Marvel’s winning streak is over, and the blame lies squarely at the oh-so-tiny feet of Ant-Man. The superhero movie studio’s latest offering is its first genuine flop, if not financially—we’ll have to wait until weekend box office receipts are tallied on Monday before a final verdict can be reached—then certainly creatively. Adhering to Marvel’s now well-established formula and yet failing to properly hit almost any of the beats that its predecessors ably struck to commercial and popular success, it’s a film that always feels this close to being unique, and funny, and thrilling. Which is why when it misses its mark, over and over and over again, the sound of its failure resounds that much louder.
Ant-Man’s face-plant will strike some as foreseeable, since its path to the screen has been rockier than any prior Marvel effort. Ant-Man was originally a project put in the hands of Edgar Wright, the fanboy-beloved genius behind Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End, and a filmmaker whose love of geeky things—like, say, a relatively uncool second-tier character like Ant-Man who can shrink down to the size of a you-know-what thanks to his high-tech outfit—is matched only by his inventively electric, hyperactive comedy-action directorial style. To many, Wright was an ideal choice to translate such a weird superhero to the screen, since his whip-smart aesthetics seemed like a natural way to enliven the material with the type of zany, sarcastic, lovingly self-conscious energy that James Gunn—another idiosyncratic director given the keys to a Marvel hot rod—brought to last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
It was not to be, however, as Wright and Marvel parted ways in May 2014 over the usual “creative differences”—a boilerplate explanation to mask whispers that the studio had second thoughts about allowing Wright to interject too much of his own personality into a film that, like the rest of its Marvel Cinematic Universe compatriots, must stick to the same narrative and stylistic template. Wright’s cast remained, but he was replaced with Peyton Reed (Bring it On, Down with Love), a competent if less-than-distinctive substitution who was then forced to cobble together a summer tentpole from a combination of Wright’s not-totally-discarded screenplay and concepts, and his own new material. The result, as it turns out, is a rickety adventure with four credited screenwriters—Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay and star Paul Rudd—and a predictably hodgepodge quality to its every aspect.
That begins with its story, a standard-issue tale about a Robin Hood-ish thief named Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) who gets out of prison, desperate to stick to the straight-and-narrow and repair his relationship with his young daughter. As lotto-jackpot-grade luck would have it, scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas)—who comic book readers will know as the original Ant-Man—has been watching Scott, and has actually chosen him (how convenient!) to become the new Ant-Man. Hank wants Scott to don his red-and-black miniaturizing suit to stop Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), Hank’s former protégé who now runs his company, and who’s developing his own shrink-ray technology that he plans to sell to evil conglomerate Hydra. Scott will achieve this by breaking into Darren’s HQ and stealing the bad guy’s weaponized shrinking suit known as Yellowjacket—a plan that involves the usual training montages, bickering between teacher and student, and pseudo-sibling rivalry/romantic tension between Scott and Hank’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who wants to wear the Ant-Man tech herself.
As such, Ant-Man is a hackneyed learn-to-be-a-superhero story seen countless times over, as well as a stale heist film. If that familiarity doesn’t quite breed contempt, the fact that the action is primarily confined to only two settings—Hank’s warm, homey house, and Darren’s cold, sleek corporate office building—so diminishes its sense of scale that the proceedings feel as if they’re deliberately trying to echo their protagonist’s own lack of stature. If not for a couple of fleeting glimpses of San Francisco’s streets (all B-roll, since production occurred on Georgia soundstages), one would be hard-pressed to even identify where in the United States Ant-Man takes place.
That indistinctness extends to the film’s signature special effects, which involve Scott diminishing to ant size, at which point he rides worker ants, flies on flying ants, and leaps and spins about like, well, just about every other CG-ified superhero Marvel has committed to celluloid. Worse, Ant-Man’s tactical advantage in combat comes from his ability to shift sizes at will—a trick that doesn’t really work visually, since it invariably involves the sight of enemies being first punched by an invisible speck, and then being roundhoused by a poof-he’s-suddenly-there! normal-sized Rudd. In these set pieces, Ant-Man’s power comes across like a cheap magic trick (Now you see him! Now you don’t!). And they’re further undercut by the ants themselves, who—always working by his side, including his trusty flying mate Anthony (get it?)—turn out to be little more than featureless, uninteresting drones.
Ant-Man’s biggest problem, though, is its inability to strike that fine-line balance between embracing, and wink-wink poking fun at, the superhero fantasy it’s peddling. Scott is a wisecracker with a heart of gold who responds to every situation with a wannabe-witty retort before, ultimately, getting on with the important job of saving the day. Rudd is as charming as the material will allow, but he lacks the physicality to sell Scott’s athletic derring-do—this despite a wan attempt to bolster his He-Man credentials with a Chris Pratt-in-Guardians-style shot of him shirtless. That his stream of one-liners all fall flat merely compounds the impression that he’s out of his element. Yet the film’s lack of humor is due less to Rudd’s unconvincing silly-then-serious performance than to a script that awkwardly vacillates between sincere platitudes about parenthood, sacrifice, and redemption, and goofy Drunk History-inspired sequences in which Scott’s dim-bulb thieving cohort Luis (Michael Peña, almost stealing the show) recounts stories that are dramatized in flashback, with actors lip-syncing Luis’s crazy narration.
Only during those scenes does Ant-Man exhibit any trace of its own identity, but even then, they seem like vestiges of Wright’s original ideas, shoehorned into the film in a bid to bring some unpredictable absurdity to a story that otherwise never deviates from its Marvel-trademarked course. They’re glimpses of what a daring auteurist take on a Marvel property might look like (something only spied before in the quirky, if still visually by-the-books, Guardians of the Galaxy), even as their fleeting appearance serves as a reminder that the studio has little interest in allowing inimitable directors substantial creative freedom. In that follow-the-rules environment, where every new venture must uniformly connect to the rest of the MCU so that future team-up extravaganzas can be seamlessly crafted, is it any wonder that the gonzo Wright bailed? Or that Selma’s Ava DuVernay recently turned down helming the forthcoming Black Panther?
While 2008’s The Incredible Hulk was a disappointment that has largely been ignored by the MCU, and 2013’s Thor: The Dark World is perhaps the most purely enervating of the studio’s recent output, both of those efforts at least boasted a consistency of vision and a compelling main character (and/or star) to help make up for their deficiencies. Ant-Man needed all of that and more to help sell its protagonist as a legitimate hero worthy of his own stand-alone saga—and inclusion, in the coming years, in the Avengers series. Scattershot and schizophrenic from start to finish, however, what the film delivers is something far, far less. And in doing so, it confirms that, even in this heyday of superhero cinema, it takes more than just the Marvel imprint and formula to make a spectacle truly spectacular.