1. If you’re going to make a movie about a superhero whose superpower is being able to shrink to the size of an ant and then command ants to do his bidding, it’s fair to say that having a good handle of the ridiculous will come in handy. This is an Ant-Man! That’s the dumbest superhero power ever! He’s a regular man, but ... smaller. Adding Ant-Man to the roster of Marvel superheroes almost has to be done tongue-in-cheek, a meta-commentary on what heroism is and just how far down the sliding scale of “superpowers” we’re willing to go. This is something I believe Marvel could pull off. Half the fun of Guardians of the Galaxy was that it wasn’t quite clear what powers these dopes actually had; putting those misfits together, in a context of saving the world, was charming and funny because it was so unlikely, and the tone of the film matched up. But that’s not what Ant-Man is. Ant-Man is, disappointingly, a fairly straightforward, conventional superhero story, where a mere mortal gathers the ability to be extraordinary and then becomes a hero. This is no way to sell me on a story about a guy who can make himself the size of an ant. At this risk of seeming like a jaded moviegoer in need of constant stimulation, as a numb consumer who can no longer feel, I’m not impressed by this man who is the size of an ant.
2. Ant-Man gives us the standard superhero origin story without remembering that we’re supposed to be awed by the superhero’s amazing powers. Here, we meet Scott Lang (a willing but still sort of underused Paul Rudd), a burgler mastermind who is recently out of jail and just trying to go straight to win the respect of his daughter. Instead, he’s recruited by benevolent retired scientist Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his estranged daughter (Evangeline Lilly) to help stop his former protege (Corey Stoll) who now is trying to sell his small-making technology to Evil Warmaking Conglomerates; they train Lang and teach him to harness his powers and become a better person. It is surprising how completely straight-faced this story is told, like we haven’t seen it a thousand times before, including in every other Marvel movie. This is another reason Lang’s power needs to be impressive, because the movie hasn’t given us much else to hang on to. We’ve seen it all before, which is why we expect the payoff to be worth it.
3. But the payoff is far from worth it. Lang’s power is mostly used to go through keyholes and sneak through grates. He rarely even uses his burglary skills —and his primary utility in that reality is basically being able to hide behind bookcases anyway— which makes you wonder why he was even chosen for this job in the first place. Lang learns how to control the different sorts of ants to do his bidding, which is an unusual skill to have, to say the least. (Why Dr. Pym would even come up with this idea in the first place is a question I want an answer to. Batman had bats under his house; Spider-Man was bit by a spider; Catwoman lived in a house full of cats. Ants are strangely specific. Was Pym an active picnicker?) This leads to more ridiculous, semi-serious scenes of Lang training the ants, giving them treats, treating them like little puppies, attempting to bond and understand them. Ants. The movie really needs to acknowledge how weird this is —that this is the first, and probably last, film to ever feature an Ant Training Montage— but it doesn’t. It acts like Ant-Man and his ants are just regular superheroes like The Hulk and Captain America (at one point, Ant-Man even fights a B-list Avenger), and, well, they’re not. They’re ridiculous! Stop pretending they’re not!
4. There’s one sequence at the end that points at the film this could have been, and maybe would have been had original director Edgar Wright had stayed on the project. (Replacement Peyton Reed is perfectly competent but not nearly as subversive as he needs to be with silliness likek this.) It’s a big battle sequence, the climactic one, but it takes place in a child’s bedroom, at miniature size, on a desktop train set. We get closeups of Ant-Man and his terrifying foe having a Marvel-scale knock-down-drag-out, and it feels like the fate of the world rides in the balance. Then the camera cuts back and we remember we’re watching a two-inch-long Thomas the Train ride around in a circle. That’s the sense of playfulness and sense of the absurd that Guardians of the Galaxy had and this movie needs a lot more of. There needs to be more camp here, more awareness of the ludicrousness of all this. The movie needs to steer into the skid. He’s an ant-man! That’s stupid! So go have fun with it. But the movie just can’t quite go all the way with it, or even much with it at all. I’ve generally enjoyed Marvel’s ability to pull all these movies together and build a whole universe out of it, but this obligation that everything must be An Event does Ant-Man no favors. This should be a goofy little movie that everybody just plays around with, but no, it has to tie into the next Avengers sequel, and give Ant-Man enough credibility so he can later join the Avengers, and oh yeah we have to set up the Wasp character and next thing you know, everyone is taking all of this way too seriously.
5. This is going to be a problem in subsequent Marvel movies, I suspect. Once you’ve gone as massive scale as the Avengers movies, you kind of can’t go back. Theoretically, you could do smaller movies like this, movies just about one quirky character in the periphery of the Marvel universe, while letting the Brand Name Avengers characters have their space adventures for the tentpole pictures. (The television shows Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter and Daredevil already do this, to varying degrees of success.) But you have to let them be small. Ant-Man wants to be small. It wants to be a silly, fun, poppy little story where Paul Rudd, an extremely funny actor, gets a superpower ...but all it does is make him the size of insect. There’s a lot of comedy in that, but Ant-Man rarely takes advantage of it. It’s more interested —more obligated, really— in pumping up the action, supporting the Marvel mythology and making sure we know Paul Rudd has abs now than telling this story at the scale it should probably be told. This is surely what Wright wanted to do, and what Marvel ultimately realized they could not abide. There is too much at stake now. They’re not all Iron Man, but now, Marvel wants them all to be. The most dramatic moment in Ant-Man is when our Ant-Man tries not to get stepped on. That’s funny! I wish Ant-Man realized it.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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