Great News! Hollywood Product Placement Is Alive And Well

Rarely is product placement an innocuous thing. We’ve come to expect it in music videos, to the point that self-absorbed cases — as in the first five seconds of Hilary Duff’s “All About You” MV — are no longer shocking. Some movies can get away with it if it fits within a general shtick. But the more they invade films of a superhero variety, crying foul is a knee-jerk response. As it is, it’s a feat for product placement to appear as anything but shoehorned sponsorship (see: Bing’s thirty minutes of unwarranted fame in The Amazing Spider-Man). And when we should remember such films for their fast-moving thrills or straight moving scenes, the in-poor-taste infiltration of brands can have just as much of a lingering effect.

Keeping with the A-letter examples, Ant-Man doesn’t fit the usual blockbuster profile — the surprisingly capable hotshot that doesn’t care to sit at a crowded roundtable of like-natured adults. Its consistently penetrating comedy rises above the lowbrow, one-time exploits that often characterize such films, while the well-paced thread of fun in-role antics ensures balanced delivery. Most surprising are the merits of the film’s gutsy product placement. It’s not often for a film in this realm to shame commonly shameless uses of this marketing device.

In the aftermath of the double-cross against antagonist Darren Cross, the film’s free-flowing climax emerges, consisting of multiple sequences rather than being limited to a single space. As the villain dons the tricked-out suit that renders him Ant-Man’s equal, this pivotal moment sees the film using several unconventionally small spaces as viable battlegrounds: the inside of a helicopter, then the transition to a sealed briefcase, and later a child’s room.

The first is a crazy idea under any other context, as there isn’t any room for non-expedient dangers. A drawn-out fight scene should be out of the question in such tightly-framed quarters, but within Ant- Man’s universe, there’s successful achievement where there otherwise wouldn’t be. This precedent is carried through to the second location, where product placement really comes in.

It’s here that we see Cross and Ant-Man battling against gravity and all manner of admittedly realistic briefcase contents: a set of keys, USB drive, security badge, smartphone (albeit it’s more likely this would be in their pocket, but let’s keep things in suspension), and candy. Not just any candy, though. Hard candy – Life Savers, with the shattered pieces of what we all know to be the best flavor for dramatic effect. From a stylistic point of view, it makes sense. An exploding Mentos mint (too soft) or floating Tic Tacs (too messy) wouldn’t convey the same vibe of controlled chaos. That, and the candy’s glow was a key lighting decision.

The role of the smartphone was also deliberate. Besides accentuating the candy’s lime-green hue, the playful tease of voice-triggered actions was used to organically bring in atypical battle music. The effectiveness of this non-intrusive element contrasts the gratuitous uses of technological devices often seen in this film category. Surprisingly, they didn’t take the low-hanging fruit of showing a logo, even when they had a justifiable opportunity to do so. After all, who could fault a bouncing phone that shows its back during the briefcase’s descent? Clearly someone was cautious that this — one of Ant-Man’s best moments — would not become a brand showcase.

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Using a playroom as the stage for a final showdown is a similarly refreshing deviation from the cliché (although they did allow a vanilla phrase to slip in). Sporadic faraway shots effectively sell the diminutive scale of a threatening play area surrounded by an active train set, led by the instantly recognizable Thomas the Tank Engine. How the battle unfolds feels like something out of a cartoon, with Ant-Man chucking toy trains to knock Cross off-balance and later ducking underneath an arched block in lieu of a dark tunnel. While without the bandits and firearms to give it an overt western-style tone, the ant army and the respective power suits of the main characters fill such roles and essentially make for an inspired scene.

The constant big-world, small-world shifting that takes place is paced well so as not to be disorienting, while emphasizing the unique dynamics of a high-stakes battle in the Ant-Man universe that takes place on multiple planes. Thanks again to quick camera takes, what should be a tense moment — Thomas unwittingly committing murder or causing damage as he’s flung across the room — is quickly disarmed as we’re reminded of the fragility and small scope of the whole affair. But then we see an enlarged Thomas unexpectedly causing real damage, and we’re kept in a state of disbelief over the over-the-top implications that would tonally be similar but unheard of in form among formulaic blockbusters.

Broken kaleidoscope imagery that colors the following scene is more palpable than the aforementioned in how the gravity of the situation is relayed, yet the sheer absurdity of a giant Thomas the Tank Engine with — and this is key — apologetic, “Oh shucks!” eyes is a strong enough visual to overshadow the film’s standout moment of seriousness. Would a faceless train have worked just as well? Not when their goal was to blanket the extended altercation with the same air of silliness present throughout the film. This, too, was a carefully-considered choice.

Having product placement play such a prominent role during critical moments would ordinarily be seen as shallow, tasteless and of relative inconsequence. Yet with Ant-Man, it works and feels like an organic treatment for the whole. It’s a rare example of product placement serving a purpose other than senselessly brash cameos.