Last weekend, the Paul Rudd led Ant-Man flick took home $58 million, shy of parent company Disney’s estimates of $60-65 million. This was enough to give it the number one slot that weekend,, but it also gives the insect-inspired hero film the dubious honor of having the second worst opening of any of the MCU movies, beating out only 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, which actually had a higher per-screen average than Ant-Man on its opening weekend.
Audiences aren’t very interested, and frankly, that’s quite understandable. The film has been riddled with production issues, the most prominent of which has been the departure of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Cornetto Triology director Edgar Wright. Known for his outstandingly witty scriptwriting ability and technically dynamic approach to directing, many including myself were excited to see Wright take on a Marvel property and make it his own. Many turned against Ant-Man when he left the project and never gave it another chance. I was also one of those people. Going into opening weekend, I was still bemoaning the loss of the visionary auteur, but I went to see Ant-Man anyways.
To my surprise, Ant-Man didn’t suck. More than that, the movie was really, really good. Most importantly, the picture is emblematic of what Marvel films should be in several important ways. Thus, I’m here to ask you to give this movie a second chance like I did. I want you to fall in love with Ant-Man too.
[There are no Ant-Man spoilers below, but I do go into a bit of detail on the humor and some of the general story beats. I actually do spoil Marvel movies that came before Ant-Man.]
Ant-Man is an awesome genre-bender
Most Marvel movies are relatively simple beat-em-ups. They’re action movies with a few nice character moments and several large, sprawling set pieces that are inevitably torn apart by a big battle. However, the Marvel movies that stand out to me are the ones that play with genre. Captain America: the Winter Soldier is, in my opinion, the best movie to have come out of the MCU. It’s not just an action movie. It’s Marvel’s take on a superpowered political thriller. In a similar vein, Ant-Man isn’t just an action movie about a man who can shrink and control insects with his mind. Ant-Man is a superpowered heist film in the vein of The Usual Suspects and The Town.
The entire movie hinges around several “jobs” that Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Luis (Michael Peña), and the rest of their gang work to pull off. They’ve got the lookout, the brain (Lang), and even the muscle (Peña, in a hilarious running gag, knocks out anyone he punches with one swing). The big climax centers around breaking into a highly secure vault and stealing the Yellowjacket suit, which works similarly to the Ant-Man suit, before Hank Pym’s protegee Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) can sell it to the highest bidding military organization. The very fact that Ant-Man‘s goal isn’t just “beat up the bad guy” allows the film to do some really cool utilitarian things with Ant-Man’s powers, including short out a security system using a species of ant that conducts electricity. You wouldn’t see that in a more straightforward film like The Avengers, where Loki’s solution to a locked door is to have a possessed Hawkeye rip out the eye of a man whose credentials are in the door’s security system. The latter is brutal. The former is interesting, fun, and innovative.
“Fun” and “innovative” are probably the two best words one could use to describe Ant-Man. It’s a curious beast of a picture, stuffed between two huge Avengers movies in Age of Ultron and Civil War. No matter what director Peyton Reed did, the film was going to feel small in comparison. So, the Ant-Man team took the high road and embraced that smallness. The big climactic set piece takes place in a bedroom instead of a city and yet was way more interesting and entertaining than Age of Ultron‘s final battle (Thomas the Tank Engine is a running joke, people. Please).
The most memorable character was Peña’s powerless con Luis, whose fast-talking personality, enduring positive attitude, and strangely well-cultured background had the theater audience around me in stitches throughout the entire movie. He stole the show, and he did it without any fancy CGI. Ant-Man is a film where Marvel let normal people have their day in the sun.
Now, knocks where knocks are due: Evangeline Lilly’s role as Hope Van Dyne never feels as fully realized in the film as it should have been. According to some, her role was expanded from Wright’s original script, but her role basically amounts to her and the audience not understanding why she isn’t the character entrusted with Hank Pym’s incredible shrinking suit. She’s better than Lang at literally everything. She’s a better fighter, an equally skilled thinker, has spent more time with the technology, and doesn’t need to be trained– which you’d think would be a big plus considering they only have a few days to steal Cross’ suit. But nope, Pym insists on training Lang anyways, and even after you finally find out why Pym won’t let his daughter take the Ant-Man role for herself, it doesn’t really seem fair to her.
Luckily, however, it seems like Marvel is setting Van Dyne up for a much bigger role in the MCU, so not all is lost on that front. Plus, I don’t think the bad here outweighs the overwhelming good. Ant-Man is not the socially progressive Marvel movie people are clamoring for. It is, however, a movie with a lot of heart, an interesting perspective that breathes new life into an old genre, and a prime argument against Marvel’s notion that more explosions = more fun.
Edgar Wright’s departure did NOT hurt the film
Before we go on, let’s just address the elephant in the room. I love Edgar Wright. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is one of my favorite films and the editing in all the Cornetto Trilogy films is so inspiring that I want to be a director whenever I watch any of them. To be clear, I majored in English and minored in Computer Science. I don’t know the first thing about directing or being anywhere near a film set. I basically cried when I heard Wright would be making a Marvel movie and I did cry when I found out he was off of Ant-Man.
Yet, even though Wright didn’t end up directing the formicidaphilic caper, I could feel his sticky hands all over Ant-Man. There’s a musical gag during a fight sequence based around a Cure song. That’s Wright. Thomas the Tank Engine is a running gag. Definitely Wright. Peña does a bang up job relating two job tip conversations to the audience where countless different people, men and women of various shapes and sizes, all speak with his voice. That’s actually not even Wright, but the editing and comedic styles feel like his.
Adam McKay and Paul Rudd did a great job rewriting the film while sticking to Wright and co-writer Joe Cornish’s original vision for the script, and Reed did a great job realizing that vision as director on Wright’s behalf. Will this movie always live in the shadow of what could have been? For better or worse, yes. Did Marvel play bad politics with Wright? Perhaps. That said though, even if Wright was ultimately shorted, the Ant-Man film we got stands quite tall in spite of its production woes. It’s a great film on its own merit, and its success could mean more like it IF we support it as an audience. Which leads me to my final point:
Ant-Man is the kind of Marvel movie you should want to see MORE of
The Marvel train is unstoppable. Even if Ant-Man doesn’t do well, Marvel movies are slated up until I hit my first midlife crisis in the late 2020s. If we as viewers can’t stop this train, we should at least be able to steer it. I don’t know about you, but I am really sick and tired of:
Big faceless ship fights where things explode
Now, I like Marvel movies for what they are. They’re fun pieces of action-filled entertainment that do a particularly outstanding job of developing characters that are interesting and rich despite their absurd and campy origins. However, ever since The Avengers, Marvel has been in a size competition with itself, its directors competing to see who can make the largest-scale fight sequence or blow up the most vehicles in a half-hour span. It’s gotten so bad that the studio collectively seems to have forgotten that the point of a movie climax is to bring the development of all characters, protagonists and antagonists, to a head, not just fuck up the world around the protagonist(s) and see how they respond.
Marvel has always had a villain problem. No one except Tom Hiddleston’s Loki has ever felt fully realized as a character outside of their relationship to a protagonist. However, villains like Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane in Iron Man and Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull in Captain America: the First Avenger were still interesting because they had character arcs of a sort that were satisfactorily resolved by their climatic third-act battle.
While it’s rare (and stunning) to have a film where the audience actively wants the villain to win, movies are much more affecting when you can stake a claim with both the “good side” and “bad side.” The Avengers took the third act away from its villain, Loki, and even away from Thanos the master puppeteer, leaving our protagonists to band together against a faceless horde that we could stake no emotional claim to. We would have felt bad seeing Loki or Thanos win in The Avengers. We would have felt cheated if the Chitauri beat the Avengers. The same goes for Ultron’s faceless robot army in Age of Ultron, the Dark Elves in Thor: the Dark World, and inversely, the faceless N.O.V.A. Corps soldiers who died staving off Ronan the Accuser’s invasion in Guardians of the Galaxy.
Yeah, more soldiers make for bigger fights, but who cares about the size of the battle when you know who’s going to win based off plot mechanics? Who cares about the big final fight when your protagonists aren’t even actually facing the antagonists you’ve been building up for the past two hours?
Now, I’m not saying Ant-Man solves Marvel’s villain problem. Despite Corey Stoll’s great acting, Darren Cross comes off about as two dimensional as Stane in Iron Man. Their backstories and motivations are even somewhat similar. That said, I like that Marvel didn’t feel the need to cover Lang and Stoll’s final battle with pointless window dressing. The big climax was a twenty minute fight between just the two of them, and that was perfect. It brought both their character arcs to a suitable finish and created a legitimate sense of tension throughout. As I’ve said time and time again, the fight was also very cleverly concepted, more or less set entirely in a briefcase, a backyard, and a bedroom. Ant-Man was a slimmer Marvel movie and it was better for it.
I’ve heard people say that Ant-Man feels like an early phase one MCU movie, and I think that’s true. Those older Marvel films weren’t as big as their Phase Two brethren, and instead lived and died by the merits of their stories. I’d like to see Marvel return to that method of thinking, and I think an Ant-Man success would prove to them that I’m not alone in this.
Go see Ant-Man. It’s hilarious, well acted, and generally clever. Most importantly, a vote for Ant-Man is a vote for a slimmer, better Marvel movie where story comes first.