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Non-Review Review: Ant Man

Ant Man was always going to be a tough one to crack.

There are obvious reasons. Some of them involve the unique production history of the film, which arguably serves as an example of the downside of the tight managerial style operated by Disney and Marvel. Some of them are more fundamental, tied into the legacy and impact of the source material that make adapting Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne to screen a particularly dicey proposal for a family-friendly blockbuster movie studio. There’s a lot of pressure on the film, and a lot that could go wrong.

"You couldn't have called him 'Giant Man'?"

“You couldn’t have called him ‘Giant Man’?”

As such, director Peyton Reed does a pretty good job bringing the character to screen. Adam McKay and Paul Rudd adapted the original story written by Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, providing a movie that sits more comfortably within the framework of the ever-expanding shared universe. Ant Man is a little clumsy in places, suffering from some of the stock weaknesses of the Marvel film franchises, but it is also clever and fun. All involved shrewdly play to the Marvel house style, offering a light run around populated by likable characters with clear-cut conflicts.

However, Ant Man‘s real strengths become obvious when the film deviates (even slightly) from the standard formula. After seven years of watching superhero films grow bigger and bigger, it’s nice to have a smaller story.

"One size fits all, eh?"

“One size fits all, eh?”

Ant Man was always going to be – and probably always will be – “that superhero film that was almost directed by Edgar Wright.” Wright’s shadow hangs over the production, with the former director receiving a story credit on the finished product. Wright is very much a geek auteur, the kind of filmmaker who seemed like a perfect fit for a project like this. After all, Marvel had hit a home run when it assigned Guardians of the Galaxy to cult director James Gunn. Gunn’s unique sensibilities made the film an unlikely hit.

Marvel has always had a bit of trouble balancing the needs of its shared universe with the creative integrity of its filmmakers. It could often seem like directors and writers were just moving parts to be swapped into and out of the movie-making machine. Jon Favreau might have put his stamp on Iron Man, but he was smothered on Iron Man II. Joss Whedon directed both The Avengers and The Avengers: Age of Ultron, but has talked at length about the sorts of creative compromises imposed on him.

Down to size...

Down to size…

It is easy to run off a list of visionary and adventurous directors who have been scared away from Marvel. Patty Jenkins seemed like the strangest possible fit for a Thor movie, promising something strange and exciting. Naturally, she was fired and replaced by Alan Taylor who offered perhaps the most generic Marvel movie to date with Thor: The Dark World. No sooner had rumours begun circulating that Ava DuVernay would be directing Black Panther than the director clarified that she wasn’t really the best fit to work with Marvel.

Debatably, the best directors to work with Marvel have been those willing to bend their own style to hit the necessary beats and structures of Marvel’s storytelling style. James Gunn did great work on Guardians of the Galaxy, but the film suffered in its third act once the obligatory “large-scale cataclysm” sequence kicked off. Kenneth Branagh’s work on Thor is solidly underrated, skilfully melding the director’s Shakespearean sensibilities with a superhero house style. Shane Black did something similar with Iron Man III.

Not quite mellow yellow...

Not quite mellow yellow…

Ant Man winds up feeling like something of a hybrid between a very conventional Marvel blockbuster and something altogether different. As with Age of Ultron, it is quite easy to spot which sequences originated from the original director and which set pieces were dictated by the studio. (Reed has confirmed as much.) The film bounces happily between the two. There is an extended action sequence in the middle of the film that is very clearly designed to tie into the larger universe, while the final action sequence is decidedly smaller-scale than most Marvel films, and is the better for it.

The final action sequence in Ant Man might be the best third act of any Marvel film since The Avengers. With its epic destruction of New York City, The Avengers really set a high watermark for the pop cultural appropriation of 9/11 imagery that has never quite been beaten for effectiveness – although Man of Steel certainly tried to compete in scale. Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier might have attempted to compete with their of climactic catastrophes, but they felt like pale imitations.

A Hank-ering for some Pym Particles...

A Hank-ering for some Pym Particles…

So Ant Man very shrewdly decides to go small with its final action sequence, opting for a confrontation that seems more on scale with Daredevil than most contemporary blockbusters. The result is a surprisingly fun and enjoyable climax that feels quite different from any other superhero film. Sure, the ground rules are the same and the emotional conflict is familiar, but the logistics of the confrontation are more playful and giddy than two super-powered opponents gleefully trading punches while a city burns.

The climactic action sequence is a logical extension of the premise. With so many superhero blockbusters, it is increasingly important to diversify the brand. After all, there are more than a few movie-goers who would cynically observe that the superhero genre must be close to exhaustion if “Ant Man” is getting his own film. One of the shrewder ways of off-set superhero fatigue is to allow the genre to intersect. The Dark Knight was superhero film by way of urban crime thriller. The Dark Knight Rises was a social war epic in a cape.

Building bridges...

Building bridges…

Part of what made Guardians of the Galaxy such fun was that it stretched the genre in two ways. Most obviously, it was as much a cosmic space opera as tights and cape cinema. More than that, though, it constructed its central origin story around a simple and emotional metaphor. As represented by the mixtape and trusty walk man, Starlord was a character whose emotional development was stunted by deep personal tragedy – his escape into space becoming an allegory for a flight into fantasy.

Ant Man does something similar. It positions itself as something akin to a superhero heist film, with Scott Lang recruited for a top secret mission into PymTech to prevent a deadly superweapon from slipping into the wrong hands. (Are there ever any other kind?) This is arguably more exciting in theory than in practice, with Peyton Reed’s direction never quite capitalising on the potential fun of “superhero heist film.” Still, it provides a suitably distinct texture for Ant Man as compared to something like Age of Ultron.

It bugs me...

It bugs me…

However, Ant Man is much more effective when it chooses to filter its superheroic hijinx through the prism of Scott Lang’s relationship with his daughter. Every parent wants to be a hero to their child, and so Ant Man skilfully literalises that metaphor with the former convict becoming a literal superhero of which his daughter can be proud. It is cheesy, but it adds a little emotional punch to the movie and leads the way to the film’s playful final action sequence. Ant Man is at its best when it plays up these elements.

There is a sense that these elements originated with Wright’s vision of Ant Man, something Reed has conceded in interviews. However, the effectiveness of these touches is undercut somewhat by the demands of the Marvel house style. As wonderful as that final playful action sequence is, the demands of the genre insist that the film still crams in a much more standard action set piece beforehand. As much fun as the film has when Lang’s close friend (and former cell mate) Luis explains the chain of information for the latest job, a lot of the delivery feels cookie-cutter.

Thumbs up?

Thumbs up?

Of course, there is a sense that Marvel is quite invested in Ant Man. It might be smaller in scale than Age of Ultron, but the film serves a very clear narrative purpose in the shared universe – even outside of obligatory nods to Captain America: Civil War. With films like Captain America: The First Avenger and shows like Agent Carter, Marvel has been building a rich and complex history for its shared universe. Ant Man exists in that context, as a film designed to add a greater sense of texture to this fictional world.

The opening scene of the film – edited like a teaser to a television show – is set in 1989 and features veteran Hank Pym interacting with a veritable “who’s who” of historical Marvel figures established in earlier films and television shows. The film rather quickly reveals that Scott Lang is not the first Ant Man. He is inheriting it from Pym, who served in that capacity during the Cold War. Scott Lang becomes the first true “legacy hero” of the shared Marvel cinematic universe, a character perpetuating an identity rather than creating it from whole cloth.

Just in case...

Just in case…

The “legacy character” is a well-established comic book concept. There have been countless characters to claim the title “Robin” for example; there have been several characters to call themselves “Flash.” This concept has rarely found traction outside the medium. It makes sense, given that non-comic-book media tend to be more concise and confined in terms of narrative scope. If you are telling a story about a character, it is generally more compelling to have them generate their own identity and their own persona, rather than inherit it.

The decision to present Ant Man to cinematic audience members as a legacy character is an interesting creative choice, one which perhaps reflects Marvel’s interest in transposing comic book storytelling conventions into superhero cinema. For all that it is easy to criticise the studio’s constrictive tendencies, there is something adventurous in its attempts to build blockbusters around serialised storytelling and character crossovers. The success of The Avengers makes it look easy in hindsight, but there is an experimental aspect to the way they manage their intellectual property.

How the hell do you wash this thing?

How the hell do you wash this thing?

Of course, Ant Man is perhaps the best choice for this sort of “legacy character”, for reasons to do with the character himself. Hank Pym is a somewhat problematic comic book character, despite his long history and important status in Marvel continuity. Hank Pym was a founding member of the Avengers, along with his wife Janet Van Dyne. They were perhaps the most notable omission from the line-up in Joss Whedon’s cinematic adaptation. The decision to cast septuagenarian Michael Douglas in the role suggests Hank Pym won’t be joining the line-up anytime soon.

There is a reason for this, of course. On a purely practical level, the company has never know what to do with Pym. He has been branded and rebranded time and again, put through active retirement and disgraced. In the comics, Pym has gone by the name Ant Man and Giant Man and Goliath and Yellow Jacket. He never seemed to find a niche in the same way that his fellow Avengers did, making him a difficult character to write. It’s easy to point to definitive or iconic runs for the other major Avengers, but Pym is more awkward.

Armour wars...

Armour wars…

It gets worse. In terms of shared continuity, the defining attribute of Hank Pym is that he is the superhero who is also a domestic abuser. Although writer Jim Shooter has retroactively claimed that he only intended for Hank to “accidentally” hit Janet, the scene has come to haunt Hank Pym. It has become a fixture of various Hank Pym stories over the decades, with the character never quite escaping that November 1981 issue. In fact, when Mark Millar adapted Pym into The Ultimates, he doubled down on the idea of Pym as an abusive husband.

As much as the character might have his fans, he is also quite toxic – because he can never escape those associations. An abusive superhero would be a risky gambit in any context, but certainly within the confines of a family-friendly movie franchise. (Indeed, Ant Man bends of backwards to assure viewers that Scott Lang is the good kind of robber burglar. The film suggests Lang’s crime makes him something of a class hero.) There is no context in which Hank Pym would ever be allowed to hold down a tentpole film.

A heavy legacy...

A heavy legacy…

Although Ant Man features Hank Pym, it quickly relegates him to the role of mentor – with the villainous Darren Cross explicitly referencing him as such. In some respects, Ant Man becomes a metafictional meditation on the risk Pym might pose to the brand. “Don’t let your past define our future,” pleads one of his colleagues at S.H.I.E.L.D. Later on, Pym tells Lang, “I believe that everybody deserves a second chance.” He is talking as much about himself as he is about Lang, and might be talking as much about his character’s history as the story of the film.

Ant Man works hard to downplay the aspects of Pym that make him unique. Age of Ultron already shifted the creation of Ultron from Pym to Stark (and Banner), giving the character something of a clean slate. Pym’s back story borrows heavily from more popular (and successful) characters. Like Tony Stark, he is a billionaire industrialist trying to prevent the abuse of his technology. The back story of Janet Van Dyne owes more to the comic book death of Bucky and origin of Captain America than anything in Captain America: The First Avenger.

The villain of the piece – Darren Cross – might have his roots in a classic comic book character, but the film treats him as an amalgamation of all the worst aspects of Hank Pym’s comic book persona. Cross takes on the persona of “Yellowjacket”, with the film suggesting that he is mentally unstable – the same excuse presented for Pym’s most infamous actions. Tellingly, a major plotpoint of Ant Man involves the destruction of the legacy of Hank Pym – with both Darren Cross and Hank Pym seeking to dismantle that legacy for their own purposes.

It is a very shrewd move, a winking acknowledgement of the problems that Hank Pym poses to any adaptation of Ant Man – particularly to a company as fascinated with its own internal continuity as Marvel is. It is probably the best possible way to approach the character and his legacy, acknowledging the existence of Pym while downplaying his importance to the narrative. It is shrewd and it (largely) works. It also provides the film with a hook to distinguish it from a lot of other superhero fare.

Ant Man is carried by a charming cast. Paul Rudd makes for a suitably roguish lead, very much in the same vein as Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy. Michael Douglas is a convincing mentor figure, with snarky one liners and a sense of deep regret. Corey Stoller does great work adding a touch of character to a reiteration of Jeff Bridges’ villain from Iron Man. Michael Peña is wonderful as the film’s comic relief. Bobby Cannavale is always welcome. At the same time, the roles do feel a little formulaic.

This is particularly true for the female characters. Evangeline Lilly does some good work with the material available, but she never feels particularly integral to the film – she is defined primarily by her relationships with Scott, Hank and Darren. (When she’s finally given something to do in her final scene, she observes, “About time.” the audience agrees.) Similarly, while the plot as a lot of time for the cop who is living with Scott’s family, his daughter and her mother get precious little development. (Judy Greer is again cast in the thankless role of “important child’s mother”, reprising it from Jurassic World.)

Ant Man is solid and fun, if not quite as groundbreaking as it might have been. It has a whole host of interesting concepts and gimmicks, but there is a sense that the film is held back by the demands of the shared universe. Much like its hero, the film is at its best when it enjoys the freedom to go small.

4 Responses

  1. My friend and I thought the film reminded us of the original Iron Man in its lead-in. Good thoughts!
    Joy @ http://www.thejoyousliving.com

  2. Good review.

    I liked the film but I have to agree about Evangeline Lilly. The Marvel films seem to have real difficulty writing female characters that don’t slip into a very limited template. I was one of the people who wasn’t impressed by Black Widow in ‘Iron Man 2’ because she was solely a generic action girl – badass and quip spouting but with no sense of an inner life. She only became a real character in ‘The Avengers’. I love ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ but Gamorra has a lot of issues there to, a varation on the grown up parenting her immature boyfriend that we saw with Pepper Potts in the ‘Iron Man’ films… and hundreds of romantic comedies over the last two decades.

    Of all the Marvel films I’d say the ‘Thor’ entries are the best when it comes to breaking out of the limited template. Jane is unashamedly a geek with her own life going on and Darcy is hilarious in ways that have almost nothing to do with her gender.

    • I’m glad to see some Thor love here. Still possibly my favourite Marvel film.

      And I think it’s absurd how fandom treated Whedon over Black Widow. His two films actually treated her as a character, giving her more development and motivation than the majority of her co-stars. It seems counter-productive to hang the guy out to dry over that. (Not to mention the message it sends to studios – getting a female character “wrong” in the incredibly fickle and subjective eyes of fandom is worse than barely featuring them at all.)

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