You’ve got to hand it to Marvel for playing the long game. Nobody’s ever tried what they’re doing with their Cinematic Universe. DC had their Animated Universe in the 90s, but those were half-hour cartoons, not massive blockbuster movies running parallel but interconnected narratives.
Thor, Iron Man and Captain America, plus the rest of the Avengers pile up to a significant confluence of awesome, especially with Joss Whedon somewhere in the equation.
But as I said when Guardians of the Galaxy came out, I’m beginning to think they were a little too ambitious; now with even more ensembles joining the franchise, it’s hard to believe that they can evenly distribute funding and talent in effects, acting and particularly writing across the whole franchise.
Guardians of the Galaxy was a first warning sign. It’s fun enough but undeniably a B-Movie against the Avengers.
And when I looked and saw that the next movie in the offing for the MCU was called ‘Ant-Man’ I half-expected somebody to shout “April Fools” because that’s the dorkiest name for a superhero I think I’ve ever heard. And, as it turns out, the movie lives up to its title. Or maybe, down to it.
Our hero is Scott Something-Something, a professional burglar who has just been released from prison. He can’t hold even a nothing job, and is stuck in a crappy apartment with his three gangster bros. His ex-wife, now married to a Javert-esque cop won’t let him see his daughter until he gets back on the straight and narrow and pays child support. Driven to desperation, he is recruited by supergenius Hank Pym and his Ice Queen daughter Hope to operate an incredible shrinking suit to break into Pym’s old company and steal the prototype for a weaponized shrinking suit before it can be put on the market to the highest bidder and oh, ye gods and little demons, does this movie have a single original thought in its head?
Well, no. No it does not.
When the dorky guy who can’t hold a job and longs to be reunited with his daughter thing came up, plus the ex now married to a big manly-man jerk for good measure, I thought, “Has anyone at Marvel seen a movie since 1997?” Because this is essentially Marvel doing the plot of Liar, Liar or Mrs. Doubtfire. They only barely managed to restrain themselves from having the ex dump the big manly jerk and go back to our dorky protagonist.
Speaking of whom, if Chris Pratt in Jurassic World was generic white Anglo-Saxon protagonist #18445, then the most you can say of Paul Rudd as Ant-Man is that he’s…generic white Anglo-Saxon protagonist #18446. He has a few clever lines and is generally pretty intelligent, but at the end of the day there’s nothing distinguished about him. He’s the standard redemption-arc action guy with a dry wit, designer stubble and who always gets the girl.
His bland white-guyness would not be so glaring were it not for the three racist stereotypes he trails around with him. His roommates – I persist in thinking of them of them as his ‘bros’ because of the way they are always hanging out in their apartment playing videogames, making waffles and giving each other braindead platitudes – are a Hispanic guy with lots of cousins who give him tips in gangster-speak about crimes to commit, an Eastern European with broken English and a dread of gypsy curses suffered by nobody since the fall of the House of Romanov, and a black guy who…is a black guy. That’s about the most you can say about him. And they drive around in a van that plays ‘La Cucaracha’ when you hit the horn.
I won’t say too much about this because I’m not learned enough in racial stereotyping to know whether, when I ask for characters to act less stereotypical, what I’m actually doing is not asking them to act more like middle-class Anglo-Saxons. Nevertheless, every minute these guys were on screen made you feel like you were about to weep blood. Their function as comic relief not only isn’t funny, but it clashes completely with the dramatic, principled side of the story. You can either have an uplifiting story about redemption and taking a stand or a madcap buddy comedy. Not both. Not this way, anyway.
Michael Douglas as Hank Pym is the only performance that doesn’t feel like a performance. He’s actually acting and is quite an interesting character – the anti-Tony Stark in many ways. But at the same time he’s a vehicle for more stupidity. His relationship with his daughter is so tiresome it feels like it came out of 19th Century literature. Despite her obvious skill and courage, he insists she not take up the suit, and has never opened up about the risks of the suit and the death of her mother because, in his exact words, “I was trying to protect you.” They have a tearful reconciliation moment which is then broken comically by Scott in a very Whedonesque way. Or it would have been if it weren’t for the fact that up until then the writers appeared to mean it and then their alternate personalities took over and switched back to the buddy comedy thing.
Hope demonstrates repeatedly that she doesn’t need protecting, but she still steps quiescently aside at last to let the men take charge. And then she and Scott get together, despite never having had a conversation that wasn’t a tactical briefing. She’s the girl, he’s the hero, she’s his prize. Murders have been committed by guys who’ve internalized this idiotic trope, and here it is yet again, without a trace of irony or subversion. Honestly…
After the reconciliation of father and daughter, the movie ends with Pym and Hope going to work on a prototype suit Pym and Hope’s mother hadn’t finished, clearing the path for Hope to become Wasp, her mother’s old mantle, to which she responds, “about damn time.” No, writers, ‘about damn time’ would have been at the other end of this movie, before you steamrollered it into a committee-designed dramatic plateau!
When DC started getting pigheaded about a Wonder Woman movie and let fly their sexist cover art, I thought that Marvel, replete with superheroines as it is, would show us the way. Black Widow in Avengers looked like a promising start, to say nothing of Joss Whedon being in charge. However, my faith in that has deteriorated badly. I suspect that the execs aren’t letting Whedon get away with doing what he’s best at, and that the MCU at large is now so big an investment that they don’t want to risk doing anything daring, going back to ticking the same old boxes. Black Panther and Captain Marvel, two more unconventional additions to the franchise, are still a long way off and if Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy are any indication, then they will have to be pretty amazing to have been worth the wait.
Despite my skepticism, I wanted to give Ant-Man a fair go, but there is nothing in it. I have seldom seen a movie so undistinguished in its every slightest aspect. You could have made it twenty years ago and the only thing that would stand out would be the visual effects. The onus is on Marvel to make me want to stick with this, but if this is where they decide the gripping new direction lies, then I’m out.