I believe that Marvel Studios has their hearts in the right place. Say what you will about their movies and TV shows, but every single entry in the MCU is positively gleaming with polish, clearly made of, by, and for those who deeply love the comics that these characters and stories are derived from.
As such, I believe that the Marvel brass sincerely wants the best, brightest, most passionate creative talent behind their shows. When Kevin Feige says that he wants to find new writers and directors with their own unique vision for the screen, I think he really does mean what he says.
The fact remains that these shows are all part of a higher gestalt. Each show has to work on its own terms while also feeling consistent with the greater whole. Moreover, one of the drawbacks to experimentation is that sometimes experiments fail, and that is not something that Marvel can afford. The entire MCU is built on a stack of cards: All it takes is one mistake, one misplaced card, to bring the whole thing crashing down. The films are all so interconnected that any one mistake could potentially have far-reaching ramifications for years down the line. Hell, a big enough mistake could even ruin previous entries, retroactively spoiling years of setups and established continuity.
So the shows have to be consistent enough to maintain quality and feel like a single unified whole, yet varied enough to keep everything from growing stale. The directors and writers need enough freedom to tell their stories in their own way, yet the exec producers need enough freedom to intervene when something doesn’t fit. It’s a tricky problem, trying to balance the needs of the individual against the needs of the greater party. It’s also one of the most enduring philosophical conundrums that governments and economies have been grappling with for milennia, but I digress.
Probably the most public instance in Marvel’s case concerns one Edgar Wright. His nerdy bona fides need no introduction, in large part because Wright has such a unique voice in modern cinema. But in hindsight, I think we all should have known that his style was completely wrong for Marvel. Kevin Feige can talk all he wants about how Joss Whedon and James Gunn so clearly brought their own distinct tastes to their respective films, and that’s proof of how Marvel’s filmmakers can work as unique talents within the system. But this is something different.
The thing about Wright is that his movies are all comical in a way that’s goofball and self-effacing, yet respectful to the audience in an implicit kind of way. Put simply, his works all have a distinctly British sensibility. This stands in direct contrast with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which was always a quintessentially American creation. The script and direction for The Avengers may have been pure Whedon, and Guardians of the Galaxy is unmistakably a James Gunn film, but they were both very clearly made to fit within American culture just as The World’s End and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World very clearly weren’t.
Of course, that’s not to say Wright couldn’t make a film in a more American style. I’m absolutely sure he could. But the result would fall far short of the brilliance that we know Wright is capable of when working within his comfort zone. Square peg, round hole.
Though it’s still a disappointment that Wright couldn’t get Ant-Man off the ground when he wanted to so many years ago. The notion of a shrinking/growing hero fits perfectly into the hyperkinetic style we’ve all come to know and love from Wright. His self-aware humor also fits beautifully with a hero who’s always seemed like sort of a joke. Even established comic fans were like “Really? That’s the one you’re going with?”
This brings me to another, far more important point: Even if we set aside all the behind-the-scenes difficulties this movie so clearly had, Ant-Man had SO MANY staggering barriers that it had to get through before it could even be a remotely good movie. And it overcame all of them to be an incredible film.
For instance, let’s start with Hank Pym. For those of you who aren’t up on your comic book history, Pym was the inventor of the Pym Particle that allowed him to change size, and also of a cybernetic helmet that allowed him to communicate with ants. With these technologies, he became the first Ant-Man and later a founding member of the Avengers, alongside love interest Janet “The Wasp” van Dyne.
Then the Bronze Age happened, and the comics industry took a darker turn in an attempt to be more socially relevant. In Hank Pym’s case, this meant that he became a raging alcoholic who beat his (soon-to-be-ex-)wife. He then proceeded to invent several machines that would later go on murderous killing sprees (the most famous example being Ultron, who was created by Tony Stark in the film continuity), until he was finally kicked out of the Avengers. That’s right: Hank Pym was such an uncontrollable alcoholic womanizing mad scientist that even Tony Stark was like “Dude, you got problems.”
To this day, Hank Pym is still better known for his lapses in morality and sanity than anything he’s ever done as a superhero. There’s a tremendous amount of baggage associated with the character, and anyone who’s ever dealt with Hank Pym has had to address that elephant in the room. So how does the film approach Hank Pym?
Well, the film version of Hank Pym (here played by Michael Douglas) has absolutely no given history of wife-beating. Quite the contrary, Hank blames himself for the death of his wife, which happened under highly mysterious circumstances that came about through no intentional act on his part, I assure you. Hank also has no history of substance abuse. Indeed, the guy burns so many bridges with SHIELD, his own company, and God knows whoever else in making sure that no one can abuse his Pym Particle substance.
This brings me to another huge obstacle this movie had to deal with: Ant-Man’s abilities. Not only do we need to believe that Ant-Man is a legitimate superhero worthy to stand with the Avengers, but we also need to believe that Ant-Man’s abilities could cause unimaginable worldwide catastrophe if they fell into the wrong hands.
And what can he do? He can shrink and he can talk to ants. That doesn’t exactly sound like a big deal. But this movie will convince you otherwise.
First of all, shrinking down to the size of an insect means that Ant-Man is practically invisible and able to squeeze through the tiniest opening. So it’s pretty much the next best thing to being a ghost. It also helps that Ant-Man somehow retains his density and strength through pseudoscience, so he’s able to jump really high and punch really hard, which in turn means that he can take out anyone and they would literally never see him coming. Moreover, Ant-Man doesn’t really lose any of the advantages that come with being a full-sized human, because he can go from ant-sized to full-sized and back again in the space of half a second.
All of this naturally means that the fight scenes kick serious ass. This is where Edgar Wright’s presence is most keenly felt, since the action scenes are all brimming over with creativity and energy that I would normally associate with Wright’s work. The fights move with jaw-dropping speed, and all the rapid growing/shrinking lends a beautifully creative new spin on all the usual motions of punching and gunning.
As for the ability to talk to ants… well, first of all, the ants are going to be the breakout stars of this movie. Easily. The film is positively infested with massive hordes of ants, and they’re all given so much personality that it really feels like a loss when they get killed off. They don’t even talk and they barely have anything that resembles emotion, yet Ant-Man interacts with them in a way that engenders so much sympathy. You can’t help but cheer when the fire ants build a scaffolding, when the bullet ants attack some guy, or when Ant-Man is flying atop his favorite winged arthropod.
This brings me to the bigger point: These insects really are Ant-Man’s greatest allies. There are so many species of ants out there, all with their own unique abilities, and there are hundreds of them within reach at any given time. As such, the ability to control them telepathically is pretty darn close to telekinesis. It doesn’t even take a cybernetic helmet like the comics: This version of the character uses an earpiece that could easily be mistaken for an everyday hearing aid.
With all of that said, I do have one little nitpick: If anyone seriously wanted to make bank off of this technology, they wouldn’t sell the Pym Particle or the ant-controlling device. No, they’d sell whatever the fuck the Ant-Man suit is made out of. Between the shrinking, the growing, the stretching, the falls from insane heights, the punches (both given and taken), the gunshots, and everything else that suit goes through in this picture, it’s ridiculous that the suit never seems to take a scratch. Yet it’s still somehow vulnerable to a Taser shot when the plot requires it. I don’t get that.
Anyway, I suppose I’ve gone long enough without bringing up the actual hero of the picture. That would be Scott Lang, the second Ant-Man (played here by Paul Rudd), who was brought in to try and revitalize the character and ditch Hank Pym’s baggage in a way that didn’t require a full reboot. What’s more, Lang was always a guy who wanted to do right by his daughter, so he turned to crime when no other option was there, and Pym gave him a chance at redemption. This makes for a far more sympathetic character, and a more compelling backstory than “genius creates stuff,” so making Lang the MCU’s primary incarnation of the character makes a lot of sense. Even better, here’s a power set that includes invisibility, telekinesis, and the ability to move through tiny openings… and it’s in the hands of a thief. Such a brilliant setup for a heist movie, which is in turn a brilliant spin on the superhero genre.
But this brings me to the next problem the film had to cope with: Making Paul Rudd look like a plausible superhero. Back when this film was under Wright’s direction, I never had a doubt in my mind: the guy made Michael Cera look like a plausible superhero, for God’s sake. But it’s not even a problem under Peyton Reed’s direction, either — no matter who’s behind the camera or who’s giving the direction, it’s still just a guy in a suit. A self-contained suit at that, with a mask that covers the entire head.
No, the real test of this actor was always going to be Scott Lang, not Ant-Man. It’s all about how well Rudd can play the character when the mask comes off. So who is Scott Lang under the mask? He’s a guy who got his Master’s in electrical engineering, only to find out that the company he worked for was swindling his customers. So he sacrificed his career, his family, and however many years in prison to steal from his workplace and set things right. Then he gets out only to find that his ex-wife is getting remarried, he can’t get employed as an ex-con, and no one wants anything to do with him no matter how badly he wants to provide for his little girl.
Burglary skills and master’s degree aside, Scott is an everyman. He’s not a genius, he’s not a millionaire, he doesn’t have any special abilities. He’s just a guy with his heart in the right place who can’t seem to catch a break no matter how he tries. Put simply, the role fits so far into Rudd’s wheelhouse that we can tell just from looking at him that even though he may be a criminal, he’s certainly not a bad guy. Of course, it helps a lot that Rudd isn’t afraid to make an ass of himself and he does get a few good jokes in. Though I notice that a lot of the more self-effacing jokes from the trailer never made final cut (I kept waiting for Rudd to comment on the name, but I don’t think he ever did).
It’s also very intriguing to note the parallels that keep getting drawn between the two Ant-Man characters. As an example, Scott just got out of prison and he’s absolutely determined to stay away from any criminal business no matter how badly his old associates want him to go on one more heist. Compare that to Hank, who left his company years ago and has repeatedly shut down anyone who wants to learn about or profit from the Pym Particle. But of course, the big parallel between them has to do with their daughters.
Scott’s daughter (Cassie, played by a suitably adorable Abby Ryder Fortson) is an eight-year-old girl who really loves her daddy and can’t begin to understand why anyone would think he’s a bad man. By contrast, Hank’s daughter (Hope van Dyne, played by Evangeline Lilly) has held a deep-seated grudge against her father ever since her mom died. Though I’m sure it didn’t help that little Hope was sent away to boarding school after her tragedy — at least Cassie still has her mom to provide a stable nurturing home. Those differences aside, both storylines are about girls who were abandoned (at a very similar age, I might add) by fathers who wanted nothing more than to be there for them. Scott and Hank have both fucked things up, and everything they’ve ever done has been toward the purpose of setting things right. Though that doesn’t mean Hope has to like it.
From the very outset, Hope makes it abundantly clear that she is back on speaking terms with her father ONLY because she hates him far less than she fears what would happen if someone got hold of the Pym Particle. Even then, she’s still pissed off because Hank won’t let her take the Ant-Man suit and deal with the problem even though it’s her birthright and she knows everything about the suit and how it works and she’s a martial arts expert and she knows the facility inside and out and they’re still giving the suit to a total stranger who has to be trained from the ground up, WHAT THE FUCK?!
Hope spends most of the film as a stone-cold bitch, and it’s not like she doesn’t have an excuse for that. Still, it was a wonderful thing to watch her learn and grow over the course of the film, even if the bulk of her development was crammed into a couple of (admittedly very effective) scenes. Moreover, even if Hope isn’t really the one in the suit, she’s still a character with agency who’s not afraid to push back against her male costars, and she’ll never pass up the slightest opportunity to advance the plot in any way. The movie also didn’t try to push Hope into a forced romance arc (until a scene at the end, which treats the subject more like a joke than anything else), which is always appreciated.
That said, it is a little disappointing that her arc was almost entirely reliant on her daddy issues, and the characters fall back on that tired trope of keeping her away from the action “to keep her safe” when we know damn well she can take care of herself. Luckily, the character still has a ton of potential, and the filmmakers are very explicit in their interest toward building on that potential in future installments.
(Side note: It’s perhaps worth mentioning that Hope van Dyne was more or less created for this movie out of whole cloth. Though there is a character of that name in the comics, she only appeared in an alternate timeline outside the mainstream continuity and I can’t find any similarity between her and the film version.)
Now we come to another huge problem this movie had: the rogues gallery. Since Ant-Man’s greatest enemy has always been himself, he’s never really had anything to resemble an iconic nemesis. He doesn’t have a Joker or a Magneto or a Doctor Doom — he’s got Egghead, The Porcupine, and The Voice. So how are we supposed to have our hero go up against a worthy opponent who will provide us with great cinema?
Well, the filmmakers gave us a villain the same way they gave us a female lead: They went ahead and made one up.
Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) was a protege to Hank Pym, obsessed with wheedling out the secrets of the Pym Particle. Then Hope (who’s on the board of Pym’s company, natch) went and put Darren in charge of her father’s company just out of spite. So now Darren is within inches of cracking the Pym Particle formula, set to weaponize it by way of his revolutionary Yellowjacket power suit and humiliate his former mentor while making billions of dollars and causing global chaos in the process.
(Side note: There are characters named Darren Cross and Yellowjacket in the comics, but they bear so little resemblance to this character that it barely deserves mention.)
On a scale of Loki to Malekith, I’d rate him somewhere around Whiplash. Darren has the good fortune to be played by an actor with enough charisma to theoretically pull it off, but he’s still a weak villain. He’s an antagonist driven purely by hatred of our main characters, but his motivations for that hatred are too petty to sufficiently justify what a monster he’s supposedly become. Thus his actions seem to be mostly plot-driven, and we have no reason to hate the guy aside from the fact that he’s a total asshole. Then again, the filmmakers do try to gloss things over with the explanation that Pym Particles can cause brain damage and insanity unless the user is properly shielded. But that explanation is so stupid, unnecessary, and just plain lazy that I can’t tell if it makes things better or worse.
Now we move on to the supporting cast. Judy Greer makes an appearance as Scott’s ex-wife, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve gone on some rant about how she’s a terribly underrated actress who deserves way better than the forgettable bit roles she keeps landing. Luckily, Maggie is a small yet indispensable part of the family life that serves as Scott’s entire motivation. The role needed someone who could do a whole ton of work with very little screen time, and Greer delivers. Likewise, Bobby Cannavale plays Maggie’s new fiancee (also a cop, to Scott’s chagrin), and he brings a fair bit of dimension to what could easily have been some brain-dead asshole. Also, Wood Harris plays his partner. Damn, it’s good to see him on the screen.
Then we have Scott’s partners in crime. We have a Latino played by Michael Pena, a Russian played by David Dastmalchian, and a black guy played by T.I. And these guys are the comic relief. Boy, was that uncomfortable. I don’t generally consider myself hypersensitive about political correctness or anything like that, but I had to raise an eyebrow at the sight of three racial stereotypes (all of whom are criminals, remember) being made to look like a bunch of annoying clowns for our comic relief. I was under the impression that Marvel was more progressive than that, especially since they went so far out of their way to make Hope van Dyne (and Gamora, and Black Widow, and Peggy Carter, and Maria Hill, and Karen Page, and the entire female cast of “Agents of SHIELD”…) an equal to her male peers. Then again, I suppose it’s hardly news that Marvel Studios hasn’t quite figured out racial equality yet — it’s already an old joke about how they have three separate franchises headlined by some blonde white guy named Chris.
Speaking of which, let’s move on to the film’s ties to the greater MCU. The prologue shows us the Triskelion still under construction, John Slattery appearing as Howard Stark for the first time since Iron Man 2, and Hayley Atwell appearing as an aged Peggy Carter. We also see Michael Douglas made 25 years younger via CGI, which was quite well done. In the present day, as if to make up for how pathetically underutilized he was in Age of Ultron, Anthony Mackie gets to show up for a fantastic scene as Falcon. Can’t wait to see what happens the next time he meets up with Scott.
HYDRA also makes an appearance, which frankly surprised me. Given recent events on “Agents of SHIELD” and Age of Ultron, I was under the impression that HYDRA was only a handful of members away from complete obliteration. It would take something huge for them to come back, and this film may have given it to them. We’ll see what happens when “SHIELD” gets back on the air.
The film also introduces us to something called the “quantum realm.” Not much is known about it, except that it’s some unknown state of being where our concepts of time and space have no meaning. I’d wager that this is some way of setting up the magical components of the MCU, soon to be heavily utilized by way of Doctor Strange and probably the “Iron Fist” series on Netflix. At least I hope that this comes into play again very soon, otherwise it would be an overexplained piece of nonsense that serves no point aside from being a flashy deus ex machina, and that would just be silly.
Wrapping up on miscellaneous notes, I’ve gotta say that there were a few issues with the pacing. The runtime comes in at a lean two hours, and I appreciate that, but it doesn’t come without a few trade-offs. Especially when we’re dealing with the origin story of a man who goes from being a complete nobody to a superhero the way Scott does. At the start of a movie, Scott could barely hold his own in a prison fight. At the halfway point, he’s throwing down with a New Avenger. It’s tough to believe that he could come so far without years or even decades of training, but the plot is so over-reliant on montages that it’s hard to get a sense of time passing anyway. I should also add that certain arcs (most notably the Hank/Hope storyline) were confined pretty much entirely to one or two scenes apiece. They were nicely acted, I grant you, but a more gradual movie-long arc might have been more satisfying.
Last but not least, there’s the score. To me, nothing endears a superhero film like an iconic theme that I can hum on my way out the theater and strongly associate with the title character being awesome. Christophe Beck got the job done. It’s such a simple melody, but it’s used in so many dynamic ways throughout the picture. Whether Ant-Man is shepherding ants, running a heist, or doing more conventional superhero things, that main theme is always utilized in a way that perfectly suits the action and the character.
Ant-Man is not a perfect movie, but it’s a tremendous amount of fun. From the superhero heist conceit to all the myriad uses of Ant-Man’s unusual powers, everything about this film is positively brimming over with energy and creativity. There are some wickedly clever action set pieces bolstered by fantastic CGI, and the superbly chosen cast makes the character drama nicely compelling. The comedy can be hit-and-miss, but even the failed jokes do so much to lend this film a kind of charm.
I have absolutely no problem giving this a strong recommendation. Go see it, pay for all the IMAX/3D premiums you can, and don’t you dare leave before the end credits are good and over.