Ant-Man Revisited

(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the first 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” In this edition: Ant-Man is charming, but feels like two different scripts smashed together)

Ant-Man would’ve been a different beast under director Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead), who left the project over creative differences in 2014. The Avengers had recently swept the globe, and with the note-factory that was Marvel Creative Committee still intact under Marvel chairman Ike Perlmutter, directorial freedom wasn’t exactly on the table. (The Committee was finally disbanded in 2015).

Marvel Studios then was a far cry from Marvel Studios today, just a few years removed. While it’s nice to imagine what could have been, Peyton Reed of Yes Man and Bring It On did an ample job; for better or worse, the film the studio wanted seems more fitting for Reed’s wheelhouse than Wright’s. Several visual flourishes people presume were Wright’s were actually Reed’s doing — Luis’ hilarious callbacks, for one — though the story feels like the product of conflicting rewrites.

While Ant-Man’s personal scale feels like a palette cleanser from Marvel’s end-of-the-world bombast, one might ponder whether going smaller and more personal is inherently more sound, especially when major decisions still feel like they’ve had their edges sanded down. Wright was rumoured to have written a more morally grey film, about a hardened criminal being reformed. The end result is anything but, yet it curiously (and paradoxically) echoes elements of Wright’s original drafts — as if the finished product were unable to escape its past.

Like the protagonist at its center, it’s tough for Ant-Man to be truly good when forces beyond its control keep holding it back.

Scott Lang, Ant-Man 2.0

Paul Rudd brings a boyish charm to any role he plays. His “Aw, shucks!” demeanor is perfect for the film’s version of Scott Lang, though this iteration of the character is also trapped in a story that can’t decide what it wants him to be.

Lang hopes to be worthy of the heroism his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) sees in him. It’s a touching sentiment, one he’s reminded of by both his ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and his mentor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the original Ant-Man, but Lang’s journey feels disconnected from the plot surrounding it. He’s an expert burglar, with a detailed understanding of the ins and outs of security. This is why Pym recruits him for a heist, as he likely did in Wright’s version, but these logistics are at odds with how the final film paints Lang’s morality.

Lang has exceptional thieving skills, but the film makes sure to note that he only stole the one time. Not only that, he stole from a company that wrongly fired him, and he even returned large sums of money to the people they swindled. Several characters laud Lang for this one-off Robin Hood-ism, but others in the film treat him like a repeat offender when he gets out of prison. Lang’s ex-wife talks to him like stealing is a continued habit, one he can’t shake long enough to re-enter his daughter’s life, and one he’s supposedly fallen back on multiple times. It isn’t.

The film feels stitched together from entirely different drafts: Wright’s, about a hardened criminal, and the lighter version the studio wanted instead, in which Lang made an error of judgement. The result is two conflicting Scott Langs, depending on who you ask. The film’s central problem however, isn’t limited to contradictory details. The problem is how those details inform and frame Lang’s story.

Lang vs Lang

It’s hard for a convicted felon to find honest work, a continued punishment for what is explicitly a one-time act of recklessness. Lang’s sincere attempts to keep his job make him instantly sympathetic. However, when Lang shows up to his daughter’s birthday party, he talks about having “gone straight,” as if his past involves a criminal lifestyle, rather than a single act of misguided vigilantism.

The problem therein becomes not only about who Scott Lang is (and what kind of life he’s lived), but what he even needs to change about himself in order to be worthy of his daughter. Is Lang a good person who made a single mistake, trying claw his way back despite a system that doesn’t believe in change? Or is he a repeated criminal who needs to leave his old life behind, and radically change his behaviour? The film seems to want it both ways, and satisfyingly expresses neither.

Pym’s heist involves Lang learning new skills. But Lang arriving at this point is purely a matter of honing Pym’s technology, rather than Lang having his morality challenged in any way. Lang is already someone willing to risk everything for his daughter; nothing about his story involves attaining a new sense of worth or heroic stature, or doing anything he wouldn’t have done at the beginning of the film.

The apparent need for change is paid constant lip-service, by everyone from Pym, to Maggie, to Maggie’s husband Paxton (Bobby Cannavale). And yet, like the contradictory character at its center, Ant-Man manages to get by on sweetness alone.

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