One of my favorite Marvel comics when I was a kid was What If? It was an anthology series, which featured stories based around past Marvel stories, and explored how those storylines might have played out if one thing had been different. “What If Spider-Man Joined the Fantastic Four?” “What If The Avengers Had Never Been?” “What If Captain America Had Been Elected President?” Ant-Man, the latest Marvel Studios film, is its own kind of “What If?”: “What If Edgar Wright Had Directed Ant-Man?”
Edgar Wright is the entire reason that we have an Ant-Man movie. He sold Marvel on how to sell the character to a pre-Guardians of the Galaxy audience with a skeptical eye for comic-book craziness. Wright, along with Joe Cornish, framed their story as a superhero heist movie. That basic framework still exists in the final product. That we have an Ant-Man movie at all, after Wright left the project just before filming began last year (either quitting, or being asked to leave, depending on who you ask) is an astonishment. That the resulting product feels like a slapped-together rush job is hardly a surprise.
The plot is clever: Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a whistleblower turned cat burglar who has just been released from prison. Unable to find or keep a job with his criminal record, Scott turns to an old cellmate, Luis (Michael Pena) to land another big score, to make his child support payments and be allowed to see his daughter. But that heist has been orchestrated by disgraced scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). Hank wants Scott to break into his own company, Pym Technologies, to steal the prototype of a suit which will shrink its wearer down to the size of an insect--while also giving them superhuman strength. To do that, Scott will don a shrinking suit of his own.
Ant-Man is at its strongest when we follow Scott into this microscopic world, and watch him learn to control his powers and communicate with, and even ride, various species of ants. The movie takes a silly concept and makes it work. We’re given just enough information and gobbledygook science to accept that Scott can use an army of ants to break into Pym Technologies. And Scott himself is a likeable character. Ant-Man has no problems in its story, but its tone is all over the place.
The movie is ostensibly a comedy, and is edited and directed with the set-up/punchline rhythm of a comedy, but most of the jokes fall flat. Rudd, as ever, coasts through the movie on charm; and there is, apparently, no limit to how funny this movie thinks Michael Pena is as Luis. Meanwhile, Evangeline Lilly is dour and unremarkable as Hank’s daughter, Hope, who, sure, will fall in love with Scott after thinking that he’s a big smarmy dope for the first 90 minutes; and Corey Stoll is capital-A atrocious as Darren Cross, the big bad guy who is building his super-duper shrinking suit for power or money or to be God or whatever. According to a line delivered by Hope toward the end of the movie, Darren’s mind is being warped by all the particle fuckery that he’s doing, but in his second scene in the movie, he shrinks a mouthy underling into pink goop for daring to question the project. So when did Darren turn evil? If the particles are warping Darren’s mind, have they also warped Hank’s? The movie’s not interested in those questions, or any others you might have about these supporting characters and their motivations, so don’t bother yourself with them.
It would be easy to attribute all of the things that work about Ant-Man to Edgar Wright, and all of the things that don’t to Peyton Reed, who stepped in for him as director, but it’s likely more complicated than that. What Wright does bring to all of his projects, though, is a unique visual style. Every project that Wright has directed, from his work on the 90’s BBC series Spaced, to the cult classic Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, flows with vibrant kinetic energy--the kind of energy noticeably missing from even the best Marvel movies. It’s impossible to watch sequences like Scott’s first meeting with the ants or his journey into the quantum realm and not wonder what trippy visuals Wright would have provided.
Ant-Man, appropriately, represents an important shrinkage in scale for the Marvel Studios movies. For the first time in recent Marvel history, there is no world-eating force descending, a pattern that was becoming numbing. The stakes in Ant-Man are more personal, and that’s welcome. It also helps that Scott himself is just a dude, not gifted with any superhuman qualities of his own, other than world-class snark, when outside of the Ant-Man suit. Scott himself, and his abilities, are pretty cool, and would make a welcome addition to the core Avengers team, should he ever get to play along with those thundering titans (and a post-credit scene seems to indicate that he will). Ant-Man is shabby, and haunted by the ghosts of its own potential, but remains fun.