ANT-MAN Review: Phase One and a Half (with mild spoilers)

BACKGROUND

Imagine a world where Marvel was not on top of the cinematic food chain, where properties like “Iron Man,” “Incredible Hulk” and “Avengers” were considered either gambles, failures or pipe dreams. Back when the so-called “Marvel Cinematic Universe” was just a dream in the mind of Kevin Feige, another dreamer was trying to make a longshot movie come to life.

Edgar Wright was the cult icon writer/director famous for movies such as Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, when he approached Marvel Studios with an idea about adapting minor character Ant-Man into a major motion picture. Around this time, Marvel Studios was the subsidiary of Marvel Entertainment, known for “packaging and selling” the Spider-Man movies to Sony and the X-Men movies to Fox. Packaging and Selling refers to the process when a company that owns the rights to make a movie does all the work putting the film together, and then takes the whole package (director, star, screenplay) to a studio looking to sell it as a bundle. Packaging and Selling relies on the finances of other studios, however. So in those days “Marvel Studios” wasn’t much of anything.

But it was soon to become the worldwide leader in comic book films.

Wright wanted to develop Ant-Man, from a script penned by himself and writing partner Joe Cornish, with a release date targeting the late 2000’s.  Marvel Studio’s head Kevin Feige liked where Wright wanted to go with the story and penciled Ant-Man in to be part of what would be the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe. At the time this MCU was not the big interconnected labrynth of movies that it is today. At the time it was merely the list of properties that Marvel had legal access to, and which they intended to independently adapt into films.

The first draft came and went and Wright insisted that he was still working on it, even as work began on other film ideas. As the 2000’s closed, and Marvel’s MCU began to take shape, Ant-Man was still expected to be part of the first phase. Based on interviews, however, it’s clear that Wright was in no hurry to get the script done. He stated that he didn’t think the film was a top priority because Ant-Man wasn’t a major player in the Marvel universe.

Feige, however, wanted another origin story for Phase One. When Wright couldn’t get the movie going in time, Feige substituted a very rushed Iron Man 2 in its stead. Years continued to pass, and Wright continued taking his sweet time, stopping to work on The World’s End. Though rumors swirled that the project was dead, Feige announced that Ant-Man was still coming, and would be a late-phase two/early phase three film. With pre-production well under way, Wright—still working on the screenplay—insisted that his movie would not be strongly tied to the MCU, stating his desire to keep his story stand-alone. Even after key stars were signed and locations were scouted, the script was not done, and it was clear that the problems rested on how to fit Ant-Man into a now very-established cinematic universe.

Eventually Wright and Feige parted ways. People were quick to jump to the defense of the brilliant director, but really he deserves the blame. His biggest hangup was his unwillingness to incorporate the MCU into his movie. Had he simply made the film a decade prior like he was going to, he could have made a largely stand-alone film (much the way that Iron Man, Captain America and Thor were). Instead he took his time, set the story aside to work on other movies and allowed the MCU to pass him by. Feige had no choice: If Wright didn’t want to make a “Marvel” movie, someone else would.

Enter: Peyton Reed, previously the director of…”Yes Man” and “The Break Up.”

So yeah, you can see why people sided with Wright.

But Reed was willing to play ball while star Paul Rudd and new writer Adam McKay did a pass on the screenplay, apparently keeping much of the Wright/Cornish plot, while adding in the MCU-specific elements where needed and punching up the dialogue as well. Usually when a film is that tumultuous behind the scenes—especially with regard to writer/director changes at the last minute—it’s a warning that the final product will be subpar.

Nope.

While not perfect, Ant-Man is a very good film and worthy to be placed alongside other origin movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It may be several years too late to really compare it to Thor or Captain America, but it feels like it belongs alongside those movies, at least in terms of its “origin story” formula.

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PROS

The movie does a good job a subtly (and, in the final scene, not so subtly) planting seeds for Civil War next May. Pym’s dislike/distrust of Howard Stark gives him (and the screenplay) a logical reason why not to “call the Avengers” as Lang suggests. That anti-Stark animosity will certainly push Pym and Lang into the Captain America side of the Civil War.

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The movie has a premise so similar to Honey I Shrunk the Kids I’m surprised there wasn’t a Wayne Szalinski joke. That said, the tone of this movie was exactly what it needed to be. Iron Man was all about be

ing too cool for school. Captain America wore its naked idealism proudly on its sleeve. Thor was super serious where everyone around him was not. This movie is more in the Guardians of the Galaxy mold where everyone is in on the joke, and that’s exactly the right tone to have when the hero shrinks to the size of a thumbtack yet can punch a grown man to the ground.

I was skeptical about Paul Rudd pulling off a convincing hero, but he was the heart and soul of the picture. He couldn’t have been Iron Man or the Hulk, but for a hero like this, he’s perfect.

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Other than Stark’s relationship with Pepper, and other heroes’ love interests here and there, is this the first Marvel movie where the hero has a family? I think so: Lang is a dad, and the final battle kicks off in the bedroom of his baby girl. That’s new to the MCU, and was a welcome addition.

CONS

There’s a fair amount of language in the movie, more than any other MCU film I can recall. Just a fair warning for those of us with children and their virgin ears. Use your best judgment before bringing a five and eight year old in. Other than that, kids will love it, especially the final battle.

The pace tends to drag in places, especially in the first half. The movie spends a lot of time world building and setting up the plot, without giving the audience much to “enjoy.” It doesn’t slow to a crawl or grind to a halt, and there is usually at least one good one-liner in every scene, but there were parts where it clearly felt like the screenplay was just taking a moment to play catch-up before advancing the plot.

This isn’t really a critique about the movie, so much as about the character: Other than punching, Ant-Man’s only weapon are discs that can either shrink or enlarge objects as needed. Thematically they’re the perfect weapons, but on a practical level they were more for plot service than anything.

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After nearly a dozen MCU films, everyone seems to be tired of “origin stories.” Even Kevin Feige has apparently decreed that future movies will steer clear of the trope. This movie was a holdover from the earlier era of Marvel films and it shows: It’s very “origin story” in its formula. That can turn people off, and in fact is one of the more universal criticisms of the movie. It’s a very well told origin story, no doubt, but it’s still yet another “how the hero got the mask” story that’s been done (to death). Guardians of the Galaxy clearly was an “origin” story too, but it managed to keep the plot moving and keep the characters growing so much that you didn’t notice it. That’s not the case here.

Another common complaint is the weak, one-note villain. The reason Loki is so beloved is not because he wasn’t killed off in his first movie; it’s because he’s so nuanced and deep as a character. You can sympathize with him even while despising his actions. Unlike Loki, there’s nothing redeemable about Yellowjacket. He’s just the evil doppelganger of the hero, just as Iron Monger was in the first Iron Man, and just as Abomination was in The Incredible Hulk. Without a villain that you can sympathize with (even a little), you have an unbalanced movie, which keeps it from being as good as it could have been.

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QUICK HITS

  • The trailer for Everest was dynamite in 3D. That trailer alone and the attached-Star Wars teaser were worth the bump up in price. Thankfully too, because there wasn’t much use for the 3D glasses in this movie.
  • The credits may have read “Howard Stark” but that was Roger Sterling in that opening scene. It’s kind of weird the way these movies (and shows) jump back and forth between John Slattery and Dominic Cooper in the role of Tony Stark’s dad. Pick an actor and stick with him already.
  • Great job on the de-aging CGI to make modern Michael Douglas look like 1980’s “Wall-Street” Michael Douglas. That’s the best work yet I’ve seen among that particular special effect. I remember how horrible young Xavier looked in the horrible X-Men: The Last Stand. And even in Benjamin Button it looked awkward and tiny Steve Rogers in the first Captain America movie looked like an unusually tiny man with an unusually large head. Here it looked flawless.
  • In fact, all the of the effects deserve a mention here, as they were all so flawless there was never a shot that was so “fake” that it took me out of the picture. Considering the nature of this hero’s super power, there was a lot of effects work in this film, but most of it will go unnoticed because it will be so naturally integrated into the movie.
  • It’s pretty easy to spot the parts that were added post-Edgar Wright walk out. The New Avengers stuff and little nods to the greater MCU definitely were. I’m going to guess that “Disintegration” by The Cure was always in the early drafts, though.
  • It’s fascination to consider how this one movie, and its troubled production changed the whole landscape of the MCU and of Marvel Studios. Had Ant-Man been released in the Iron Man 2 spot, we would likely have seen an Avengers movie directed by Jon Favreau and written by Zak Penn. Iron Man 2 would have had more time to develop and would not have been so half-baked as a result, Iron Man 3 as we know it likely wouldn’t have been made at all. Joss Whedon would never have come on board to toss out Penn’s apparently terrible Avengers script and start the project over from scratch, which means that movie might have ended up disappointing in the box office.
    On the other hand, this movie gets bumped, Favreau is pressured to get Iron Man 2 out in limited time, which stresses him out and turns him off to working on another Marvel movie. He leaves Avengers, which gets passed to Joss. The rest is history. Funny how it all shook out.
  • Early box office returns are solid but not spectacular. Still, it’s likely that Ant-Man will grow in popularity after his roles in Civil War and Infinity Wars. Expect a sequel in Phase Four.
  • Baskin-Robbins always finds out.

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GRADE

A solid 8/10

This movie won’t blow the box office away the way the Avengers/Iron Man films do, and it won’t be a surprise smash the way Guardians of the Galaxy was, but this film is also not the “misfire that portends the doom of Marvel” that some were thinking it might be a year ago.

It’s a pleasant, funny, occasionally heart-warming but never too melodramatic film. It’s a slave to the Marvel formula established in all their “hero origin movies” from Phase One, especially the pacing (the movie takes half its runtime setting things up) and the villain (another one-off “evil version of the hero” that is not nearly threatening enough).

This film would have been much better-received if it had been released in place of Iron Man 2. It’s very good though, and brings some good characters into the wider cinematic universe. I’m excited to see Ant-Man and company again soon.

See it in theaters.

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