I’ve mentioned a couple of times before how I’ve wanted a visionary director to join the Marvel studios brand and manage to do something interesting with their increasingly homogenised output. Someone who could make a film with visual style and personality unique unto itself yet still fit within their established cinematic universe. And I really thought Edgar Wright was that filmmaker. It’s depressingly telling that he was removed from Ant-Man just before shooting began, further cementing the notion that Marvel don’t want directors who’ll bring something distinct to one of their movies, and replacing Wright with the much more anonymous Peyton Reed (Yes Man, The Break-Up).
As a fan of Edgar Wright, knowing that he had been working on this film for years and still retains a screenplay and executive producer credit makes it admittedly difficult to watch Ant-Man without constantly attempting to deduce which parts originated with him (and his co-writer Joe Cornish) and which ones are from the re-writes (by Anchorman director Adam McKay and star Paul Rudd). There’s one moment in particular involving the sudden appearance of a song during a fight sequence that Reed fails to really do anything with but left me thinking how Edgar Wright would have nailed this joke.
However, we can’t spend too much time lamenting what could have been, instead let’s take what we’ve actually got. Ant-Man is for the most part a fun superhero movie that should satisfy fans of the existing MCU films. It has a strong emphasis on comedy and succeeds in scoring a good number of laughs. Paul Rudd is likeable as ever in the lead as Scott Lang, a former criminal (though the film goes out of its way to enforce that he was not a violent criminal) who’s recruited by scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) to become the new ‘Ant-Man’, using a suit that can shrink his size down to microscopic proportions.
The shrinking technology does provide some new material for a superhero movie to explore, and Ant-Man contains a number of inventive sequences from Lang’s miniature perspective, which were apparently shot using actual ‘macro-photography’ rather than CGI. I’d happily see more of these type of scenes in any future Ant-Man MCU appearances (which the credits assure us will happen).
Marvel touting Ant-Man as being a ‘heist movie’ turns out to only be superficially true, much like the notion of Captain America: The Winter Soldier being a “seventies-style conspiracy thriller”. No, these are Marvel superhero movies far above anything else, and that’s all Ant-Man feels like. Not that that’s an inherently bad thing, this film functions as an effective introduction to this less-familiar character (I’ve never read a single Ant-Man comic myself) but a lot of this is very standard superhero origin material. In fact there are two heist sequences in the film, and of these the earlier one, when Lang has no Ant-Man powers, is the more enjoyable one in seeing how he uses everything in his environment to overcome unexpected obstacles.
The big third act heist is actually more of a precursor to the fight scene the movie’s really been building up to. Now here’s where I’m a little conflicted; I’ve complained about every Marvel movie since The Avengers having the exact same climactic battle and have wanted them to do something else. Ant-Man pleasingly does not end in this manner, but at the same time has an ending that is essentially the same as the first Iron Man’s – it’s still not doing anything new. There is at least no world-threat here, and Reed packs in a number of great action-comedy beats utilising the film’s technology. There is also the more dubious aspect to Ant-Man’s powers – that he can use an earpiece to control various species of ants, that results in some good moments – like Pym using them to assist in his domestic life, and some bad ones. Most obviously when the film frequently mentions how excruciatingly painful a bullet ant sting is then having one have no discernible effect on a villain.
The similarities to Iron Man are also present in the relationship Hank Pym shares with the film’s villain (Corey Stoll) which is just Tony Stark and Obadiah Stane swapped around. Marvel’s villain problem is one that still needs considerable work, Stoll’s Darren Cross is yet another completely forgettable Marvel villain, boring on the page and on the screen. .
Another huge issue with Ant-Man is its female characters, I haven’t read any feminist critiques of this movie but I’m sure they’re out there. Lang is primarily trained by Hank’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who, as the characters state on several occasions, would be better for the job than he is. The movie tries to have its cake and eat it with her, presenting a potential female superhero then having an onscreen excuse for her not to be able to do anything significant. The net result is you’re still side-lining the character, throwing the audience a bone in a post credits scene does not suffice.
It’s also the third film this year to waste Judy Greer in a thankless role as Lang’s ex-wife (fourth if you count Entourage, which I haven’t seen). Despite this, I do have to give the film some credit regarding its family dynamics. Lang has a young daughter with whom he wants to maintain a relationship, however he is not trying to get back together with his ex-wife and her new fiancé (Bobby Cannavale) is refreshingly presented as being a generally decent guy, rather than going the typical route and making him an asshole so we’d automatically root for Lang.
Ant-Man does better with some other supporting characters too, Lang’s small crew of friends are primarily there for comic relief but all serve important roles in pulling off the heists. Michael Peña as his former cell-mate is absolutely hilarious, getting most of the biggest laughs in the film in his limited screen-time, including a couple of brilliantly inventive monologue-montages.
Ant-Man’s place within the MCU offers mixed fortunes, an early line of dialogue acknowledging the existence of The Avengers works excellently, but not so much when one later turns up for a gratuitous cameo, or indeed a reference to Spider-Man that must have been dropped in at the last minute. The film also begins with a flashback featuring some returning characters that’s worth mentioning as it amusingly features Hayley Atwell in old-age make-up acting opposite Michael Douglas who’s been digitally de-aged (quite astonishingly well I might add, he looks just like he did in the eighties).
Ant-Man is overall another solid addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that while bogged down by familiar issues, still offers lot of enjoyment. Ultimately it seems that if they are going to insist on driving out the most talented directors, Marvel may never make a truly great film, but if ‘another solid addition’ is really all they want, they know how to get one.