While it might be due to more of a quirk in scheduling than intention, Phase 2 of Marvel’s cinematic universe has come to end with another new property, in a section of their multi-film and TV epic narrative that has been mostly replete with sequels. I’ve been looking forward to Ant-Man for a long time now, and can count myself as one of the few who wasn’t even all that dismayed when Edgar Wrights much publicised leaving of the project was announced. I was excited for Ant-Man because of the visual possibilities in a genre that has hit stale territory, and because the cast looked so immense. With the right director and screenwriter, something great could be made, something to really capture the imagination in a way that the MCU has stuttered a bit in doing since Guardians Of The Galaxy. Were my expectations men, or would Ant-Man be the MCU’s first distinctive flop?
Expert burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), having finished a three year stint in prison, struggles to make something of himself so he can get back into his daughters life. He soon comes to the attention of reclusive scientific genius Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who has developed the means to shrink man and matter to tiny, capability-altering, sizes. Lang finds himself, along with Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), enlisted on a crusade to stop the machinations of Pym’s weaponizing-obsessed protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll).
Watching Ant-Man, I did feel, like many others, that I was watching a return to basics for Marvel Studios, a film producer which went big, big, big with their last few projects, but seems to want to tone things down significantly, especially in terms of budget, for their last offering of 2015. Comparisons to 2008’s Iron Man have abounded, in terms of narrative style and characters, and it’s easy to see why. This is not a unique story, or even one that I would say is extremely compelling in comparison to some other MCU efforts, but it is one that is (mostly) well told, a fun superhero adventure that adds a both a new dynamic to the power-fuelled world of the MCU, as well as some interesting new characters.
Like my pointer for sports films, perhaps I can amend it slightly for this, so saturated, genre: the best kind of superhero film are those that are not about superheroes. And so I think it is, in parts, for Ant-Man. This is a film about a man who gets to shrink in size and control ants, a premise so ludicrous that only the films abandon with depicting keeps it from getting silly. But, more than that, it is a film about fathers with estranged relationships with their daughters, through Lang and the child he barely gets to see, and Pym and the woman whom he has actively destroyed what little he had with. At that level, director Peyton Reed and several screenwriters have crafted a story that the audience can get swept up in: no other MCU film, or superhero film lately, have offered superpowered characters whose motivations are so wrapped up in fatherhood and being a good example for a following generation. That’s a somewhat unique hook, and was one of the reasons I was as engaged with Ant-Man as I was.
And there was another angle to it as well, in form of “sons I never had”. Pym is haunted by his failure with Cross, a man who, in maybe the scripts best moment, he “saw too much of himself” in. He takes on a new protégé to stop the first, a do-over that he is more determined to succeed in, and in the middle of the all the players is his own emotionally frustrated daughter, that both Lang and Cross end up bouncing off of. The family politics are complex enough in Ant-Man, but never get too complex. It’s a story about redemption, and it easy to line up behind Lang, a man who just wants to be the hero that his young daughter thinks he is, and not an ex-con schmuck who isn’t capable of making child support payments. You can also feel much for Hank Pym too, a man full of regrets for things long done, and emotionally incapable of making up for them in the present day.
The film is dominated by conversations featuring Pym and other characters – Lang, Hope and Cross, generally in that order – and must stand or fall in those conversations, whether they are exposition laden diatribes on the nature of the Ant-Man suit or more emotional conversations on the story of his life and the losses he has incurred. They both work and don’t: Michael Douglas, like Anthony Hopkins, Robert Redford and Glenn Close before him in Phase Two, adds a gravitas and legitimacy to proceedings in his depiction of the wounded Pym, desperately trying to put the cap back on the bottle he opened so long ago. And Rudd is perfectly cast as the ingenious, sarcastic and imminently likeable/sympathetic Lang, even if the character he plays is a walking cliché.
But where that all doesn’t work is in the script, which as most are aware has had to undergo several revisions, to the extent that there may have been as many as four proper drafts. Such a reality would take its toll on any story, and Ant-Man is no exception, with some holes and character problems evident throughout. Things are introduced, like, say, Lang’s apparent pacifism, that disappear during the course of the story or ore never elaborated upon. But the general script work is also not up to scratch either, bar in the humour stakes, where the jokes and cynical asides are well-timed, well-executed by the cast and mesh far better with the superhero drama than the same dynamic in Age Of Ultron. But in the quieter moments, between Pym and Lang talking about fatherhood and second chances, between Pym and Hope talking about the death of her mother and past regrets or between the maniacal Cross and anybody, a large measure of cliché, unexceptional musings and bland sentiment is evident. Beyond the jokes, and one or two moments here and there, Ant-Man is not a quotable film, in the way that other MCU offerings have been.
Where Ant-Man falls big time, repeating a problem that I would say the majority of MCU films have suffered from, is in its antagonist. From the moment that Darren Cross is introduced his villainy is beyond question, as he ramps up from sleazy businessman to murderous between opening scenes, and spends other ones openly talking about how much he hates Pym and how his “Yellowjacket” creation will be perfect for breaking international law and getting away with it. Over the top bad guys can work in superhero films – Loki isn’t subtle, and he’s still the MCU’s best antagonist – but the sort of instant crazy that Stoll has to portray here – and he does as well as he can I should add, avoiding Peter Russo comparisons – just doesn’t work all that well, with one scene involving animal test subjects being especially egregious, a moment ripe for mockery rather than horror. The films structure doesn’t allow Cross to make the kind of impact that he needs to make, and much like Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane in the already oft-compared Iron Man, Cross is stuck in just being this bombastic villain, good for a CGI-heavy set-piece but never making the right impression (he could have used a “WITH A BOX OF SCRAPS!” moment).
But Ant-Man is still fun. It’s an origin troy, and I always love those, since it is in origins that you usually find the best exploration of character. The MCU has long since perfected the art of making such explorations a blast as well, and Ant-Man’s bloated mid-section, the “promise of the premise” in Snyder-speak, is great, as Lang trains in the myriad of new powers open to him, does some macro-exploring and organises the caper that forms the backbone of the films third act. You can see a bit of Edgar Wright in some of the funny lines, and that comedy/drama mix, that I have felt the MCU has gotten wrong repeatedly in Phase 2, reaches a much more enjoyable level.
That being said, it must be noted that not all may be comfortable with the Michael Pena headed group of criminal misfits that accompany Lang on his journey. While avoiding total “bumbling sidekick” status thankfully, it is fair to say that there is a level of minority exploitation for humour going on with them, and a weirdly placed dig on “gypsies” by an eastern European character was a real “took me out of the film” moment. The film couldn’t just be a three-hander, and Pena and co add a nice dash of ethnicity to a cast that is as white as anything else Marvel has made in recent times, but you want more Anthony Mackie-style minority actors than those whose entire character is wrapped up in, admittedly funny, urban “speak”.
The MCU also needs more women with plot-critical roles, and Evangeline Lilly, while putting in a strong performance, doesn’t really get to provide that with Hope Van Dyne. As an actress and a character, she’s caught in the middle of a large group of men who get more lines, more screen time, more action and more plot impacting moments than she does, and by the time we reach the last act, Hope is just sort of there. She makes a bigger impression than the likes of Natalie Portman or Cobie Smoulders, but there was a chance here, hinted at in a few moments, for Hope to be a far bigger character. Maybe, in the future, she may get her chance, and I really hope that she does.
Ant-Man saves most of the action for an extended finale, which also seems to be mostly standard for the MCU nowadays, but this was one finale that was built towards and executed well. The nature of the premise allows for a delightfully fresh take on superpowered battles, with the micro world one where lots of unexpected environments can become battlefields and lots of unexpected things can become weapons. The trailer’s money shot of a child’s train set being one such environment is just a taste of what Ant-Man has to offer, and I was in love with the skilful way that this micro world, with its ants, time dilation and chorography possibilities, was implemented. For the first time in a while, maybe since The Winter Soldier and its tightly shot hand-to-hand combat scenes, I was really engaged fully with the action, with that action being diverse, exciting and inventive, everything that got me pumped up for Ant-Man in the first place, reaching true trippy territory as the possibilities of shrinking reach quantum levels. Beyond any trouble with his appointment, Reed has gotten that part of proceedings just right, though I suppose it is only fair to point out that Ant-Man, beyond the right sense of detail and warmth created in interior home sequences, is just a competently shot production beyond that.
Some brief spoiler talk follows.
-Interesting way to frame that story with an opening scene in the 80’s. Cameo appearances from John Slattery as Howard Stark and Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter were neat touches, along with the CGI work to make Michael Douglas look younger. Leading with the mentor character, rather than the nominal lead, was a risk, but it paid off I think.
-Our actual introduction to Lang is a good example of marketing inversion. Trailer shots showed him being beaten up in prison, but in the actual film it’s just a good natured, if bizarre, goodbye ritual upon his release from incarceration. I’m seeing such deception in film promotion all the time now, though this is a fairly mild example.
-Some good and bad product placement in Ant-Man. Baskin Robbins gets a funny inclusion as an unlikely all knowing corporate entity, but then later an iPhone is garishly included in the final battle.
-Judy Greer pops up as Lang’s estranged partner, mother to his daughter. Third film in a row I’ve seen her as a mom from a broken home. What a weird typecast to be locked into.
–Ant-Man also features Bobby Cannavale in another typecast role, this time as the good cop frequently outwitted by the hero. He was decent though.
-Scott’s idea of calling the Avengers to deal with the problem of Cross was a well-timed bone to an audience that is always wondering, in the individual movies, where the superhero team is. Pym’s reasoning for leaving them out of the loop was sound enough.
-There’s a great moment during the heist, when a shrunken Ant-Man dodges bullets in a model city, material exploding around him, that was a great parody/satire of the sort of urban dirt-cannon filled set-pieces that have come to dominate this genre.
-HYDRA’s unlikely cameo as part of Cross’ nefarious plan really fell flat, if for no other reason than they never even said anything.
-“Bring me more lambs to slaughter! Muhahahahaha!”
-The unexpected Falcon cameo started the tie-ins to the MCU’s next instalment, and doubled as the only bit of more traditional action before the third act. A decent fight scene too, and I’m not bored of Anthony Mackie Sam Wilson yet.
-Gotta love the intricacy and changing environment of that finale. From well orchestrated heist, to a fight inside a briefcase, to a slobberknocker built around a Thomas The Tank Engine set, Ant-Man delivered big-time on its premise in its last 20 minutes.
-Obviously the moment Hank Pym mentioned the quantum realm we knew we were going to end up there at some point, and Lang’s journey to it as a Kubrick-esque LSD trip of a sequence. But where I expected there to be some sight of glimpse of Janet, Pym’s lost wife, none came, and it felt like a strange omission.
-A romantic angle to the Scott/Hope relationship is thrown in at (nearly literally) the last minute, and felt a little cheap. It was played for laughs of course – Gotta like Douglas’s “You’re full of shit Scott” – but still felt very tacked on.
-The mid-credits hinting towards Evangeline Lilly as a new “Wasp” was much more appreciated, and I hope that Civil War might find some room for her.
-Call me terrible, but I did find Michael Pena’s roundabout trips through memory lane to be hilarious, if only because of the “speak” being forcibly placed in the mouths of characters who don’t talk like that. That final moment, which seemed to be a “Yes” to Lang’s request to become part of the Avengers, was an appropriate mix of funny and serious.
–Ant-Man featured the first post-credits scene in a while that I actually liked, setting up the Avengers divide in Civil War and the re-reintroduction of one Bucky Barnes. Lang looks like he will be firmly on the side of what I presume will be the renegades, which is already shaping up to be quite the heavy hitting side of a superhero strife (Cap, Falcon, Winter Soldier, Ant-Man, presumably Scarlet Witch against Iron Man, War Machine, Black Widow and presumably Vision, with Spidey and Hawk-Eye yet to be picked?).
Phase Two of the MCU has been an up and down affair, hitting a height with The Winter Soldier, and an early low with Iron Man 3, with plenty of entertaining offerings in-between. Ant-Man has now joined the canon, and his inventive little addition is a nice palette cleanser in-between two films of universe altering scope.
It has its problems, which are all but inevitable considering the slightly troubled pre-production: The script, through so many re-writes is a weakness at times. The villain is another poor effort from Marvel Studios and Hope Van Dyne is too sidelined. These would be experience destroying problems in other films, but somehow Ant-Man makes it through.
And that’s probably because the key duo of Paul Rudd, long overdue for a shot at a true megastardom, and Michal Douglas are so effective in their roles, and because the film is, generally, the kind of vehicle that allows for funny moments that feel well placed in the narrative as well as very inventive and memorable action sequences. In a world where the amount of buildings superheroes have destroyed has reached amazing levels, the action of Ant-Man is a true breath of fresh air, and worth the price of admission alone. Capping off Phase Two with a strong effort, the MCU has also do the requisite legwork for the coming Civil War, an Avengers 2.5 that means it won’t be too long before we get to enjoy the presence of Scott Lang again. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).