WASHINGTON, Sept. 9, 2015 – At this point in the Marvel Universe timeline, it’s hard to treat Ant-Man as a singular entity. This summer’s “Ant-Man” film debut is certainly not a sequel to other Marvel movies in the way audiences have been conditioned to view them. Sure, there are recurring characters from previous Marvel movies in this one, but their presence doesn’t involve any previous plot point audiences will be familiar with.
“Ant-Man,” in fact, is something entirely different. While last year’s surprise hit “Guardians of the Galaxy” paved the way for this notion, “Ant-Man” the film is the true signifier that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has turned into something unique. It’s become the first true non-linear movie franchise ever.
What remains to be seen is whether this idea is a good thing for the Marvel franchise as we march forward in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For “Ant-Man” itself, it creates a number of problems while still keeping everything in a slick, familiar package for Marvel fans. The main one: it’s nearly impossible at this point to separate “Ant-Man” from the larger universe and continuity. At various points during the film, linkage is really not even attempted.
It might be easy to compare this development to various long-running franchises like Star Wars and Harry Potter. But both still depended on fairly linear story lines and had a reasonably clear objective for the direction of their respective franchises.
For its part, Marvel may have carved out where the entire series of films is going, but it’s hardly apparent at times to the viewer. What Marvel very much wants you to know is that these movies are all connected, at least in some way. This notion borrows parts from the old Hollywood studio system as much as it does from the actual Marvel Comics universe that was originally crafted by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and the rest of that gang of living legends back in the 1960s.
The feeling that pervaded Marvel comic books after Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk and Ant-Man were released was that all this fantastic action was happening in the same mind-boggling universe of super heroics and super science. But as the comics group progressed into the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, it stopped being only a shared universe. Elements like the grand Marvel story and how to draw the Marvel way were being promoted at every turn.
Back in a time when Marvel had significantly more comics and story lines to manage, the Marvel organization placed the utmost importance on a system where its devoted fans would no miss a single issue of their favorite comic. But better yet, the system encouraged fans of each character not to ignore other books either, since every single comic could lead to something of great importance in another book.
It wasn’t as hard to pull off as it sounds. That’s why Marvel employed multiple artists, all of whom were able to funnel the visual side of each book into a vaguely recognizable style. In that way, every comic Marvel published had a certain level of coherence with all the others.
The desire to offer Ant-Man in a cinematic form has been on Marvel’s radar screen for quite some time. When Marvel started making tentative inroads in Hollywood as far back as the 1970s, Ant-Man was always a concept Stan Lee was pushing to get filmed from the start.
When Marvel started getting more control of its own characters after resolving licensing issues stemming from its 1990s bankruptcy, Ant-Man’s name popped up again as a movie Marvel Studios was interested in making above all else. Despite Ant-Man’s relatively obscure stature (and reduced physical size), “Ant-Man” was a movie that could never be crushed. That’s why it’s a little odd the movie is the only the 12th entry into the Marvel movie canon despite its origin in development.
The story of “Ant-Man” (the film) begins with Hank Pym (played by Michael Douglas) confronting an early incarnation of Shield concerning their appropriation of “Pym Particles,” his late 1980s invention. After a tense minute or two, Pym offers his resignation to the covert organization and high ranking officials Howard Stark (John Slattery) and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), both making return appearances here from previous Marvel films.
Fast-forward to the present day, when Robin Hood-esque criminal Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is released from a stint in prison. After taking some pratfalls trying to re-enter the job market, Scott is talked back into a life of crime by his roommate, who convinces him to get in on a heist, assuring him it’s a perfect set-up. When he actually breaks into the house, all Scott discovers in the vault he’s supposed to open is a suit paired with a weird helmet. Deciding to cut his losses, Scott takes the suit. With time on his hands, he tries it on, and after discovering a button on each hand, finds he been shrunk down to the size of a large ant. Almost immediately, he’s contacted by Hank Pym, and the superhero shenanigans ensue.
The film’s first act is by far its most inspired, due at least in part to its embrace of the Marvel look and feel. Unavoidably, this aspect points to Edgar Wright’s involvement in “Ant-Man’s” development.
Wright is one of the more recognizably stylish directors in Hollywood, and one of his signature traits is the way he plays with a film’s timeline. When Scott’s roommate Luis (Michael Pena) is laying out the job he has planned, the jump-cuts between each installment of the plan aren’t quite vintage Wright – the wash used is slightly different – but these jump-cuts are very much a Wright homage.
This is also where director Peyton Reed plays around most intensely with perspective in the way he demonstrates the actual change Scott undergoes when he uses the suit. As he shifts down in size and watches the world around him steadily distort, Scott doesn’t just get smaller and everything doesn’t merely get bigger. Rather, we see an entirely different world developing, suggesting a completely different perspective, a kind of parallel world, largely invisible but existing in the same space
This perspective doesn’t last beyond these early scenes, however. After his initial foray into a tiny world, Scott is quickly hooked up with Hank and is thrust into Hank’s corporate world as well as a nominal superhero movie with vague heist film overtones. After its promising start, “Ant-Man” quickly turns into what’s becoming a typical Marvel movie through and through.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Both Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas approach their roles in ways that people will already be familiar. Rudd plays the charming-means-well-thief-trying-to-go-straight, while Douglas carries the part of a broken former genius attempting to set things right.
Helping things along, the villainous Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is one of the better bad guys in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with a neatly developed motivation for what he’s up to, and possessing a genuinely menacing persona in Ant-Man’s scaled-down corner of the universe. The action between the two is clear and often vibrant – although it gets a little too clever at times, distracting the action, something that’s become a Marvel cinematic staple and part of its house style.
And that might be an issue in the larger scheme of things. Every Marvel movie seems to have the same kind of spit and polish. They’re become a genre, and “Ant-Man” is the kind of film where this is likely the most unavoidable. The films may be flexible enough to incorporate any genre. But what’s really happening is frequent, clever nods to other genre trappings that may or may not work in the current package.
Marvel clearly wants these movies to exist in the same universe for the audience. That means sanding away the individual stylistic touches that could send an individual film in a direction that might not fit their larger plans. In short, as in their comic book universe, Marvel has successfully created a house style for better or for worse.
Part of the reason each Marvel film, including “Ant-Man,” feels familiar is that they follow similar narrative and character arcs. All their protagonists begin to feel the same in many ways, not just in motivation but also in actual looks. The vast majority of Marvel heroes at this point all fit into the same category. This becomes a real problem with regard to Evangeline Lily’s Hope van Dyne.
Introduced alongside Hank Pym all the way back in the early 1960s, Janet van Dyne, aka the Wasp, was one of Marvel’s original female characters. Over the decades she has been one of the most prominent female characters in the Marvel Universe. But along with Ant-Man, she had been largely written out of the Cinematic Universe. In the great superhero tradition, however, a window to her return has remained open. Her replacement in this film is via Hank and her daughter Hope.
It seems that every Marvel hero absolutely needs a “competent” female counterpart with whom the male superhero can trade quips and eventually share romantic feelings. Everyone from Iron Man to Star Lord has such a set-up. Unfortunately, in “Ant-Man,” this convention hits a new low in the way Hope’s character is treated.
In “Ant-Man,” Hope is at best underused and at worst shuttled aside in favor of Scott. Very early in the film, you learn that she’s accomplished in own right compared to Hank – her father – and Cross. Yet she is only Cross’ assistant.
As the story moves forward, the feeling that she should be the one operating the Ant-Man suit becomes obvious. Everything that Scott is learning how to do to pull off their elaborate heist, control the powers of the suit, communicate and influence the ants, fight in a very basic sense – all these are things Hope already knows how to do and do exceptionally well. The script merely winks at this set-up and asks the audience to laugh at the apparent absurdity of it all.
But it’s more insidious than that. Hope’s character isn’t needed at all; or rather, calling her a “character” is rather cruel and lazy writing. She doesn’t really have an arc in this film, and is really only there to help Scott to become a hero, Hank to redeem himself, and Cross to begin his descent into megalomania.
All the details that make her are essentially told to the audience, not shown. When she’s introduced, she is supposedly estranged from Hank, except they’re around each other constantly. All her emotional baggage is conveyed to the audience by someone else rather anything she does herself. In this film, she’s merely a device and one that doesn’t even need to be there. In the long run as her absence wouldn’t cause the film to change course in any way. It’s a real waste of a potentially interesting character.
True, the film’s creators hint at a larger role for Hope in the inevitable sequel. Yet this feels like pandering, in a way, given that they could have made her more integral to this film. As with the absence of a Black Widow film, or the studio’s pushing back their mildly anticipated Captain Marvel film for four years, Hope’s time will probably come in the ever-expanding Marvel narrative.
But this strikes to the heart of a larger issue. “Ant-Man” doesn’t feel like a stand-alone movie. The involvement of the Falcon at the beginning of the film’s third act speaks to the larger universe, but it does so at the expense of this specific story. The idea is to make every Marvel film feel as if it’s important in a much broader narrative. But in this film, it feels like an unnecessary detour for Scott and the gang.
What also doesn’t help this film is that the scenes and action never align. By taking place in a wide-open space, “Ant-Man” betrays the exquisite thematic cues and expectations set in the film’s early innings — namely that the action and story of this film take place in tiny, narrow and cramped spaces. When “Ant-Man” is at its visual best, it’s narrowing its focus to open up much wider possibilities.
Broadening and brightening the scene and scope is at odds with Ant-Man’s entire miniature world, the one that’s laid out for us early in the film. Forcing this aspect of the Marvel style on “Ant-Man” doesn’t really work when the film’s characters themselves don’t fit together well, especially when one of those characters happens to be somewhat ill defined, like Falcon. The wider Marvel universe works well when it comes to making each film feel important. But it can and sometimes does it harm the specifics of a film, particularly in the case of “Ant-Man.”
As we noted earlier, when Marvel Comics first appeared in the 1960s, it didn’t take long to develop an identifiable style revolving around Stan Lee’s words and story lines as layered on top of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko’s visuals. In no time, it was easy to identify the look and feel a Marvel comic. The Marvel Studio arm seems to be developing that exact same pattern, and so far, it’s won the studio the same kind of success the original comic books experienced.
“Ant-Man” appears to be another link in this chain of success. But the movie also reprises some of the issues those comics had, with protagonists tending to become similar and with women being reduced to marginalized roles. There’s a lot to like about “Ant-Man,” as it continues Marvel’s juggernaut as it relentlessly rolls downhill towards the highly anticipated third “Avengers” film. But “Ant-Man” does feel in many ways like a calculated move in the continuity, rather than an organic film that’s capable of standing on its own.
Peyton Reed, Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly and Corey Stoll speaking at the 2014 San Diego Comic Con International, for “Ant Man,” at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego.