Like many people, my excitement for Ant-Man waned greatly after writer/director Edgar Wright abruptly left the project last year. Ant-Man, as a character, doesn’t have much appeal to me, but I’m a huge fan of Wright’s work, which includes Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End. Wright’s films always have a healthy mix of action and comedy and deliver heartfelt, genuine stories set in absurd worlds. And, most importantly, they feel unique.
Wright and Marvel haven’t offered much explanation for the departure beyond the generic “creative difference,” but an article published by The Hollywood Reporter in May 2014 offers this insight into the split:
“Kevin Feige [and his top lieutenants] run Marvel with a singularity of vision, but when you take a true auteur and throw him into the mix, this is what you get,” says a source. “They don’t want you to speak up too much or have too much vision. People who have never worked there don’t understand how they operate, but if you trust them, they have an amazing track record.”
Having seen the film, that quote rings particularly true. Ant-Man is an enjoyable film, but it follows a very specific Marvel formula. There are a few enjoyable flourishes that clearly survived from Wright’s original script (like the fun montages where Peña’s character fills everyone else in on information via colorful shaggy dog stories), but the film overall follows the same beats as every Marvel story before it. So the film feels satisfying and entertaining, but also feels fairly forgettable, especially when you compare it to Iron Man or The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy. Wright’s quirkiness and Paul Rudd’s charm make the film work, but I can’t help but wonder how much more satisfying and original the film would have felt if they had just let Wright make his vision. (Of course, with Marvel’s clear track record for success and Wright’s disappointing box office for his last big studio film, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, it’s difficult to argue against their decision from a financial standpoint.)
The film centers around Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a Robin Hood-esque criminal who is fresh off a prison sentence for stealing money from his corrupt former employers in order to pay back the people they wronged. Lang is trying to rebuild his life and reconnect with his daughter, who now lives with her mother Maggie (Judy Greer) and her new husband Paxton (Bobby Cannavale). No one wants to hire Lang because of his criminal past, so he begrudgingly agrees to do one last score to secure enough money to have his own place where his daughter can visit him. The score is set up by Luis (Michael Peña), Lang’s roommate and former cellmate, who explains how he came across the information through one of the aforementioned colorful montages.
The job is to rob a vault inside Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas)’s house. The only item inside the vault is Pym’s Ant-Man suit, which allows the wearer to shrink down to the size of an ant while possessing super strength. He invented the suit in the 1980s and used to work alongside S.H.I.E.L.D. until he had a falling out with the powers-that-be and decided to hide his work in order to keep anyone else from replicating it. However, as fate would have it, Pym’s successor at his company, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), is close to creating his own shrinking suit after decades of research, which he plans to sell to the highest bidder. Pym, seeing potential in his misguided intruder, recruits Lang to destroy Cross’ research.
For the most part, the script is bouncy and fun, even if it feels overly-formulaic. But there is a major plothole that really bothered me. (If you are overly-sensitive about spoilers, you may want to skip this paragraph, though I promise I’m not giving anything major away.) It is revealed that Pym was the one who tipped of Lang’s crew about the heist in order to see him in action. Lang gets arrested because of the break in, which leads to a daring, tiny escape from jail and causes the police, particularly Paxton and his partner Gale (Wood Harris), to search for Lang for the rest of the film. I get the film’s desire to add tension and to give Paxton an extra reason to despise and butt heads with Lang, but logically it makes no sense. Lang is charged with breaking into Pym’s house, so Pym simply has to tell the police he didn’t break in to get them to drop the charges. It makes no sense that he wouldn’t do this, especially since the police’s pursuit of Lang puts their mission together in jeopardy. The film doesn’t address this plothole, which really frustrated me.
Still, plothole aside, there is a lot to like about the film. In addition to its occasional quirky flourishes and Rudd’s charming performance, what I enjoyed most about the film was how it was a (pardon the pun) small-scale story. Marvel’s films have gotten larger and larger in scale, with the members of the Avengers constantly saving us all from mass destruction while buildings and landmarks are leveled. (Avengers: Age of Ultron‘s climax centered around an entire city being lifted into the air in order to be dropped back down to Earth, causing a chain reaction that would kill us all.) I liked that this film was just about stopping a guy from making a shrinking suit and selling it to mercenaries. I also enjoyed that, in what felt like a parody of its fellow Marvel films, the final battle between our tiny hero and the tiny villain takes place on top of a moving model train set. (There is a similarly-cheeky earlier scene where security guards shoot up a scale-model city that Ant-Man is running through to evade them.)
Still, while I enjoyed many parts of the film, I still couldn’t help but wonder what could have been if Marvel had rolled the dice and let Edgar Wright make the Ant-Man he wanted to make. Instead of the fun, but overly-formulaic movie we did get, we might have ended up with something truly special.