Ant-Man is the worst Marvel movie yet. Okay, that may be hard to believe in a world where this movie exists. And this movie. Oh, and this one too. Alright, maybe Ant-Man‘s not the worst ever. But it’s for sure the worst of what’s been dubbed the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or the MCU if you want to sound cool), which includes all the movies since 2008’s Iron Man distributed by Marvel Studios. But that’s kind of like saying Brave or Cars were the worst Pixar movies. Ant-Man, for all its flaws, is still really enjoyable.
National treasure Paul Rudd has a lot to do with that. He plays Scott Lang, an experienced thief who is being released from prison as the movie begins. His friend, Luis, let’s Scott stay at his place after he gets out, but then tips him off to a job breaking into a rich old man’s safe. The old man is (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER) Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a scientific genius who, during the Cold War, discovered a particle that allowed him to shrink down to the size of an ant. Pym has a job for Lang, involving keeping the Pym Particle out of the hands of Pym’s former partner, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who has gone insane with jealousy of Pym and will use the power for his own gain if he gains control of it. This is a nice chance for redemption for Scott, who wants to prove his worth to his young daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson) and her mother (Judy Greer), and for Pym, who wants to reconcile with his own, grown daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly).
The prevailing story around Ant-Man‘s production was original director Edgar Wright departing pre-production due to creative differences over the script he had written. Marvel turned the reins over to Peyton Reed, whose biggest claim to fame as a director was Bring It On back in 2000. This isn’t the first time Marvel has let a talented director walk away- Patty Jenkins (best known for directing Monster, the movie that won Charlize Theron her Oscar at the 2004 Academy Awards) was fired from Thor 2: The Dark World because she wasn’t “decisive” enough, which might not be sexist, but certainly sounds sexist, and which infuriated star Natalie Portman.
Marvel has the right to do this; they own these properties, and they have a specific style they want to maintain through ever movie, not to mention the whole “bottom line” thing that all studios care about more than anything else. The danger in Marvel’s disregard for directorial input is that the audience might at some point see the seams. So far, their movies have stayed pretty clean, with a few exceptions- namely, Ant-Man.
Ant-Man has some fantastic sequences that belong among Marvel’s best so far. The final fight sequence between the titular hero and his diminutive nemesis (Cross as the villain Yellowjacket), taking place on a toy train set in Lang’s daughter’s room, is pure comedy genius. And the dramatizations of Luis’s stories of how he got tips on heist jobs for Scott are hilarious at a level we haven’t seen yet from the MCU except in Guardians of the Galaxy, which is coincidentally the one movie with a director given almost free reign. You get the sense that these were the Ant-Man scenes over which Reed was given leeway to take Edgar Wright’s script and run unfettered with it. These scenes hint at a great, unfilmed heist comedy.
But even with those inspired segments and a great cast, you feel Marvel’s meddling in all the backstory they felt was absolutely necessary for Pym and van Dyne that was absolutely unnecessary to Scott’s journey. You feel the meddling in the exposition laying groundwork for future Marvel installments, something the studio does in all their movies, though they’re usually able to maintain a consistent tone- not so in Ant-Man.
The seams are starting to show. It’s not the first time. The Thor movies both sacrificed the Shakespearean scope of Asgard by shoehorning in underwritten characters like Portman’s Jane Foster and her earthbound friends, and the first Captain America tacked on a modern-day scene at the end and some half-hearted HYDRA exposition in the middle, both of which spoil the movie’s otherwise fun Indiana Jones adventure vibe. But the break in the seams is bigger in Ant-Man, which was a long shot to succeed anyway, since it’s about a hero called Ant-Man. The movie’s fun, but it doesn’t really work and is ultimately disappointing. When Marvel’s released a less-than-great movie in the past, we’ve barely noticed because they’ve wowed us with a great movie less than a year later. Let’s hope Captain America: Civil War can patch it all up.