Marvel Cinematic Universe: Ant Man

On May 4 2008, Iron Man premiered in the US onto the big screen.So began a huge gamble by an iconic but insecure comic book company that only 10 years previous was saved from bankruptcy. As we look on a decade later, we have 19 films, 11 television shows, 5 shorts, comic book tie-ins, video game tie-ins, and a collective box office take of 16.8 billion dollars and rising, nobody can deny the cultural or financial impact the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had on cinema.

So important that I started this 2 months late! Let’s just pretend I’m coinciding it with the release of Ant Man & The Wasp. Which won’t be out here til August because of the World Cup, apparently. Thanks, legendary crossover appeal of soccer and superhero fiction!

This series of movies is fascinating because on one hand it shouldn’t work, and yet at the other it’s meticulously designed to. They are the popcorn flicks to end all popcorn flicks. I think this is an interesting avenue to explore, because even carefully design products of mass-entertainment have their mechanical bells and whistles. And I’ve had this idea for a while, even all the way back in early 2015 where I wrote an intro piece when Guardians of the Galaxy was the latest release and never went back to it. I was…hopeful back then.

So here are some ground rules going forward. They’re rather straightforward, but I likely won’t write them again going forward, so pay attention!

-I’m doing the first two phases. I think they have some interesting thematic links via the Phases, which I will be exploring. Phase 3, as of this writing, has not been completed. I’d rather judge the Phases as one collective entity so to speak. They have their functions and interesting quibbles that developed as these movies grew more popular and culturally ubiquitous.

-I may do a breakdown of Phase 3 movies once the Phase has ended and if I have any interest in continuing this series. Phase 3, frankly, has some of the better movies of the MCU, so I may hold myself to that.

-I’ll be ranking them, but only after I finish every review. Those curious can just skip my rambling and go right to the bottom of the blog if that’s all they want.

-I’m working backwards. From Ant Man all the way to Iron Man. Why am I doing it this way? Well, I think it’s more interesting to see the evolution more from a starting point of a film closer to now than one from a decade ago. Ant Man is also really formulaic, so it’s rather fortunate it’s where Phase 2 officially ends because seeing how the series changed working backwards will be more interesting once we get to Iron Man starting from ‘Iron Man But With Ants’.

-I won’t get this series finished before the next Avengers movie. I’d like that. But it won’t happen.

Anyway, let’s talk about Ant Man!

Origins

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Oh, holy shit, where do I start with this…?

One point to bring up is the nature of films based on superhero properties, especially live action, are not one-to-one adaptations. They’re usually an amalgamation of various different storylines throughout that characters long and sordid career, with occasionally one particular story creating the spine for the film. So X2 uses elements primarily from the comic God Loves, Man Kills, while creating an entirely new story with it. I’m mainly pointing this out because these characters tend to have a long development process with various different writers, directors, studios, etc. attached to them, so I’m mainly focusing on the life that eventually led to their MCU film being made. This will be the case for all of the movies I cover, though I won’t point it out every time.

Ant Man had been a project they’d been shopping around for a while. Eventually the rights were bought by, of all people, Howard Stern, all the way back in 2000. Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish wrote a treatment in 2003 that would focus on the Scott Lang version of the character. This was when Artisan were producing the film with Marvel, as the MCU was merely a glint in Avi Arad’s eye at that point. They gave Marvel a pitch for the movie, and in 2006 Wright was hired to direct Ant Man with him and Cornish co-writing the screenplay. This would mark one of the first directors hired for one of their films independently produced by Marvel alongside Jon Favreau for Iron Man.

Two elements remained in place throughout the production; that of the mentor/mentee relationship with Scott and Hank Pym, who would be the original Ant Man from the 60s, and it being a heist movie. However, things started to slow as the movie entered production hell. This was partially due to the massive loan Marvel had overtaken making them more concerned with making movies with the flagship heroes they had left to form an Avengers movie. Ant Man kind of took the back seat, and it expanding into an interconnected universe clashed slightly with the vision of the original Wright/Cornish script. Still, they continued rewrites, toning down the comedy to make it more action-based. With hype for this new universe heating up and Marvel still not greenlighting the script, Wright moved onto other projects, including Scott Pilgrim Vs the World.

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Wright and Cornish.

Avengers hits, and it takes over the world. Ant Man was not present despite talks that he may due to Wright’s plans for the character. But further delays with Wright working on The World’s End and Cornish working on Attack the Block halted their redraft slightly.  They finally got it done and Ant Man was officially scheduled. Things started to pick up, however, with the one-two knockout successes of Avengers and Iron Man 3, Kevin Feige and co. wanted to move to make Ant Man more connected with the broader MCU, which Wright felt would be a mistake in terms of how to develop the concept. Wright started pre-production in 2013, but creative tensions were still being felt between director and studio.

Casting was announced, including Michael Douglas, Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Pena and Corey Stoll. A fifth redraft was asked of Wright and Cornish, and this culminated in Wright being informed they were getting a new draft of the script, but without the duo writing. This obviously upset Wright, but he held off doing anything until he read the redraft a month later. After reading it, he officially resigned as director.

Marvel has to scramble to save face, and after asking a few directors, Bring It On and Yes Man director Peyton Reed was hired as Wright’s replacement. While Adam McKay, frequent collaborator of Will Farrell, passed on directing, he did rewrite the script with Paul Rudd. The movie was put into production, moved to the end of Phase 2 (it was originally the opening film of Phase 3),

I rambled off the behind-the-scenes stuff not to bemoan the fact that Edgar Wright (who I won’t hide is one of my favourite directors) did not end up directing this movie. And we could play around with the internal politics of it all; Wright felt the creative vision of a project he worked on for 8 years was washed over, Feige and co. wanted to pin this into the broader collaborative process of the MCU, but to be honest I’m not here to make up your minds on this. Would I have liked to seen one of the best filmmakers working do a movie within the MCU? Of course. Is Wright ever going to work with them? I doubt it. But what’s important here isn’t moaning that a film wasn’t made, it’s look at a film that was, and Ant Man is one that’s clearly been compromised.

Now this has changed somewhat in the last few years (Phase 3 is filled with filmmakers taking the MCU into interesting areas), but at this point they are not really as interested in letting Wright do what he thinks is best. They are making these movies feel like a cohesive whole. We can speculate as to why (and, in fact, if I ever do a long form review of Civil War, I may do that!), but what we have here is, by the writers/director’s own admission, the spine of another creative teams’ vision being reimagined and rewritten by guys a lot more willing to toe the line. This leaves Ant Man as a film bursting with ideas, and ones I will admit were not in Wright and Cornish’s script (the quantam realm stuff and Luis’ stories, to name a few). But it also leaves us with a movie that feels weightless and not close to reaching its potential.

So, now let’s talk about the film proper! Starting with:

Scott Lang Kind of Feels Perfunctory in his Own Movie

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Ant Man is the story of revolutionary tech that allows its wielder to shrink their size at will. Decades prior to the film’s beginnings, the creator of this technology Hank Pym hides it from the world for fear that it will be used for nefarious reasons. In present day, his daughter Hope Von Dyne, who still works in his company after he was ousted, informs Hank that his former protégé Darren Cross is close to replicating his mentor’s tech. Problem is years of experiments have made Cross unhinged and he’s looking to militarise this science. Horrified, Hank and Hope work together to try to take this new militarised tech, a suit called the Yellowjacket, from Cross. Hank cannot wear the suit himself, so he decides to find someone who can. This is where Scott comes in.

Who is Scott, our protagonist? Some guy. Well, okay, not just any guy. He’s a break-in thief who cannot hold a job because he just got out of jail. He’s a really good burglar, basically. And broke into another tech company, which is how Hank knows about him. He chose him due to some convoluted test (that, granted, we’re told about by one of the best jokes in the movie) that Scott only took part in because his ex-wife made him feel bad. All of this because Hank will not do the logical thing and let his daughter take the mantle for reasons I’ll get into later.

Now, my issue isn’t with Scott being ordinary, if slightly gifted. This was honestly a refreshing change for the MCU so far. We had genius billionaire playboy philanthropists, gamma-expert geniuses, Norse Gods, a perfect human being made into an Adonis, kooky space pirates, enhanced humans which are definitely not mutants don’t sue us Fox. Even Hawkeye and Black Widow had years of combat training and expertise. Scott’s some dude, that’s great on the surface.

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But the way he’s kind of jammed into this heist kind of makes Hank look a little stupid, especially as we’re given a time limit and he knows literally nothing about what’s going on or what he’s doing. He learns it quick because of movie logic, and that’s fine. But they’re sending this guy in to do their burglary in this suit he’s barely learned because Hank cannot move passed his issues to make the right decision? I get that if you nurse a pain for so long you can’t just close that shit up, but this is relying a lot on a guy who only seems qualified because  he knows how to avoid cameras and freeze a door down.

I know people are going to get on my ass over not buying this in a comic book movie about a guy who can fucking shrink to the proportional size of an ant. And yeah, I can accept that it’s expecting a bit too much from the writing. The bigger issue I have is that I just do not buy the relationship our three leads have with one another because Scott just does not fit into this plan. Again, he’s a guy who barely understands the shrinking stuff and communicating with ants being made the pinnacle stepping point of this potentially globally threatening mission.

It may have made a bit more sense if Scott’s initial burglary of Hank’s house was not staged, and Hank needed him for another disposable body on the plan because of some complication that came up. That would make Scott saying he’s ‘disposable’ have a little more weight instead of the flat father/daughter angst we get. But as it stands, I don’t think it’s an entirely minor flaw that the hero doesn’t gel all that well in the superhero movie.

But yes, part of this problem is the fact that they already have a competent asset who has access to and knowledge of the place they’re robbing right in their midst. Let’s talk about why that’s not an option apparently:

Hank and Hope’s Relationship Drama Doesn’t Work as Well as the Movie Thinks it Does

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Look, I’m not trying to say that character conflict cannot exist. Drama drives good storytelling. Family drama is great too, because it makes everything feel a lot more cutting. Nor am I saying this because it shelves a competent bad-ass woman for the sake of a male superhero. Hope will be getting her own in the sequel, and hell the Wright and Cornish script made her less relevant, so I have no issue with the beefing up. I care because this is a seriously important component of the film, and it feels a little cliched.

Hope is a strong character in the story in abstract, but functionally she kind of doesn’t do anything outside of add emotional weight to Hank. Her fate is caught up in the movie’s big reveal of her mother, that she shrunk continuously in the quantum realm. This is such a hackneyed way to make these two have a strained relationship and justify Scott’s purpose in the story while keeping Hope (seemingly) more active.

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Emotional moment, not too emotionally resonate 

I get the parallel with Scott and Hank here, but we’re seriously saying that the reason she isn’t going out to battle is because dad is too worried? I’m glad this changes by the very end of the film, but he’s never really called out on this. Nor his seeing Cross as a son he never had, which is another layer of their fractured relationship the movie just moves passes instead of acknowledges.

Look,  I’m not saying that it’s a plot hole or anything silly like that. It isn’t. I’m saying the writers came up with ‘You’re the only one left!’ trope as a trite reason as to why the most capable person for this mission is not going. It’s condescending and very weak justification from the writing perspective, and further drives a wedge in Scott’s ‘actually needing to be here’ plot thread. Hence why I put these two points together.

Does Scott learn how to use the suit way too fast? Yes, but it’s something I can ignore because movie logic.Is Scott’s entire purpose for being here invalidated because of a tacked on tragic backstory given to Hank Pym being the only goddamn reason Hope isn’t going, thus affecting not only the main premise but making it hard for the lead dynamics of the film to feel fully realised? Absolutely, and that’s a fatal flaw that holds this movie back. Not from being competent, mind you. But from being something I can invest myself in.

Speaking of investment, how does the tone get me into the proceedings?

Ant Man is the Greatest Not Comedy Ever Written

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When I think of Ant Man, I picture it as a comedy. Cause what I really remember are the comedic and fun bits. Except rewatching the movie, I realised it isn’t. I mean it has funny moments, for sure, but all MCU movies have funny moments. That doesn’t make them comedies. This is a heist action flick, and they actually take the story seriously. It’s not just that there’s a conflict that needs to be tackled, it’s a story of two disgraced men who wish to prove themselves in the eyes of the world for their daughters (Scott moreso than Hank). And it deals with loss, trying to stay connected to your child after a separation, job discrimination for ex-cons, strained family relationships, how power makes you detached from your humanity. It’s got some weighty shit.

To use an example, let’s look at Thor: Ragnarok. Now, it has a lot of serious elements too. But the focus is on taking the character through a weird journey, and there’s a joke or silly set piece around every moment. Ant Man, in contrast, is a story  that aims to be more grounded and character focused. Which is great, but its writers and director are more versed in comedy, so the comedy stands out more. Luis’ stories cutting to people talking in his voice, the Baskin Robbins joke (which I hated, but I remembered it), the sight gag with Thomas the Tank Engine and the other perspective bit. This is the stuff I can think of when I even try to remember the film.

This wouldn’t so much be an issue if they had leaned more into the comedy, but instead it seems to think its bread and butter is  the weighty family drama with Scott and Hank. As I illustrated, a lot of that just doesn’t work. It leaves the film feeling really flat and forgettable for a lot of it.

You know what’s even flatter, though?

Darren Cross is One of the Worst Villains in a Long Line of Pretty Crap MCU Villains

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Darren Cross is a seriously weak antagonist. I gotta give it to Corey Stoll, though. All of the villains have been well cast, but he managed to get at least some charisma out of a paper-thin part. Honestly, unlike other things I’ve tried to outline, there’s a simple reason for this; he’s underwritten and poorly developed.

His motivation is basically greed and power in the most generic way possible. His relationship with Hank, which the movie sometimes acts like is his primary motivation when it clearly isn’t, is not well defined enough to give it some portentous weight. It’s more to draw parallel to Hank’s mentoring of Scott, which not only further outlines how badly defined their relationship is, kind of gives me the impression Hank Pym is a shitty judge of character.

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On top of that, they imply that the Yellowjacket tech is making his mental state deteriorate. Which explains why he does shit like murder one of his company’s executives for openly questioning selling his suits.  And needlessly torturing a…lamb. He does grandiose, cliched villain monologues, glares and sneers at anyone trying to stop him, comes to the heroes’ base of operations and taunts them. Yet, he’s not remotely threatening and I never have any sense of tension in the plan being successful.

Oh, well. Least the suit looks cool.

This Movie Utterly Loses Me in the Second Act and Never Really Wins Me Back

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These are where all these writing issues come home to roost. The first act is passable. It’s well paced and the set-up, while clunky in places, feels naturally put down and everything falls into place pretty nicely. The third act has some pretty great action set-pieces and out there kooky low-fi concepts, like the quantum realm visit and the giant ant. They’re bizarre enough to warrant interest, but not so that it breaks the immersion of the film.

The second act is pretty much from when Scott ends up in Hank’s house to just before they go on the mission. It’s mostly here to help Scott train and to develop the fractured bond between Hank and Hope. This is really only interesting if you have an intense fascination in how the shrinking apparatus and the ant communication works. While this is fun, it lacks the build-up and excitement of discovering how Iron Man’s shit worked because Tony Stark rebuilding his suit felt more organic to his character growth. Scott is here out of opportunism and a job he is clearly not qualified to do, and his relationship with his two begrudging mentors never has any sense of organic growth.

We have an expository heavy and rather emotionally light second act, and it just brings the movie all the way down. If this stuff works for you, that’s great, but it really lacks any of the fun and pizzazz it could have had if I actually felt any tension or really bought the struggle to get Scott to perfect the equipment. Second Act Sag is a thing, and it’s especially bad here. And, because this is an MCU movie, we throw in an action set-piece for no real reason other than fanservice.

Oh, segueway!

This Movie Tries too Hard to Connect to the Larger MCU

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If there is a broader connective theme to Phase 2, as I will argue there is for all the Phases, it’s Adaptability. Avengers changed things, not only for the company itself, but for the larger MCU story as a whole. Not only do we need to see how these characters and world reacts to superheroes and alien forces now being the accepted norm, but we gotta figure out how to milk the fuck out of this for the next eternity! Ant Man’s adaptability comes through the old adapting with the new-the more secretive covert MCU is coming in full force with its younger, brasher, more in-the-spotlight future.

Hank is the old, shown through his connection with the past MCU as was established previously and was a member of SHIELD. This felt a little tacked on and served little purpose other than to handwave why he doesn’t ask the Avengers for help (TL;DR he doesn’t trust Tony Stark because of his dad). Scott is young, quippy, and full of promise. I think this fits this overarching theme I’ve noticed fine. But let’s look at the more tangible connections themselves, cause there are a few.

The obvious one is the opening, as mentioned above. We have Howard Stark AND Peggy Carter gracing us with cameo’s as Hank tells them where to shove it. I’m not a huge fan of this scene because, frankly, I think the SHIELD connection with Hank doesn’t add anything at all, and neither does having the two recognisable faces. Peggy doesn’t serve any purpose in particular. If it were me, I’d hold off introducing Hank until later on in the flick, but I’m not writing this. It just seems like a tacky add-on to process info that could have easily been told without this. But hey, gotta let people know that this is right bang in the Marvel Cinematic Universe!

Outside of that scene, it’s mostly just using HYDRA and the Ten Rings as the terrorists Cross is selling the Yellowjacket suit to. Cute nod, not really that big of a deal in the long term. So let’s talk about the Falcon fight. It’s really tacked on and superfluous. It feels like a combination of the ‘We need more MCU stuff!’ and ‘We need a fight scene in the second act!’, except it comes way too close to the third act which is just one huge heist sequence and action scene. The fight isn’t that fun or engaging. Anthony Mackie is great as always but he doesn’t bounce off of Paul Rudd that well here, and none of it feels that memorable or interesting.

And yes, I know it’s here to set up Scott’s appearance in Captain America: Civil War. And you kind of see the problem I have with putting shit into your movie with the sole purpose of it paying off in the next one? Age of Ultron runs into this problem too, though thankfully they seemed to tone this down in future iterations.

Okay, I’ll be Nice Here

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I’ll just take time to list off the things I did like in this film, because there are some. I focused a lot on the negative in this because why this movie didn’t work overall for me is more interesting to explore than being, you know, balanced. So!

-A lot of the perspective shots are great. The effect is right out of the demo footage Wright showed in Comic Con, and the use of the size to get some great shots and gags are really well done. Stuff that stands out is Scott first using the suit, the running with the ants and using them as a lifeboat and running up the barrel of the gun.

-The Thomas the Tank Engine gag is so great, it deserves its own segment.

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-Actually, I really liked the size-up stuff. Like the gnome and the giant ant who ends up being Cassie’s pet. I hope they pick up on that stuff more in the sequel.

-The ants are fun, and I liked them all having their own powers specific to their species. I didn’t give a shit about Ant-Thony tough. Sorry.

-Michael Pena is great in nearly every moment of the movie he was in. The storytelling gag remains one of the funniest the MCU have done.

-While Jim Paxton is kind of the cliched stick in the mud new guy, I’ll give the movie credit that it restrained from having Scott get back together with his wife because he’s secretly a terrible partner. He clearly cares about his family.

-Scott and Cassie have a very sweet relationship, and it’s believable in every moment they are together. He’s trying to be the person she sees him as, and it’s a really clear and understandable motive.

-I like the stuff with the quantum realm, and Scott escaping it. I know this gets explored more in the sequel.

Conclusion

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I guess my point here is that Ant Man is fine, but it could have been great and there are some really noticeable elements holding it back. A lot of it is getting a comedic team to do a straightforward superhero film, and them never rising to that challenge. The main three have a very weak rapport built off a lack of understanding why they are in this working relationship to begin with. Hank and Hope’s dynamic feels very trite and lazy. It results in some severe second act sag, and the story kind of losing me because I have no real investment in this trio or their mission succeeding. Which has very little tension because the villain is so hammy and dull. Which is an amazing feat, I must say.

Maybe Ant Man and the Wasp can fix these issues. Even if I don’t like where these characters got to where they are, they’re here now. I found Scott more likeable in Civil War (though he’s not in it as much and has an entirely different dynamic). We’ve set up the gadgets and the MO, let’s go out and do some crazy shit. But honestly, hindsight will not make this film anymore enjoyable for me. A YouTuber I follow said that Ant Man is like the MCU movie that people who do not like the MCU see, and that’s very true. It’s a by-the-numbers plot that feels underwritten and doesn’t have any charming characters or impressive set pieces for me to really recommend. It’s one of the weakest entries in a company that tends to produce at least solid entertainment, and not one I’ll likely ever watch again now that this review is done.

I give Ant Man a 5/10.

But since it’s the first movie I’m reviewing for this series, it gets the number 1 spot on my listing ! Congrats?

  1. Ant Man

So, this was a long piece for a fairly underwhelming movie. I’m sure the next one won’t give me as much to say, though.

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Oh. Great.

I’ve got no strings on me…

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