[Review] - Ant-man

Courtesy of Marvel Studios
The movie going public might be forgiven for forgetting that Ant-man was going to be a thing. Being released only two months after a behemoth like Age of Ultron certainly suggests that it was going to be overshadowed, both in advertising and in public perception. But the situation is really no different than it was last year, when Winter Solider was followed up by Guardians of the Galaxy. In both cases, the former was a continuity heavy followup, and the latter was an original, quirky origin story. This will be the new standard operating procedure for Marvel moving forward (next year we'll have Civil War and Doctor Strange follow the pattern). And yet it feels different, because Ant-man is a different kind of movie than Guardians was, and hopefully Strange will be, in that it isn't much of a movie at all.

Ant-man is an aggressively neutral film. It does some stuff well, but not enough and not well enough. Even the stuff it does poorly doesn't seem malicious, it just seems inept. This is the sort of film that you'd expect to have come out in the early 2000s, when superheroes were first finding their cinematic legs. This film feels more like a companion to the first X-Men films, and the original Daredevil. It feels like a film made by too many cooks, and not any confidence. Certainly not the product of the studio that has created the MCU. Compared to the likes of the Iron Man movies, and Guardians, Ant-man is an entirely different league. A minor league. A pee-wee league, if we want to belabour a metaphor. And if Ultron found it's best bunk mate in Iron Man 2 (not a favourable comparison, and not the first time I've made it), Ant-man should get chummy with The Incredible Hulk as the movie most likely to be forgotten in the future, when running off the list of MCU movies in your head.

Before I continue, I want to state that at no point will I make any assumptions as to what Wright's Ant-man might have looked like, or what parts of the end result might have been born of his and Joe Cornish's drafts. I expect that Wright's film would have been much wryer, but that's just because that is his sense of humour. I also expect that the film would have had a much tighter focus visually, and that the few sequences where Ant-man's shrinking was utilized to maximum effect (important, considering that it is his whole shtick) would have been far more pronounced. But those are assumptions, and until years pass and someone leaks Wright's draft or Wright speaks publicly on the contents of his film, we will never know. A moment like a supersized Thomas the Tank Engine exploding through a house seems like a Wright joke, but we can't know for sure unless the film was annotated. And there is little point in waxing nostalgic on a film we will never have. It has no baring on the film that we got, and to say that the existing piece does certain things badly does not suppose that any alternative would have done them better.

Hit the jump for the review, which contains spoilers that back up slowly. Just backing up... backing up, slow.


I've been saying for a while now that Kevin Feige hasn't seemed that interested in Ant-man. In interviews for years, when Ant-man came up, he'd do his best to try and seem interested, but it always seemed hollow. Especially when compared to how obviously excited he would get when talking about (then theoretical) movies like Guardians or Strange. Maybe part of that was because it took them so long to get the film to screen, that the behind the scenes back and forth with Edgar Wright was simply becoming too much of a chore for him. But even after Wright's departure, Feige never seemed to be the film's great cheerleader. And considering that he is the man behind the curtain, and is such an effective cheerleader for all Marvel properties that he managed to wrangle Spider-man back from Sony because of his focused competency, it makes one give pause and wonder, "why is Ant-man getting the cold shoulder?" If the face of the studio can't muster enthusiasm for this product, why should I?

The simple answer is, you shouldn't. There isn't much reason to. Ant-man is at best an OK film. It isn't spectacular. It does not sit at the big boy table with the rest of the Avengers. But it isn't terrible. Marvel did not trip and fall into Man of Steel territory; I was not angered by this film. No one could be. It lacks the personality to inspire a strong emotion, one way or the other. It is a perfect Sunday afternoon movie, doomed to reruns on some basic cable channel in the mid afternoon, something to make noise in the background while making homemade cinnamon buns. And while the characters may trickle their way into future endeavors, I doubt highly that we'll ever see a direct sequel (which will make it a rarity for the MCU, a fate shared only by the Edward Norton Hulk film). Which is fine, because aside from setting up potential sequel stories (as is standard procedure in any movie nowadays), after the movie ends, you don't want one. there is no clamor in your mind to return to this world. In fact, the whole experience largely deletes itself by the time you reach the parking lot.

The film is a patch work of scripts. The biggest flaw of the film is the obvious cobbling together of versions and visions and drafts and edicts. While the individual authors remain invisible, it is impossible not to recognize the places where (even mid sequence) the pen passes from one hand to another. This is the most frustrating aspect of watching Ant-man, the obviousness of the patchwork. Knowing the backstory, that they went from loosing their director and writer to having Paul Rudd and Adam Mckay re-write the script and bringing in Peyton Reed to direct in only a couple weeks helps explain the patchwork, but does not forgive it. Considering that the film had close to nine years of development time, you would expect (demand even) the end result would seem less seat-of-the-pants. And that is a huge take away from the entire film: everything seems very rushed. That the entire production had a deadline hanging over their neck, and had no time to finesse the result. The entire movie feels like it was a series of first takes, and no amount of post could fix fundamental problems written into the DNA of the production. Add to that that the movie feels very much like it was written for broadcast nine years ago, and likely would have made more sense occurring at an earlier point in the MCU timeline, where SHIELD itself could have been the villain rather than just some other bland nobody.

When I say that it is impossible to identity what parts of the script were penned by which writers, that isn't strictly true. While Wright's voice is largely invisible, occasionally it is all too obvious where Rudd and McKay added something in. While the film is not a comedy, it tries harder to convince us it is a comedy than either Iron Man 3 or Guardians or either of the Avengers films, all of which were significantly funnier than Ant-man. But McKay and Rudd's comedic voice is at odds with... well, standard narrative style. McKay's movies are little more then a viscous trail of one liners and straight men reacting to idiocy, and have to rely less of integrating situational humour into ongoing events. So, it becomes obvious in moments like the film's biggest emotional scene, when Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hope (Evangeline Lilly) have a heart to heart resulting in some real character development, that Rudd's Scott Lang acts as a record scratch for a cheap laugh. It gets the laugh, but at the expense of actual and interesting development, which this film is sorely lacking in, and shouldn't undermine what little it has.

On the other side of the script, the movie is almost entirely exposition. Practically every scene is someone explaining something to someone else. Every. Scene. It's either Michael Peña explaining something to Rudd (Peña's "story sequences" are another element that was likely a Wright invention), or Lilly explaining something to Rudd. Or Corey Stoll explaining something to Michael Douglas. Or Douglas explaining something to Lilly. Or Judy Greer explaining something to Rudd. Rudd spends a lot of the movie not knowing a lot, but as soon as he meets someone who knows less than him, he explains it to them. And this is as frustrating as it sounds. Thankfully, there are only a handful of montages among all this explaining, so you only feel like digging your fingernails out rather than tearing off your eyelids. But it is a sign, when developing a concept, and introducing characters, that if every scene is explanation, that maybe your concept is too high. What hurts the film the most is that Lang, apparently the protagonist, is not engaging at all. Rudd is charming because that is his default setting (I'd love to see him play a villain just once, just to see if he has any other settings), but Lang is an empty suit. So, without an engaging central character, like Tony Stark or Thor, there is nothing to disguise or hide a paper thin premise behind. The Pym Particle is the protagonist of this movie, and Lang is the Macguffin.

Hank Pym could have been an engaging protagonist. He has more emotional baggage than Lang, he wouldn't have needed to explain things all the time, and he was a more interesting and complex character. He's still thin though, and like Rudd playing Lang, the majority of the affection he develop for Pym comes from the fact that Douglas seems to be having a lot of fun playing him. I'd much rather seem Pym turn up in a future film than Lang. The most interesting character in the movie is Lilly's Hope van Dyne, Pym's estranged daughter (except not really, and we'll get to that). I actually really enjoyed Lilly's role, as limited as it was, because Lilly is out acting everyone else in the film. Which frankly took me by surprise. Six seasons of LOST and two Hobbit films had not inspired much confidence, but here, when she wasn't explaining things, she made the best use of what was she was given. She is, in fact, the only character in the film with an emotional arc. The net result was me wanting to have seen a movie that didn't involve Lang at all, but was about Pym repairing his relationship with his daughter, and in the process helping to avoid a catastrophe. It would have been a more engaging film, and one that was premised around an emotional core that actually lead somewhere, unlike the anemic plot concerning Lang's daughter Cassie (who incidentally is the funniest character in the movie).

The movie is so scatter shot with it's various plots and macguffins and explanations for those plots and macguffins that it becomes all too obvious where things fell through the cracks. Hope is estranged from Pym, using some version of the word "estranged" that actually means emotionally distant but still quite close. Stoll's Cross (continuing the horrible trend of Marvel having the worst villains by taking the prize) is said to have been mentally deranged by exposure to the Pym particles despite not having worn the suit until the climax. Pym also speaks of some "toll" taken on him, though this is forgotten and never mentioned again. A romantic subplot is added to the film apropos of nothing, and really only makes for a confusing and out of character throw away gag. And every single Chekov's gun is so blatant, there is no surprise or moment of "oh yeah" when something is brought back to play a role in the third act. For all the forgotten elements, if the movie makes use of something in the third act, they clearly went back and added it into some piece of exposition in the first or second along side buffering silences and just short of having the characters wave it at us on screen while pointing and smiling.

My favourite scene in the film is likely to be the one to distance it from others, is likely one of the scenes that Marvel insisted on that caused Wright to drop out, and has the very least to do with the rest of the movie (the scene is entirely forced and has no purpose being in the film, but is almost completely self contained). It is the scene where Lang raids the Avengers facility seen at the end of Ultron, and does battle with Falcon. I like it not because it provides connective tissue with the larger MCU (Ant-man takes place in San Francisco, and it's trip to upstate New York makes zero sense). I like it because it shows that the movie had it in it to be more than it is. This one scene, I feel, is what Marvel was hoping for writ-large. It has witty banter, clear purpose and intent within the scene, and showcases the potential for creative and amazing use of an unusual power set. Had more of the movie been like this scene, namely consistent and measured, it might have stood a chance at having a longer shelf life. As it stands, it'll just be the movie most people skip.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

3 comments :

  1. I actually want a sequel. The last 30 minutes were one of the best I've seen in a Marvel movie. Originally I was sure it would be poor film as the start was slow. However they didn't dwell on the origin (just a quick montage) and the jump into the quantum realm got me so excited to see something so esoteric in a major motion picture.

    Yes I agree perhaps Lang is difficult to connect with but I certainly felt the pathos from Pym, I think Douglas was great, as was Lily.

    As for not making the most of the unique super powers. I had the most amazing fun in the final fight scene, the suitcase fight and the moment he ran through the model building.

    I disagree with your reasoning for why wright probably dropped out. In fact in interviews it was Feige mentioning that Wright wouldn't stop talking about a certain plot point which he wanted which caused the riff not the other way around.

    Unfortunately, despite your long exposition at the start I feel you are actually trying to fit the review to a story you feel it should fit and not what you saw. It didn't feel that disjointed to most viewers (see rotten tomato scores, both viewer and most critics. Also James Gunn himself thought it was one of the best he'd seen since Iron man 1) I think in time it will actually go down as one of the more memorable films in the MCU.

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    1. "Unfortunately, despite your long exposition at the start I feel you are actually trying to fit the review to a story you feel it should fit and not what you saw."

      If it came off that way, I apologize. In all my reviews, I usually make mention of the more obvious alternative interpretations, as a way of juxtaposing what was done and didn't work, with what could have been and might have. I don't think it's too far out of line to suggest (as many other have) that the movie might have worked better without Lang and with Hope in the hero role.

      Movies, like all things, are subjective to personal tastes and interpretations (with some objective conditions). As I mention, the movie did do a bunch of things really well, objectively. It also did certain things terribly, objectively speaking. Subjectively, I did not enjoy the film as much as I have others, and clearly not as much as James Gunn. But I certainly wasn't bringing my own expectations into it; I had no expectations. I simply reacted to what was provided, as I always do. If you enjoyed it, then bully for you. You clearly found a way into the forest despite the trees.

      Though I will disagree with you on it one day becoming one of the more memorable MCU films though. It'll be Marvel's Bug's Life, doomed to the memory of an also-ran.

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  2. I think I've just seen too many reviews reviewing the Edgar Wright version that never got made.

    Actually I really like most of your reviews! I just really like ant man!

    ReplyDelete