Phase two of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe finally comes to a close after two years of mostly underwhelming efforts that are all beginning to blur together into the same movie, with Ant Man, yet another empty, pandering attempt to define the status quo, and proof that the studio has little interest in tweaking the formula they are spoon-feeding to the masses. With the six films that comprise this phase, only Captain America: The Winter Soldier has come close to delivering the kind of thrills and storytelling delight of the original Iron Man, now almost ten years old, and remaining to this day, a bar Marvel has consistently failed to recapture. And now Ant Man, like last year’s crowd pleasing Guardians Of The Galaxy, is left to tide us over for nine months until the next packaged, processed commodity can emerge hot off the assembly line for our consumption.
Like every other Marvel film of the last seven years, except Iron Man, Ant Man is about yet another macguffin sought after by a villain who wants to use it to take over the world, and who our hero must stop at all costs. They can change the location, change the actors, change the character, even change planets and dimensions, but the basic recipe never changes, and I fear it never will. You could say “who cares?” and “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” and you might actually hold my attention for a while if you make the reductive argument that most all Hollywood films follow a similar kind of “hero’s journey” over a three-act structure. The difference, however, is that precious intersection where storytelling craft meets the almighty dollar, where Marvel films do not follow any formal sense of the hero’s journey, cutting corners left and right and padding with exposition in order to satisfy their bloated continuity, and Ant Man typifies this behavior.
In the film Paul Rudd is Scott Lang, a thief trying to re-enter society after being released from prison. He crosses paths in a most convoluted way with Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a scientist who can communicate telepathically with ants, and who created the Ant Man suit, which allows its wearer to shrink down to the size of the insects. Fearing the ramifications of this technology getting into the wrong hands, Pym refuses to continue working on it and is ultimately kicked out of his own company by his protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who continues the attempt to unlock its secrets. When Cross succeeds in creating a similar Yellow Jacket suit Pym enlists Lang to help him and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lily) steal it so it cannot be used, of course, for world domination. And that’s where Ant-Mat narratively goes off the rails, spending most of its time in “training mode” while Lang is brought on board and taught how to use the suit, and revealing its true nature as a heist film, despite Rudd having actual lines of dialogue stating the contrary. And just to make sure we care about Lang, he’s of course an estranged father who just wants to make money to see his daughter.
While all this is going on there is virtually nothing for Corey Stoll to do with his scenes, except genuflect occasionally for the camera to remind us of his evilness. Director Peyton Reed does a good job of establishing the bitter rivalry between Cross and Pym, with a touch of the old father figure/under-appreciated son dimension, but when he’s finally allowed to come into his own and don the Yellow Jacket suit, his third act aggression towards Lang is completely misplaced, especially since as far as the audience is concerned he didn’t even know Lang existed until the film is about to end. And so Ant-Man, in true Marvel fashion, ends with a showdown for a showdown’s sake, and rides a narrative twist that makes very little sense, straight into oblivion.
Ant-Man also continues Marvel’s recent sad trend of reinforcing outmoded stereotypes and gender roles. Over an hour of screen time is spent teaching Lang how to use the suit when Hope can work it quite deftly; but a resounding, patriarchal “NO” from Pym must be sufficient to sideline her, begrudgingly, until her “boyfriend in training” gives her the reassuring pep talk about how Pym just wants her to be safe, and tears of anger become laughter in a matter of minutes. Elsewhere Lang’s ethnic cohorts, played by Michael Pena, T.I. and David Dastmalchian, serve as immediate signifiers of the “other,” typically written as comic relief. Marvel just can’t get out of its own way when it comes to these relic characterizations; they’re getting worse at it, and their films are suffering because of it.
There are some pleasant moments in Ant-Man such as a rejuvenated Michael Douglas, who manages a significant amount of bite to his role as mentor, and the early scenes of Rudd in the suit, shrinking himself down, deliver occasional bursts of wonder, even though Peyton Reed insists on dragging them through non-stop action and quick cuts, until everything becomes a blur. Paul Rudd does what he can with the role, making it his own, all while Ant-Man trips over itself constantly referencing The Avengers until I was no longer sure if it was trying to convince the audience or itself that it is part of the same world, and an extended scene with Falcon should have been left on the cutting room floor, as it and the near constant digressions from the primary narrative only take away from the story it’s trying to tell. But by now we should all be well aware telling stories isn’t Marvel’s primary goal with these assembly line films. How’s that old saying go again…? Fool me once shame on you, but fool me 12 times and…
The Verdict: Pan