I’m afraid we’ve reached a critical point with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After so many movies, there are really only two ways to sustain interest in the long run. One is for each new film to top the previous one. The other is to dial it down a notch and go back to basics. Neither one seems to have been entirely successful this year. Yep, I’ll say it, The Avengers: Age of Ultron had too much going on and was kind of a mess. On the other hand, now comes Ant-Man; it doesn’t quite have enough going on.
Before the credits even roll, a 1989 prologue shows a young Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the original superhero called Ant-Man, withdraw the technology from his company because he doesn’t trust what they will do with it. This scene is purely for those in the know about the MCU. Oh, look, there’s Agent Carter; she’s still alive but older! Oh, look, there’s Howard Stark; these movies all fit together! The energy it takes to make sure the continuity of these movies flows has numbed any joy I get from it.
What I did find interesting in this scene is the special effect used to make Michael Douglas look young. This is the second time in recent weeks this has been done in a blockbuster summer movie. When filmmakers did it for Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator Genisys, I accepted that he looked a little fake because he plays a cyborg. He must be plastic anyway, right? But with Douglas in Ant-Man, it’s more than a little unsettling. Thankfully it’s a relatively brief scene.
Douglas looks good at 70 and we see nearly as much of him in Ant-Man as we do Paul Rudd, who plays Scott Lang, the thief who becomes the modern day superhero called Ant-Man. There is so much backstory and set-up that it takes the action a long time to get going in the movie. Looking even better is Evangeline Lilly, who plays Hope, Pym’s estranged daughter and, naturally, potential love interest for Lang. Corey Stoll assumes the role of the villain, Darren Cross, Pym’s one time protege.
Ant-Man had the possibility of being something unique. Who doesn’t love incredible shrinking men in strange, yet familiar, new environments? Oddly, there are only two substantial scenes where Lang interacts with everyday creatures and objects. And only the first comes close to having a true sense of wonder. The second is played almost strictly for laughs. Instead he spends most of his miniaturized time with actual ants in the grass and underground.
Don’t get me wrong, Ant-Man is not a bad movie. I’m simply trying to put my finger on why it’s so… average. Where does it fail? The primary reason is that it blandly straddles the line between being all action/drama and all comedy. You have to wonder if this tone is what created the rift between Marvel and director Edgar Wright, who was replaced by Peyton Reed. Committing to one approach or the other might have made the movie stronger. Whether you liked it or not, it would at least have a “personality.”
In many ways, Ant-Man shares characteristics with Iron Man. The hero has questionable ethics and cracks wise throughout the story. As appealing as Paul Rudd may be, he’s no Robert Downey, Jr. and his jokes don’t go over as well. Believe it or not, he even seems to put more energy into the dramatic side of the character than he does the funny. Again, it straddles a line that emphasizes neither quality and results in a bland performance.
I’ll amend my opening statement to say there are actually two more approaches Marvel could take in the future to ensure its movies are a success; that is, a success creatively, not financially. (I imagine they’ll be milking the cash cow for a long, long time.) One is to do like Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s not really a superhero movie; it’s a shrewd political thriller that happens to feature superheroes. The other is to do like Guardians of the Galaxy and think completely outside the box.
Ant-Man had the opportunity to take one of these two approaches, but somewhere along the way, its makers decided to play it safe. That was a rare misstep on their part. As they dig deeper into its inventory of characters, they’re going to have to discover unique viewpoints for them. Not every MCU release has to knock it out of the ballpark; however, their record has been good enough so far that Ant-Man is a disappointment. That is, if you are even expecting very much from it to begin with.