In Robert Altman’s 1992 Hollywood satire The Player, a writer pitches a studio executive a story about a wrongly-accused woman who dies tragically in the gas chamber just before she can be saved. When the executive questions the downer ending, the writer argues it has to end that way, because “that’s reality.”
By the end of the film, we witness the final production – Julia Roberts plays the woman accused, and just before the gas engulfs her, Bruce Willis bursts into the chamber and carries her away in his arms. Gone is the pathos of the writer’s vision, thanks to the corporate overlords presiding over the studio.
I’d say that’s a pretty accurate descriptor of what’s become of Ant-Man, originally scribed by the brilliant Shaun of the Dead writer/director Edgar Wright. Wright was slated to direct Ant-Man too, shepherding the project for a full eight years before finally parting ways with Disney/Marvel over creative differences. The studio has since reworked the film into perhaps the pinnacle of its shamelessly banal, same-y superhero adaptations, sucking out any and all chance it may have had at being special.
During the Cold War, S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) developed a suit which could shrink its wearer down to the size of an ant, and could even command an army of ants themselves. After a tragic incident, Pym retires the Ant-Man, until years later rouge mentee Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) takes over Pym’s company and begins attempting to replicate the shrinking tech for military use. To stop him, Pym and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) take in a new Ant-Man, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a reformed burglar just looking to have a normal life with his young daughter Cassie (adorable newcomer Abby Ryder Fortson).
Based on the classic “To Steal an Ant-Man” from the pages of Marvel Premiere, there is a very cool premise buried in Ant-Man. This idea of a highly stylized, cool-as-ice heist with tiny people, a morally ambiguous criminal element, and superheroes passing their mantle down to a new generation. But after the Mouse’s grubby mitts wiped Wright’s original script clean of its edge, we’ve lost all sense of style and uniqueness. Lang is now a reluctant thief, his comrades all racial stereotypes played for comedic relief (!), and with all embarking on a very generic quest for redemption. What we’re left with is not so much a heist movie as it is Disney’s fluffed-up idea of one.
Replacing Wright in the director’s chair is Bring it On’s Peyton Reed, who adds nothing of value to the material other than bowing to the studio’s desire to cut the balls off the film. One scene sees Lang try on the suit and shrink down, only to have him run from gushing bathtub water, a dance floor of stomping partiers, and finally be swept through the air on a winged ant. It’s the kind of chaotic action Wright would’ve directed brilliantly, but Reed isn’t nearly as skilled, forcing Lang on a clusterfuck of screwball pratfalling that’s neither funny nor engaging.
Poor Paul Rudd, who’s admirably pressing through the motions of this subgenre, like the forced romance with Evangeline Lilly’s character, despite the two having zero chemistry and literally sharing nothing more than interested glances with one another. You’d think Rudd’s brand of dry, self-aware humor would at least prove a draw, in addition to the fact that he himself took part in the rewrites with his Anchorman director Adam McKay. But Rudd’s Lang just comes off as unfunny, and an odd contrast to the solemn gravity of Michael Douglas’ monologues. I’m reminded very much of Green Lantern, another comic book adaptation brimming with potential and starring a very capable comedic male lead, whose talents are utterly wasted in a movie butchered by the studio. At least now Ryan Reynolds can redeem himself with Deadpool; no doubt that Rudd has the chops to do the same eventually.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Marvel movie without a generous helping of commercials for its other properties. Ant-Man is another class offender, inundating its first act with S.H.I.E.L.D. cameos and double entendre about giant hammers and iron suits. I bring it up again, however, because the film actually does do something right in all its commercialism – a sequence when Lang has to go toe-to-toe with an Avenger. I’m fondly reminded of some of the charmingly gimmicky Marvel Team-Up books of old, when heroes would fight each other following a misunderstanding, later to reconcile and acknowledge each other’s strengths. For that brief moment, Ant-Man inadvertently channels the Marvel feeling that’s been sorely missing from these movies lately.
It’s little relief. Ant-Man embodies the entirety of my issues with Marvel Studios, and stands as neither an effective superhero movie, nor a particularly good heist movie. Which is a damn shame, because Ant-Man is the type of niche character that has huge potential to make a big splash in the right, or should I say Wright, pair of hands.