4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“I ruined the moment, didn’t I?” — Ant-Man

When Avengers was released in 2012, it contained most of the original founding Avengers from 1963: Thor, the Hulk, and Iron Man. Missing, however, were Ant-Man and the Wasp, who were part of that original team, but had been conspicuously absent from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

This gap was finally addressed in a movie that didn’t come out until after the second Avengers movie.

Henry Pym first appeared in a standalone science fiction story in Tales to Astonish #27 in 1962, “The Man in the Ant Hill” by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby. The story was about a scientist (Pym) who created a formula that shrunk him down to insect size, at which point he was menaced by ants. The issue was very popular, and sold very well, so he was brought back in issue #35, this time as the superhero Ant-Man. It was later established that he had a wife named Maria Trovaya, a Hungarian dissident who was killed by Communist agents.

Ant-Man continued to be a regular feature in Tales to Astonish thenceforth. In issue #44, by Lee, H.E. Huntley, and Kirby, Janet van Dyne was introduced, and became Pym’s partner, the Wasp. The pair continued in Tales to Astonish, and then joined the Avengers. While their feature in TTA was eventually discontinued, with the Hulk pretty much taking over that title, they remained mainstays in the team book.

Pym, though, went through dozens of different identities. He became Giant-Man, reversing his shrinking to make him a super-strong giant, later changing his name and costume to Goliath. After suffering a psychotic break, he took on the Yellowjacket identity, and married van Dyne, eventually coming back to his proper self. However, his psychological issues continued to be a problem. He created Ultron, a robot that became the Avengers’ deadliest foe, and there was the aforementioned psychotic break, and then he hit van Dyne in a fit of rage when he was trying to prove his worth to the Avengers.

That ended the marriage, and also Pym’s career as an Avenger, at least temporarily. He gave up being a costumed hero for a while, eventually becoming a scientific adventurer called “Dr. Pym,” using his shrinking formula to carry a huge array of gizmos to use in crime-fighting. (He even wore a hat and scarf like another scientific Doctor….) After the “Heroes Reborn” event, he went back to being Giant-Man, then took on the mantle of the Wasp when his ex-wife was believed killed. Later, he was fused with his creation, and became merged with Ultron.

In Avengers #181 in 1979, David Michelinie and John Byrne introduced the character of Scott Lang, an employee of Stark International, who they then featured in Marvel Premiere #47, where he was established as an ex-con trying to go straight. He’s also divorced, sharing custody of his daughter Cassie. He’s put in a position where he has to rescue a doctor who might be able to save Cassie’s life, and steals the Ant-Man gear to do so. He winds up keeping the suit with Pym’s blessing, and has a low-key career as a second-tier hero, including a lengthy stint as one of the Fantastic Four when Reed Richards was believed dead.

In 2000, Artisan Entertainment acquired the rights to an Ant-Man film, and Edgar Wright, a longtime fan of the character, wrote a treatment with writing partner Joe Cornish. Artisan’s film never went anywhere, and Wright and Cornish sent the film to Kevin Feige, who green-lit it as part of the nascent Marvel Studios in 2006.

The film went through multiple drafts, numerous delays, and finally Marvel wanted someone else to take a shot at the screenplay. Wright, not comfortable with directing a film he didn’t entirely write, and also having spent eight years trying to get this movie made, finally quit, replaced by Peyton Reed. Adam McKay took over the scripting duties, aided by the movie’s star, Paul Rudd.

Wright had always envisioned Ant-Man as an Elmore Leonard-style heist movie, and so the title character was always going to be the Lang version. However, Pym and van Dyne are part of it, established as being heroes who worked with S.H.I.E.L.D. back in the 1980s, before van Dyne was lost in the quantum realm. In a melding of two different notions from the comics—the alternate future of MC2 in which Pym and van Dyne had a daughter named Hope, and the mainline comics that established that Pym and Trovaya had a daughter, Nadia, who later took on the mantle of the Wasp—we also have Hope van Dyne in this movie (and the next), Pym’s daughter, who wishes to take on a superheroic identity, which she finally will in the sequel. (Also part of the alternate future of MC2, by the by, is a grown-up Cassie Lang as the hero Stinger.)

Besides Rudd, we also have Michael Douglas as Pym, Evangeline Lilly as Hope van Dyne, Hayley Lovitt as Janet van Dyne, Corey Stoll as Darren Cross (based on the first foe the Lang Ant-Man faced in Marvel Premiere #47), Judy Greer as Lang’s ex-wife Maggie, Abby Ryder Fortson as Cassie, Bobby Cannavale as Paxton (Maggie’s new boyfriend), Wood Harris as Gale, Martin Donovan as Mitchell Carson, and Michael Peña, Tip “T.I.” Harris, and David Dastmalchian as Lang’s crew of thieves.

Back from Avengers: Age of Ultron are Anthony Mackie as the Falcon, Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter (by way of the first season of Agent Carter), and Chris Evans as Captain America. Back from Iron Man 2 is John Slattery as Howard Stark (the character last seen on Agent Carter played by Dominic Cooper). Back from Captain America: The Winter Soldier is Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes.

Rudd, Evans, Mackie, Slattery, and Stan will next appear in Captain America: Civil War. Atwell will next appear in Agent Carter season two. Douglas, Lilly, Greer, Cannavale, Fortson, Peña, Tip Harris, Dastmalchian, and the character of Janet van Dyne (to be played by Michelle Pfeiffer) will all next appear in Ant-Man & The Wasp.

 

“And he’s like, I’m lookin’ for a guy who shrinks”

Ant-Man
Written by Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish and Adam McKay & Paul Rudd
Directed by Peyton Reed
Produced by Kevin Feige
Original release date: July 17, 2015

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

In 1989, S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist Henry Pym confronts the leaders of the organization—Peggy Carter, Howard Stark, and Mitchell Carson—because he’s learned that they’ve tried to replicate the Pym particle he invented. Pym refuses to share the technology with S.H.I.E.L.D., and resigns rather than continue to argue about it. (He also slams Carson’s head into the desk when he mentions the death of his wife.) Stark lets him go, despite Carson’s concerns, as he doesn’t believe Pym’s a security risk.

Fast forward to the present. Scott Lang gets out of prison after serving time for breaking-and-entering and burglary. An electrical engineer for VistaCorp, he discovered that the company was stealing money, so he broke in, transferred the money back to workers, and released the company’s information on the Internet. Unfortunately, finding employment is more difficult—he can’t even keep a job at Baskin Robbins once the manager learns he’s an ex-con.

He’s living with his former cellmate, Luis, along with two other ex-cons, Dave and Kurt. Luis says he has a job for them to do, but Lang insists that he’s reformed. He tries to see his daughter Cassie on her birthday, but his ex-wife Maggie and her new fiancé, a San Francisco Police Department detective named Paxton, kick him out, citing his non-payment of child support. Maggie says they’ll only reconsider visitation once he catches up on child support. So he decides to ask about Luis’s job, which he found out from a friend of a friend of a friend, but it’s totally legit.

It turns out to be breaking into Pym’s house. After quitting S.H.I.E.L.D., Pym founded his own company. He took an eager young scientist, Darren Cross, under his wing, and later Cross and Pym’s estranged daughter Hope van Dyne orchestrated the removal of Pym from his own company, and he was “retired.” Cross invites him back to Pym Tech for the unveiling of new technology that will enable objects and eventually people to change size. Cross also shows footage he dug up from the 1970s and 1980s of a super-powered agent called Ant-Man. Pym never confirmed that he was Ant-Man, and Cross doesn’t know why he wouldn’t share his technology with the world, but Cross is sure he’s re-created it, and will use it on a suit of his own called Yellowjacket. Yellowjacket will revolutionize warfare.

One of the people at the meeting is Carson, who privately tells Cross he and his people are interested in buying the Yellowjacket armor.

In private to Pym, van Dyne says she’s ready to take Cross down, but Pym refuses, saying, “I know a guy.” It turns out that she’s been working clandestinely, pretending to still hate her father (though it’s not a difficult deception, as she’s still pretty pissed at him), while working with him to stop Cross from selling this technology.

Pym got word through channels to Luis about how his own house was ripe for robbing, that he was a fat cat who got rich off screwing the little guy. As Luis says, it’s a tailor-made Scott Lang mark. Once inside, Lang has to improvise his way past a fingerprint lock and then has to improvise again to get into the very old, titanium safe, which he does by freezing the metal, causing it to expand.

But all there is in the vault is the Ant-Man suit. Lang thinks it’s motorcycle leathers and a helmet. He takes it anyhow, but this is not going to help him catch up on child support.

At home, he tries the outfit on, and eventually activates the shrinking. As soon as he does, Pym broadcasts his voice into the helmet, being very cryptic and giving him advice on how to survive being an inch tall. After a very difficult ordeal going through a bathtub, through cracks in the floor, a dance club, the streets, the rooftops, and more, Lang manages to get himself back to full size. He removes the outfit and breaks back into Pym’s house to return the gear, never wanting to see it again.

And as soon as he leaves the house, he’s arrested.

Paxton lectures him while sitting in the cell. Then Paxton’s partner, Gale, arrives to say Lang’s lawyer is here to see him. It’s actually Pym, who says he has a job for Lang, and that this was a test. Later, Pym has some ants smuggle in the Ant-Man suit, shrunk down, which is then enlarged. Lang puts it on and escapes. He flies on an ant, but the ant goes really high and Lang passes out from stress and vertigo.

Lang awakens in Pym’s house. He is formally introduced to Pym and van Dyne. The latter is not happy about Lang being there, as she can handle the suit. She’s been training most of her life for it. But Pym refuses to let her. Even as they train Lang in how to use the suit, how to communicate with the ants, and how to fight (and also giving him two weapons—small discs, one of which grows what it’s thrown at, the other of which shrinks what it’s thrown at), van Dyne bitches and moans about him—with good reason. Finally, Pym reveals the truth he’s kept from van Dyne all these years: how her mother died.

Ant-Man had a partner: Janet van Dyne, a.k.a. the Wasp. They worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. together, and one day in 1987 they had to defuse a missile that had been fired by Russian dissidents at the U.S. The Wasp turned off her regulator so she would shrink so small as to be subatomic, as it was the only way to get inside the missile. But doing so meant she kept shrinking after she sabotaged the missile and wound up lost in the quantum realm. Van Dyne is furious that he kept this from her for so long—she was seven when Janet was lost, and all he told her was that she died in a plane crash—but also grateful to know that her mom died a hero.

Lang understands his place in all this: he’s wearing the suit because he’s expendable. Pym can’t bear the notion of seeing someone else he loves wearing the suit and maybe dying.

Meanwhile, Cross has figured out how to shrink organic matter without killing the subject. One member of the board of directors who was iffy on the project has already been shrunk and killed by Cross, as have a large number of sheep. But he finally gets it right, as a sheep is shrunk. Cross also shows up at Pym’s house to invite him to the unveiling of the Yellowjacket program.

There’s one item Pym, van Dyne, and Lang need for their plan to steal the Yellowjacket suit to be successful, a device that’s currently housed in one of Howard Stark’s old warehouses in upstate New York. It isn’t until Lang arrives to break into the place that they realize that Howard’s son Tony converted that warehouse into the Avengers’ new headquarters at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Oops. Falcon is the only Avenger home, and Lang decides to chance it by going for the item anyhow, holding his own against the Falcon in the process.

Cross tells van Dyne that he’s upping security for the presentation. Lang—who’s very high on his surviving a fight with an Avenger—says that they need a crew. Pym and van Dyne will both be at the presentation itself, and so Lang—over Pym’s very loud objections—brings in Luis, Kurt, and Dave to help. Luis is emplaced as a security guard, with help from van Dyne, and his job will be to reduce the water pressure in the water main so Lang and the ants can get in through there. Then he’ll place C4 charges with the Pym particles, erase all the data on the shrinking process on Cross’s servers, and steal the Yellowjacket prototype, once Kurt hacks into the system and turns off the laser grid.

Lang’s part of the plan goes well, up to a point. Paxton and Gale stop Pym before he can go into Pym Tech to talk to him about Lang’s escape. Kurt steals the cops’ car to distract them so Pym can get in.

Inside, Carson is present along with representatives of what’s left of Hydra. (Of course Carson was one of the S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel who was an embedded Hydra mole. And while Hydra was badly damaged in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it was established in both Age of Ultron and on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that there were plenty of Hydra splinter groups left.) They want the Yellowjacket suit to get themselves back to glory.

Just as Lang’s about to grab the Yellowjacket suit, Cross pulls it out and traps Lang in the case. Turns out he knew about Lang and van Dyne’s being a double agent all along. He’s also becoming more and more unstable, presumably from using the suit without a regulator.

Cross is about to kill Pym when van Dyne attacks the guards, and Lang uses a growing disc to blast through the case and fisticuffs ensue. Carson makes off with a vial of the Cross formula, while Cross himself flies off in a helicopter. Lang chases after him, and Cross insanely starts shooting a weapon inside a flying helicopter.

Pym and van Dyne get out of the building, which has already been evacuated, using a tank that Pym keeps shrunk on a keychain for emergencies.

Cross puts the Yellowjacket suit on and fights Lang. Yellowjacket is temporarily trapped in a bug-zapper, and then Paxton and Gale arrest Lang. But Yellowjacket gets out of the bug-zapper and is sighted committing a home invasion at Paxton’s house. Both Paxton and Lang realize that Cassie is in danger and Paxton heads there, even though Lang is handcuffed in the back seat. Lang is able to get into the Ant-Man helmet and then shrink out of the handcuffs to save Cassie. He fights Yellowjacket in Cassie’s room—including a lengthy fight atop her model train—but eventually Lang is able to get inside the Yellowjacket suit the same way the Wasp did in 1987: shrinking to sub-atomic levels. He sabotages the suit, destroying it and killing Cross, but Lang is then trapped in the quantum realm. He manages to regrow himself by attaching the growing disc to the regulator.

Paxton, grateful to Ant-Man for saving Cassie, fixes things with Lang so he’s no longer under arrest for breaking into the Pym house. Lang is also welcome in Maggie and Paxton’s house and joins them and Cassie for dinner. Pym also now has hope that Janet might still be able to be rescued from the quantum realm. (Gee, that sounds like a good plot for a sequel…)

Then Luis tells Lang that a friend of a friend of a friend (one of whom is a bartender who looks just like Stan Lee) told him that the Falcon is apparently looking for him, which makes Lang nervous.

Pym reveals to van Dyne that he and Janet were working on a new suit for her when she was lost in the quantum realm. He presents it to his daughter, who speaks for the entire audience when she says, “About damn time.”

In a garage, Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson are hiding out with the Winter Soldier. Rogers and Wilson are concerned about contacting Stark and “the Accords.” Rogers says they’re on their own, but Wilson says maybe not. “I know a guy.”

 

“And I’m like, daaaaaaamn, I got all nervous, ’cause I keep mad secrets for you, bro”

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

To this day, I don’t understand why this movie was made.

Look, there are dozens and dozens and dozens of Marvel characters that Marvel Studios has access to, even taking into account that, at this stage of the game, Fox still had the X-Men and Fantastic Four and Sony had Spider-Man.

Of this very lengthy list of characters, Ant-Man is about the 92nd most interesting.

Ant-Man was such a huge hit that Henry Pym stopped being Ant-Man after Tales to Astonish #48 and Avengers #1 and very rarely looked back. He’s spent less time as Ant-Man than any of his various identities (with the possible exception of Dr. Pym, Scientific Adventurer). Scott Lang was a bit more lasting, but even he at best has been a fourth-stringer in the Marvel Universe. He’s best remembered as the guy who filled in for Reed Richards during one of the least interesting runs on Fantastic Four.

Meanwhile, we have the Wasp, who has a lengthy and impressive tenure as an Avenger, including several times being the team leader. She once took on the X-Men by herself, was the only woman among the founding Avengers (and just generally is one of Marvel’s longest-standing female heroes), and has been a critical part of dozens of important Avengers tales over the decades.

But Edgar Wright had a hard-on for Ant-Man, writing a treatment for Artisan and then shoving it under Kevin Feige’s nose when Marvel Studios was just a pipe dream with stuff in development but nothing solid.

So we have a movie that forces Ant-Man down our throats, at the expense of the Wasp. Not only that, the movie itself cops to the fact that the Wasp would be better suited to this, but she’s sidelined because Pym’s grief over his wife’s death is so great. Emily Asher-Perrin put it best on this very site when the movie came out: “Essentially, Janet van Dyne was fridged to give Hank Pym enough pain to prevent Hope van Dyne from being the main character.” In order to justify having this be an Ant-Man movie, they have to kill the Wasp in a flashback (reducing her to a character with no lines cast with an extra, though that she’s in her helmet the whole time means that anyone can be cast in the role down the line, as indeed Michelle Pfeiffer will be—but that’s the next movie, and our issue here is with this one) and sideline the actual capable character.

I don’t even buy the reasoning—not that it’s rational at all, it’s a father’s irrational love, but still—because Hope is in danger every second of the movie anyhow. She’s pretending to be friends with a psychopath and putting herself in the same line of fire as everyone else. But Pym doesn’t want her to get hurt, so he keeps her out of the Ant-Man suit. Yes, much better that she be in a room filled with people holding guns and not have the super-suit that would allow her to shrink and grow at will, and also fly. Brilliant.

This movie wants desperately to be the Elmore Leonard-style caper movie that Wright originally wanted to do, but the tension between Wright’s zaniness and the needs of a Marvel Cinematic Universe film ruins everything. There are moments where that zaniness comes through, like every single time Michael Peña’s Luis is on screen. Luis is a delight, and I seriously considered trying to write the summary of this movie the way Luis would have told it, but it doesn’t work without Peña’s delivery and without the actors mouthing his imagined dialogue.

It doesn’t help that the movie is pretty much Iron Man all over again, only instead of Jeff Bridges being amazing, we have Corey Stoll being awful. Stoll is actually a good actor—I had the privilege of seeing him play Iago in Othello in the Delacorte Theatre last summer—but you’d never know it from his un-nuanced Cross. The script does nothing to support his psychopathy, or the tragedy of his relationship with Pym. His isn’t the only wasted talent: I’m not even sure why they bothered to cast actors as great as Judy Greer and Wood Harris only to give them nowhere parts, as neither The Ex-Wife nor The Partner have any personality beyond that.

Ant-Man has tons of great set pieces, and some excellent acting. The actual heists are well done, the Ant-Man/Falcon fight is a delight (Anthony Mackie remains magnificent), Lang’s crew are all hilarious, and it’s wonderful to see John Slattery and Hayley Atwell (albeit frustrating for it to be for only a few minutes).

Paul Rudd makes an excellent Lang. He gives the character a lived-in feel that is very honest. You believe in his love for Cassie and his desire to do right by her above all else. Evangeline Lilly has come a long way from her days on Lost where she was regularly out-acted by everyone around her—maybe standing next to the likes of Jorge Garcia and Naveen Andrews and Daniel Dae Kim and Sunjin Kim had an impact, because she kills it as van Dyne. (She’ll be even better in the sequel when she finally gets the spotlight she should’ve had all along.) I also must give props to Bobby Cannavale, in part because it’s rare to see an Italian-American actor playing a character who isn’t a mobster or comic relief (or both), and also Cannavale is perfect as Paxton, a workaday cop trying to do his best, and dealing with all the curves thrown at him. (“And also a tank,” may be the funniest line in an already hilarious movie, mostly due to Cannavale’s delivery while looking up at the tank flying through the wall of Pym Tech.)

And Michael Douglas really does nail it as Pym. His scratchy sarcasm suits the character beautifully. What I actually like about this movie is that it gives us a sense of the history of the MCU, doing what Captain America: The First Avenger and Agent Carter laid the foundation for, showing that Nick Fury wasn’t kidding when he implied there was a bigger universe that Stark didn’t know about in the post-credits scene in Iron Man. And it ties nicely into the greater tapestry, from Carson turning out to be a Hydra mole, to Pym’s snotty comment about the Avengers being too busy dropping cities to help them.

But this movie feels like it’s trying too hard to not be a movie about the Marvel character it would’ve been better off being about.

 

Next week, we take a look at the second attempt at a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie series, with the 2014 movie starring the heroes on the half-shell.

Keith R.A. DeCandido will be at Farpoint 26 this weekend at the Hunt Valley Inn in Cockeysville, Maryland, just north of Baltimore. He’ll be doing panels, readings, autographings, and workshops, and also performing with the Boogie Knights. Other guests include actor/playwright Wallace Shawn, voiceover actors Maurice LaMarche and Rob Paulsen, and a whole mess of author, science, and artist guests. Keith’s full schedule can be found here.

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