When Edgar Wright, beloved director of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End, announced his departure from Marvel’s Ant-Man due to ‘creative differences’, the internet (and I) did not take this news very well. Let’s be honest here: if Wright wasn’t at the helm, audiences would hardly be interested in a superhero movie about a guy who has, well, ‘ant powers’, despite the character’s long publication history in the comic book realm. In short: no one was asking for this film. The cynical side of me predicted that Ant-Man might be Marvel Studios’ first major flop after a string of critical and commercial successes. What actually happened? A500 million box office worldwide, an 89% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, and an announcement for a sequel, set to be released in 2018. Hardly a flop.
Ant-Man tells the story of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a Robin Hood-style ex-cyber criminal who gets handpicked by Dr Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) to take over the identity of Ant-Man from himself, in order to protect Pym’s shrinking technology from his former protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll).
Despite being structured as a heist comedy, Ant-Man is, at heart, a redemption arc for two disappointing fathers. Scott Lang seeks to reconnect with his young daughter, Cassie, but is unable to do so because he cannot afford child support. Hank Pym’s estranged daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) shows absolute resentment towards him after her mother Janet’s tragic demise. As cheesy as it sounds, the family drama surprisingly elevated the film as, perhaps, the most relatable Marvel story to date. It lacks the dynastic, almost Shakespearean quality of Thor and Loki’s love-hate relationship, but its strength lies in the fact that the father-daughter narratives feel genuine and unfeigned to the audience. This contributed to the overall likeability of the film, as did the wonderful performance from the scene-stealing comedic genius Michael Peña, along with the signature Marvel humour injected throughout the film: an obligatory Stan Lee cameo, namedropping the Avengers, etc.
I still stand by my proposition that ‘shrinking ant powers’ are silly, but the timing of this movie makes it tolerable, as it juxtaposes with the grandeur of Avengers: Age of Ultron’s gravity-defying cities and sentient robot armies, making us crave for something perhaps a bit less colossal, a bit less Transformers-esque. The very appropriate use of macro photography perfectly exemplified the term photorealism, and saved us from the misery of looking at obnoxiously oversized set pieces, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids-style. There is no doubt that this film looks marvellous on a large silver screen.
While the movie is packed with pure, unabashed fun and exhilaration, its storytelling isn’t exactly ground-breaking. It sadly suffers from reused tropes and boring archetypes and, yes, another one-dimensional villain. We have the great Corey Stoll (of Midnight in Paris and House of Cards fame) as our antagonist, the disgruntled and bitter apprentice trying to militarise his mentor’s revolutionary technology. But his villainy is largely pushed to the sidelines when the screenplay chooses to favour the previously mentioned family dynamics. And then we have Hope van Dyne, whose narrative could have actually made her the central hero of Ant-Man. In the film she questions her father often about why she isn’t in Lang’s place, when clearly she is much more competent at the job. As an audience member, I pose the same question as well. What makes Lang a perfect fit as Ant-Man? Sure, he is quite good as a petty thief, but van Dyne is a master at Muay Thai boxing, for god’s sake. She is smart, confident, no-nonsense and skilled, yet she is reduced to being Lang’s trainer. The fact that the movie had to bend over backwards to explain “why Scott Lang?“ shows an inherent flaw in the premise. And the explanation itself (that her father wouldn’t want to lose his daughter the way he lost his wife) is only a convenient excuse, not a satisfying reason. Van Dyne being sidelined, despite proving her worthiness over and over again, ironically mirrors how Marvel treats their female characters. For years, fans and audiences have been pleading for a solo movie for Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. Her backstory, (very) briefly explored in both Avengers movies, is a fascinating one and deeply rooted in comic book lore. Yet, there are currently no plans for a Black Widow movie, and it took over a decade for Marvel to finally have a female superhero headlining her own film (Captain Marvel is set to be released in 2019). Some say that van Dyne’s arc is Marvel’s way of poking fun at itself, to, in some way, get away from the diversity criticism; but this pathetic analogy only exposes how the studio doesn’t really care for female representation, when van Dyne’s definitive heroic moment comes at the post-credit scene – you know, when the movie already ended.
It could also be argued that the major weakness of Ant-Man is its formulaic approach. Sure, it is a solid entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with fun characters and quirky humour. However, doesn’t that premise sound familiar to you? Reluctant (male Caucasian) hero, in order to right his wrongs, fights a villain version of himself, wins the final battle, and gets asked to join the Avengers. The Marvel formula works, but it will not work forever. This is possibly the last time the studio will be allowed to execute such a predictable story, and they must, in their future instalments, constantly reinvent themselves, if they seek longevity and sustainability in this business. Frankly, there is no room for them to ‘play safe’ next time.
But praises must be given to director Peyton Reed, for producing a pleasantly surprising and thoroughly enjoyable movie amidst all the pessimism imposed on it. To take over a property that had been another creative mind’s year-long passion project; to keep himself level-headed from many who expect the movie to fail completely; to make Ant-Man a deserving character to stand beside the giants of Marvel (a hammer-wielding demi-god, a genetically-enhanced super soldier, and a HULK): this is no easy job, and Reed has proven himself a worthy replacement for Wright.
P.S. Stay for both the mid-credit scene and the post-credit scene. They are worth it this time, I promise.
P.P.S. Liked Evangeline Lilly as Hope van Dyne? You might be pleased to know that the title for the sequel is Ant-Man and the Wasp.