Marvel's Scaled-Down Storytelling in Ant-Man

A smaller scale Marvel film that could have used its size to be different, but instead uses it to stay pretty much the same.

When Edgar Wright signed on to direct Ant-Man with his writing partner Joe Cornish, everybody suddenly understood how a movie about this silly superhero could be made. He gave the movie such a reason for being that when he subsequently walked out on the production, expectations plummeted below the point before Wright and Cornish had even submitted their treatment. So it was without much hope that I entered Ant-Man, and perhaps that’s the reason I came out generally positive about its achievement.

Like its titular character, Ant-Man’s strength comes from its small size: the advantage of making something smaller like this should be that you can give it more personality. Instead, Marvel alienated Edgar Wright so they could shoehorn in a mediocre scene with Falcon and have Michael Douglas talk about his history with the Stark family. Whether this is a sign that Guardians of the Galaxy is as idiosyncratic as Marvel is willing to get remains to be seen, but Ant-Man is definitely a step in the wrong direction—away from distinct vision and toward safe mediocrity.

That’s not to say that it’s not funny, of course (it is still Wright and Cornish's original screenplay, although rewritten by Paul Rudd and Adam McKay). Peyton Reed, the brave man who stepped in to fill Wright’s unfillable shoes, has plenty of history shooting comedy, and while I can’t say I’ve loved any of his movies as much as any of Wright’s (like Ant-Man, they all tend to drift toward the middle rather than take risks), he’s by no means an unsuccessful director. So while the jokes here rely too often on the crutch of pointing out that a joke just happened ("I ruined the moment, didn’t I?"), there’s enough visual comedy to make the film more than simply funny actors reading funny dialogue. The train sequence is not only brilliant visual humor, it almost seems to skewer the bombastic, over-inflated action of The Avengers et al. There’s also plenty of funny actors reading funny dialogue as well—Paul Rudd and Michael Peña are both adorable and hilarious. There’s still comedy after Wright’s departure, and it’s still funny, and of course it could have been better, but the end product still works.


It’s also not to say that it’s not stylish. I’m a man who loves a good montage, and Ant-Man has a great one (part Rocky training montage and part Ocean’s heist montage). The macro photography is also quite striking, particularly the first time Rudd puts the Ant-Man suit on. The fight scenes aren’t quite as seamless or thrilling as in something like The Winter Soldier, but the computer animation is integrated into the live action fairly well. Ultimately this means that the ant-size practical scenes (real photography with effects added in post, like the bathtub scene) look markedly better than the ant-size artificial scenes (where everything is computer-generated to look like shallow focus, like the Antony scenes), but on the whole it managed to all look rather nice without the help of having six well known superheroes all in the same shot together.

This could have been the misfire that toppled Marvel's house of cards (does that metaphor still work, or does everyone just think of the TV show now?) but instead it just proves that they'd rather maintain the stability of their architecture than make something truly inspired. But while this isn’t as much of a unique vision as it could have been, it does deviate from the Marvel formula in a way that I really appreciated: the portrayal of violence. Violence in superhero films has been a contentious issue for a little while now, with Age of Ultron recently going out of its way to show its heroes saving large swaths of faceless civilians. Without some amount of death and destruction, there doesn’t seem to be a threat proportional to the heroes immense strength, but when the toll becomes too large, it begins to feel like the violence is there for the audience’s benefit. Heroism turns into disaster porn.

Some great CGI fake shallow focus

Ant-Man sidesteps this debate almost completely. There is still action in the film, but much more of it plays out as a heist movie, with the suspense and thrills replaced with action beats. Instead of lingering on the tension of whether or not Paul Rudd will be caught during a burglary, the film uses a montage of his character devising a solution to the problem in front of him (in place of the action film’s normal montage of punches and kicks). This is another benefit of being a smaller story: where the Avengers films can’t establish a credible threat without putting the entire world (and soon, the entire galaxy) in jeopardy, Ant-Man concludes with a death toll of 3. Not having a visual reference to 9/11 isn’t a benefit in itself, but when the film retains Marvel’s production value without resorting to crashing an airplane into a building, we all win. At one point, Michael Peña (a career criminal) asks Rudd if "we’re the good guys," and it really feels like the movie does everything in its power to allow him (and the audience) to say yes.

This smaller scale also means that the film has to rely much more heavily on character and drama, and here we’re presented with a functional but unexceptional story about fathers and daughters. Paul Rudd is an ex-convict fighting for a normal life so that he can be with his young daughter, and Michael Douglas is an aging inventor worried that he’ll lose his daughter (the most convincing Evangeline Lilly I’ve ever seen) the same way he lost his wife. Because Douglas and Lilly are given more screen time together than Rudd and his daughter (and more importantly, more dramatic resolution) their relationship feels more emotionally connected, but both halves effectively serve the purpose of grounding the action in something meaningful.

The central players

Where this grounding falls short to some extent is in the case of the villain. Ant-Man’s antagonist is split into two halves, with Bobby Cannavale playing the well meaning but prejudiced cop keeping Rudd from his daughter, and Corey Stoll playing the mad scientist who wants to create a dangerous weapon because he wasn’t loved enough as a child. Corey Stoll is what we’ve come to expect from our Marvel villains: he creates a big, bad, violent Something (be it an Infinity Stone or some other MacGuffin) that he uses to threaten the world. But the movie doesn’t need him, and it doesn’t seem to know what to do with him other than stage a big final set piece. Cannavale offers much more of that frustration and genuine dramatic antagonism that motivates Rudd into action and creates tension for the audience. He’s the better half of the villain.

Where the movie does take some interesting risks is in its third act, where it delves into some of the subatomic quantum realm stuff the Ant-Man comics are known for. I can't say much without getting into spoilers, but suffice it to say that there are some hints dropped at the possibility for an abstract, surreal adventure through space and time at the subatomic level. If there were to be a future film made that took place primarily in this other dimension, I'd be all over it without any hesitation. Ant-Man itself doesn't quite go there, but the space that it opens up is very exciting, and the scenes involving this quantum realm are some of the most interesting, both in terms of their world building and their visual splendor.

Don't worry, it's not actually like this—but it could be.

Ant-Man isn’t the break from the Marvel formula that it could have been, but it’s also not the misstep to finally topple Marvel’s growing behemoth. Most of its shortcomings are the type of "it wasn’t quite good enough" complaints that hold it back from being one of Marvel’s best without ever risking it being one of their worst. Personally, I found it consistently entertaining, but I also saw it at a sold out show with a more than willing audience. It’s not quite Marvel’s funniest, but it’s a welcome change of pace that wasn’t quite drastic enough while still being essentially successful.

Safe, disposable entertainment. If only Marvel had higher aspirations.

2015: New Releases | Superheroes | Heists


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