Our review of the 2015 superhero film Ant-Man, obviously.
Ant-Man is the movie some people within Marvel Studios have been trying to make since 2006. Since they didn’t start testing out special effects until 2012, we have some idea how well that worked out, though we have no real idea why it worked out that way. Hollywood used to boast about the length of their…productions…trumpeting it as a sign of quality. “After three years in the making!” or some such like. In this case, it would be “three years in the making, and six years in the 8th circle of Development Hell. Down on the frozen lake, where Satan sits, eternally chewing on all the Don Quixote movies everyone keeps trying to make…including Terry Gilliam, who’s apparently still trying to make one to this day.” Via con dios, Python.
In the opening scene, Iron Man’s dad tells Dr. Hank Pym – Ant-Man, Scientist – “Don’t let your past determine the future…” Which could be watch-words for this movie as a whole…if it didn’t also try to cram almost 50 years of comic book continuity into 2 hours. But I see why Marvel felt the need to do that with Ant-Man: to the illiterate masses, he’s a near-complete unknown. Hell, he’s barely known within reader circles, though his fanbase does consist of a very hard core with some very famous people in its orbit – like his co-creator, Stan Lee. Sure, Stan loves all his creations, but he seems to have a special place in his heart from Hank. God only knows why.
Boomers and Gen-Xers who don’t read might have met Ant-Man’s on 1966’s Marvel Super Heroes cartoon, or one of its many reruns. But if we met him at all, my generation probably met him in 1999’s Avengers: United They Stand, the shittiest Avengers cartoon we have at the time of this writing, rightly canceled less than a year after it debuted, replaced by either Pokemon, or one of its numerous rip-offs.
As I mentioned in the Age of Ultron review, Ant-Man began life as a Biophysicist and freelance crime fighter – a fairly typical resume for superheroes of his age. And yes, I was being facetious about his beef with Tony Stark. That came later. In the beginning, he was just a dude who figured out how to shrink himself, control ants with a helmet, and solve mysteries. Any of those three things alone can be the basis of a kick-ass story, so why not combine them all? Such is the strength of superheroes as a storytelling form: the ability to embrace all genres and, by doing so, illustrate how artificial genre divisions really are. I’ll even give him credit for revealing his secret identity to his future wife, Janet Van Dyne, way before such things became cool. While Spider-Man angsted his way through 1963, Ant-Man and the Wasp began their incredibly – I dare say “unfilmably” – rocky life together.
As novel as the idea of husband-and-wife superhero team was (and, hell, still is) the Van Dyne-Pym household’s subsequent history makes a great case for life-long speed dating. Sure, the filmmakers could have just scrubbed all the casual misogyny and bouts of spousal abuse from Dr. Pym’s history (which they did) and told a simple story of two super scientists falling in love as they battled the space monster who killed one of their dads. But if plans for that were ever in the offering, it took too long for anyone to greenlight them. All the decision-makers were, apparently, too busy wringing their hands over whether people would accept The Avengers.
Still, the Marvel Studios office must’ve thrown a party on the day someone remembered, “Hey – there have been at least two other Ant-Men over the years! Not counting all his counterparts in parallel dimensions. Why don’t we just put one of them in the suit and have Hank be their Obi-Wan Kenobi?” Of course, this creates as many problems as it solves, as any Star Wars prequel should show you. Dual protagonists require a story to double-up on everything a protagonist needs: motivation, supporting casts, backstory, and some kind of satisfying resolution to it all. It’s hard enough for most movies to get that shit right for just one character. It’s why Team Movies are so often clusterfucks. It’s why the first four X-Men movies focused so heavily on Wolverine, and the last Three haven’t moved much beyond Xavier and Magneto. But hell, I thought, sitting down to watch this last year. It could be good. All you really need to do an Ant-Man story well is Dr. Pym’s love of entomology, and an imagination plastic enough to utilize Ant-Man’s powers well.
Shrinking has always been a tough superpower to dramatize. It’s usually portrayed as a horrible disadvantage. The classic example is Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man. I don’t know if Stan Lee ever read that book, but its movie adaption – The Incredible Shrinking Man – looks like just his type of flick. It even has a superfluous adjective in the title! Most of my colleagues ignored this, (of course) preferring to reference Honey, I Shrunk the Kids because…fuck if I know, really. Because their both Disney movies with ants in them? Or because Incredible Shrinking Man came out before everyone was born and nothing made before your parents made you actually exists in your minds?
Either way, in the wacky parallel dimension that is Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, Dr. Hank Pym, Ant-Man, Scientist, developed his shrinking suit sometime in the…1970s…I guess…and used them for the benefit of mankind under the auspices of S.H.I.E.L.D. We open on him breaking with the agency, seemingly unaware of the widespread neo-Nazi infestation Captain America 2 uncovered. Hank’s just paranoid they’ll mass-produce his shrinking suit. As he should be. With that prologue out of the way, the first act can shift to our real Protagonist: Scott Lang.
Scott began comic book-life as a thief who stole the Ant-Man suit to save his daughter from an evil billionaire, if you’ll pardon the redundancy. Said billionaire wanted to literally steal her heart, since his own was burning out at the time, and donor lists are for poor people, just like morality and laws. That story’s nice, but it’s a little too…they wouldn’t say “personal.” That means something else to them. But for a multi-hundred million dollar late-summer blockbuster, made by a Hollywood studio in the mid twenty-teens, that story’s a little too…“small” would be the word, I think. All summer blockbusters must climax with an existential threat to the entire planet. How else – or so the producer logic goes – will we sell this movie to the entire world if no one outside the US feels they’re in personal jeopardy? It’s not like we can expect people to care about the personal jeopardy of the characters on screen. That might actually give audiences some credit, and we certainly can’t have that. Better to dumb everything down and, if anyone complains, just accuse them of hating “fun,” or something equally nonsensical. “Why do you hate fun?” is the “Why do you hate America?” of the movie-loving world: a question meant to stop all thought dead with its sheer stupidity.
This Scott Lang, then, is now a master of electrical engineering – and even says so to set up a joke – fresh out of San Quintin. Which he landed in for stealing a bunch of money from the company he used to work for and giving it back to the people his employer stole it from originally. Basically, he’s Robin Hood of Cyberspace forrest. And why the hell was this guy in San Quintin?” San Quintin’s where they keep the death row murderers and serial rapists. It’s one of the oldest and most notorious prisons in California, if not the world, and…did I just answer my own question? It’s not where they usually send the white collar riff-raff, is my point, but is it name-dropped in this movie for no other reason than that its name is famous? Did someone really go, “Quick – name a prison in California.” Um…The Rock? “That’s a tourist trap now! I mean a working prison.” Um…San Quintin? “Yeah – everybody’s heard of that. And it’s right up the street from San Francisco, where the bulk of our film’s set. Perfect!”
Why quibble? Scott could be in any prison – the point is, he’s getting out when the movie opens and there are no jobs for ex-cons. And that’s not even really a point, to this movie, so much as a joke. My society likes to pretend its justice system exists to reform criminals when possible and destroy their lives only when necessary, but – Spoiler Alert for the Rest of Your Life inside the American Empire – it’s really a giant Ponzi scam, designed to transfer cash from poor people to bureaucracies who couldn’t give less of a fuck about the outcome and, actually, these days, consider recidivism good for business. Especially now that lobbyists are hard at work bribing your Congresspeople into privatizing all the prisons. The sick thing is, everybody seems to know this. We pretend we don’t in polite company, but I know we know this, because this movie knows we know this. How else could it consider Scott, and his Masters of Electrical Engineering, winding up slinging ice cream at Baskin Robbins to be one big fucking joke? “Ha-ha! The world is so fucked up, Our Hero has no choice but to take a menial, service-industry McJob.” That he only got that by lying about his criminal past. For which he is summarily fired. The movie expects us to get all that, which I do, no doubt. But it’s one of those jokes you don’t want, even when you get it. Like the ugly sweater your aunt gave you for Christmas. Ugly socks are bad enough but at least you can cover them up.
To top it all off, the smug motherfucker who fires Scott has the balls to call his past offense, “Not a violent crime, but a cool crime,” which is the kind of distinction that got us into the last financial crisis and will get us into the next one, still to come. It’s the bourge-iest distinction one can make about crime, and its presence tells me the people who made this movie haven’t broken any law more stringent than a Speed Limit.
Jobless, Scott has no choice but to follow the lead his friend Louis gave him as soon as he got out of the joint. There’s this crazy rich guy, you see, with this kick-ass, retro safe in his basement. Inside that safe, Scott finds…nothing of value, beyond an old suit. What’s a guy to do but try it on…right? It seems to fit him rather way, almost like someone tailored it…
Here, the first act ends and the second act shifts to Hank Pym and his daughter, Hope. Hank got forced out of the company that used to bare his name awhile back by his former protege (and Pitbull-impersonator), Darrin Cross. Hope was the deciding vote…but time and tide have brought the estranged Pym/Van Dyne’s back together. You see, Darrin Cross was always obsessed with tales of Dr. Pym’s breakthroughs. He would practically beg his mentor to share with him all the secrets of the fabled “Ant-Man”…and Hank denied him, fearing that Darrin would weaponize his shrinking tech and sell it off to the highest bidder. Which, of course, is exactly what’s happened now. Hank and Hope need a professional thief to sneak into Cross-nee-Pym Technologies and steal the prototype Darrin’s developed, which he plans to market under the name Yellowjacket.
The second act divides its time between Scott’s extended training montage (which would be right at home in any mid-1980s coming-of-age film) and the Pym/Van Dynes’ rocky family history. Turns out, Hank and his wife, Janet, were a husband-and-wife superhero team in this universe, too. But Janet shuffled off their mortal coil in 1987, when “Separatists highjacked a Soviet missile silo and launched an ICBM at the United States.” Here, at last, we get the Ant-Man movie some of us were hoping for when we first heard about this project. Like the Black Widow movie in the middle of Avengers 2, it’s frustratingly, annoyingly, short and contained entirely within a flashback.
I’m supposed to be happy with what I get…but when did anyone ever get anything by doing that? Fuck that. If this review has a thesis statement, it’s that “Marvel was too chickenshit to make the Ant-Man movie anyone who knows Ant-Man wanted, and too chickenshit to pick between all the other options they had on hand. So they Frankensteind this thing together and then focus-tested it to death, secure in the knowledge that no one would notice or care. Except for pedantic assholes who actually read comics. But fuck us, right? We don’t count. We’re all just a bunch of haters.”
Regardless, Janet Van Dyne – the Wasp – sacrificed her life to safe the U.S. from one of those accidental nuclear wars that almost popped off all throughout the Cold War, we just didn’t hear about them until certain documents were declassified. Janet averted this one by shrinking herself down between the gaps in the missile’s plating – “going sub-atomic,” as this movie puts it. This isn’t the first story to liken “going sub-atomic” unto Death Itself. That’s pretty much the entire premise of The Shrinking Man, Incredible or otherwise. It’s even described in the same, apocalyptic terms.
The flashback’s nice, but this movie has the Second Act Blues like a motherfucker. Worse, even, than Age of Ultron. The entire middle unfolds like a paint-by-numbers slog through obligatory plot pointsas our heroes plan the burglary and reveal stuff about their characters. Stuff which hints, teases, and unveils all of the far more interesting movies this one could’ve been. It’s the opposite problem “Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four” had. “Fant4stic” probably turned out the way it did in a desperate attempt to avoid this very issue.
They didn’t want to do a straight-up Hank Pym story because that kind of story ends with either death, spousal abuse, or both. (Thanks, Ultimates.) They didn’t want to do Hope’s reconciliation with her father, because that wouldn’t be an Ant-Man movie, it’d be a Wasp movie, and no one at Marvel had the balls to greenlight a female-led superhero flick until they remembered, “Oh shit: our Distinguished Competition owns Wonder Woman. Um…who do we have that’s like Wonder Woman, but easier to sell to illiterates? Um…well, there’s always Captain Marvel!” Whom we won’t even see until 2019, after Avengers 3 Part 1…but before Avengers 3 Part 2. Because that’s not going to confuse anyone at all.
Of course, now, in the wake of Sony’s failure to create a Spider-franchise, and Spider-Man’s debut in the Cinematic Universe, there’s always the chance Carol might get bumped to make room for more Peter…and I just had a horrible vision of them turning Spider-Man 6 into a backdoor Captain Marvel pilot. The Spider-Gentleman does prefer blondes…even though he’s had much better luck with redheads and they’ve had much better luck with him. But he and the Cap’n were A Thing for a few, hot minutes, there, back in the mid-2000s…
I digress because Ant-Man is boringly predictable, even by the standards of superhero origin stories. All it’s emotional beats ring hollow because most of them are compressed into this montage. And it’s someone else’s training montage! I omitted the fact Scott still has a daughter and an ex-wife, both of whom he’s trying to impress by getting his post-prison act together, because they only have a handfull of scenes before the climax, and appear (when they appear) for the express purpose of telling us, the Audience, how to feel. “It’s too late for me,” Dr. Pym says to his newest protegee, “But not for you. A chance to earn that look in your daughter’s eyes…” And I’m with Scott on this: that’s a damn good speech. I wonder how it survived Development Hell long enough to make it on screen.
Originally, Marvel hired English director Edgar Wright for this project– the man who made Shaun of the Dead, one of the better zombie movies released during the wave 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead-remake kicked off. A very British – for lack of a better word – zombie movie about aimless lads discovering new purpose life via the zombie apocalypse. Scott’s Rainbow Coalition of “cool” criminal supporting characters (including a Token Black Dude with my name and a Russian hacker with one of my cousin’s names) strikes me as just the kind of thing Edgar Wright would contribute. Combined with Luis, the Odious Comic Relief, and almost all the target demographics are represented. All we need is a white woman, and glory be, there’s Hope Van Dyne, here to earn my trust by raining on our main characters parade. If YouTube still let me use video clips, I’d make a montage of all the times Hope says, “We don’t have time,” for Scott’s training. That’s supposed to make me more sympathetic to Scotty boy, but has the opposite effect in practice. I wind up siding with Hope and once again shouting at a Hank Pym. “Fuck this walking fuck-up and give your damn daughter the damn suit. For Stan Lee’s sake, let’s get this fucking party started!”
…Oh…Wait…a horrible thought just occurred…Is she the Team Pessimist because her name is “Hope” and that’s all ironic and stuff…? Because if so, then fuck me – there’s no saving the kind of people who’d consider that funny.
No movie needs to slow itself down to such a pace, and someone on this picture knew that – at least, at some point. I know they knew it thanks to the tank that appears on Hank’s keychain throughout. We see it every time he walks through the medal detectors of what used to be his company. Nothing more is made of it. Nothing more needs to be. If anything more were made of it, it wouldn’t be a surprise when Hank and Janet use it to escape what would otherwise be a terminal situation. That’s how you’re supposed to do these things well – a subtle set-up is supposed to lead to an awesome pay-off once you’re sure the audience is no longer paying attention to your set-up. That let’s people go back to a movie and go “Oooo-oh – now I get it.” Which in turn let’s them feel smart for figuring out your foreshadowing, and rewarded for watching a movie more than once. As it stands, watching this more than once, you start to notice the gears churning beneath it, and notice that (for all their bright colors and just-before-sunset lighting) they are rote and mechanical as the assembly line that built Ultron’s army of spare bodies.
Speaking of which, this wouldn’t be a post-Avengers movie without some kind of cameo, so our newly-minted Ant-Man must to travel to the Avengers new base in upstate New York to snag the last piece of their upcoming Heist Puzzle. And of course Tony had someone paint their logo on the roof. A skyscraper in midtown Manhattan obviously wasn’t enough – you had to put that right where any passing satellite could see, didn’t you, you drunk douche? And you did it for the same reason Ant-Man has to waste time on a fight with Falcon that would otherwise be completely pointless: brand recognition. It’s just what superheroes do when they first meet, right? They fight, they team up, it happens…I think I have a ’90s Superboy comic where he says pretty much just that, in what I always read as a tone of flippant resignation and Nancy Cartwright’s Bart Simpson voice.
Much as I like a good heist movie, it takes this one an hour and fifteen to get to the actual heist…and it’s only got two hours to work with in the first place. Thankfully, the second-act blues conclude when Darren Cross pays Team Ant-Man a house call. Full points to Our Villain for being smart enough to figure out the entire plot and almost win. However, I must immediately withdraw points for his being Yet Another Evil Tony Stark – the sixth since Iron Man 1 (meaning fully half of these Marvel movies have gone to the same damn Villain Well) and the second in a row after Ultron. Will any of you notice the trend now? Of course not. You look at this guy and you see another Evil Steve Jobs and you don’t ask a damn one of us to pardon your redundancy. Yet Darren and Hank have a little exchange here, before the end, that I liked a lot, even as I called it from miles away. “All those years ago,” Darren asks, “you picked me – what did you see?” And of course, Pym says. “Myself.” He eventually pushed Darren away and shut himself away from the world, “Because” he says, “I saw too much of myself.” Damn, homey (I muttered under my breath a year ago) where the fuck is that movie!?
That’s the real rub. All throughout, bits of other, better Ant-Man movies float to the top of this one’s otherwise-mediocre sea. The wreckage of a six-year development process and the Watcher only knows how many script drafts. Enough for Marvel and their first-choice of director to part ways over “creative differences.”
I think I can guess the point where they differed. In between getting this job and actually getting to work on it, Edgar Wright had enough time to make three more movies. Enough time to go from “instant cult-classic indie filmmaker” to “successful comedy director with his own passionate international fanbase, who obviously doesn’t have to take shit from all the corporate micromanagers you’re required to take shit from if you want to work on anything that costs this much.” Wright’s fanbase rightly skewered Marvel for wasting their favorite director’s time and the chance to expand the genre-horizons of their superhero movies, into the land of aging-loser-proves-himself-in-an-extraordinary-situation comedy. All of Wright’s movies (with one exception) share this theme, and it would’ve fit Hank Pym like a glove with a shrink button on it. Especially with Michael Douglas playing him. Unlike a lot of his contemporaries (*cough* Harrison Ford) Douglas still shows up to work, even if the only job he can get is playing someone else’s dad.
With Wright departing over “creative differences,” Marvel turned this sucker over to Peyton Reed, the director of…Bring it On. Yes, the cheerleader dance-off movie every high school student was forced to sit through at least once at some point in the year 2000…and two romantic comedies I haven’t seen. At least they made their money back…oh…wait…well…at least one of ’em did. And it turns out Reed helped produce the Upright Citizens Brigade TV show, back when such a thing existed, so he can’t be all that bad. He even got former UCB founder Adam McKay to re-write the script one last time, with star Paul Rudd (speaking of romantic comedies I haven’t seen…). Not that it really shows…this is a movie that thinks naming a carpenter ant “Ant-hony” is the height of comedic genius.
Personally, as someone who looks inside himself and sees his heart is black, I didn’t laugh out loud until Ant-hony died – shot in the face by Darrin Cross during his post-heist escape attempt. That’s one hell of a shot, right there. I mean, who the fuck is this guy…? Ya know…Daredevil’s old nemesis, Bullseye, has yet to show up in Daredevil’s Netflix show, despite that being two seasons deep…
I do appreciate this movie’s third act, though. Much as I rip on our eventual director, the heist sequences are all well-done, and our villain almost wins…but, like generic villains everywhere, motherfucker just can’t resist a triumphant monologue. This allowing Team Ant-Man to gain the upper hand and wrap everything up nice and tightly. Props to Dr. Pym for minimizing collateral damage with the ultimate controlled demolition. Not that I don’t love me some collateral damage. Props to Scott for causing some, and props to all involved for making two size-changers fist fighting across suburban San Fran look as cool as it does. Like all good Climactic Battles, it’s a battle between two reflections of each other – Hank Pym’s two Surrogate Sons. I even like the Yellowjacket suit, once it sustains some battle damage and becames even more fucked-up looking than it did to start.
Eventually, his potential buyers scattered, his research (and the building that housed it) destroyed, and his sanity slipping thanks to the apparently inviolate law that “all those whose names are in the title must be driven crazy by their superpowers,” Cross pays a visit to Scott’s estranged ex…and their daughter. And here at the climax, Cassie Lang lets another, potentially better movie surface when she asks Cross if he’s a monster. “Do I look like a monster?” he asks. To which I almost shouted “Um…yeeessss!” Insects have looked monstrous to we humans for millennia. The yellow jacket in particular, with its wide range, thousand-strong colonies, and painful hemotoxin, can inspire all kinds of horrors just by mentioning its name. Hell, they may even have functioning memories. Most insects will keep going back to a food source even when it’s tapped out, but yellowjackets? Three or four times with no joy, and that’s it. “Okay, boys – this one’s tapped out, time to move on.” That’s the scariest thing of all, not least because it reminds me of the 1979 “bees attack” movie, The Swarm, one of the worst disaster movies ever made, despite (or, perhaps, because of) it’s staring Sir Michael Cain.
This Yellowjacket’s final battle with Ant-Man, across the train set in Cassie’s room, was the one they showed off in all the trailers, so it’s impact was somewhat blunted. The one surprise I found was how much it owed to the Star Wars prequels. I swear, Yellowjacket’s lasers even makes Star Wars laser-sounds. Specifically, the sound of the anti-infantry laser that the Walkers made in Empire Strikes Back. Yes, I can pick that sound out of a mix, especially coming from theater-grade speakers.
For real though, the resolution of this fight got to me. I saw this and suddenly realized how the world works. Before I had some hope, but now I realize it’s like Bill Murry said in Groundhog Day, “You’re hypocrites, all of ya!” Superman breaks a dude’s neck and everybody looses their minds for three years running. Ant-Man rips pieces out of a dude’s shrinking-suit until said dude folds inwards upon himself like a human origami flower…and nobody says “dick.” Ant-Man even does this in full view of his…however-old-she-is daughter. Talk about traumatizing children! I’m a little traumatized by that, myself. Making it (for me) the best damn part of this whole movie. It shocked me out of the torpor I didn’t even know I’d fallen into. It’s more mid-1980s Cronenberg film than anything in Fant4stic, except the part where everyone decides to mess around with super-science after they get drunk. If this were a Douglas Adams novel, the energy created by all of Cross’ atoms fusing together like that would’ve annihilated a whole other universe. And hell – maybe it did. Maybe that’s why the Ultimates universe had to die! Thanks, Scott. Great job. You gonna catch that giant ant you accidentally made during the fight? Oh…no…you’re gonna let your daughter keep it. Of course. Better hope that’s not a fertile queen, or we’re gonna have a remake of Them! on our hands.
Either way, to pull this off, Scott had to “go sub-atomic,” allowing us to finally see what all the fuss is about. Incredible Shrinking Man didn’t have the money to depict this back in 1957, and the book describes it as, basically, one big Danube School landscape painting. This is much more abstract, to the point where I’m sure someone who’s never done hallucinogens before called it “trippy.” Fuck Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – this is what I call “the space between spaces.”
Scott saves himself through yet another bit of good foreshadowing, and bob’s your uncle, movie’s over Cassie’s mom and her new, cop boyfriend even give Scott their blessing and (it’s implied) agree not to snitch about his new superhero gig. Somebody’s snitching, though, because in the last scene we learn the Avengers are on the look out for a shrinking man…cue credits. We get one mid-credit scene, teasing us with the Ant-Man and Wasp movie some us thought this one would be. “Nope,” says the film. “Sorry. We’re still too chickenshit. Give us until 2018.” And we get a post-credit scene teaser for Captain America 3…which put me in a sour mood long before I discovered Captain America 3 would really be more accurately described as “Iron Man 4,” “Black Panther 0.5” and/or “a feature-length trailer for Avengers 3 Part 1…”
But don’t worry, we’ll get there…in the meantime, chalk Ant-Man up as yet-another flawed-but-occasionally-okay origin story. Decent actors with not much to do, save go through the motions without showing any weariness. It’s not bad…it’s just “okay.” But since it’s a Marvel movie, “ok” translates out to “fucking awesome! Best movie ev-ahr!”…for about five minutes. That’s all the time the hype train allows these days, before it rolls on toward the next station. It’s weird. Half my peer group seems to be suffering from anterograde amnesia – like the protagonist of Memeto. The other half hates superhero movies more than…well, pretty much anything, really. They especially hate origin stories, considering them a waste of everyone’s time. They cannot fathom the possibility that maybe, just maybe, we’re all stuck in a period of mediocre origin stories, and that a genuinely good one might just knock them out of their expertly-practiced ennui. Nope. It’s either “superhero movies will be the death of cinema” or “pick a side in the corporate wars!” Neither looks appealing, so fuck ’em both. I’m gonna do my own thing.