Hayley Atwell, and Anthony Mackie, and it’s a breath of fresh air after Age of Ultron’s world-ending robot hordes.
Yet for being such a breezy flick to watch, Ant-Man had a laborious birth. Edgar Wright was attached to an Ant-Man film as far back as 2006, though it was put on the backburner as Marvel began its plans for what would become the MCU proper and the leadup to The Avengers. In 2012, things finally got rolling: Wright shot some test footage, and by 2013 a script was ready. Casting soon became locked and loaded, but Marvel kept pushing back on the script; eventually, they even commissioned some in-house writers for rewrites without Wright’s knowledge, and this finally drove Wright away only two months before filming was supposed to begin.
“I think the most diplomatic answer is I wanted to make a Marvel movie but I don’t think they really wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie,” Wright said of the whole debacle. His firing is one of the nastier stories from the Creative Committee era; you can’t help but wonder what Wright’s film might have been like had he been given more creative freedom. Now free of Ike Perlmutter and his ilk, Marvel generally allows directors more creative control (to an extent, of course): Thor: Ragnarok very much feels like a Taika Waititi movie, just one with more action and starring the god of thunder, and Eternals is shaping up to closely resemble Chloé Zhao’s other directorial efforts, at least as much as a Marvel film can. Perhaps a post-Creative Committee Marvel would have been more willing to let Wright make an “Edgar Wright movie,” but who knows. (It would certainly make a great What If…? episode.)
Now with Ant-Man sans a director, Marvel had to scramble to find a replacement, courting directors such as David Wain, Ruben Fleischer, and Adam McKay before settling on Peyton Reed, previously a contender for the Guardians of the Galaxy gig. (McKay withdrew his name from directing consideration but helped out with the script enough to get a screenplay credit; he and Paul Rudd—also credited—used large chunks of Wright and Joe Cornish’s script, tweaking here and there but keeping roughly the same outline.)
Despite all the hullabaloo that occurred before shooting, the shoot itself was relatively smooth, and the finished product blends nicely into the rest of the MCU while still having enough merits on its own to make it a worthwhile, if slight, watch. It’s certainly a nice palette cleanser after Age of Ultron and gives everyone a bit of breathing room before the fisticuffs of Captain America: Civil War, the film which will kick off Phase Three.
In Ant-Man, our hero is just a dude: he’s Paul Rudd, America’s most likable everyman, funny and ageless but still a relatable guy. Scott Lang might have a master’s in electrical engineering, but he has to grind like everyone else. He’s not an uber-wealthy playboy, a genetically engineered super soldier, or a god from outer space. He’s… just a dude.
Well, not entirely. After blowing the whistle on embezzlement at his previous job, Scott hacked into his company’s bank account and distributed the money back to the customers, eventually getting arrested for his good deeds. Now out of prison and determined the walk the straight and narrow, he struggles to hold down even a job at Baskin-Robbins and is unable to see his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Forston), as he can’t make the child support payments he owes his ex-wife, Maggie (Judy Greer). Parts of his backstory—the kid, the ex-wife, the struggle to provide for himself and his family—may be more relatable than, say, the playing Robin Hood and getting thrown in prison part, but Rudd’s charming presence makes it easy to pretend that a Scott Lang could be among us. After all, at his core, he’s just a man trying to be better for his family.
However, Scott quickly backslides and gets roped into a get-rich-quick heist as he becomes desperate to find a way to make his child support payments so he can visit his daughter. He joins ex-con and friend Luis (Michael Peña), along with Kurt (David Dastmalchian, who should be in everything) and Dave (T.I., as in the rapper, who should not be in everything with all his recent sexual assault accusations), and the four set out to steal from an unknown man’s safe while he’s out of town. There, Scott finds nothing but an odd motorcycle suit, which he takes home.
Well, it turns out that motorcycle suit allows Scott to shrink to the size of an ant, and was purposely planted by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) for Scott to find. Hank, it turns out, was the first superhero known as Ant-Man (in the comics, Hank is also the creator of Ultron, a role which was given to Tony in the MCU), and he’s been looking for someone to pass the mantle to so he can take down his rogue protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). That someone happens to be Scott.
Why Scott? There are the burglary credentials, of course, but there is also Hank’s desire to live vicariously through Scott. Hank too has a daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), though their relationship has become frosty ever since the death of Hope’s mother, Janet, and Hank seems to believe that if he can help Scott redeem his relationship with Cassie, then Hank can salvage his relationship with Hope. The father and daughter relationships in Ant-Man drive the film—specifically, the sins of the father—as both Scott and Hank try to live up to what they should be so they can have their daughters look at them with pride and love once more, though the order is taller for Hank, who has isolated himself from his daughter for nearly 20 years and all but driven her away completely.
Other than the Thor franchise, few other Marvel films have such a focus on family, and the complicated dynamics at play here elevate the character relationships in the film. The “overprotective parent (usually a father) wants to shield their child (usually a daughter) from the world so they inadvertently stifle them” trope has been done a thousand times before, but Douglas and Lilly do excellent work here and make Hank and Hope’s relationship more than the sum of its stereotypes.
While Scott and Cassie’s relationship can’t have quite the same depth (she is a small child, after all), Cassie is just so damn cute that you might want to end up adopting her, and her presence succeeds in grounding Scott the way Whedon wished Hawkeye’s nameless spawn would have in Age of Ultron. Cassie isn’t just some random child inserted so we feel empathy for a character, she has a personality and plot function in her own right, and as a result this MCU family is one we actually care about. Take notes, Joss! (Also, as far as I know, Peyton Reed is a decent guy, so maybe take notes on that too, Joss…)
Hope, of course, will join Ant-Man as a titular character in her next film, Ant-Man and the Wasp, as the stinger at the end (pun intended) hints at. As she very rightly points out to her father in this Ant-Man, she has all the skills necessary to stop Cross from selling the Ant-Man technology to Hydra, yet her father won’t entrust her to do so. Finally trying to rectify the pain he caused his daughter, Hank eventually reveals the truth about Hope’s mom: Janet had been a compatriot known as the Wasp and, in order to stop a Soviet missile in 1987, had to go “subatomic,” meaning she was lost forever to the Quantum Realm (aka the microverse, but Marvel can’t say that for legal reasons, because nothing’s ever easy when you sold off a bunch of your IP to keep your company afloat), and so he never wanted his daughter to risk befalling the same fate. Now that she understands the reason behind Hank’s overprotective nature, Hope manages to forgive him.
Of course, as the sole female of the movie, Hope was bound to become romantically entangled with Scott, though this movie is more setup than payoff. And, to the movie’s credit, Hope stands far better on her own two feet than most other Marvel love interests, and she has relationships that are important to the plot other than the one she shares with Scott. Hope stands nearly side by side with our titular hero in Ant-Man and has her own grand ambitions outside of him, so it’s no surprise that she gets co-billing the next time around. It’s certainly a step in the right direction, even if Evangeline Lilly’s wig strains believability in certain scenes.
But, of course, it’s not Ant-Man and the Wasp yet, so Hope stays largely on the sidelines of the action as everyone prepares to stop Cross. Like Captain America: The Winter Soldier before it, Ant-Man attempts to cross genres, but where Winter Soldier went for political thriller, Ant-Man goes for heist movie, and the results aren’t as grand or elaborate as an Ocean’s Eleven, but they’re fun sojourns nonetheless (though why you wouldn’t go as balls to the wall as possible with your heists when your hero can control ants and get up to all sorts of shenanigans is beyond me).
The inevitable Ant-Man vs. Cross-in-the-Yellowjacket-suit showdown that we march towards is bolstered by the fact that it involves two men who can shrink to the size of insects, which results in some great set pieces and one excellent Siri joke. While he doesn’t play an overly memorable villain, Corey Stoll is quite good at creating a manic glint in his eye, and it’s enjoyable enough to watch his sanity slowly slip. (Does that make me sound psychopathic?) Gone are the masses of indistinguishable bad guys from the two Avengers movies so far; instead, we have two grown men running around a Thomas the Tank Engine playset, the life and death stakes with which they battle looking pretty meager when the camera zooms out and all we see is poor Thomas quietly falling off his tracks, accompanied by some pitiful sparks. The MCU has, historically, not been known for its creative fight sequences, so Ant-Man’s playful action provides an excellent dose of fun and makes full use of its hero’s unique and rather bizarre superpowers.
That said, Ant-Man is certainly not the most memorable Marvel movie, and falls pretty squarely in the middle. It’s certainly a good deal tighter than Age of Ultron’s unwieldy mess and the burgeoning relationship between Scott and Hope has more going for it than, say, Natasha and Bruce’s ogling of each other, but you’d be forgiven if you don’t remember specific plot details from the movie. This review isn’t as long as the others for a reason: there’s just not as much to discuss.
Ant-Man is perhaps the best example of your typical Marvel movie post-Phase One: it’s inoffensive fun bolstered by a game cast (Peña provides some of the best humor in the MCU) and an easy way to spend an afternoon. Like, really, it is a whole lot of fun. Marvel has finally become a well-oiled machine, and so Ant-Man comes off the assembly line ready to drive exactly how you expected (and how you like), but it’s not going to be winning races anytime soon. (Is that how car metaphors work? I don’t know.) For some, that’s an indication that Marvel is too stale, that it lacks creativity and too often plays it safe. And to a certain extent, that’s true: they’ve found a formula and they’ve stuck to it. But for others, that formula works even when it’s not firing on all cylinders, and maybe that’s enough.
If that’s good for movies as a whole, well, let’s wait until Avengers: Endgame to unpack Marvel’s prickly cinematic legacy.
Groundwork: Marvel has no big master plan; rather, they plant seeds wherever they can in the hopes that some of them might one day germinate. None of these were planned from day one, lest the whole ship sink, but the seeds germinated nonetheless:
“Tales to astonish!” Cross says at one point, mocking the tales of Hank Pym’s time as Ant-Man. Tales to Astonish was the comic series that introduced Ant-Man. Not groundwork, but fun.
If Scott returned from the Quantum Realm/going subatomic, it stands to reason that the presumed-dead Janet van Dyne could too, no? And we see a shape that looks suspiciously like the Wasp while Scott’s in the Quantum Realm.
In the comics, Cassie Lang becomes the superhero known as Stature. With the casting of Kathryn Newton as an older Cassie Lang, it seems inevitable that Stature (and the Young Avengers) will soon make her MCU debut. (Kathryn Newton has consistently rubbed me the wrong way as a performer, and it was shitty of Marvel to recast Emma Fuhrmann—the older Cassie in Endgame—without telling her. But I should withhold judgement until Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania… I guess.)
Hank talks about how he never wants his work falling back into the hands of a Stark. Well, I hate to break it to you, buddy, but… that’s exactly what’s gonna happen in Endgame.
There was a whole theory that the TVA in Loki was actually located in the Quantum Realm. Technically that hasn’t been disproven yet, but it seems unlikely. Still…
Anna’s Favorite Scene: The Falcon vs. Ant-Man. The cameo is brief enough not to overshadow everyone else in the movie and keeps the MCU connected even when it’s not an Avengers movie, plus it’s funny to watch Sam get dragged around a bit.
Chazelle assembles a first-rate series of high high’s, high low’s, low high’s, and low low’s. I couldn’t agree more with everyone heaping praise upon the technical proficiency found aboundingly in this film. If one were to put it in a class of technical mastery based off of recent films you would lump it amongst Blade Runner 2049, Dunkirk, and just ever so slightly beneath Mad Max: Fury Road. During this film I experienced shock, awe, jubilation, grief, anger, and solace. Chazelle tosses narrative norms to the side and brings you into an emotional ride loosely tied together by it’s handful of main characters and main goal.
Reach the Moon.
I’ve been trying to think about it’s narrative depths so as to express it’s wrinkles and omages and it keeps slipping through my fingers like that fine grain silt on the Moon’s surface. What I am absolutely certain of is that beauty and love are the two most apt words to describe what Chazelle packs into First Man’s omages to 2001: A Space Odyssey. The lights reflected to us off of Gosling’s helmet near the end, the docking sequence, the brief AI concern, the Moon as a monolith, and that last shot of Foy reflected off the glass within Gosling’s head. The love while not easy to see on the surface was always there, it was behind everything. Behind the sacrifices.
Gosling’s performance is amazing, and of the Fall fare as of yet Foy’s supporting role is peerless. The entire ensemble is almost sure to grab the best ensemble cast this year unless Vice or Widows really floor audiences. This is a bonafide blockbuster and a wonder to behold. See it in a premium format if you can, whether it’s IMAX or Dolby you won’t be let down.
–Taylor Baker originally posted this review on Letterboxd 10/12/18