To paraphrase the fantastic Corey Stoll, “Imagine the stakes of a movie the size of an insect. It’s the ultimate secret weapon.” That’s exactly the type of vibe we get with Ant-Man, a movie which has its interest firmly planted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but never forgets to pay attention to the heart of its individual story. Without giving away any spoilers, the latest film from Marvel Studios ends on the smallest scale imaginably (literally) and contains one of the most innovative climaxes of the entire MCU. The climactic final battle in Peyton Reed’s superhero story is fought between hero and villain in the tiniest corners of a child’s bedroom, and while the now infamously popular Thomas the Tank Engine gag scores a thunderous applause from the audience, it’s in the relationship between Scott Lang and his daughter where the real dramatic stakes reside.
After releasing one of the biggest (and best) superhero movies in Avengers: Age of Ultron, a movie that climaxes with a bombastic battle in the sky threatening to wipe out mankind, Marvel Studios’ Ant-Man is about a man earning the right to become a hero in his daughter’s eyes. Yes, there are two Ant-Men in Ant-Man, and both of their stories are intrinsically tied to becoming better fathers in a movie Joe Dante could have directed twenty years ago, but it’s a stroke of genius doubling as a palette cleanser for those of us who tire of every summer movie ending in a high octane chase scene or massive citywide throw-down (though Age of Ultron does really get this aspect right).
Case in point, Spider-Man 2 (also known as the best superhero movie of all time) seemingly ends with a big, climactic fight to save the city, but it’s out in the middle of a river with only the hero, the villain, and the damsel in distress watching the various plot threads of the movie come together. As runner-up, The Dark Knight ends with three men in a room discussing what went wrong over the course of the previous week during The Joker’s reign of terror. Bottom line, good stakes don’t rely on set-pieces, they rely on filling scenes with characters and ideas that we the viewers care about.
When talking about their approach to the upcoming Spider-Man films, producer Kevin Feige says all the right things that support the brilliance of the Ant-Man finale, stating:
“Stakes don’t need to be end of the world. Oftentimes, in our films, it is, and in our future films Thanos doesn’t work small… and I think Spider-Man straddles that line in a fun way in his comics. What we wanted was a movie where the stakes could be as high as ‘This bad person is going to do this bad thing, and a lot of people could die’ OR ‘You don’t get home in time and your aunt is going to figure this out, and your whole life is going to change.’ Particularly at that age, in high school, everything feels like life or death. The tests feel like life or death. Coming home from being out with your friends seemed like life or death.”
See? Stakes in a movie can be anything!
Taking a look back at the Die Hard franchise, and while I enjoy the first four movies, increasing the size of events didn’t help anybody out, and by the time that A Good Day to Die Hard rolled around, John McClane was gunning down hundreds of people only to receive a single cut on his forehead. McClane going up against an army of interchangeable goons isn’t interesting; McClane going up against a dozen well-defined thugs who give him a hard time is.
In romantic movies it’s something as simple as wanting two people to smash their faces together in an attractive manner. The movie needs to earn our devotion to these characters and their relationship with one another, or explore the aftermath of a hook up (Trainwreck), but the point is, there are no greater stakes than the happiness held between two people and whether or not they’ll be happier inside or outside of that relationship.
The real surprise sometimes comes in the revelation that we don’t even need traditional stakes in order to enjoy a movie. I’ve written about the weirdness of Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen for their lack of narrative stakes in favor of appeasing their audience, and on a more recent note, check out Magic Mike XXL, where Channing Tatum and his group of stripper friends not only find enjoyment in bringing entertainment to women through sexual positivity, but find a calling in it. That’s all the stakes rely on: Can they entertain these people?
On a final note and in the smallest of scales possible, please watch this skit on YouTube. The stakes change every dozen seconds or so, and it’s funnier than most comedies that came out this year, with a final reveal that succinctly establish how small the stakes were the whole time.
So let’s embrace these small little movies during the summer movie season more often, and so help me god if Captain America: Civil War ends with a battle in the sky.