When Edgar Wright left his long gestating Ant-Man film weeks before principle production was going to begin, I was perhaps a little angry at Marvel for not letting Wright do what he wanted. Wright easily would’ve been the only other director next to Iron Man 3 director Shane Black to put a clear directorial stamp on an MCU film.
When Peyton Reed was brought on to direct and rewrite the script (in weeks and on set) with Adam McKay and Paul Rudd, I was nervous. Could we have another Iron Man 2 or Thor: The Dark World on our hands? It is a credit to the production apparatus Marvel Studios has built over the past 8 years and to Reed and Co. quick hands and skill that Ant-Man isn’t like the meandering Iron Man 2. But like Thor: The Dark World (a film with multiple director problems) Ant-Man isn’t exactly great. It is mostly structurally sound and fleetingly enjoyable but an overall middling film.
Peyton Reed is an accomplished comedy director and one of his co-writers is Adam Mckay. The comedy in Ant-Man comedy isn’t more numerous than other Marvel films. There is a better overall sense of timing in the edit then most and some delightful sight gags but this is by no means a comedy first.
Ant-Man is a film that didn’t fulfill its potential; it features unique characters and means of presenting action the other films did not. It even managed for but a few references and an act ending sequence eschew ties to the MCU, just being a movie that existed in the MCU. All of these things go a long way in differentiating itself from the rest of Marvels products. All of this makes some of the instances of using typical plays from Marvels book: women pushed to the side, Leading Men must have abs, and a under whelming and written villains, very annoying.
Since Iron Man the arrival of heroes and other weirdness has been portrayed largely as a present day occurrence. Captain America was shown to be as he is in the comics, a man from a different time, but with the end of World War II the masks and propaganda figures largely disappeared. Or did they just get harder to find? A short opening prologue set in the late 1980s, transforms Hank Pym, played by Michael Dougals, into an agent of SHIELD and slight propaganda figure during the Cold War. Douglas is digitally de-aged by the same visual effects crew by the same team who made Chris Evans small in The First Avenger. It’s short and surprisingly effective; there isn’t the uncanny valley like in the opening of Tron: Legacy. Transforming Hank Pym and the Ant-Man mantel into a legacy title is novel for the MCU and creates some much needed extra tension between Hanks daughter Hope Van Dyne and Scott Lang.
Now a seemingly bitter old man with his former protégé Darron Cross (Corey Stoll) replicating his greatest secret: the Pym Particle, Hank Pym has to recruit thief Scott Lang to steal it back before it’s sold to the highest bidder. With the heist nature of the film, that’s about as much straight plot that is worth recapping or setting up.
Scot Lang isn’t a god like Thor. He isn’t a billionaire-playboy-philanthropist in a suit of armor either. He’s a slightly above average joe, a middle class cat burglar with a Robin Hood complex, were told. That’s actually something unique for the MCU, where the majority of its inhabitants are upper crust business men or agents of the State. Even if it is a plot centered on America’s military industrial complex there is a slight working class vibe.
Rudd is an overall affable presence in the film but was over matched in the energy and comedy department by his co-stars. Evangeline Lilly’s Hope Van Dyne has a more interesting angle in the relationship with her father and is shown on multiple occasions to be an overall more competent physical presence. While the fast talking Luis, played by Michael Pena, delivers the funniest moments of the film. There aren’t any rough edges on Scott Lang just smooth, bland, inoffensive.
This is a symptom of how much the film tells us things, like how much Scott loves his daughter, instead of showing it. Save for a brief scene at the beginning and middle, Scott’s relationship with his daughter is nothing more than an abstract quest item. In one of several supposed to be inspirational speeches, Hank Pym tells Scott that being the Ant-Man will earn that look in his daughters eye. Only he already has earned it by trying to be her Father. Yes events conspire to separate them but becoming a “superhero” and stealing “some shit” don’t seem like viable path to redemption or the repair of his relationships.
The articulation of character is the weakest aspect of the film. The main trio (Pym,Lang, and Hope) are all surface level. There are hints at a darker maybe even sinister side of Hank, and the film even admits that he is just using Scott as a patsy but none of this is really explored. Just one off justification for keeping Hope in a supportive role.This movie plays a lot of moments very earnest but there isn’t enough substance to make it not feel a little hollow, or have then undercut by poor jokes. If it weren’t for the gravitas and charm of Douglas, Lilly, Pena, this movie would be much worse.
In Evangeline Lilly’s two other most recent appearances on screen, she has done a lot with characters made up just for the film. And they have struggled because of that. Her presence being so much greater then Rudd’s made it annoying to see her character, shoved to the side and support the Ant-Men of the film. The Comics Cannon cannot be disrupted or let this movie really be about Fathers and Daughters from the pov of a Daughter. As calls for Marvel to diversify its character line up rightly intensify, seeing Hope struggle against the patriarchal system she finds herself in was maddening. She has so much promise as a character and presence on screen, and no the meta reference at the end doesn’t mean it is fulfilled. The end credit says Ant-Man will return not Hope.
One of the more refreshing aspects of Ant-Man is how action and set pieces are handled. Marvel Studios is in the business of spectacle and the shrinking power of Ant-Man allows for that spectacle at literally a small scale. This was achieved with the usage of macro photography, taking pictures of small objects and making their proportions seem gigantic. In an interview with BirthMoviesDeath.com explaining the process was to create a tactile feel for the digital environments. These environments also allowed for the digital camera to more simply track Lang as he goes through a pipe or other enviroments, instead of cutting back and forth in awkward Bayhem. The difference from these highly planned sequences and extended bouts of human action made me long for Scott doing yet another training montage.
This presentation when mixed with the heist plot of the film and Ant-Mans Ant Mind Control, emphasize non-violent problem solving in ways that seem fresh. Scott even says it himself, he hates violence. So he uses his shrinking abilities and control over ants to sneak around places and not just kill people. Of course by the end of the film he has trained his body and the suit to become a human bullet of destruction but that’s Marvel.
There was something different in Ant-Man, the kernel of a potentially different way of doing Marvel Movies. It has left me wanting more just because of the promise of it all. The odds of that promise being fulfilled are low, with no Ant-Man 2 on the docket for the next half decade. That leaves Ant-Man a half interesting, vessel of unexplored potential.