Thoughts on ‘Ant-Man’

Past entries:
Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2
Captain America: The First Avenger

The Avengers
Iron Man 3
Thor: The Dark World
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy
Avengers: Age of Ultron

Ever since before the start of the MCU, there was talk of a possible Ant-Man film. The character is actually a major figure in the comics, but between the name and the shrinking-powers, the idea seemed to ridiculous to be accepted in a live-action film. Nevertheless, the idea bandied about for years and years until finally, amid the success of the MCU, it became a reality.

We open in 1989, with the Triskelion building (SHIELD headquarters from The Winter Soldier) still under construction. The brilliant, but prickly Dr. Hank Pym storms into a meeting room with Peggy Carter, Howard Stark, and new character named Mitchell Carson to express his unmitigated fury that Stark dared try to copy his work; the mysterious ‘Pym Particle.’ Disgusted, he declares that he is done with SHIELD, and though Carson (smarting from a broken nose received for making a crack about Pym’s late wife) wants to stop him, Stark and Peggy wisely suggest that Pym is both trustworthy and far too dangerous an adversary to tackle unless they have to.

In present day San Francisco, a high-tech burglar named Scott Lang finishes his term in jail and sets out trying to rebuild his life and particularly to do right by his adoring five-year-old daughter, Cassie. However, with his criminal record he finds jobs hard to come by, so in desperation he decides to take one more burglary job with his former cellmate Luis. Meanwhile, Dr. Pym has discovered that his former protégé, Darren Cross (who now runs Pym’s company) is close to replicating his shrinking technology and means to sell it as a weapon. As it turns out, the heist was secretly set up by Pym to recruit Scott into helping Pym and his estranged daughter Hope into taking Cross down…assuming Scott can become the new Ant-Man in time.

Let’s get this out of the way right from the start: I love Ant-Man. It’s a much smaller, more contained story than most of its predecessors, and if the world is at stake, it’s only because of the particular choices being made by these particular people, not because of cataclysmic events or world-shaking conspiracies.

A major part of why it works is that the hero, Scott Lang, is just so darn likable. He’s neither a reformed bad-boy (despite being an ex-con) like Tony Stark, Thor, or Peter Quill, nor an iconic hero like Cap, but just an ordinary man trying to be a good father. Having lost five years in prison, he wants to turn his life around and be there for his daughter (“Be the person she already thinks [he is],” as his ex-wife says). Throughout the film, she’s his top priority, and even when he’s making mistakes, such as turning back to crime, it’s in the hopes of being able to be with her, or at the very least leaving something behind for her. As Hank tells him, one father to another, “It’s not about saving our world. It’s about saving theirs.”

Meanwhile, he’s just an all-around nice guy: friendly, humble, and trying to be responsible. For instance, there’s a good scene where Hope has just had a blow-up at her father (subconsciously expressing her frustrations by swarming the room with ants), and, though she’s been nothing but antagonistic and dismissive of him, Scott goes out to the car to talk to her, drawing on his own knowledge as a father to assure her that his presence proves how much Hank cares about her. His good-nature, and that of his fellow crooks, is established right away when what seems to be a prison beat-down turns out to be a good-bye ritual, whereupon he’s met by his hilariously loquacious ex-cellmate Luis, whom he assures that he intends to go straight. Later, when he first starts using the Ant-Man suit, his compassion relative to Hank is established when he asks why the flying ant he’s riding on doesn’t have a name (he later christens it ‘Ant-ony’).

The film does establish, however, that he is a very competent and clever man as well. We’re told from the start he has a maters in electrical engineering, and when he burgles the Pym house he quickly improvises several very clever solutions to unexpected obstacles on the fly. In fact, right when we first meet him in the prison ‘brawl’ we see him using his cunning to get a blow in on a larger opponent. This improvisational quality fits perfectly with the Ant-Man powers and is continually giving him the edge over the course of the film.

Scott makes for a good contrast with the villain, Darren Cross AKA Yellowjacket. Cross is a former protégé of Hank’s, except that he resented Hank for not sharing the secret of the Pym Particle with him, and is shown to be bursting with a sense of inferiority and frustrated ego, to the point where it seems his desire to sell his work to Hydra is less a matter of getting rich and powerful than it is a chance to rub Hank’s face in it. I’m actually quite impressed with the writing and acting on Cross: he’s a consistent and quite frightening character, in that he’s the kind of guy who takes even the slightest insult or check to his ego as a declaration of war, but who can maintain a calm and friendly façade up until the moment he horribly murders someone, so that once you cross him in any way, you’re basically marked…rather like a hornet, come to think of it (which makes his climactic attack on Cassie, when he could easily have made a break for it, entirely in character: he needs to punish Scott for the ‘insult’ done to him). Yet he’s not completely inhuman either, as he seems to have some genuine feelings for Hope, at least to a degree, as he admits at one point that he held off killing Hank while she was in the house because, “I wasn’t ready to kill you yet.” It’s a warped connection, but a connection nonetheless. I also like his contained emotion when he asks Hank why he shut him out, followed by him calling Hope to vent about it like a frustrated teenager (which also serves to alert her and us that he’s beefing up security: character development and moves the plot along).

Of course, the parallels and contrast between him and Scott are great; both protégés of Hank’s, only one is proud, the other humble. And, naturally, the humility of the one enrages the pride of the other. “Your very existence insults me!” Cross rants at Scott during their final battle. Earlier he brought up Scott’s file commenting “and who did Hank Pym trust more than me?” He’s infuriated at the idea that this miserable little nobody ex-con rates higher in his mentor’s esteem than he does. This also, by the way, fits their respective animal motifs: Cross the proud, easily enraged hornet, Scott the humble, hard-working ant.

This also, by the way, means that Cross actually figured out (almost) Pym’s whole plan, including the identity of the new Ant-Man, purely from clues and intelligent suppositions. The parts that ultimately undermine his trap are things that he naturally wouldn’t have anticipated, such as Scott’s new shrinking-growing discs.

Upon reflection, I think I would rate Yellowjacket as one of the better MCU villains thus far. He’s a common type – the evil businessman and resentful protégé – but they invest him with enough nuance and attention to make him surprisingly interesting.

Hank himself is a cool character as well, in that he’s quite frankly a bit of a jerk. He has no trouble belittling Scott, or laying down the law, he’s controlling, stern, and arrogant. Rather like a more mature and emotionally stable Tony Stark (whom we learn he thoroughly dislikes). But underneath he is a genuinely good man, and his prickliness is largely in defense of the things he cares about – his work and his family. There’s a smooth introduction to how respected he is when he shows up at his own company HQ after a long absence, is asked for his ID, and points to his portrait on the wall.

As for the love-interest, Hope gets a fine story arc of her own in reconnecting with her father, whom she resents for seemingly shutting her out after her mother died, when she needed him the most (it should be said this is a much better reason for estrangement than we usually get in these kinds of stories, and I like the touch that Hope comments at one point that she was sincerely hoping the crisis would bring them back together). This parallels her relationship with Scott, whom she barely tolerates at first until he wins her over with his kindness and simple courage. Their relationship is understated (it might have benefited from one or two more scenes), but it works. They each bring something the other needs: he shows her sympathy and levity, while she teaches him focus and drive. It’s a good balance and the two of them work well together.

I started off talking about the characters, because that’s something this film does so well; it’s basically just a nice, human story of two fathers who want to do right by their daughters and an aged genius with two possible heirs, only leavened by two basic, but very cool sci-fi conceits: changing size and controlling ants.

On that subject, the film goes whole-hog on these two main ideas. There is so much creativity at work here, from the simple idea of riding around on a record player to jumping through keyholes to infiltrating a building through the water main. Ant-Man shrinks and grows and shrinks again in rapid succession to dodge bullets and fists, gain extra momentum for flips, and disappear from view to strike from an unexpected direction. During the climax, we have a zero-G fight inside a falling briefcase, then a train-top battle…on a ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ set (culminating in a hilarious anti-climax where Thomas tries to run over Yellowjacket).

The film amply demonstrates that, though the shrinking idea may sound ridiculous, it makes the user incredibly dangerous. Who could shoot an insect out of the air, or stand up to a punch with the entire weight of a full-grown man packed into a half-inch space? How could you stop someone like that going wherever he wanted, or, since he can also shrink other objects, taking whatever he likes wherever he likes (e.g. a set of plastic explosives into a computer server)? As noted, the prologue establishes that even SHIELD was leery of tackling Ant-Man, while in a hilarious and very cool scene the film pits Scott in battle against Falcon to show that, even in the hands of a rookie, Ant-Man is an Avenger-level combatant (not only that, but the film then establishes that Cross was able to double his price after Hydra learned of the incident, thereby both tying the different threads together and letting us know that the Avengers themselves are on the line here).

It does something similar with the ants. Controlling ants might not sound like much, but again they can go anywhere, hide anywhere, and are incredibly versatile. At one point Scott rides a raft of fire ants down a storm drain. When Pym needs to disable a security camera, he simply has a bunch of ants swarm over it. The two abilities combined mean that the heroes can basically go anywhere with their own personal miniature army.

(On the subject of ants, one minor bit where the film falls short is in the ridiculously under-blown reactions some of the characters have to being stung by bullet ants. They let us know that they have one of the most painful stings in the world, but the people being stung react as though they were little more than wasp stings. If you want to know what it really looks like, here’s a video showing it (warning: very intense!). For those who don’t want to watch it, let’s just say that if Cross were actually stung by one of these things, there wouldn’t be a climactic battle because he’d be paralyzed with pain and nerve spasms for the next hour or so).

Basically, it feels like the writers really loved their own premise and were legitimately excited to come up with all kinds of crazy and creative things to do with the idea of shrinking and growing things and controlling ants.

Besides all that, it’s just a really, really funny film; up there with Guardians of the Galaxy, but in a gentler, more family-friendly style. We have Scott’s awkwardly endearing charm contrasted with Hank and Hope’s more serious manner, his three quirky thieving buddies (including Luis, who is hands-down one of the best narrators in film history), the many, many mishaps and absurdities inherent in being tiny (e.g. at one point Scott hits Yellowjacket with a ping pong paddle, or Scott running across a scale model as its torn apart by bullets in a parody of the standard bombastic scenes of super-powered destruction), Scott greeting Falcon with a cheerful, “Hi, I’m Scott!” (“Did he just say ‘hi, I’m Scott’?”), and so on. There are a lot of very simple, not even jokes, just funny moments, like when five-year-old Cassie asks her detective step-father if he’s trying to find her daddy, then says, “I hope you don’t catch him,” with the sternest look she can manage. Or moments funny for their sheer logic, as when Scott, upon learning of the situation with Cross, suggests, “I think our first move should be calling the Avengers” (thus the film astutely avoids the problem that plagued Iron Man 3 by tackling the issue head-on: Hank won’t call the Avengers because he doesn’t trust Stark and means to keep his tech out of his hand: something entirely logical and in-character).

As indicated, also like Guardians, everyone here has a lot of personality; Luis is a small-time crook, but he apparently also frequents wine-tastings and art galleries (“you know me, I’m more a neo-cubist kinda guy…”). Cross casually mentions “my morning meditation” at one point, while Hank periodically adopts a hilariously long-suffering expression when he has to deal with the antics of Scott and his compatriots. Even minor characters like Scott’s ex-wife’s boyfriend, or his manager during his brief stint at Baskin-Robbins feel like real people with their own distinct personalities.

Yet again like Guardians, there are real heroics and genuine human decency on display, even from the criminals. Near the end, while racing to escape a building set to blow, Luis suddenly remembers a security guard he’d punched out and hurries to get him out. Earlier, when it looks like their heist has been a bust, Luis’s first comment is condole with Scott, since he really needed the score. We see flashbacks to Hope’s mother sacrificing herself to save the innocent, which she only had to do because Hank wasn’t able to do it himself. Even Paxton tries to stand up to Yellowjacket to protect Cassie during the climax. And during the climactic heist, just about everyone goes to bat and risks everything for everyone else at some point.

And in the midst of all this craziness and humor, there are some lovely, emotional little scenes, like how, the night before the big heist, Scott takes the suit so he can go see his daughter for possibly the last time: just to see her. Or we have Hank and Hope finally reconciling, and the aforementioned scene where Hope and Scott begin to connect.

The visuals likewise are fantastic. We have, of course, the perspective of being tiny in the midst of ordinary things like keys, bathtubs, grass, and so on, which are all very interesting to look at, but we also get things like the hive-like dome where the Yellowjacket suit is stored, and, most excitingly, a journey into the realm of the subatomic, getting smaller and smaller, passing beyond anything even remotely recognizable into a surreal void. Again, there is so much creativity and enthusiasm evident in this film.

In a word, Ant-Man is really, really good. It’s easily one of my favorites of the series. There are obviously some flaws; the way the suit is said to work doesn’t fit with the idea that they can potentially go sub-atomic and shrink forever into nothing (since, if they reduce the space between molecules, you obviously can’t go smaller than those molecules). If I’m not mistaken, the character of Carson doesn’t get any kind of pay-off; he just kind of disappears in the middle of the climax (I suspect a deleted scene is involved). And, as noted, the relationship between Scott and Hope could have stood one or two more scenes to more fully develop it.

There are objectively better films in the MCU than Ant-Man, but for simple, largely-self contained entertainment, featuring a good story, great characters, hilarious comedy, and a lot of crazy creative action, you really can’t do much better.

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