So, in 2015, this is where we're at. Seven years after Iron Man burst onto the scene and made Marvel more of a household name, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still seemingly allergic to having a movie led by a woman or a guy who isn't white. And yes, before you angrily shout, "but Black Panther and Captain Marvel are getting movies," I know they are... in a few years.
But still. It's a bit disappointing to see that Disney is so adverse to having a woman or non-white actor be a lead that they're resorting to giving Ant-Man, of all characters, his own movie. Ant-Man. As in, a man who dresses like an ant. Fantastic.
Good thing, then, that the movie itself isn't half-bad.
As much of a Marvel geek as I am, I must admit that the venerable publisher been overstaying its cinematic welcome for my tastes. Last year, we got two excellent films in the form of Captain America: Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, proving that the rote formula most Marvel films follow wasn't the de facto standard. But at the same time, this was in the face of some less-than-stellar flicks. Thor: The Dark World was abysmal, both Iron Man sequels were bland at best, and that first Captain America was pretty piss-poor. Couple that with the thunderous and perfunctory disappointment that Avengers: Age of Ultron ended up being, and you've got a film franchise that has a few more misses than hits.
Why is this? I'm... not quite sure, to be honest with you. Maybe it's that Disney refuses to take a lot of risks by putting actually interesting and diverse heroes on the silver screen (where are my Captain Marvel and She-Hulk movies, dammit?) Maybe it's because a lot of Marvel films follow the same basic structure and that it gets real old, real fast. Maybe I'm just sick of Robert Downey Jr., talented as he is, being shoved down my throat. If Disney wants to keep this jig up, they need to start making the MCU as diverse and interesting as the actual Marvel comics are, lest they end up dooming themselves into repetitious irrelevance.
But I'm getting off topic. Ant-Man is what happens when Patented Marvel Formula (tm) gets dumped into the face of a witty caper film, and the result is about as mixed-up and confusing as it sounds.
See, the basic structure of Ant-Man is pretty typical. N'er-do-well/underdog white guy gets a brush with greatness. Said white guy discovers some fantastic ability, whether internal or given to him externally. He grapples with how to use this power, usually motivated by something/someone he cares about. Some previously introduced character, who totally wasn't going to become a bad guy, gets equivalent powers, but uses them for bad. Good and bad fight, good almost loses, but is motivated by the power of love and self-determination and ultimately triumphs over bad. There's some sort of small cliffhanger, because we're definitely getting some sort of sequel, followed by a bigger cliffhanger.
I just described the plot of not only this movie, but Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, both Thor movies, The Incredible Hulk and (to some extent) both Avengers films. So, what makes Ant-Man so different? Well, for starters, it actually tries to poke and prod at this basic structure as much as possible. At every turn, it feels like a movie forced to conform to some sort of structure, and desperately fighting to break free and do its own thing. This is achieved by two things: the commitment to making this a "funny, heartwarming" sort of film, and the winking, nodding acknowledgement that the whole premise is patently absurd.
The first is aided by a different kind of love story: the one of a father and his daughter. It's something we haven't actually seen in a Marvel movie thus far, as most of them are obsessed with the classic Hollywood summer blockbuster romance. Here, Scott Lang (played by an immensely likable Paul Rudd) is a cat burglar, fresh out of prison and divorced from his wife, trying to get his life in order so he can see his daughter (the adorable Abby Ryder Fortson.) Of course, he gets dragged back into a life of crime, and consequently thrust into the role of Ant-Man, and all sorts of superhero-y chaos follows, yes, but the movie never loses sight of the father/daughter sub-plot. While perhaps a bit cloying at times, it makes Lang an infinitely more compelling character than most of the current MCU line-up, giving him motivation beyond "my girlfriend" or "my angst" or "my struggle to save humanity." He's right up there with Peter Quill and Bruce Banner in terms of personal favorite characters in this franchise.
The whole "winking, nodding" aspect is seen when the movie stops being a superhero film and starts actually trying to make us laugh. Otherwise cliche moments are cut short by one liners, visual gags occur in the middle of huge battles, and the entire final climax takes place in a child's bedroom. One second, Ant-Man and the ho-hum villain Yellow Jacket (played by a flat and uninteresting Corey Stoltz) are punching each other; the next, a Thomas The Tank Engine toy is blown-up to full scale and comes crashing through a wall. There's a common thread of absurdity here, and honestly, the movie would have been better off capitalizing on more of that than juicing up on that Patented Marvel Formula (tm.) Sure, not all of the jokes hit, but it's nice to see something different being attempted.
But just how different is Ant-Man, overall? The answer isn't "it's not," nor is it "it's radically different." Rather, it lies squarely between those two extremes, and therein lies the crux of Ant-Man's biggest problem: it's a movie that was obviously worked on by three very different people. Edgar Wright, a fantastic director without a single bad movie to his name, had been working on Ant-Man's big screen debut since 2006 (read: two years before Iron Man was even a twinkle in moviegoers' eyes.) Eight years later, he and Marvel severed ties due to the classic "creative differences" song-and-dance, and in came Peyton Reed, a director with only crowd-pleasing comedies like Bring It On and Yes Man to his name, along with comedy genius Adam McKay (of Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers fame.)
It shows. A third of this movie is frantic, fun, dizzying spectacle, fueled by silly visual gags and some truly outlandish setpieces, not to mention chocked with interesting, diverse characters. Another third is a formulaic Hollywood comedy redemption story in which those interesting, diverse characters aren't given much to do and ultimately end up just sort of being there, while bafflingly archaic plot points steer the action. The last third consists of some truly hilarious one-liners in the midst of punchy dialogue, at least giving the diverse yet not-fully-fleshed-out cast some wickedly funny things to say.
Are you picking up on the central problem here? Basically: Edgar Wright wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie, Peyton Reed wanted to make a typical Hollywood crowd-pleaser, and Adam McKay wanted to make a pure comedy movie. As a result, Ant-Man feels painfully disjointed. After the (admittedly awesome) post-credits sequence, despite enjoying my time, I left the theater unsure of what I had just watched, and not in the "transcending classification" way that a film by David Lynch or Lars von Trier does. Rather, I was unsure whether I was supposed to say whether or not I had just laughed a lot, been excited, or been challenged as a viewer. I guess, ultimately, it was a case of both and neither, because there wasn't one consistent vision for the entire film. Instead, we just get bits and pieces of various directors' takes on a superhero movie, and are left to parse them however we see fit.
However, when all is said and done, Ant-Man is one single movie, and should be judged as such. And as a standalone film... it's alright. Nothing spectacular, but nothing awful, either. It's also a good deal better than the last Avengers outing, which is both a surprise and a delight, as I'd hate to have another year of entirely sub-par Marvel Cinematic Universe entries (looking at you, 2013.)
While Marvel's inability to let directors follow through with their artistic vision is frustrating, and Disney's commitment to maintaining as little diversity as they possibly can is disappointing and confusing, Ant-Man ultimately (and ironically, I suppose) rises above the two oppressive forces and manages to be a fun film, both on its own and in context of the entire franchise. I genuinely want to see more of Scott Lang, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly's frustratingly hamstrung heroine,) and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas in top form,) as well as Lang's hilarious merry gang of thieves, and look forward to seeing them come into their own in future iterations.
Maybe next time, though, their movie will be as consistently engaging as they are.