With so many superhero movies now in our collective memory, there’s scope for studios to mess around a little with the tone and formula. Iron Man proved you could have an arch, slightly gonzo protagonist who seemed vaguely skeptical of the movie he was starring in. Chris Pratt is the lead in Guardians of the Galaxy, which technically isn’t a superhero movie anyway. And the Captain America films went the other way, reclaiming the sincere, hand-on-heart hero by giving him some humility and not drowning him in treacle.
So after skewed takes on even the typically strong alpha-male heroes, a studio like Marvel can spotlight a minor, silly sounding character like Ant-Man and not in a spoof. But then what should the tone be? Given the problems behind the scenes of Ant-Man and the film that resulted, Marvel didn’t seem able to achieve what the character needed.
Ant-Man was a long-time project of Edgar Wright, who established a unique voice with the unexpected drama in zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead and the relentless formal daring of the thrilling pop culture odyssey Scott Pilgrim vs the World. But he dropped out shortly before production was due to begin, reportedly unable to accommodate Marvel’s desire for a film more closely tied to their cinematic universe. Peyton Reed, a fine replacement if there had to be one, stepped in but the schizoid thinking that drove Wright out was never fixed. Ant-Man fully embraces its humble and ludicrous title at times, mining it for amusingly self-aware comedy. But it also insists on being a cliched superhero film, with excessive pathos and a rote villain characterisation that was already used forgettably in Iron Man.
The setup for the film is solid. Paul Rudd is as effortlessly engaging as you’d expect. If you want a handsome movie star to play a superhero called Ant-Man and supply the requisite quirk, it’s hard to imagine who else you’d cast. Rudd plays honourable thief Scott Lang, who tries to go straight after leaving jail. But a need for cash and hectoring by his buddy (a hilariously upbeat Michael Peña) lead him to rob a rich guy’s house while he’s out of town. The rich guy turns out to be Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), former technology CEO who enlists Scott to help thwart his successor, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Cross is close to perfecting a shrinking suit like one Pym completed years before but will use it catastrophically. Pym teaches Scott to use his suit so he can steal Cross’s in a heist.
It’s not innovative, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be the means to a more inventive end. But Marvel wants to restrict the self-aware silliness to a few admittedly fantastic sight gags here and there and letting Rudd’s absurd side peek out now and then. Two sequences where Peña rapidly explains how he heard some information, retold in flashback as his voice bounces from one person’s mouth to the next, are a delight. But Marvel, determined that this be a proper superhero film, have weeded out enough of this style that it doesn’t function effectively as either a ‘straight’ film or a comedy. As a standard superhero film it’s familiar and fairly dreary, and as a pedal-to-the-metal comedy that still functions as a genuine superhero film, it falls woefully short. Edgar Wright was no doubt shooting for that, and it’s sad to see it only partially eventuate on screen.
An unfettered version of the film would have done more with the Darren Cross character, perhaps casting a more offbeat actor and not have him play it straight as Stoll does. His thuddingly familiar arc might have even survived a more nutty execution. As it stands, the protege-wants-protagonist’s-technology-to-sell-weapons story is too close to the mentor-wants-protagonist’s-technology-to-sell-weapons story from Iron Man. Only changing the execution will freshen it up, but Peyton Reed chooses not to or hasn’t been allowed to. Instead, Stoll does nothing remotely interesting with the murderously-ambitious-executive trope.
And that’s because, despite the premise’s inherent and literal slightness compared to other Marvel superheroes, Marvel want this to function as one of the main movies despite their public comments that their stable of characters allows for diverse types of films. And with a title like Ant-Man, that means playing it safe. That’s understandable from a corporate standpoint, but then why greenlight it at all if you won’t take it far enough to justify a movie about a guy who shrinks and rides ants? Playing much of it so straight draws more attention to that premise, not less.
So the film is ultimately beholden to convention: a plot-device villain, some tragic backstory with Hank Pym’s wife, the disappointed ex-wife telling the hero to shape up, and a tone that briefly detours into gleeful absurdity but always returns to po-faced sincerity or, at best, cheerful amiability. Watching Evangeline Lilly cry like she’s back on Lost as Pym explains what happened to her mother is so awkward: this tragedy is in a movie called Ant-Man!
This is the poorly deployed cookie-cutter stuff that past Marvel Studios movies have often had the wit to rise above. Even if Wright and his co-writer Joe Cornish had these elements in their script, they most likely treated them as a necessary framework to invigorate on the set and in the editing room. Marvel didn’t follow through on that. But why go to the trouble of hiring Joss Whedon and Shane Black to write their way around standard-issue blockbuster parlance while still engaging a wide audience if you don’t even try in the films that will best capitalise on their efforts, like Ant-Man?
But the film has attracted plenty of enthusiastic reviews, so perhaps Ant-Man is a litmus test for whether or not you’re tired of superhero films. It’s far from dour and often funny and light-footed, but the story and much of the execution and characterisation are groaningly familiar. For me, that was too big a hurdle to surmount. But then, I was already ambivalent about the overwhelming CGI fest that ended Guardians of the Galaxy and found Captain America: The Winter Soldier curiously unmemorable. Maybe I’m not the audience for this anymore, but there’s still a problem when a film called Ant-Man is too cautious to embrace what it’s arguably meant to be.