Ant-Man just does not work.
That’s not me giving away my opinion on the movie in the first line of the review (what kind of slut do you take me for?) I mean that fundamentally, as a superhero concept, Ant-Man is broken. The best superheroes are power fantasies, that’s their essential appeal. We all want to fly, that’s why we love Superman. We all want to be righteous, that’s why we love Captain America. We all want to be the richest, handsomest, smartest, coolest person on earth with an awesome car, that’s why we love Idris Elba.
Now, of course, that’s not enough on its own. But that has to be your starting point. Even the superheroes whose lives are legitimately, genuinely awful have to have some kind of vicarious appeal. Sure, logically it would suck to be the Hulk, but who, stuck in early morning traffic, hasn’t wished they couldn’t just pick up that bus that’s holding everyone up and fling it into the sun?
But waking up and discovering that you’ve shrunk to the size of an insect isn’t anyone’s idea of a power fantasy. That’s the start of a horror story. Which, of course, is what the story of Hank Pym originally was. The character was created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby in a one-off story for Tales to Astonish in 1962. Scientist Hank Pym accidentally shrinks himself (sixties comic book scientists: buncha ditzes) gets trapped in an ants’ nest (where else?) before escaping and returning to normal size and vowing never to use the technology again.
The story was popular enough that Stan decided to bring Pym back as a superhero named Ant-Man, whose powers were getting small and talking to ants. It is, at the risk of angering die-hard Ant-Man fans of which I’m sure there are…some, not a strong concept for a superhero. Aside from the essential “meh-ness” of his power set, Hank Pym just wasn’t that interesting. He was in many ways a relic of fifties Marvel, when the comics were full of square, white-bread scientists battling monsters and aliens. Hank Pym was essentially Reed Richards with less interesting powers and without the fantastic villains and colourful supporting characters. And so, Hank Pym’s history in comics has been one long attempt to fix the character. To start with, Marvel tried to make Hank likeable the same way Scientology tried to make Tom Cruise likeable; by getting him a girlfriend.
Tales to Astonish #44 debuted Janet Van Dyne, who also gained size-changing powers and joined Hank’s crimefighting as The Wasp. Janet and Hank joined The Avengers at its founding, and since then there have only been rare gaps where one or both of them has not been on the team. But whereas Jan’s distinct personality (and, let’s face it, the fact that she was the only female member for two whole years) helped her stand out from the pack, Hank didn’t really bring anything to the team that wasn’t already brought by Tony Stark or Bruce Banner.
And so began a seemingly endless series of attempts to remake the character into something halfway cool. He got the power to become bigger and changed his name to Giant-Man. Then to Goliath. Then to Yellowjacket. In comics, like in life, you only really get one chance to make a first impression. If you think of the sublime purity of: “Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider and became Spider-Man” then Hank Pym’s wild shuffling of powers and identities is the opposite of that.
And then there was…the incident.
In the eighties, Hank started suffering from mental instability and was booted from the Avengers as a result. Driven by feelings of inadequacy and suffering a complete nervous breakdown, Hank concocted a plan to programme a robot to attack the Avengers which he could then save them from and be welcomed back on the team. Janet was all “Oooookay, let’s put that idea in the maybe pile.” And then Hank hit her.
And that one panel is probably the single most famous panel featuring Hank Pym. Now, for context, the character was suffering from schizophrenia, had never laid a hand on Jan before or since and his guilt over this has been one of the character’s few consistent traits over the years. But this panel is the reason why, if anyone outside of comics fandom knew anything about Hank Pym prior to the movie, it was that he was a serial wife beater. And, because I haven’t gone skating on thin ice in a while, I would say that that’s not entirely fair when you consider how many better known superheroes like Reed Richards and even Peter Parker, have hit their wives or children and it never gets brought up.
Not helping matters, when Mark Millar did his revamped version of the Avengers in 2002, the hugely popular Ultimates, which is set in an alternate continuity, he made Hank a full on psychopath who almost kills Jan by siccing his ants on her.
Sooooo, in case this hasn’t already become apparent, this character has some baggage.
Marvel’s original plan for their cinematic universe was to do movies of all the founding Avengers, Ant-Man included (there is even dialogue in Thor meant to subtly set up Ant-Man’s movie). But Ant-Man had by far the most troubled production of any of the MCU films, and after losing its director and undergoing multiple re-shoots and re-writes, it finally debuted in 2015, years later than intended and to possibly the most hostile pre-release of any Marvel movie to date.
You see, by 2015 the clamour for a female or minority led Marvel movie was becoming deafening and instead of that Marvel was giving us another origin story headlined by a handsome white dude (not a blonde named Chris though, so progress?). And of course, it wasn’t just any white dude superhero, but the white dude superhero was who was most famous for…
But, against all odds, Ant-Man not only opened at number 1 but also earned a very respectable 86% on Rotten Tomatoes. Interestingly, it also attracted a larger female audience than any previous Marvel movie, indicating that female movie-goers either didn’t care about the character’s reputation or didn’t know about it to begin with. You might say that’s because girl’s don’t read comics, but I’d counter that it’s more that girls don’t read Ant-Man, because nobody does. Because, as I’ve already spent over a thousand words explaining; Ant-Man doesn’t work. But does Ant-Man?
Let’s take a look.
The movie begins in 1989, in the partially constructed Triskelion, the massive headquarters of SHIELD, the ultra-secret spy agency that nobody knows about.
Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, looking thirty years younger thanks to the eldritch voodoo of CGI) storms into a meeting between Howard Stark (John Flattery), Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Mitchell Carson (Martin Donovan), a new character who we’ve never seen before but who has a bad case of Resting Villain Face. Pym tells Stark that he knows that SHIELD’s been trying to replicate his shrinking serum and is pissed at him for breaking the science bro code. Carson is all “Ha ha! Your wife’s dead!” and Hank punches him in the face because apparently Carson has risen to a senior position in the world’s pre-eminent intelligence agency without understanding how humans work.
Pym tells them that as long as he’s alive no one will ever get his formula and tells them he’s quitting SHIELD. Carson wants to arrest him butHoward says that they don’t want to fuck with Ant-Man, which is literally the first time that any one has ever said that.
Fast forward to the present day and prison inmate Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is being released from San Quentin prison. He gets picked up by his old cellmate Luis (Michael Pena, absolutely the cast’s MVP) who offers to hook him up with a circle of ethnically diverse crime buddies. But, like most guys out of prison, Scott wants to go straight and gets a job at BASKIN ROBBINS! the world’s largest chain of ice cream specialty shops, providing guests with a wide array of ice cream flavors and delicious treats at more than 7,800 retail shops in more than 50 countries around the world!
Scott gets called into his boss’s office and tells him that he’s found out about his criminal past (“Baskin Robbins always finds out”) and tells him that he’s fired but also that he’s a hero. Oh yeah, so here’s something I’m not a fan of: Scott’s backstory.
Scott was an electrical engineer specialising in security systems who also moonlit as a burglar who stole exclusively from criminals. He discovered that his employer was ripping off their customers and was fired he tried to bring it to their attention. So he hacked their system (because he’s also got leet skillz) and returned the stolen money to their customers before breaking into his boss’s house, stealing his stuff and crashing his car into his swimming pool. And to me, this kind of misses the whole point of Scott Lang as a character. Scott’s supposed to be a small-time con, a flawed guy who makes bad decisions but who’s basically decent at heart, a thoroughly average Joe who, through the love of his daughter and the help of a wise old mentor, becomes a great hero. That’s the story in the comics and it’s how the movie tries to present it here. But it’s kind hard to buy into the story of a loveable everyman who is also a badass modern day Robin Hood with mad hacking skills who got locked up trying to stand up for the little guy against the depredations of corporate America. Seriously, you could make a series just based around the adventures of pre-Ant-Man Scott Lang, hacker/burglar for justice. That’s a solid premise for a TV Show right there.
And to me it just smacks of cowardice on the part of Marvel. I mean Heaven forfend our ex-con trying to go straight actually did anything remotely wrong, right?
Anyway, a despondent Scott goes to his daughter’s birthday party which introduces us to Cassie Lang (Abby Ryder Fortson who is just adowable) and Scott’s ex-wife Maggie played by Judy Greer in Marvel’s biggest waste of a great actor in a nothing part since Michael K. Williams got cast as “Harlem bystander” in The Incredible Hulk or Daniel Day Lewis’ spellbinding performance as “Chitauri Warrior #23”.
Maggie is none too happy that Scott showed up at her house unannounced and also that his present to Cassie is clearly the lead character from a direct-to-video spin off of Child’s Play.
Complicating matters further, Maggie’s new man Jim Paxton (Bobby Canavan), is a cop and also an asshat who doesn’t approve of the fact that Scott was a morally pure crusader against injustice with literally no faults whatsoever. Maggie tells Scott that if he wants to see his daughter he’s got to get a job, pay child support and get an apartment that doesn’t give psychics murder visions whenever they step through the front door.
Meanwhile, Hank Pym arrives at Pym Technologies where his former protegée Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is making some big presentation. He also meets his daughter Hope, who helped Darren oust Hank from the company. Hope has changed her surname to “Van Dyne” after her mother and is noticeable chilly to Hank. Oh, and Carson’s there too because why not?
Yeah, why is Mitchell just going to social functions in public now that he’s been publicly exposed as a member of a white supremacist terrorist organisation? He should be a wanted felon! It’s not like this movie is set in 2017 and he could just get a job on the National Security Council. Anyway, Darren reveals to the assorted government and industry leaders (and the one random terrorist that everyone’s being real chill about) that he’s uncovered research relating to the legendary “Ant-Man”, a Cold War era superhero who operated in secret and was widely dismissed as a propaganda creation to scare the other side like the Winter Soldier or Richard Nixon.
Cross reveals his prototype, an upgraded Ant-Man suit called the Yellowjacket which he plans to market for use in black ops and covert picnic ruination. After the presentation Hope approaches Hank and tells him that they need to move fast to stop Cross. Hope wants Hank to give her the suit so she can stop him but he says it’s two dangerous. Hope says that they don’t have a choice but Hank replies “I think I’ve found a guy.”
Meanwhile, Scott has decided that he needs some cash ASAP Rocky and asks Luis to tell him about the big score he’s been trying to rope him into ever since he got out of prison. This sets up a running gag whereby Luis tells Scott what he heard from a friend, which he heard from a friend which he heard from a friend, which he heard from Becky in third grade. Now look, I love Michael Pina’s performance in this, and I love Luis as a character but I gotta admit…some of this stuff makes me a bit uncomfortable. Like, there’s this running gag that in the flashbacks Luis is always doing something really cultured like attending wine tastings or appreciating paintings. Why is that supposed to be funny, exactly? Why is it a joke that a Hispanic guy is really into cubism? You know what other Hispanic guy was really into cubism? Frickin’ Picasso.
Anyway Luis says that there’s a rich old dude with a big ass safe in his basement and they should go crack that like a cold one on a summer’s day. Luis introduces Scott to the rest of his crew; Dave (T.I.) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian) and they head over to Hank Pym’s house to do crime. Scott breaks into the basement and manages to crack Pym’s vault only to find that there’s nothing there except the Ant-Man suit, which is literally the least creepy thing that anyone has ever found in a millionaire’s basement. He thinks the suit is a motorcycle outfit and takes it (why?) and am-scrays out of there, all the while unaware that he’s being watched by an ant with a camera on it.
Back at Luis’ apartment Scott tries the suit on in the bathroom (why?) and is rather taken aback to suddenly find himself half an inch tall. I have to say, I really like the Ant-Man costume. I like that they didn’t bother trying to make it look shiny and hi-tech. It looks like a piece of work safety gear that hasn’t been used in a few decades which of course is what it is. Another thing I like is that the sequence where a tiny Scott is running around the apartment building and trying not to get smooshed involves almost no CGI. All the locations were captured using macro photography instead of being digitally generated, so now you know what a bath actually looks like when you’re the size of an ant. If that’s something you’ve always wanted to see, then you have wonderfully eccentric life goals and I salute you. Pym talks to Scott over the radio in his helmet and tells him that he didn’t do too bad for a rookie and that he’s to keep the suit until Hank contacts him. Terrified out of his frickin’ mind, Scott throws the suit in a bag and runs over to Hank’s house to break in and leave the suit back (why?) but gets nabbed by the police even though he tries to explain that he wasn’t stealing anything, he was just returning something he stole.
At the police station Paxton rubs Scott’s nose in it, telling him that Maggie and Cassie really thought he’d turned his back on his nefarious, selflessly heroic past. Pym shows up posing as Scott’s lawyer and asks him if he prefers being in jail. To give them privacy, he’s gotten some of his ants to swarm over the security camera.
So Pym tells him that he let Scott steal his suit and that he’s been following his every move and that in fact he paid his maid to tell her boyfriend to tell Luis’ friend to tell stupid stupid stupid.
This is stupid.
This is a stupid thing.
Firstly, Hank’s plan depends on a dizzying Batman Gambit that involves five different people acting exactly as he hopes they will all so that he can get Scott to do something that could have very easily been accomplished by just asking him. And keep in mind, Hank’s on a deadline here. What if one of the links in the chain of Latinx stereotypes doesn’t pass the information along? Or only sees the next person in the chain a few weeks later when it’s already too late? Or passes the information on incorrectly? What if Scott doesn’t show up because he isn’t particularly interested in stealing a Purple Monkey Dishwasher? He wants to test Scott’s skills? Just hire him straight up to break into his safe. Craftily manipulate him by using the cunning strategy of paying him to do the thing you want him to do. If it was up to me, I’d have Hank putting on the Ant-Man suit, and try to break into Pym Tech only to fail and to realise that he’s too old for this tiny, tiny shit. Then, just like in the comics, have Scott Lang randomly break into Pym’s house, and steal the Ant-Man suit, impressing Hank so much that he decides to train him into being the next Ant-Man. Having Hank planning on giving the suit to Scott from the very beginning just strains credibility. The virtue of movie adaptations is to make superhero origins more realistic and streamlined, not goofier and more complicated. And oh! The stones on Pym in this scene! Laying a guilt trip on Scott for going back to stealing when he’s the whole reason he went back to crime in the first place!
Fuck this guy, and his little ants too.
Anyway, Scott goes back to his cell and some ants bring him the tiny Ant-Man suit and turn it to full size. Scott puts on the suit and shrinks down and Hank guides him out of the jail and on to a flying ant who takes him back to Hank’s house. Scott is so freaked out by all of this that he passes out while on the ant’s back and goes plummeting towards the ground.
He wakes up to find Hope glowering at him. He asks her if she’s been watching him while he sleeps and she coldly replies “Yes. Because the last time you were here you stole something.” and ohhhh fuck this whole family. Seriously, having Hank planning the burglary is such a misstep, it leaves a smouldering trail through the whole goddamn script and no, I will not get off this anytime soon. Oh, and she’s also surrounded his bed with bullet ants to keep him from leaving. Bullet ants, in case you didn’t know, are so named because their bite is supposedly as painful as being shot. Hope, in case you’re not picking up on this, does not much care for our Mr Lang. In fact, she’s the one who called the cops and got him arrested the second time. Which doesn’t excuse Hank’s behaviour early but does give Scott ample evidence as to why neither of these people should be in his recurring cast of supporting players. Anyway, at breakfast Hank says that he needs Scott for a job and offers him so tea, with the sugar being placed in the cup by ants. He…could have just done that himself. But that would not have involved ants. You know, Hank Pym must be an absolute nightmare to live with.
“Dear can you do the dishes…”
“Of course! I will summon my ants to…”
“Take fifteens hours and drown in the sink? Just please…just…just do the dishes. Please. God.”
So Hank tells Scott that he needs him to be the new Ant Man, break into Pym Tech and steal the Yellowjacket suit. He promises him that if he does that, Hank will help him see his daughter again. Cue montage!
Hank trains Scott how to change size and control ants while Hope (very grudgingly) teaches him how to fight. So I mentioned in the intro that Ant-Man arrived at a time when the backlash over Marvel’s lack of diversity was reaching a boiling point and what’s interesting about this movie is just how acutely it is aware of that. Seriously, this entire mid-part of the movie feels like Marvel going “We know, we know, we’re sorry, we suck.” Throughout the training the point is made again and again that Hope is umpteen times more qualified to put on the suit and save the day but
sexism Hank just won’t let her. The script even red herrings that Hank doesn’t trust Hope with the suit because she’s a woman before revealing a completely different reason that’s much more justifiable. On the one hand, I suppose it’s good that the movie is at least keenly aware that this is a problem. On the other…so, do something about it?
After Hope finally says “screw this noise” and storms off Scott runs after her and makes the point that the reason Hank wants him to go and not Hope is that he considers Scott expendable. She says that she’s resented her father ever since her mother died and Hank refused to tell her how or why. When she comes back, Hank finally tells her the truth about her mother. Janet Van Dyne was The Wasp, a superhero who saved the world by disrupting a nuclear missile that had been fired at America by Soviet dissidents. Janet stopped the missile by shrinking through its titanium casing and going so small that she was lost in the quantum realm. A lot of fans were angry when this plot point was revealed, saying that Marvel had “fridged” one of their oldest and best known female superheroes. But I’d argue that this isn’t a fridging for three reasons.
- Janet’s death isn’t done to motivate a male character, but to provide closure to Hope’s character arc.
- Janet wasn’t casually murdered by another character but willingly sacrificed herself to save the whole world, becoming, in less that two minutes screentime, one of the greatest superheroes in the MCU.
- Friend, if you believe she’s actually dead I have a bridge to sell you.
The final stage of Scott’s training involves burgling one of Howard Stark’s old storage facilities. He drops from an airplane over the facility only to discover that it’s not abandoned but is now home to the Avengers. Hank and Hope tell Scott to get the hell outta dodge before the Avengers drop a city on him but Scott says he can handle it. He runs into the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and of course the engage in the age old tradition of two superheroes have a friendly knockabout where no one really gets hurt or is in any real danger…
So…unless those were, I dunno, sleeping bullets? Falcon just straight up tried to murder Scott. I’d be very interested to know the thought process that got Sam from “I have got to kill this human being” to “You know who’d love this guy? Captain America. I should hook them up.” Think that came up at any point during Civil War? “Hey, remember the time you almost orphaned my daughter? Good times.” Well anyway, Scott gets the thing what’s he was supposed ta and Hope and Hank are genuinely impressed. But suddenly Darren drops by the house for a sinister chat. He invites Hank to the formal unveiling of the Yellowjacket, which I thought they’d already done but maybe it’s like a wedding. You have the wedding, and before that the wedding rehearsal, and before that the rehearsal for the wedding rehearsal, you can’t rush these things. I know I haven’t talked a lot about Darren Cross and that’s because there is next to nothing to say about him. Bald industrialist who’s a dark reflection of the hero using a more advanced version of his technology that he hopes to sell to terrorists. Only this time he doesn’t even have the courtesy to be played by Jeff Bridges. Anyway, Darren then calls Hope (who he still thinks is on his side) and tells her that he’s tripling security for the Yellowjacket’s debutante ball. Realising that they’re going to need more help, Scott calls in Luis, Dave and Kurt to help with the heist.
This scene. Oy. This is just not cool. Scott shows the three the Ant-Man suit and they start freaking out and the whole scene plays like excitable ethnic toddlers being looked after by the patient yet eye-rolling white grown ups. It’s really, really dodgy and it makes me cringe so hard every time I see it I get cramps in my cringer.
Anyway, with their help Scott is able to infiltrate Pym Tech, plant some explosives and wipe the server with all the Yellowjacket data. Meanwhile, Hank and Pym are led into the Yellowjacket showroom so that they can see Darren give the suit to HYDRA because…he wants to make sure his treason is witnessed by multiple reliable witnesses. I dunno. Dude must have kept his brains in his hair. Darren captures Scott and orders his goons to kill Hank. Hope tells Darren to stop and says that the Pym particles are affecting his mind even though we’ve never seen him shrink even once and the particles only start affecting the user’s mind after prolonged usage so…yeah, she’s just decided that he’s gone crazy for no reason. Jesus, this guy really is just a lame retread of Obadiah Stane. Hank gets shot taking a bullet for Hope and the ants arrive to drive Cross and his goons off. Hope stays with Hank and tells Scott that he needs to stop Cross from getting away with the Yellowjacket suit.
Scott sneaks on to Cross’ helicopter as it tries to make it’s getaway and Ant-Man and Yellowjacket battle in mid-air. Cross asks Scott if he thought he could stop the future with a heist and Scott answers “It was never just a heist!”
The helicopter crashes and Scott is arrested by Paxton. But he lets him go when he hears over the police radio that Cross has taken Cassie hostage to get to Scott. In order to save his daughter, Scott has to pierce Yellowjacket’s titanium armour and goes so small that he enters the quantum realm, a reality where all concepts of time and space become irrelevant and where he is unreachable to everyone except hippies doing the strongest pharmaceuticals. But somehow, he hears his daughter’s voice calling to him, and he’s able to jimmy his suit’s regulator to return to normal size. And everybody’s happy. Scott’s proven himself a hero to his daughter, Hope and Hank are reconciled, Scott, Maggie and Paxton are now all on good terms. Oh, and this happens.
Given the problems with the source material and the troubled production its tempting to grade Ant-Man on a curve. Sure it’s got a bland villain and a script that would collapse if you so much as left your muffin resting on it, but it’s got likeable performances, oodles of fan service, some funny bits and basically doesn’t piss in your eyes. It’s enjoyable, but nothing amazing. I will give them credit for this though; this is the first depiction of Ant-Man in any medium where I actually bought the character as a cool, potent, powerful hero.
Ant-Man doesn’t really work. But now, Ant-Man does.
With a few relatively tiny (heh) changes, the character with one of the most notoriously clunky power sets in comics becomes one of the coolest and most dynamic heroes in the MCU. Good job.
Rudd is pure likeable everyman and I really like Hank Pym reconceived as a feisty old retired superhero.
Like the lovechild of Lex Luthor and the world’s least interesting woman.
Supporting Characters: 11/25
Daddy finds this racial subtext to be extremely troubling.
Hank leads Hope into the basement and shows her something that he was working on with her mother before her death: A new Wasp suit. He tells her that it’s time that they finished it together. Hope looks at the suit, and with a bitter sweet smile murmurs “It’s about damn time.”
And the audience went…
“About damn time” was about eight movies ago, but hey. At least they acknowledge it. Your mileage varies as to whether that makes it better or worse.
The Second Stinger
Steve and Sam talk about what they’re going to do about the now de-programmed Bucky. Steve wants to call Tony but Sam tells him that even if he wanted to help, he couldn’t because of “The Accords”. Cap says that they’re alone and Sam replies “Maybe not. I know a guy.”
And the audience went
Why Marvel, with these A-list cameos your are really spoiling us.
Infinity Gem Count: 4
Wait a minute, was that Stan Lee?!
That was Stan Lee, as the bartender who agrees that the reporter lady is indeed crazy stupid fine.
Any names of comic book characters clunkily worked into dialogue that no one would ever say in real life?
“Silly, I know. Propaganda. Tales to Astonish!”
Hey, what’s Thanos doing?
Thanos is sitting on his chair.
FINAL SCORE: 59%
NEXT UPDATE: 15 June 2017
NEXT TIME: Really nothin’ civil about it…