Some ants may have died in the production of this movie
by Thom Yee
One of the things that’s really helped to make a regularly updated movie review website a sustainable endeavour over the last three years here at GOO Reviews has been the rapid proliferation of superhero movies. They’ve consistently been some of the leading tentpole movies of their respective seasons and years of release, they’re easy to schedule reviews around, and, frankly, they’re easy to write about. As a lifelong comicbook nerd and as someone who usually finds more to believe in from these fictional heroes than from anyone in our non-fictional world, I always get a kick out of watching them, and it’s usually easy for me to find something new to say about them.
On the other hand, Ant-Man is coming out at what may be a crossroads for the superhero movie in general. After almost ten years of consistent critical and box office success, there’s been an undeniable and growing shift in recent viewer preferences away from the format as it stands today. It started with low rumblings as people started to gripe about how sick they were of origin movies, it’s continued through a vocal recognition of how formulaic and unremarkable superhero movies are becoming, and right now I think it’s a movement spearheaded by some of the outright animosity Avengers: Age of Ultron has received from critics, the general movie-going public, and even some underwhelmed former fans.
With a $58 million opening weekend, Ant-Man has thus far premiered to the second smallest opening weekend in Marvel Studios history, just ahead of 2008’s The Incredible Hulk (which is a Marvel Studios movie that a lot of people forget about), and I don’t think that’s just because it’s only Ant-Man. No matter how much industry pundits have tried to set expectations lower for a smaller movie release like Ant-Man, that’s a pretty low number considering how far we’ve come from that first year of Marvel Studios releases, and I think it says a lot about what to expect in the future. Beyond a growing sense of boredom and complacence, and beyond superhero fatigue, it really is starting to feel like superhero movies in general are heading towards a downward trajectory.
As for what I thought of Ant-Man? Well, I just spent the first three paragraphs of my Ant-Man review not really talking that much about Ant-Man, so that might be a hint on where my head’s at on the movie itself.
What’s it about?
Scott (Paul Rudd), you’re a jobless, ex-con, loser who can’t afford child support and you have no discernible prospects as you sleep on your fellow ex-con’s couch in a dingy hotel. But you’ve also got a heart of gold, a master’s in electrical engineering, unusual dexterity, coordination and agility, and you’re a master thief who’s being actively watched by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a reclusive genius scientist. Scott, for whatever reason, he thinks you have what it takes to save the world from the weaponization of his size-changing formula by his former protégé, the increasingly unstable Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who’s a big deal in corporate security circles. Though you’ll still need to be trained by his stern, hard-to-know daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who shares her father’s fears about Cross’s plans despite working for him. Scott, for plot-stretching reasons that don’t really stand up to scrutiny or at least could use a better explanation, you need to become the Ant-Man. And I guess you can bring your screwball comedy relief crew (Michael Pena, rapper T.I., and David Dastmalchian) along for the ride because otherwise this whole adventure might come off as a little dry to anyone who might be watching.
So here’s the thing about the comicbook Ant-Man. The original was Hank Pym, but alongside Janet van Dyne as the original Wasp, he was a contemporary of [post-frozen in ice] Captain America, Thor and Iron Man and one of the founding members of the Avengers. Like in the movie, Scott Lang did turn up later to pick up the Ant-Man identity from Hank, but it wasn’t decades between the two, but more like five or so years, with Hank going on to assume various other size-changing superheroic identities at the same time as Scott being Ant-Man. This part of the story actually works a lot better in the movie since the super-compressed nature of Marvel’s in-universe comicbook continuity has forced almost everything in the 60+ years of Marvel’s publishing history to fit into a sliding timeline of roughly the last 12 years. That means that anything that happened in the first issue of the Avengers, published all the way back in 1963, happened no more than 12 years before whatever’s happening in the latest issue you pick up now (in whatever year this is), and that characters like Hope van Dyne couldn’t exist in comics as depicted in the Ant-Man movie because there just isn’t enough time in the continuity for her to grow from child to adult. The broader Cinematic Universe timeline not only sets up a richer history for this world, it also allows a story like Ant-Man’s to take on a more generational aspect by giving it more breathing room rather than stuffing the whole thing into some time in the last 12 years.
The other thing about the comicbook Ant-Man is that the Hank-Pym version is probably most famous for hitting his wife. That’s a storyline I was pretty sure the producers weren’t going to include in Ant-Man (though to be fair, they don’t outright deny it happened; who knows, behind closed doors Thor might hit Jane, Pepper might hit Tony [and he likes it], and maybe the real reason Hulk ran away from the Avengers was because Natasha is into hardcore BDSM), but back in the day Hank suffered from an inferiority complex, nervous breakdowns, schizophrenia, and various personality crises, and during a particularly stressful time in his life he hit his wife. Just once, not premeditated, never again, and to his eventual horror after he’d regained his senses, but the act forever branded him as a wife beater and it’s remained an integral part of how he’s thought of most of the story he’s been in since.
And finally, the last thing I have to say about the comicbook Ant-Man (because we probably don’t have time to get into how Scott was also once a member of the Fantastic Four for a while, eventually his daughter Cassie also grew up to be a size-changing superhero who fell in love with a teenage version of the Vision, Janet’s still alive and now romantically involved with Havok from the X-Men, and of course all of them have died multiple times) is that it’s Hank Pym and not Tony Stark or Bruce Banner who invented Ultron. There’s also a heavy father-son-grandson relationship implied between Pym, Ultron, and the Vision (since Pym invented Ultron who in turn invented the Vision) wherein Ultron’s resentment towards humanity partially springs from Pym’s rejection of him as a son and the Vision was planted in the Avengers by Ultron to lead them into a trap, but instead betrayed Ultron, thus becaming the good grandson. They glossed over that whole thing in Age of Ultron.
Why do you need to know all of that, why does any of it matter? You don’t and it doesn’t really, but it does at least show you what a complicated and colourful past even a minor character like Ant-Man can have. Mostly a pretty bad past and one that would’ve been pretty difficult to translate to screen without some heavy streamlining.
Is it any good?
Ant-Man’s a good movie. It’s a good movie pretty much by design and most if not all of its disparate elements are good. It’s an action movie, a weird-science movie, a heist movie, a comedy, and a movie about the importance of families and how work can get in the way of family relationships and it’s pretty successful in all of those things.
My favourite aspect of the movie is that it’s heavily invested in and adds to Marvel’s cinematic history, beginning with the story of scientist Hank Pym’s role in the history of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Marvel’s super-science community. That’s huge for continuity nerds like me, but even though it plays a key role in how this universe developed, it’s also in no way dependent on a deep knowledge or understanding of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and in a lot of ways the movie is more divested from the overarching MCU than any other recent Marvel Studios movie.
Ant-Man is a light and airy movie that works well as a comedy and an action movie, and I love that it took the time to include moments like how much Cassie, Scott’s daughter, loves the ugly bunny rabbit he gives her for her birthday (“He’s so ugly! I love him!”), Michael Peña’s Luis remembering to save the guard he knocked out at the beginning of the heist before the whole place explodes, and I liked how well the movie understood the father-daughter dynamic between Hank and Hope, even if it took Scott’s speech to Hope to bring the two back together. I even loved how Hank kept the nature of her mother’s disappearance a secret for so long because we should all be able to understand keeping secrets from people we love when we think we can fix everything if we just get that one thing right (and yes I know that’s not the most well-expressed sentence, but I’m trying not to spoil anything).
So if Ant-Man’s good in all of these different ways, it must be a good movie, right? Well, it’s not quite that simple. Ant-Man’s a good movie like ordering a bunch of your favourite appetizers should make for a good meal – all of the pieces are good individually, but there’s not enough of any one piece and they don’t necessarily gel together into a satisfying whole. Like I said, it works well in comedy and action modes, as a heist movie, a science movie, and as a family movies, but none of those elements are explored very deeply. The heist is interesting but doesn’t reach the heights of the best heist movies, the science is intriguing, but foggy and inconsistent, and they could’ve spent a lot more time establishing the relationship between Scott and Cassie. And unfortunately the marketing for the movie ruined some of the best and funniest scenes in the movie, including the “train crash” at the end of the first trailer and a fight with a surprise member of the Avengers (my favourite Avenger) that was spoiled in one of the TV spots. That fight might’ve been my favourite part of the movie if I didn’t already know it was coming. If you too want that identity spoiled, click here, but the movie plays a lot better without that foreknowledge.
Add to that another weak Marvel villain with Corey Stoll’s Yellowjacket, who takes some pretty drastic, out-of-character turns towards the psychotic, and you have a movie that’s technically good, but not totally satisfying. It’s explained that his villainous actions may be the result of an unhealthy level of exposure to whatever exotic materials are involved in the size-changing process, but that’s all left a bit up in the air, and is at best a way to explain the character’s actions without making us understand them. Besides that, I like Corey Stoll, and he’s just a little too likeable for his villainous turn to really work, at least with the little we see of him on screen.
So should I see it?
Last year we got two of the best Marvel Studios movies of all time with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a spy thriller, and Guardians of the Galaxy, two movies that not only stand on their own as strong, crowd-pleasing films, but also two movies that may have redefined just what’s possible in a superhero movie. Here in 2015 and the end of Marvel’s Phase Two, we’ve just seen an Avengers sequel that let a lot of people down and failed to meet the critical or box office success of its predecessor (because $1.4 billion in revenue isn’t that much when you factor in Robert Downey, Jr.’s deal on Age of Ultron’s back-end points), and what’s likely to be be the second least financially successful movie in Marvel Studios’ history.
Ant-Man’s definitely a movie with a lot of crowd-pleasing moments, and it’s not a failure in any way other than it’s not that great overall. It doesn’t work that well if you think about it too much, but that’s probably the result of so many hands having passed over the script during its lengthy development. It’s heart is in the right place, it’s tone is on-point, and it’s probably the most kid-friendly of all of the Marvel Studios movies, but if anyone tells you it’s one of Marvel’s best movies, don’t be surprised when you come out a little underwhelmed.
Thom’s Ant-Man final score
On the Edge
- “So we invented this great shrink ray for, like, shrinking soldiers and stuff… oh, also, you can use the non-functioning version of the ray to obliterate people utterly… but you’re probably more interested in making soldiers small.
- That’s a pretty optimistically sized wasp suit Hank and Janet were designing for their daughter, Hope. Like they knew she was going to grow up to have a perfect skinny girl’s body.
- Why do the Ant-Man suits not have wings like the Wasp suits?
- So do Hope and Black Widow share a common fight-training past with that flippy-leggy-chokehold-take-down move?
- So that’s our Ant-Man review, a movie that also marks the end of Marvel’s Phase Two. After a lot of thinking and rethinking, here’s our new GOO Reviews Top Marvel Movies:
- Captain America: Winter Soldier
- Avengers: Age of Ultron
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- The Avengers
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- Iron Man 3
- Iron Man
- The Incredible Hulk
- Iron Man 2
- Thor: The Dark World