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This image is a nice commentary on the movie itself.

Ant-Man has arrived in the echo of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, offering itself up as a sort of palette-cleanser removed from the world-ending stakes we’re used to. In that sense, the movie works fairly well in the same way that Guardians of the Galaxy did. It’s a nice change of pace from the bustle of the MCU and its growing cast of recognizable characters. But it’s not a change of pace from the usual Marvel formula. If you’re the type of person who is bothered by that, you’ll probably be more sour on Ant-Man than it deserves. Not that the movie doesn’t deserve criticism, because it does. Unfortunately, that criticism has to be tempered with an awareness of its more-troubled-than-usual production. It would have been nice if they’d managed to put together and release a movie where the scars and stitches of Marvel’s falling out with Edgar Wright weren’t so obvious. Unfortunately, they failed and you really do notice the better movie lurking beneath the altogether solid in spite of itself surface of this one. I won’t waste much time on shoulda-coulda-woulda stuff, but I will be talking about the satellite choices for plot, character, and motive that are often baffling if not outright bad. A glaring example is the movie’s treatment of Hope van Dyne, the main female character. Expect think-pieces about her, as this movie bungles her story that fucking badly.

I still love the Marvel movies and I liked Ant-Man just fine, though many of my comments may suggest I didn’t. It’s a very enjoyable, fun movie, and that’s to be expected at this point. Marvel doesn’t really deserve extra kudos for doing the expected. Their movies have to be more than just inoffensive for someone like me to not spend a few thousand words on whatever went wrong. That said, not a lot went wrong here and that’s why so much of what’s being said about this movie boils down to “it’s solid!” However, there’s this failure to commit that haunts the emotional beats and character development. This problem makes the first half of the movie feel restrained, like you’re waiting to get to the “good stuff”. The good news is that the “good stuff” does come along eventually. The third act in Ant-Man is among the best Marvel has done. With a couple of minor exceptions, it’s got everything this movie needed to have all the way through. Of course, the charm, peculiarity, and eccentricity of the third act was probably seen as controverting to the “more grounded” approach it seems they wanted for the movie. This is probably why Wright walked or got fired or whatever really happened. The third act feels like it belongs in the movie he would have made, and I think Marvel made a minor miscalculation in not trusting to that. Maybe they thought that Guardians of the Galaxy was crazy and energetic enough, but more of Ant-Man could have used that verve.

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Scott Lang loves his daughter. This is so important, guys.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a moral warrior more than a thief. He worked for a financial company and has a master’s in electrical engineering (a credential Rudd barely gets out of his mouth believably… the line delivery is just weird). He saw that Vista, the company he worked for, was doing dastardly things and he pulled a Robin Hood heist that landed him in prison. In prison, he’s vowed to reform so that he can be present in his daughter’s life. Life on the outside is tough for him, though, as his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her cop husband (Bobby Cannavale) have a few expectations if he’s going to be more active in his daughter’s life. This requires some capital, though, so he goes back to old tricks with his buddy Luis (Michael Pena, MVP of the movie). Little do they know that the whole job is an audition for Lang to help Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, who is pretty good too) foil the plans of his one-time protege.

Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is close to developing a particle that will emulate the fabled “Pym Particle” which allows inorganic and (specially protected) organic matter to be shrunk down or enlarged by changing the space between atoms. The result isn’t just shrinking, but increased atomic density which carries with it some other benefits as well as some hinted, but never fully revealed detriments (more on this later). Stoll is trying to create a weapon, and he’s doing everything as a barely veiled act of rebellion and bitchy spite against Pym, who turned away from him years ago and refused to share his secrets.

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Besides looking, talking, and acting like a jackass as expected… Cross is lame.

Although Yellowjacket looks fucking cool, Cross is basically the new standard-bearer for Marvel’s shitty approach to villains. He’s as perfunctory, underserved, and superfluous as any of the villains. He’s basically there to give the heroes someone to foil and counter-attack when they try. The problem here is that there are hints of way more under the surface, but the movie doesn’t commit to any fully realized version of the story they are trying to get across in broadstrokes and significant looks. Cross hates Pym for a bunch of good reasons, really, and Stoll sells some of the damage the relationship’s end has caused him psychologically. There’s something there that could have been extrapolated and would have given a Marvel villain a much better raison d’etre than usual. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen. Stoll never rises above the demands of the plot for his degrees of menace, even dropping Hydra in the middle of the movie in one of the most egregious uses of Hydra in any movie yet. It’s just like they said “we need to really show how Stoll having this suit will be bad” and they just scooped foam out of the Marvel barrel for it. Cross’s horrific demise, which happens in front of Lang’s little girl, is also as perfunctory a death/end as any of these villains have had. It’s like… a kinda cool moment for Ant-Man but you can almost hear the writers going “k, time to make the villain go bye-bye” before they do literally, exactly, and almost hilariously that. This gels with the weirdly noncommital way they deal with the notion that Cross may be affected by side-effects of the Particle. Pym also mentions this, in a circumspect way that could also mean he’s referring to what happened to his wife. In the end, the movie refuses to deal with whatever is happening with the Particles and anything bad that could happen. Scott is never concerned by what might happen to him from using the suit, and it’s just strange.

Anyways. The stuff with Cross does work really well with the major emotional themes of the movie. Being that Lang’s motivation is to get back to his daughter in a meaningful way, it makes sense that Hank Pym’s troubled relationship with his own daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly, very good and very failed by the movie), would serve both as a tie that binds the two men, and a way for Lang’s redemptive arc to also be Pym’s. What also works here is how likable and cute Cassie (Lang’s daughter) is. She’s a great bright spot in her handful of scenes, but this isn’t quite enough to sell the idea that Lang thinks stealing is the key to getting back in her life. We needed more, plain and simple, which leaves this another breezy relationship in a movie too full of them. The best example of this is Luis’s “crew”, made up of wisecracking getaway driver Dave (T.I.) and syntactically challenged Russian hacker Kurt (David Dastmalchian). These guys don’t get much to do, and most of the jokes and banter feel forced or dull. What this movie needed was a couple more relaxed scenes of these guys getting to say funny shit, or working together with some of the cranky camaraderie of the Guardians crew. Something, anyway. They feel shoehorned in to round out the cast (with men, of course), and even their roles in the final heist are a needless diversion from the main action. Luis is the exception, and Pena kills every scene he’s in. The two Luis-stories that bookend the film are perfect and some of that rare commitment to a specific identity that this movie too often fails to have.

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Hope is one of the most frustrating MCU characters ever.

There’s a lot of bad decisions that get made around how Marvel handles its female characters. This is common knowledge at this point and their one saving grace is that they’ve shown a willingness to listen and to commit, at some vague future point, to better representation for women in their movies. Ant-Man feels like a regression on that, almost a doubling-down on the same bad choices that get them this criticism in the first place. Let’s talk Hope van Dyne and why I say this movie fails her. First off, she seems like she’s a bit of a bad guy for about five minutes until it’s revealed that she is helping her dad because she realizes, on her own, how dangerous Cross is. She’s willing to work with Pym in spite of his lies and neglect, which are clear motivations for her and the best and clearest motives for any character in the movie.

More than this, she wants to wear the Ant-Man suit and kick some ass and she is totally up to it. There’s no reason for her not to except for Pym’s fear that she will be lost just like her mother was, when he let her become Wasp and help him during his superhero days (this secret history stuff is well done in the movie). This is supposed to be good enough, but even Lang’s speech about being expendable feels lazy and weak to me, and reads as totally patronizing and paternalistic to Hope and the women she is representing. Not only this but when they finally do get around to revealing a promise that Hope will eventually suit up, it’s a post credits tease. This moment is the payoff to the movie’s true emotional core: Hope and Hank finding common ground and getting out of their own way toward healing and growth. And they put it after the credits, after the main movie where Hope’s final scene is making out with Scott. Their attraction does make sense, and Lilly sells the transition of wary disapproval to mounting respect and affection very well. But the movie fails to reward her the way it rewards Scott and it’s emblematic of bad choices. They could have easily side-stepped this either by having Hope suit up or by simply not having so much the movie spent on her wondering aloud why she isn’t the one Hank trusts to do the job and stop Cross from selling his suit. But so much of the movie is absorbed by this idea of Hope wanting to be a hero but locked behind the decisions of men, and it functions as a pretty beautiful metaphor for the struggle of women to be better represented in comics, films, and superhero fiction in general. This is no Pacific Rim, where the story is similar but where the movie actually commits and pays it off. When Hope sees her suit and goes “it’s about damn time”, crying tears of validation, it’s a nice sentiment and will maybe save this shit for some… but it’s still the mid-credits sequence. Marvel probably shot it after the movie wrapped and they realized that the world wants them to step up their superheroine game. I hope that’s not true, because it means they were happy to leave Hope’s superhero aspirations and the completion of her arc as a dangling fucking thread. But it’s worse if it’s true, maybe, because they still failed to include it in the main movie.

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The ants are cute. Weird, huh?

With that negative shit out of the way, let’s talk about some positive stuff for a while. One of the things that this movie fully commits to is the shrinking tech and how it can be used for cool effects. They also do their thing with Ant-Man being able to control ants, but it turns out this is separate tech and something that both Hope and Hank can also do. All the scenes of Scott being shrunk and navigating his miniature world work very well, but aside from the big “discovery” sequence where he first tries it out, there’s not a lot of wow factor drawn out of the concept until the third act. We see a lot of how the suit can be used in a fist-fight, including the great sequence where Ant-Man dukes it out with Falcon (Anthony Mackie). Maybe they pull off the idea so well that I’m not seeing how wonderful it truly is and how cool it is. That’s probably possible, but I would still point to the third act as the place where the movie fully embraces the possibilities, including really funny and oddball shit like giant Thomas the Tank Engines, or Quantum Reality (a brilliant, brilliant sequence!), in a way that it doesn’t really any other time. I mean, I guess maybe my issue is that the way the shrinking is used up to that point is very obvious? Not a huge deal. Especially cuz the finale makes up for it. That bit where Scott shrinks into forever is especially amazing, even though it’s telegraphed several times, they really pulled something off there. I just wish they’d explored that more!

There’s also a lot of nice little touches here and there, that show an attention to detail if not a commitment to the character. The opening sequence shows how Pym left SHIELD back when they were first building the Triskelion. It was nice to see John Slattery back in the role as Old Howard Stark, though he looks so hilariously unlike Dominic Cooper that it’s mind-boggling. It was also nice to see how they worked in The Avengers and Falcon. This is leagues beyond the awkward inclusion of Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) in Thor, and pays off nicely in the end when the question becomes “what’s next for Scott?”.  Then the post-credits teaser doubles-down on this by having Falcon refer to Ant-Man indirectly when Cap (Chris Evans) is musing about what to do with Bucky (Sebastian Stan). Tensions are mounting! Civil War is coming!

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The costumes are awesome, full stop.

Ant-Man will go down as a middling entry for fans who remain critical of some of the MCU’s shortcomings. Others, who don’t care about women or good villains or committed storytelling, will probably be kinder to this movie. Somehow, though, I doubt anyone’s going to start arguing that Ant-Man is exemplary for the MCU. Maybe some of the weirdness will wind up being a palette cleanser for more than just people who are feeling fatigued by the regular doses of Vitamin Marvel. Maybe it’ll be the last gasp for some of the questionable policies and decisions that have shaped the less rosy elements of Marvel’s great and greatly successful project.

Hopefully.

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