Connective Tissue: The Movie
To say that Ant-Man has issues would perhaps seem like a disservice. A reductive way of looking at cinematic storytelling that holds it to some objective standard, the falling short of which renders a movie not worth discussing. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have problems or imperfections that hold it back of course, every movie does, but the issues that seem to hold it back the most are the looming studio hand hovering above every scene, dictating every happenstance and every outcome. Issues that govern its very existence. Ironically, these result in some of the most fun and interesting sequences in the film, so it’s quite a treat if you’re looking to spend a couple of hours observing the peripheries of the ever-evolving Marvel Cinematic Universe. Why then is it such a problem? Well, because it’s the only thing that seems to matter.
Ant-Man is a film that finds itself in two worlds from the outset. It’s a small, personal story of fathers and daughters (more so the former than the latter), but one that’s also trying to plant its Marvel flag in a big way. These two forces aren’t necessarily at odds, as it’s been proven that their cohesion is certainly possible (The Winter Soldier) and the result can still be something both spectacular and meaningful even when the creative process is overflowing with tension (Age of Ultron). Another reason it finds itself in two worlds is because of the nature of its main characters, specifically its two Ant-Men. Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man and the brain behind the comicbook-y pseudo science, is the myth. The Cold War-era superhero that may or may not have saved the day, and the archetypal distanced dad looking for redemption. His soon-to-be protégé Scott Lang, the good natured ruffian on the wrong side of the law, is tasked with taking up this mantle, and finds himself caught up between both Pym’s father-daughter drama as well as his own. The problem here is that they’re not just from different eras or worlds, they’re from entirely different movies.
Pym’s old-world idealism and Lang’s tongue-in-cheek new-age bravura aren’t in contention as part of the story, but they form a sort of meta-textual roadblock, with Michael Douglas delivering lengthy speeches bordering on operatic, opposite Paul Rudd doing the, uh, Paul Rudd thing. These are two styles that can work in and of themselves, and can even be made to weld at the right temperature (Guardians of the Galaxy managed conversations between Chris Pratt’s slick Star Lord and Dave Bautista’s faux-Shakespearean Drax, after all) but here, there’s a fundamental disconnect that’s played for a laugh or two, before it continues to permeate each scene they share. Evangeline Lilly’s Hope van Dyne tips the scales further in Douglas’ direction, but Lang’s crew (Michael Pena, T.I. and David Dastmalchian) pulls the film further towards Rudd, and the indecision of tone makes a lot of the dramatic stuff sound unintentionally silly.
The intentionally silly stuff however, works like a charm! Michael Pena’s fast-talking, meandering monologues drive not only the plot, but some of the film’s funniest jokes, as his voice inhabits the mouths of the characters he’s referencing, and the camaraderie shared by the four criminals is, at the very least, something that keeps the film moving. Pym’s sob story however, is something that stops it dead in its tracks. Entire sequences of campy exposition relating to his widower woes and his broken relationship with his daughter, none of which carry any weight because they’re simply words. The status quo of his dynamic with Hope is cold as ice, and all the moments when it’s on the mend don’t even involve the two characters in the same space. Instead, Lang is the one convincing them of what they should be feeling, playing the emotional hero as well as the physical one, two roles that feel distinctly unearned.
The one moment where we’re allowed a peek into Pym’s experience, a visually dazzling flashback to be sure, involves the much lamented Janet van Dyne, whose absence seems to affect fans more than the characters themselves. Her face is never seen. She never gets to speak. She does perform a heroic act, but in the context of the story, she is merely Pym’s dead or missing wife, and not nearly her own character. Perhaps the need to keep the film at a certain length negates that possibility, but in the process, she’s nothing more than a concept for Pym to talk about. She doesn’t feel real, nor does her loss, in any other way than a fan-favourite being erased from this new continuity.
Taking her place is her daughter Hope, a character written specifically for the film, one who exists purely in service of the two Ant-Men’s narratives. She’s the more capable second-generation hero, the more involved and the more intelligent, but she’s kept at bay by her over-protective father, who fears she might befall the same fate as her mother. A good reason perhaps, but it feels like a wasted opportunity as neither her father nor the film allow her to rise to her action-heroine potential. There’s a hint that she might in the future, but is that really enough? Lilly has proven her dramatic chops elsewhere, and she’s the right kind of operatic in the scenes where Pym waxes poetic about his mistakes, playing off his every word and every enunciation. When it comes to Pym, Hope and Lang, the film’s best moments occur in silence. The odd look. The smirk. The sigh of disappointment. There’s genius at work, as three talented actors play off each other between the words, but as soon as it’s time to actually speak, it’s almost exclusively about explaining the plot, or explaining the characters as they’re meant to develop.
All this makes for an extremely shaky foundation, but up until the inevitable moments where it can no longer carry its own weight, the way it stumbles from point A to point is B actually a truck-load of fun. The macro-photography during the shrinking scenes is a marvel to behold, and during those sequences, we’re put squarely in the physical space (and headspace) of Lang’s Ant-Man, as every item, person and environment in his vicinity takes on a quality of vastness. There’s ferocity to stomping feet and tumbling styrofoam, and while this doesn’t do much by way of separating it from most other Marvel third acts where everything is exploding, the constant size-shifs manage to provide for some neat visual gags (you’ll be glad you haven’t seen the entire train sequence in the trailers) and Peyton Reed’s camera makes every bit of action feel bold and adventerous. There’s an instant kineticism during these sequences, an undeniable energy that, were it backed by an equally momentuous story, would’ve made for one of the best finales the franchise has had to offer. The movie is at its best when it’s in motion, though much of this is because it’s a near bore when it slows down catch its breath.
Despite an action-heavy third act, the film’s eventual climax feels almost completely geared towards exploring new concepts within the Marvel universe (very directly setting up stuff we’re going to talk about closer to Doctor Strange), but once it’s dispensed with its explosive action, it takes a left turn that is specifically focused on conceptual exploration and absolutely nothing else. It’s the worst kind of adventure climax, because while everything is at stake, nothing feels earned. There is nothing special that Lang accomplishes to get himself out of what the film touts as its ultimate challenge. While future Young Avenger Cassie Lang is adorable to watch, her ultimate place in her father’s story doesn’t matter. Pym explicitly states what the film’s supposed stakes are early on in the film, saying it’s not about saving their world, but their daughters’ worlds, as they become the men their daughters either once did or do still see them as, but this is something that Lang accomplishes very early on, at least from a character standpoint. In fact, the moment he gets out of jail, he’s already that person. He’s noble, honest, and tries to be his daughter’s hero, but the only thing standing in his way is that he hasn’t put on a costume. That’s the complete opposite of superhero iconography and why it’s become a staple of pop culture.
A suit is meaningless in comparison to the journey of the person wearing it, and in a film where legacy and iconography form such an integral part of the concept (Hank Pym passing down the Ant-Mantle to Scott Lang), it feels like a story in reverse. Pym tells Lang to earn that look in his daughter’s eyes, but all he has to do in order to do that is punch the bad guy. He’s already her hero from the get-go, and despite what Michael Douglas might say while resisitng the urge to turn to the camera, the finale is in fact about saving the world, not the world of their daughters’ feelings. Stories about heroism aren’t great because they’re about heroes performing great feats (though that’s certainly part of the spectacle), stories about heroism are great because they’re about what people have to overcome in order to perform those feats. Not the fact that they become heroes, but how they become heroes. Scott Lang has to learn to jump and shrink and run around with ants, which he does brilliantly, but that does much more for our emotional connection to the ants than it does for anything related to the character, and even Rudd’s sincereity can’t really save the story from being a backdrop for the action. Which is visually stunning no doubt, but it’s ultimately meaningless in the face of characters whose stories don’t particularly matter.
The plot is also a backdrop for establishing where exactly we are in a post-Age of Ultron universe. In that sense, it succeeds completely, and the moments the film is peeking around the corners of this universe are a treat for Marvel fans, though I can’t imagine they’d be much fun for anyone else. Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is developing his Yellowjacket technology as a direct response to fears of an increasingly militaristic surveillence state, the same fears expressed seen in the most recent Captain America and Avengers movies, and a concept likely to be explored in next year’s Civil War. However, his secondary motivation is once again half-baked, since it deals very directly with being disappointed with (and a disappointment to) a wishy-washy Hank Pym. Pym is at his best at the very start of the film, a fantastic digital facelift allowing him to slip right in to 1989 alongside an aged Peggy Carter and Howard Stark, but beyond that, he’s irredeemably limp. There are references to how the technology affects him, but the concept is never really explored, and similar references are made to explain Cross’ madness, though even those don’t seem necessary since greed is a good enough motivation in this context. Instead, he has his own fatherly gripes that don’t really come into play unless the plot demands it.
Things go boom and people say funny things, which sounds like a derisive thing to say, but those really are the best moments of the movie. The tech is used in interesting ways while still leaving the door open for more fun down the line, and the supporting cast keeps the energy up whenever the leads are, unfortunately, dragging it down. You’ve got your first vague reference to Spider-Man in there too, which was probably the moment that elicited the biggest cheer from my audience, but the moment that felt like it should’ve (Lang’s eventual triumph as his daughter looks up at him), was met with a palpably awkward silence. Because that’s the kind of movie Ant-Man is. When it comes down to it, and the jokes and the action are all said and done, it’s the references to the rest of the universe that seem to take precedence, with the characters playing second fiddle.
It’s a shame, really. While showcasing the potential for future concepts and storylines, the potential of the characters and this story remained untapped. This isn’t going to be a big problem for Marvel. Ant-Man’s failure to be more than just a few laughs is going to end up a mere blip on their radar in the long-run, but that’s really the problem here. For the first time, it feels like long-run matters more than the immediate story. That blip is not a very pleasant thing when it comes in the form of a movie from a studio that’s proven itself so, so much more capable.