We live in interesting times, Dear Reader. When I went to the late-night screening of Ant-Man, a line had already formed a half-hour before showtime. It wasn’t a big line, mind you, but it was still 30 people or more than I expected to be excited enough to turn up early. And they weren’t merely hardcore comic fans, but Marvel movie fans, Paul Rudd fans, and assorted interested parties.
There’s a second-act cameo that caused a group of teen girls behind me to gasp and cheer, a huge coup in making comic books more mainstream. Pop culture always used to sound like soda pop, the delight of the young looking for sugar, and now it seems we might just be popular after all.
WARNING: Spoilers! Nothing too direct, but to talk about the movie, you have to talk about the details, so go out and see Ant-Man, and follow along!
You see, Ant-Man comes with a lot of baggage. The concept seems … dated. Shrinking down and talking to ants isn’t cool; a guy with a bow and arrow seems more hip than Ant-Man. Someone once told me that shrinking is a lot more interesting and wonderful when you’re a kid, and that makes sense for the most part; a lot of stories you read and see when you’re small have small people in them (i.e. Indian in the Cupboard, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, The Borrowers, etc.). Action heroes these days need to be big and flashy to catch on with general audiences.
There have been three Ant-Men, and each is a showcase of failure: Hank Pym is a mess of great ideas directed to the worst ends; Scott Lang is a criminal who isn’t good enough to be a father; and Eric O’Grady literally had “Irredeemable” in the title of his solo book. These aren’t classic heroes we can root for. Sure, Tony Stark makes mistakes, but he overcomes them, while the defining characteristic of Hank Pym, Scott Lang and Eric O’Grady is their mistake. Rooting for them becomes difficult. Their crimes are major focal points for not just their story, but for the Marvel Universe. Heck, the miniseries Avengers: Age of Ultron should have been titled Avengers: Go Kill Hank Pym For the Greater Good.
How does Ant-Man even get made, let alone move past the negativity from comics canon? The filmmakers must either find a point where the characters are relatable or rewrite their history until we get there. Hank Pym becomes more understandable when removed from his decision to join the Avengers; in the film, he’s simply a secret Cold War hero who retired when S.H.I.E.L.D. tried to steal his tech. That puts him at the best time in his career, the age when he busted up Communists and worked side by side with the Wasp. Their relationship is a success in that they start a family together and he loses her, quite literally, when she shrinks into the quantum field to save the United States from a nuclear weapon. Hank’s not perfect in the movie: He’s reclusive, distant, paranoid, and has a complicated relationship with his daughter, but that’s more relatable than his comic-book counterpart. Michael Douglas gives a superb performance as both the retired hero and as a father who lost his way.
Scott Lang suffers from being a little too sympathetic on screen. He committed a “cool” crime that gave money back to the people, never hurt anyone and stuck it to The Man in such a selfless way it makes Robin Hood blush. But that origin is tempered by the fact that Paul Rudd is a charming and affable person, someone you want to see earn his place. He’s surrounded by such likable people who want to see Lang succeed so much you get wrapped up in it, too. He makes a great protagonist and brings with him a great supporting cast that works like the ants themselves to make Ant-Man a hero.
I have to thank the Man from U.N.C.L.E. trailer for appearing before this movie, because that set the tone. Because the Ant-Man concept is so dated, they set it in a spy/heist movie that has a kind of dated flavor. Part of it is that Hank Pym still works in big blinky-light panels for his technology, part of it is that it’s set in San Francisco, a kind of quirky locale that lends itself to a more 1960s feel. The end credits roll over some great surfer rock, complete with horn section a la Misirlou. Maybe it’s because I know the director, Peyton Reed, from one of my favorite movies Down with Love, but there’s a throwback quality hat calls to mind the old spy series mixed with surprising special effects. The literal Journey into Mystery at the end of the movie even had a psychedelic edge to it.
Ant-Man isn’t perfect, nor should it be. The antagonist, Darren Cross, is so villainous he might as well be wearing a black cape and twirling his mustache. He’s ridiculously hammy and given little motivation besides wanting “personal revenge” against Pym for being a … lousy mentor? We never get an idea of what Cross wanted from Pym other than to profit from the Pym Particle, and his motivations are tinged by talking about how exposure to it can mess with your brain functions. He’s just a crazy guy who could cause chaos across the globe, muhahaha. But I don’t think Cross is supposed to be relatable for the same reason Scott Lang is almost over-relatable; this is a family film — one that has a lot of swearing and horrible things happening to the cutest of lambs, but a family film nonetheless. The main crux is the relationship between fathers and daughters; both Pym and Lang want to be the heroes their daughters believe — or believed — them to be. Most Marvel films have been from the perspective of the children (if families are even involved in the plot), but this time we’re seeing it through a father’s eyes.
A family film means a new audience, and I think that’s where the comic fans are going to be confused. With everything we know about Hank Pym and Scott Lang, there’s no reason an Ant-Man film should have made it to the big screen. The characters are losers, and their powers pale in comparison to rest of the Avengers. But, as the movie itself will profess, everyone deserves a second chance, and so does the legacy of Ant-Man.
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