Some thoughts on the whole ‘Ant-Man’ situation

Yesterday, a piece of movie news dropped that shocked a lot of people, both comic-book and film fans: Edgar Wright had parted ways with Marvel Studios from Ant-Man. Now, I’m as stunned as anyone about this news: a) because I’m a huge fan of Edgar Wright since The Cornetto Trilogy started in 2004 and b) because Marvel has done no wrong by their talent until now (except for, maybe, the bridge building in Iron Man 2 that probably frustrated Jon Favreau so much so that he stepped down from directing Iron Man 3).

Word on the street currently is that the reason Edgar Wright decided to step down from directing Ant-Man, a film he’s been attached to do for the last eight years, is that Marvel decided to tinker with his script too much for his taste. If that is the case, I would say that Marvel’s in the wrong on this one.

As the Indiewire article mentions, they’ve hired TV directors to do their bidding in the execution of their scripts for Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Thor: The Dark World, with Marvel taking care of the visual effects. I don’t think anyone would have imagined them tinkering with Joss Whedon for The Avengers or Shane Black for Iron Man 3, with the latter film pretty much a standalone pic, even with regards to the post credits scene. But these are films with relatively popular characters, especially with Iron Man in them.

The only other parallel film to Ant-Man, in terms of risk, in the Marvel wheelhouse right now is Guardians Of The Galaxy, a film which is set entirely outside Earth. But from what I know, James Gunn and Marvel have an excellent relationship where they let Gunn be Gunn. And then they let him out-Gunn Gunn. However, Guardians is not intended to tie in with the Avengers yet, at least judging from the fact that this first movie would be an origin story for Marvel to launch the franchise. That would mean Marvel had no reason to tinker with Guardians in terms of connecting it with the Marvel Comics Universe (MCU).

On the other hand, Ant-Man is a character that does not have that luxury. He’s late to join the Marvel party: he was one of the founding members of the Avengers. He exists in the same world as the traditional characters do. It’s in Marvel’s best interests to tie Ant-Man to their universe as soon as they can.  But it appears that Edgar Wright is not building the traditional origin story for Ant-Man: the film contains both Hank Pym and Scott Lang. Presumably the film would feature a passing of the mantle from Pym to Lang, so Ant-Man exists when the story begins. That’s a lot of distance to cover for an audience who doesn’t know Ant-Man, hence the increased risk for Marvel if they didn’t root the film enough in the MCU.

My question to Marvel is: why the hell has Ant-Man been in development for so long? Is it because of Wright’s films that have been released in the last eight years (the count stands at three) i.e. Wright kept skipping off to do a film of his own? Or is it because Marvel always intended for Ant-Man to be introduced so late in the game? Wouldn’t it have made sense for Marvel to have introduced Ant-Man along with their other characters and then have him in The Avengers?

All said and done, it appears that Marvel dropped the ball on Ant-Man one way or the other. One cannot blame Wright for stepping away from the project: he clearly was passionate about the film and wanted to do it his way. It’s a situation that could have been avoided if Ant-Man had been made at the right time, when it didn’t need to be strapped down with universe bridges. Joss Whedon says it best:

But here’s the thing: could Whedon have had a hand in booting Wright? Was he one of the people who instituted some Avengers bridges for Ant-Man? I highly doubt it, but seeing as how high up Whedon is in the Marvel ranks, it’s plausible. I can’t wait for Edgar Wright to announce his next film and move on with his career.

Header Image Attribution: Edgar Wright by Gage Skidmore, CC-BY-SA-3.0

The Riveting, Unstoppable ‘Martian’

Attribution: Wikipedia, qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

There’s something quite somber about space. Depressing actually. It comes with the territory; should something terribly wrong occur outside Earth, it’s quite difficult to do anything about it. A cursory look at the stories that take place outside Earth – 2001, Alien, Gravity, The Martian Chronicles – reveals as much. Humor seems to be a luxury in space. But when Teddy Sanders, director of the NASA, wonders what one of his astronauts, Mark Watney, is thinking, alone on Mars, this is what we get:

How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.

Andy Weir’s The Martian is the tale of Mark Watney, a member of the Ares 3 crew on Mars, who gets stranded on the Red Planet after a catastrophe in a huge Martian sandstorm. He has to stay alive long enough for help to be sent to him, and he has to make use of resources that his crew left behind. The eminent members of Goodreads label it Gravity-meets-Cast Away, and I agree with them, if only to add that that comparison extends beyond the content of the novel.

As a medium of storytelling, the novel has existed for centuries. In that time, its ability to remain relevant lies in authorial flexibility. In the modern age, popular storytelling forms like cinema have come to influence the novel, both in content and form. The Martian reads, for the most part, like a Hollywood blockbuster. Here’s a passage describing the anticipation of the world before a crucial booster launch that takes place midway through the book:

They gathered. Everywhere on Earth, they gathered. In Trafalgar Square and Tiananmen Square and Times Square, they watched on giant screens. In offices, they huddled around computer monitors. In bars, they stared silently at the TV in the corner. In homes, they sat breathlessly on their couches, their eyes glued to the story playing out. In Chicago, a middle-aged couple clutched each other’s hands as they watched. The man held his wife gently as she rocked back and forth out of sheer terror.

 Not only can you imagine it happening, the particular way you would imagine it brings to mind similar scenarios in films like Armageddon and Apollo 13. The novel moves from one scene to another with remarkable fluidity and the climax of the novel is a nail-biting action sequence that you could imagine seeing on the big screen (possibly directed by Michael Bay or Paul Greengrass because Alfonso Cuaron probably won’t do it). Andy Weir, in his desire to make a mark on the Internet (this novel was self-published before being bought by the Crown Publishing Group), ensures that boredom does not take hold of his readers.

This ethic extends to his protagonist, Mark Watney. Watney is the genial, wisecracking American male who doesn’t balk in the face of adversity, no matter how dire the situation is. Ever resourceful, he has the technical smarts of Sheldon Cooper with the likability of Saul Goodman and an undying optimism. While this makes him nice to be around, it takes away from the realism of the situation itself. The optimism and wisecracks feel manufactured after a certain point, especially when the more dire obstacles arise. I’m not saying that the utter coldness of Dr. Ryan Stone from Gravity is more appropriate; you would think that 400 sols away from Earth would psychologically affect any astronaut.

Instead, Weir chooses to examine the technical realism of the situation: could any astronaut survive on Mars for an extended period of time, given the resources around them? Every technical component of NASA’s equipment on Mars is analyzed in detail, with extreme plausibility, as Watney’s ideas for survival take hold. The basics of survival, food, water and shelter come first, but then elements like communication and transportation come into play. Here’s an example of the level of technical detail Weir goes to in detailing Watney’s food situation:

I need to create calories. And I need enough to last the 1387 sols until Ares 4 arrives. If I don’t get rescued by Ares 4, I’m dead anyway. A sol is 39 minutes longer than a day, so it works out to be 1425 days. That’s my target: 1425 days of food. I have plenty of multivitamins; over double what I need. And there’s five times the minimum protein in each food pack, so careful rationing of portions takes care of my protein needs for at least four years. My general nutrition is taken care of. I just need calories. I need 1500 calories every day. I have 400 days of food to start off with. So how many calories do I need to generate per day along the entire time period to stay alive for around 1425 days? I’ll spare you the math. The answer is about 1100. I need to create 1100 calories per day with my farming efforts to survive until Ares 4 gets here.

Weir understands that most of his audience does not consist of scientifically inclined individuals, and for the most part he succeeds in breaking down each of Watney’s maneuvers into layman terms. But some of the science did fly over my head and some explanations felt repetitive. There were times when I felt frustrated by the technicalities inherent in Watney’s situation and was more willing to read about a parallel plot the occurs on Earth, when NASA discovers that Watney is still alive.

Weir juggles two significant themes in The Martian which are equally compelling. On an individual level, Watney’s journey clearly has something to say about human determination and optimism. But while it is set slightly in the future, the novel also has an eye on the past. There is the nostalgia associated with the simplicity of the ’70s as indicated by the various cultural references made to the period. Nostalgia is also accorded to America’s space program, when NASA was more active with their missions and being an astronaut was a national desire. It is the kind of novel that makes engineers cool while suggesting that humanity is greater than the sum of its parts. At the end, Watney says it best:

If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are assholes who just don’t care, but they’re massively outnumbered by the people who do. And because of that, I had billions of people on my side.

You should read The Martian. It’s well worth your time.

Meet ‘Not Quite The Western Front’

Today marks the end of a significant journey for me. It is the closing night of my latest show, ‘Not Quite The Western Front’, staged by the South Asian theater group on campus, PenNaatak. I wrote and directed one of the plays in the show, ‘The Elephant’, while another student, Hamza Qaiser, wrote and directed ‘A Problem of Perception’, the other play in the show. While I will write a more substantial post looking back on the making of ‘The Elephant’, I wanted to post the trailers to each of the plays, simply because I find them ridiculously funny (we wrote the trailers as well).

‘The Elephant’ is set in an alternate version of 18th century, one where the Indians conquered England instead of the other way around. Amidst a land of cultural osmosis and fractured identities, the play follows Lady Emma Greenway as she navigates her various lovers on a fateful Valentine’s Day. Oh, and there’s an actual elephant as well.

‘A Problem of Perception’ is set in contemporary Pakistan, and follows the journey of the Lashkar-e-Halwa, a bumbling terrorist group that is struggling to maintain its stronghold over the Valley. The ISI has given them an ultimatum to shape up, otherwise it threatens to go after them with brute force.



Eternal Snapshots of a Soulful Mind

A blue gondola cascades gently down a waterway in Venice. It crawls in languor, the afternoon sun immersing it in all its glory. As it rolls along under a stone bridge, Alan Lightman rests on his back, gazing at the blue sky, lost within his mind. He blinks. He finds himself in Bern, Switzerland, 1905, at the zenith of twilight. ‘It is a quiet time of day. Shopkeepers are dropping their awnings and getting out of their bicycles. From a second floor window, a mother calls to her daughter to come home and prepare dinner.’ Just as he sees the two colleagues who are coming home from the Patent Office, he blinks again. He is back at the gondola, but no time has passed. As Lightman imagines Einstein’s Dreams, so do I imagine Lightman’s own.

Such is the distinctive quality of Lightman’s book, Einstein’s Dreams (1992). It does not concern itself with a specific plot; it instead depicts different conceptions of time that appear as dreams to Einstein, who appears at regular intervals with his working partner, Michele Besso. No variation of the different paths time can take is excluded, including such prominent examples as “sticky time”, “mechanical time” and “time in fits and starts”. Lightman eloquently paints each variation with an ethereal and surreal texture. He does not concern us with the scientific possibility and theoretical probability of these wondrous concepts. Instead, he explores the real world implications and human reactions to different timescapes.

In a world where the center of time exists:
‘And so, at the place where time stands still, one sees parents clutching their children, in a frozen embrace that will never let do. The beautiful young daughter with blue eyes and blond hair will never stop smiling the smile she smiles now, will never lose this pink glow on her cheeks, will never grow wrinkled or tired, will never get injured, will never unlearn what her parents have taught her, will never think thoughts that her parents don’t know, will never know evil, will never tell her parents that she does not love them, will never leave her room with the view of the ocean, will never stop touching her parents as she does now.’

The writing is simple, the images are indelible. A tortured Einstein roams the streets of Bern, formulating his new theory of time, but Lightman pays little attention to his titular character. Instead, through Einstein, he depicts our interaction, infatuation, relationship and obsession with Time as well as our desires and the consequences that spring from it. Snapshots at faceless individuals gaze upon the fragility of human existence, a tale woven with the barest of threads, worn at the edges, glowing in fits and starts, overseen by the tick of the Grand Clock. A proto-Groundhog Day scenario takes place with each chapter, as the citizens of Bern are manipulated under the rules that govern each new concept of time, thus making the city a prominent figure in these vignettes.

As we struggle to control this ever elusive group of nightingales, Lightman forces us to consider the possibilities that emerge from twisting pretzels with the sand of the hourglass. But for Einstein, on an early morning in June 1905, history has not been made, and time moves on.

Einstein statue by maveric2003, CC-BY-2.0