All movie studios are product factories, to some extent, but perhaps never before has a superhero movie felt so much like it came from an assembly line. Not that good, not that bad, just the result of a highly efficient, highly mechanized process. Which makes it that much stranger that it keeps trying to do comedy. Aw, look, the widget has jokes!
I like to imagine estranged Ant-Man director Edgar Wright as Lucy in that episode of I Love Lucy where she and Ethel work at the chocolate factory, trying to stuff larger universe tie-ins and pointless cameos into his shirt when he couldn’t keep up with Marvel’s conveyor belt, until he eventually got fired and replaced with Yes Man director Peyton Reed, who I have to imagine could package product faster and didn’t try to eat the chocolates.
Ant-Man is much better than Iron Man 2, and that’s what’s so scary about it. That Disney has figured out how to make the same teaser-disguised-as-movie in a much less overt, more inoffensive way. To have Paul Rudd wink at the camera to distract you between SHIELD name drops, a cute puppy to pet while they ready the drill. You imagine Disney’s ultimate goal is a theater full of orderly, ticket-buying youths and families, who come for the brand above all, then leave the theater thinking they’re happy, but with a lobotomized stare and a vague sense of disquiet. DID YOU CLAP AT THE STAN LEE CAMEO? WE CAN’T LEAVE UNLESS YOU CLAP AT THE STAN LEE CAMEO. Serializeit Macht Frei.
Ant-Man manages to feel joyless and rote, despite theoretically having lots of jokes. The lighthearted moments are so inorganic that they all but start with a character saying, “Shall we have a lighthearted comedic moment now?” And I believe Michael Peña’s character is actually named “Comic Relief.” There’s a quiet desperation in its laughs, as Tyler Durden might say.
Ant-Man feels like something Marvel has to get through rather than something they’re having fun with. There’s no interesting villain. No one approaching Dr. Octopus in Spider-Man 2, Ultron, or even Loki (“mewling quims” saved that characer). Instead, Ant-Man has Marvel’s now standard Interchangeable Evil White Dudes In Suits, plus Michael Douglas’s bald ex-protege with vague daddy issues (who is also an evil white dude in a suit, incidentally). Corey Stoll is wasted playing a character who’s evil, sort of, but never interesting, whose heel turn is so abrupt Freckles from Lost has to talk us through it. “This isn’t you, Darren! These particles are altering your brain chemistry!”
Yeah, that happened.
Our sympathy for Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang isn’t quite as poorly manufactured, but it’s close. Ant-Man opens in the prison yard, just before Paul Rudd’s release. He wants to go straight, but as his pal Michael Peña tells him as they drive away from the prison, “it’s hard to get hired as an ex-con.”
Cut to Rudd at Baskin-Robbins, where he eventually gets fired when his boss finds out who he is, a scene that gives the boss a good excuse to read out Scott Lang’s backstory for us. Turns out, Scott Lang is some kind of consumer-protection Robin Hood, stealing from corporations that screw over their customers, and giving the money back to the wronged. “You’re like my hero,” Lang’s boss says. Adding, “I mean, I still have to fire you,” in a scene that’s funny-ish. Or at least has the basic structure of something comedic.