Ant-Man: The Little Superhero That Could

There’s a never-ending charm to Ant-Man’s shrinking powers. In the summer blockbuster game, it’s go big or go home. The world’s ending. Shit’s blowing up. The good guy’s gotta stop the bad guy. Cue half-hour finale. 2015’s Ant-Man is all of the above except refreshingly, cheekily scaled back. Peyton Reed’s film has no other ambition than to charm and entertain the hell out of you. I didn’t admire it then. I respect the hell out of it now. 

It’s astonishing that Ant-Man exists, with Edgar Wright’s departure mere weeks before production and Peyton Reed stepping in with little to no time to prep, many had written the film off right then and there.

Ant-Man was in development as early as 2006. Wright pitched the film to Kevin Feige at an independent Marvel studio that was looking to make a name for itself. There was no rush to get Ant-Man made, just a careful consideration as far as how to do it right. 

Wright previewed promising test footage which had cracked the code on Ant-Man’s unique abilities. The director’s whip-pans, kineticism, quick cuts and profiles are all on display. If all of Phase One’s heroes amounted to variations of punching and kicking, then Wright’s footage offered a bold new promise on a macro and micro scale.

Ant-Man didn’t have the same appeal as characters like Iron Man, Thor, Captain America – all of whom were considered B-level characters. Ant-Man, by that metric, was a Z-level character. Not necessarily the lowest in favor but the unlikeliest of successes right next to Guardians of the Galaxy. Perhaps the unexpected triumph of Guardians emboldened Marvel to push forward with ­Ant-Man despite its troubles. 

Age of Ultron was the priority of the dubious Marvel Creative Committee – a subsection of the studio that caused a lot of stress for James Gunn and Joss Whedon, and perhaps what did in Thor: The Dark World’s director Alan Taylor. If Marvel’s system showed promise for indie filmmakers to hone their voices with a studio budget, then the process revealed they were merely directors-for-hire, thus robbing filmmakers of their vision. (Gunn remains an exception, but I can’t help but wonder what Ronan could’ve been like if he wasn’t in the shadow of Thanos.) After years of drafting, Marvel wanted to commission another draft of Ant-Man without Edgar Wright and co-writer Joe Cornish to reign in Wright’s vision and fit into the larger mold of the MCU. The two then bid farewell to the project.

If there’s ever been a superhero underdog, it was Ant-Man. That’s perhaps why the film is subject to mocking its own premise before coming to own it whole-heartedly. Ant-Man could’ve easily devolved into self-parody. Thankfully, it tows a deft comedy balance not unlike Iron Man, replete with quick cuts and visual gags. Because Marvel needed this concept and this character to play into their larger sandbox. Satire might be too bold a notion for Marvel (Deadpool’s kinda got that covered anyway), but the tongue-in-cheek humor plays right into its star’s strengths. 

Paul Rudd is earnestness personified and I mean that in the best way. He can inhabit less than flashy roles like a detached husband in Knocked Up, a friend-less groom in I Love You, Man, a down-on-his-luck writer in The Fundamentals of Caring, and, where others might see cynicism, Rudd portrays someone who genuinely wants to do (and be) better. He’s SO well-meaning in The Perks of Being a Wallflower that he comes off as John Keating even in the few scenes he’s in. This makes him the perfect Scott Lang. He’s unassuming as a superhero AND HE KNOWS IT. That’s because being a superhero is beside the point for Scott Lang and instead it’s all about being responsible.

Ant-Man announces its small-scale ambitions in the trailer: “It’s not about saving our world. It’s about saving theirs.” The film is a tale of redemptive fathers, but it is by no means positioning absent parents as heroes. Both Hank Pym and Scott Lang are guilty. Pym is guilty in his daughter’s eyes (Evangeline Lilly might be criminally underused, but this scene always gets the waterworks going) whereas everyone in Scott’s domestic sphere sees him as guilty save for his own daughter. Both fathers view their world through the prism of their children. Both fathers, in turn, must redeem themselves by way of repairing estranged relationships and forging new bonds entirely. 

This, of course, plays out in standard Marvel fare. Ant-Man was marketed as a “heist film.” It’s true that Pym and Lang need a crew but only after Darren beefs up security. They bring in the Three Stooges that is Luis, Dave, and Kurt, but there’s no real payoff for the job itself. The objective is essentially that of any superhero goal: stop the villain. Its heist structure is mere setup for its charming final act.

Darren Cross is the suit-and-tie villain right out of the Iron Man trilogy minus the charisma. Corey Stoll does his best, but his villainy is mostly expository, and Darren’s scenes sort of follow through. Yellowjacket is about as impactful as Malekith, but at least his final standoff is wildly amusing. Yellowjacket is the physical obstacle that must be conquered, a chance for Scott to fight to be in Cassie’s life and prove he’s her hero replete with his own smaller than life silhouette. (Made possible by a light-up globe, no less.)

Ant-Man came out right after Age of Ultron. That sounds like suicide, but it turned out to be quite opportune. You don’t get any bigger than a flying city. Something smaller, more intimate in scale was really the only option, otherwise you risk exhausting your core audience. (I refuse to use the word fatigue; I think audiences get spectacle fatigue, not superhero fatigue.) All Marvel films are beholden to the three set-piece structure and Ant-Man is no different.

Scott’s audition by breaking into Pym’s house requires a team effort. Not on the scale of Avengers, but the parallel is shrunken down to size. (David Dastmalchian’s character, too, gets a Hawkeye view, and Pym observes the action like a would-be Director Fury.) Scott goes toe-to-toe with a newly-added Avenger. And the finale – instead of skyscrapers and an expansive city – takes place in a little girl’s room. The action gets smaller as the film goes on. Even the brief shootout in Cross’ research facility, the set-piece is distilled to a miniature building where Scott leaps across structures and slides over the hood of a tiny car. Everything is exuberantly brought down to scale, and it’s no less entertaining.

The biggest contrast, however, is the film’s use of colors. Lots and lots of colors, whereas Age of Ultron is strangely grey and muted. In a great deal of ways, Ant-Man is the anti-Age of Ultron. It’s the cure to a season of movies that participates in a never-ending game of one-upping the other. Ant-Man all but refuses to play. It’s refreshingly contained, colorful, retreats to its own tiny corner of the Marvel universe. It’s only a summer movie in the sense that it came out in the summer. The film could’ve played just as well as a late Winter or an early Fall release.

Admittedly, I was a little hard on Ant-Man when I first saw it. I got caught up in the sequel-churning mentality of Phase Two, of bold entries (Iron Man 3) and radical game-changers (Winter Soldier). I saw next to no point in Ant-Man other than roster-building. Revisiting the film now in the current blockbuster climate, I’ve grown to appreciate the film’s deliberate scale. Whereas other films globe and galaxy-trot, Ant-Man is exceedingly domestic. It’s so self-contained on a domestic level that you can practically hold it in the palm of your hand. Most superhero movies feel like runaway trains. Reed’s film is such a breadth of comic book charm and humor that it’s impossible not to smile when Ant-Man and Yellowjacket duke it out in Cassie’s playpen of imagination.

For all of Ant-Man’s triumphs, its biggest is found in its fairytale ending. Scott, Maggie, Cassie, and Paxton are sitting at the dinner table. The awkwardness remains, but what matters is that they’re all present. Scott and Paxton may have been at odds, but it was never about laying claim as the man of the house. Scott just wanted to inhabit a tiny space of Cassie’s life and watch her grow. Paxton offers that bridge by showing Scott the video of her doing cart wheels. (In a very cute and clever way, Cassie gets to see her dad grow too.) It’s easy to imagine the overblown melodramatic scenario, of two warring fathers, of Maggie suing Scott for all his worth. The story told in Ant-Man rings truer, of separated parents just trying to make the best out of an awkward situation. Cassie feeding the over-sized ant beneath the table like a strange dog for this equally strange family serves as a capper for the film’s themes of family, one that has found a way to coexist.

I revisited Ant-Man prior to Infinity War and kept coming back to it leading up to Ant-Man and the Wasp. I kept thinking maybe the film had cracked some revolutionary new code on the superhero origin story that I hadn’t noticed before. It doesn’t and I think that’s it right there. Ant-Man doesn’t have some deeper-level substance for aficionados to chew on, but movies don’t have to have porous subtext to be entertaining. Ant-Man is nothing more than an entertaining, charming entry in the superhero canon. That it exists the same way Scott exists in his daughter’s life is enough. Other films exist for a lot less. Ant-Man exists because it proved that it could. I now have a greater admiration for it because it did.

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