As of May 2018, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is 10 years and 19 films old. In celebration, we’re talking about the deeper elements of the MCU, mostly film-by-film. We’ve already talked about how Iron Man is about finding truth, why Incredible Hulk might not be in the MCU, that Iron Man 2 is the true beginning of the MCU, how Thor does the work to make the Avengers great, why Steve Rogers was alone BEFORE he fell in the ice, why the Avengers weren’t the Avengers until they beat the tar out of each other, how Iron Man 3 exposes the hidden symbolism of Tony’s life, that no matter what the advertisements say, Marvel TV isn’t connected to the MCU, that Loki’s greatest illusion is Loki himself, that the Winter Soldier represents Steve’s darkest fear, how Peter Quill didn’t know who Star-Lord was, my crazy fan theory about the Infinity Stones creating Ultron, that Ant-Man is the unfortunate casualty of the greater MCU, and why Steve Rogers had to sacrifice the Avengers for the good of the world.
Just like with my article on The Incredible Hulk, I was not looking forward to writing this one. At least in the case of Incredible Hulk, I had some interesting theories about the legacy of that movie in the context of the greater MCU. With Ant-Man, I don’t have anything overall positive or nuanced to bring out of this movie. To be blunt, I don’t think Marvel did either.
I think Marvel should be applauded that an Ant-Man movie happened at all. Ant-Man is a property that, like Iron Man, has had a movie in development for decades across different studios. Even the most recent, public-facing stories about the film being taken from Edgar Wright in August of 2014 are the tip of the iceberg and years after the first Wright screenplays were submitted to Marvel Studios in 2008, the same year that Iron Man was released with a MySpace joke in the first scene.
Just think about that. If things had gone according to plan we could have been talking about how tired we are of Ant-Man showing up in a less established MCU property right now.
So with one year before release, Edgar Wright leaves, taking most of his crew with him and Adam McKay, director of The Big Short and Anchorman, is brought in to adjust the script while Peyton Reed signs on as director and starts production with a cast he didn’t choose himself and whatever crew Marvel Studios could find.
If you think that all I want to do is kick a film while it’s down, then I hope you’ll look at the care and time that went into the other articles in this series. I am the kind of person that will watch a movie over and over again, mining each bit of dialogue for a greater understanding of a character’s motivations, for the larger themes, and for what each character represents in the greater narrative. Thor: The Dark World is pretty close to my least favorite MCU film and I still found enough material to write a thinkpiece on the character development of a supporting character.
I’ve watched it many times and Ant-Man has none of that.
Ant-Man flirts with greater ideas, but it never quite gets there. The macro lens sequences where Ant-Man is shrunk down to miniature are spectacular and Luis’s rants are a wonder to behold, but most of this film is just trying to get by, not unlike Scott Lang himself.
The frame of a good film is there. The drywall is up and they’ve got a nice clean surface to work with, but the final coat of paint doesn’t get applied.
Hank Pym has been tossed out of his company, usurped by his protege and the daughter he failed. He’s never quite been the same after the death of Hope’s mother, Janet, and Hank is now in self-imposed exile after a life of saving the world at great personal and mental cost.
Scott Lang has been in San Quentin prison for the last three years, so he’s been incapable of raising his daughter, Cassie. She’s being raised by Scott’s ex-wife and the Paxton, the opposite of Scott in that he’s a cop who doesn’t believe in superhero movies.
The villain Darren Cross even has the groundwork of great drama. He’s the rejected surrogate son of an emotionally negligent genius who has worked his whole life building up a name he can’t live up to, only to have some criminal take the place he covets in Hank Pym’s inner circle.
With all this former pain and striving to do better, there’s a lot of emotional material to mine. That’s enough right there for most movies to illicit at least some audience empathy or even extract a few tears, but Ant-Man never gets there. Other than being politely asked to leave his daughter’s birthday party, the audience never really gets to feel the pain of Scott Lang being separated from Cassie. There’s a brief quiet moment where Scott does the math on how long it would take for him to see Cassie if he worked the proper way to pay child support on the back of an envelope. Instead of seeing what a life without Cassie would be like, the audience is just told it would be hard before Scott shrugs and decides to go back to crime.
Hank and Hope shout at each other a little bit, and you feel like something might be there, but the audience isn’t shown enough to know how to feel. We’re simply told.
We all know we’re watching a comedy, so when little Cassie Lang is threatened by Yellowjacket there isn’t really much tension. We know that Ant-Man will win the day and (because this is a Marvel movie) Yellowjacket will not survive to the next film. Ant-Man doesn’t have time for dramatic tension because of the massive amount of ground they have to cover.
While the shrinking and growing of the Ant-Man is explained with a few lines, the exposition of (1) the heist and (2) the abilities of three different species of Ant-Man’s insect companions ends up in a quick-and-dirty montage that also covers (3) Scott’s martial arts training (which he doesn’t use), (4) the building of Scott and Hope’s relationship, (5) Hope calling out Hank for lying about her mother’s cause of death, and (6) a set-up for the consequences of fiddling with the regulator of the Ant-Man suit. That string of exposition, like the movie that contains it, like this article you’re reading, just needed to get done so we could move on to the next thing.
How does Hank Pym know about Scott Lang? Because he needs to and he has ants. Why does Darren Cross stop the action to present the top-ranking members of Hydra with a slideshow about Scott Lang? Because we need to establish that Cross knows about Scott’s family so he has some reason to show up in Cassie’s room to threaten Scott. Why does Paxton refuse to believe that Scott has superpowers despite him magically appearing in front him in a superhero suit? I don’t know, go ask your Pop.
For all that exposition, they also play it pretty loose on whether or not it’s size or density that makes a shrunken/embiggened object more powerful. Questionable instances include the shrunken tank that Hank’s been carrying on his keychain with no effort, sending Yellowjacket flying with a ping pong paddle, or the effectiveness of throwing toy blocks at each other in Cassie’s bedroom.
What’s more, Scott is shown to be an impressive cat-burglar with next-level ingenuity early on in the film, but once he puts on the Ant-Man suit, he may as well just be some random guy, because nothing about that super-agility or Macgyver-like resourcefulness comes into play once the suit is on. But, that’s just nitpicking, which can really get in the way of enjoying a movie.
Ant-Man isn’t a failure, it’s just slightly below average in the MCU. It hits all the notes with the precision you’d expect from the most well-functioning live-action studio in Hollywood.
In the end, it’s hard to watch this film and not think about what it could have been if Edgar Wright had directed it. It’s hard to watch this film and not think about what it could have been if Peyton Reed had been given the appropriate amount of time to make it. It’s just hard to watch this film without seeing the seams, and in that it fails as something more than 117 minutes of cool pictures and quips on a big screen.
For all that I’ve said in the negative about this film, I am truly looking forward to what Peyton Reed brings to Ant-Man and the Wasp when it comes out later this year. (Despite the impression the marketing has been making, apparently Marvel Studios plans to continue making films after Avengers: Infinity War). Best of luck to the cast crew.
If you feel the need to agree, disagree, or just vent, feel free to tweet me @NiceRevenger.
Next time – Captain America: Civil War