The History of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Chapter 12: ‘Ant-Man’
In The History of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ScreenCrush editor-in-chief Matt Singer looks back at every film in the MCU to date, leading up to the premiere of Avengers: Infinity War on April 27. Previous chapters can be found here.
Chapter 12: Ant-Man
Director: Peyton Reed
Writers: Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, Paul Rudd
Release Date: July 17, 2015
U.S. box office: $180.2 million
Worldwide box office: $519.3 million
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 82 percent
Metacritic score: 64
Letterboxd average grade: 3.4
My Original Review
“There’s nothing distinctive or idiosyncratic about Ant-Man, which plays less like Marvel trying something different than Marvel trying the same thing on a budget. A few brief flashes of sarcastic wit aside, it’s as generic as comic-book movies come.” - Read more here
What Holds Up
With the exception of Guardians of the Galaxy, every Marvel Cinematic Universe movie to date has adapted the earliest incarnation of their respective character. Ant-Man went a different direction. Instead of simply featuring the first (and kind of bland, at least until he became an insane wife beater) Ant-Man, Hank Pym, the screenplay focuses on the second (significantly more interesting, significantly less wife-beatery) Ant-Man, Scott Lang. It was a pretty big choice, and a largely successful one. In the MCU, Hank (Michael Douglas) is the original, retired Ant-Man, who recruits Scott (Paul Rudd) as his successor because he needs someone to help him keep his “Pym Particle” shrinking technology from falling into the hands of his old protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll).
(Supposedly Hank can’t use the Ant-Man suit anymore because using Pym Particles is dangerous and years of exposure “took its toll” on him, a weird thing to say to a guy you’re trying to convince to expose himself to Pym Particles, particularly since the movie completely drops this subplot and never brings it up again, but whatever.)
On paper, Scott is a nice change of pace for the MCU because he’s not a goody two-shoes like Captain America; he’s a thief and an ex-con who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty when the situation calls for it. Granted, he only commits burglary because he hates violence, and his crimes are primarily of the Robin Hood, rob-from-the-rich variety, but he’s still technically a criminal. And Rudd, a staple of sometimes raunchy comedies, is a great pick for a superhero who’s not so squeaky clean.
Come to think of it, Michael Douglas, a staple of half the erotic thrillers Hollywood made in the ’80s and ’90s, is another not-so-squeaky-clean pick, although there isn’t a hint of that persona in his performance here. Douglas is still good, though, as the professorial Pym, who, in an impressive bit of CGI-trickery, appears in the film’s prologue as his younger self as he refuses to hand over his technology to SHIELD (including Tony Stark’s dad Howard (John Slattery) and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell)). The mentor-mentee dynamic between Scott and Hank is also fairly unique in the MCU, and they have some amusing scenes together.
The best character in Ant-Man, however, isn’t either of its Ant-Men: It’s Michael Peña’s Luis, Scott’s former cellmate and occasionally criminal co-conspirator, who gives Scott tips about potential crimes in hilariously rambling monologues.
The other highlight is the surprise cameo by the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who tries to stop Scott from stealing a crucial Pym gadget from the Avengers’ new based in upstate New York.
So Ant-Man has a decent premise, some nice supporting characters, and it’s cleverly integrated into the larger fabric of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sounds great, right?
What Doesn’t Hold Up
Most of the best stuff I’ve mentioned so far — Luis, the fight between Ant-Man and Falcon — is totally secondary to the plot, which is not one of the stronger ones in the MCU. It’s nominally a heist story, in the same way that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is nominally a paranoid conspiracy thriller. In other words, there are a few nods in the direction of the genre they’re shooting for, but mostly it’s pretty standard superhero fare.
And, in the case of Ant-Man, it’s pretty standard superhero fare with a dreadful villain — arguably the single worst villain in Marvel history. Cross is either a cunning businessman, a brilliant inventor who feels neglected by his former boss, or a psychopathic killer so cavalier about his crimes that he literally executes his potential buyers in his executive washroom. It’s not Corey Stoll’s fault; he’s playing what was written for him. It’s just that what was written for him is the flimsiest and most inconsistent example of Marvel’s worst stock character: The Evil Tech Magnate Who Wants to Take Over a Company, Because Revenge.
Which Cross we get varies from scene to scene, a fact attributed in the film to exposure to the shrinking technology which is supposedly driving him crazy. But Cross never shrinks before the last scene of the movie, so it seems more likely that Ant-Man’s messy development, which involved original director Edgar Wright quitting the project shortly before shooting was set to begin, is the real culprit.
Finally, if you will indulge me for a moment, I would like to look closely at one scene from Ant-Man that exemplifies a lot of its problems. It’s the first time Scott tries on the Ant-Man costume. He gets the suit by acting on Luis’ tip and breaking into Hank Pym’s house. He cracks Hank’s vault, and finds what he first thinks is an “old motorcycle suit.” The next day, he starts tinkering with it and puts it on.
We know this whole scene is set in Scott’s apartment building because of the establishing shot that starts the scene. Note also that it is daytime as this sequence begins.
Scott fiddles with the suit in the bathroom, and then Luis comes home. Scared for reasons the movie doesn’t explain, Scott gets flustered and accidentally activates its Pym Particles, shrinks to ant-size, and goes on a miniature adventure through his apartment building. First he falls into the bathtub, where Luis starts running the water (I guess he felt like taking a shower in the middle of the day?)
Scott escapes the tub and then falls through a crack in the floor that is impossibly large.
The crack in the floor leads directly into the downstairs apartment which is... an underground dance club? Where a rave is going on in the middle of the day? With music blasting that we somehow couldn’t hear one floor above even though there’s a crack in the ground big enough for a small man to fall through?
Can you imagine living below a techno club? Well apparently, in this movie, someone does, because Scott then falls through another floor into that apartment, where he gets sucked into a vacuum cleaner. Eventually, he falls out of that apartment’s window (an underground dance club on the third floor of an apartment building?) and lands on the hood of car below (where, in a cute Easter egg, Garrett Morris, who played Ant-Man in a famous SNL sketch, is sitting).
Either this is a magic apartment building, or a setpiece in some kind of dance club that was designed to go elsewhere in the film got shoehorned here in a way that makes absolutely no sense. And a lot of Ant-Man’s action feels this way; clever ideas (like miniature Scott and Cross fighting inside a briefcase as it falls through the sky) that are awkwardly jury-rigged into the story.
Coolest Foreshadowing of Future Marvel Events
Ant-Man ends with one more great Luis monologue, this one complete with a Stan Lee cameo and the first acknowledgement (at least in dialogue) of a Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (“A guy that can jump, a guy that can swing, and a guy that can climb on walls”):
Marvel finalized the deal with Sony to bring Spider-Man into the MCU in February of 2015; his first full appearance was in Captain America: Civil War the following year. But with the character definitely appearing in 2016, Marvel primed the pump with this lovely little tease.
Best Marvel Easter Egg
Hank Pym has a daughter named Hope (Evangeline Lilly) who is smarter and more capable than Scott. But Hank staunchly refuses to let her inherit his powers. At first it seems like he’s just a chauvinist, but eventually he reveals the truth: Hope’s mother Janet used to work alongside Hank as the costumed hero known as the Wasp, but she vanished on a mission to stop a missile. The only way to get inside the thing was to go subatomic, which left her stranded inside the microverse forever. It’s basically crossing the streams for shrinkers.
The film leaves Janet’s fate unresolved but when Scott makes the decision to go subatomic to save his daughter, he experiences a surreal, psychedelic trip. As he ventures deeper and deeper into the microverse there are flashes of what looks like a female figure, including the image above. Clearly the Wasp is still alive somewhere inside the Microverse and in this year’s sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Scott and Hope will find her. (Marvel has already announced the character will be played by Michelle Pfeiffer.)
(On a related note: Why would Hank keep Janet’s disappearance a secret from Hope? Supposedly, he didn’t want to lose Hope the same way he lost his wife. But by not telling Hope her mom was a hero who died on a mission, he inspired her to pursue his technology out of spite. If Hope had known that the suit basically killed her mom, wouldn’t that make her less likely to use it?)
I went to San Diego Comic-Con for the first time in 2006. The Marvel Cinematic Universe didn’t even exist then, and the con had yet to mutate into the massive Hollywood press event it would become just a few years later. In 2006, it was so chill I was able to wander into a panel room with no waiting on line — it wasn’t even in Hall H, convention center’s biggest hall — where Marvel was introducing the first wave of films it was producing in house. Jon Favreau was there to promote Iron Man, and Edgar Wright came out to hype up his version of Ant-Man. It looked like an impressive start.
Favreau’s Iron Man came out on schedule and launched the MCU, but it took almost 10 years for Ant-Man to make it to the big screen, and by the time it did, Wright was gone, replaced by Peyton Reed. Last summer, Wright said he left the project because he “wanted to make a Marvel movie” but he was never really convinced that Marvel “wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie.”
That much is evident from the finished product, which feels like the watered-down version of the edgier movie it could have been. Love or hate Edgar Wright’s films, there’s no arguing they have a lot of personality. For the most part, Ant-Man does not — or at least its Ant-Man does not, which is surprising because Rudd is a fantastic comic actor with an effervescent screen presence (and, as we’ll discuss on Friday, he’s really funny in Captain America: Civil War). In Ant-Man, Rudd’s just ... a guy. He’s completely let down by the script, which is a weird thing to say, since the final screenplay is credited to four men, including Paul Rudd.
It’s probably asking to much to expect Scott Lang to spend an entire scene just repeating the same two lines over and over again, but the character barely scratches the surface of what Rudd’s capable of an actor. Robert Downey Jr. gets to go full RDJr as Tony Stark; where’s the Paul Rudd we love in Scott Lang? Why cast him at all if Scott’s just going to be a guy who loves his daughter, has sick washboard abs, and gets replaced in every action scene by a little CGI dude? It’s a waste of his talents.
Rudd’s not the only funny actor wasted in Ant-Man, either; Judy Greer is equally squandered in the thankless role of Scott’s exasperated ex-wife. And the fact that Evangeline Lilly has nothing to do in scene after scene goes beyond a running joke to become one of the film’s subplots. Lilly will be elevated to co-hero status in the upcoming Ant-Man sequel, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating to see her on the sidelines while bumbling Scott keeps screwing everything up.
The post-credits scene where Hank finally caves and gives Hope her own Wasp suit is supposed to balance the scales a little, but it mostly just bums me out because it teases a more interesting film than the one we just paid to watch. Hopefully the next movie will give us a better Ant-Man to go along with a Wasp who actually gets in on the action.
Gallery - The Best-Dressed Characters in the Marvel Universe: