January sees the celebration of two notable dates in science-fiction history, with January 2 christened “National Science Fiction Day” to coincide with the birth date of the world renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, and HAL 9000, the sophisticated artificial intelligence of Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), being created on 12 January. Accordingly, I’m spending every Sunday of January celebrating sci-fi in all its forms.
Released: 17 July 2015
Director: Peyton Reed
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Budget: $130 to 169.3 million
Stars: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Abby Ryder Fortson, and Michael Douglas
Petty thief Scott Lang (Rudd) struggles to adapt to the straight and narrow after being released from prison. Determined to prove himself to his young daughter, Cassie (Fortson), he turns to stealing once more and unwittingly finds himself in possession of Doctor Hank Pym’s (Douglas) incredible Ant-Man suit. Gifted with a real opportunity to turn his life around, Scott trains with Pym and his stern daughter, Hope van Dyne (Lilly), to master the suit’s ability to shrink and control ants in order to keep the conniving Doctor Darren Cross (Stoll) from perverting Pym’s life’s work into a weapon.
When comic book readers were first introduction to Hank Pym/Ant-Man, he wasn’t quite the garishly-costumed Avenger would later help form the Avengers; instead, he was merely a scientist featured in the pages of Tales to Astonish #27. The creation of the legendary duo Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the character was re-envisioned as a superhero eight issues later and would go on to be a consistent, if unstable, character in the pages of Marvel Comics. Crucially, however, Pym wasn’t the only character to take up the mantle of Ant-Man; one of Pym’s most notable successors was Scott Lang, a reformed criminal created by David Michelinie, Bob Layton, and John Byrne, who took over the role in 1979. Both Hank Pym and Scott Lang had featured in Marvel cartoons and videogames since their debut, but development of a live-action film can be traced back to the 1980s, when development was scuppered by a similar concept, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (Johnston, 1989). The project finally started gaining traction in the early-2000s when Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish wrote a film treatment focusing on the Scott Lang version of the character for Artisan Entertainment, who held the film rights at the time.
Over the next ten years, the film was continually showcased and teased; the character was bumped from the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and eventually slotted in to debut in Phase Three. Sadly, Wright eventually left the project in 2014, right after both casting and the script had been finalised, due to “creative differences” between himself and Marvel Studios. Peyton Reed soon succeeded Wright as the director and worked closely with star Paul Rudd (who underwent a physical transformation for the role) and writer Adam McKay to rework and expand upon Wright’s script. Double Negative and Industrial Light & Magic handled the film’s shrinking effects, with star Corey Stoll sporting a motion capture suit to bring the villainous Yellowjacket to life. Finally, after being in development for over ten years, Ant-Man released to a massive $519.3 million worldwide gross; the reviews were equally impressive, with critics praising the film’s family dynamic, performances, and the unique blend of humour and action that set it apart from other MCU films. The film performed so well that a sequel was produced in 2018, and a third instalment is due for release later this year, and only served to further bolster Rudd’s undeniable charm and charisma.
Ant-Man is one of those Marvel superheroes that I’ve never really had strong feelings about one way or another. Like many, I mostly know the character as being an emotionally and psychologically unstable individual who occasionally abuses his wife and has inferiority complexes, though I primarily associate the character with one of the Avengers’ greatest villains, Ultron. Consequently, while Ant-Man and the Wasp were instrumental in the formation of the Avengers in the comics, I can’t say that I was too disappointed to see the character miss out on the big screen debut of Marvel’s premier superhero team. However, by the time Ant-Man was produced, the MCU was really ramping up its scope; the Avengers had formed, we’d seen Gods and bleeding-edge technology and even space adventures and, while Ant-Man probably would have fit in nicely during the MCU’s first phase (although it probably would have been deemed too derivative), it was actually a surprising breath of fresh air to come back down to “ground level”, so to speak, before really getting balls deep into the Infinity Saga.
Ant-Man opens up in 1989 and by showcasing just how far de-aging technology has come as Hank Pym (digitally restored to match the time period) angrily confronts Howard Stark (John Slattery), Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell made up to look noticeably older), and Mitchell Carson (Martin Donovan) after discovering the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division’s (S.H.I.E.L.D.) attempts to replicate his Hank Particle technology. While Peggy is shocked at the revelation, Howard tries to impress upon Hank that his research could be put to far better, greater use than simply fuelling his efforts as Ant-Man. Already annoyed at being reduced to a glorified errand boy, Hank is pushed to the edge when Carson mocks his anger and brings up his late-wife, Janet, leading to Hank lashing out, breaking Carson’s nose, and quitting S.H.I.E.L.D. Although Howard pleads with Hank to reconsider, Hank storms out, making an enemy of Carson in the process and establishing a few key plot points for the movie: Hank doesn’t trust S.H.I.E.L.D., seems a little unstable, and is highly protective of his research. The film then jumps ahead to then-present day to introduce us to Scott Lang right as he’s being released from prison; a former VistaCorp systems engineer, Scott is a veritable genius, holding a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering but is reduced to working a menial job at Baskins-Robbins in his desperate attempt to stay on the straight and narrow and set a good example for his young daughter, Cassie (Fortson). It’s crucial to note that that Scott wasn’t arrested for anything violent or threatening (indeed, he states that he hates violence); instead, he hacked into VistaCorp’s security system and redistributed misbegotten funds to their victims before exposing their misdeeds online, painting him as a sympathetic, almost Robin Hood-like figure right from the outset as he strives to do good deeds and has a clear moral compass but isn’t exactly the best at making responsible decisions. Although Scott has a strained relationship with his ex-wife, Maggie (Judy Greer), and her new fiancé, cop Jim Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), he is extremely close to Hope, who is always excited to see him. He’s desperate to make up for lost time but faces nothing but an uphill battle to show that he’s changed and can be a responsible adult.
After his release, Scott is taken in by his former cellmate and best friend, Luis (Michael Peña), an enthusiastic, supportive, and incredibly friendly and optimistic former con who initially tries to coax Scott back into his former life. Luis is one of many highlights in Ant-Man; in many ways a predecessor to the colourful characters and banter we’d see in Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi, 2017), Luis just exudes likeability and friendliness. Peña’s delivery and fast-talking cadence also provide one of the film’s most hilarious moments where Luis rapidly breaks down the particulars of a big-time score, which is fantastically realised with Peña’s voice playing over a number of other ancillary characters as he enthusiastically tells Scott how he came by this information. Luis sets Scott up at an apartment and introduces him to Dave (Tip “T.I.” Harris) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian), both of whom are only too eager to assist with Scott’s heist into a rich old man’s house and make that big score. Scott doesn’t return to his cat burglar ways lightly, but believes he has no choice if he ever hopes to set himself up with an apartment, pay his child maintenance fees, and see his daughter again. In the interim years after the opening, Hank Pym has done pretty well for himself; he set up his own company, Hank Technologies, and is clearly quite wealthy from the research and technology developed there. However, he has slowly become more and more of a recluse and been pushed further away from his company; his protégé, Darren Cross, is in the final stages of assuming full control of Hank Technologies, renaming it Cross Technologies, and fully replicating the Hank Particle technology. Fascinated by Hank’s past as the shrunken secret agent superhero Ant-Man, Darren has developed a suit, the “Yellowjacket”, to reproduce the technology and sell it as a peacekeeping weapon for geo-political and military applications. Hank is frustrated by all of this, especially Darren’s insistence on reproducing the Ant-Man technology, but handicapped by his ability to do anything about it; prolonged exposure to the Hank Particles has left Hank physically unable to suit up again because of the risk of further (and permanent) damage to his mind and body but he is equally adamant that his estranged daughter, Hope, not take up the mantle because of the risk not only to her but also his lingering guilt and fear after losing his wife to that same technology.
Although Darren is frustrated at his inability to shrink organic material, both Hank and Hope know that it’s only a matter of time before he cracks the secret and begins manufacturing weaponised Ant-Man technology. Although Hank is reluctant to risk losing Hope, he’s more than happy to recruit Scott to his cause, having identified him as the perfect expendable candidate for their operation thanks to his intellect and skills as a cat burglar. I always found Hank’s reasoning here very interesting, and somewhat hypocritical; he won’t risk losing Hope so he brings in Scott, positioning him to a point where the former thief has little choice but to agree to become Ant-Man, but Scott has quite a lot to lose as well so it just goes to show that Hank, for all his morals and ethics, doesn’t necessarily have the most clean-cut of motivations. Anyway, Scott is initially disheartened to learn that all his efforts have resulted in only an old motorcycle suit and a funky helmet but, upon slipping into the outfit out of sheer curiosity, he is both excited and horrified to discover that it enables him to shrink down to near-microscopic proportions at the push of a button! Scott is naturally freaked out and attempts to return the suit, only to be arrested in the process and perfectly placed for Hank to exposit a truncated version of his life story and his troubles with Darren Cross. For a stereotypical, suit-wearing antagonist, Darren actually has a few things going for him that help him to break free of the corporate bad-guy trope I loathe so much. Of course he’s a smooth-talking, slick weasel and a sharp businessman, but he’s also a manipulative and sadistic asshole; he took full advantage of Hank’s trust and faith to gain a majority interest in Hank Technologies, leeched every bit of information and brilliance from his mentor he possibly could to advance his own career and self-interests, and has no qualms about killing those who get in his way using perverted Hank Particles to reduce them to a gooey residue. He’s a highly intelligent, and highly unstable, antagonist who oozes charm but also menace; you’re never really sure what he’s thinking and you can almost see the urge to lash out and go full crazy bubbling beneath the surface. In many ways, he’s a dark opposite for both Scott and Hank since he’s kind of like what Scott could have become if he’d gone down that path while also being on the verge of a full-on meltdown like Hank seems to be half the time. Both Darren and Scott also have eyes on Hope, but Darren’s lack of mortality and lust for power are what separate him from his rival.
Hope and Hank have a strained relationship, to say the least; she resents her father for keeping the truth about what happened to her mother from her, and for picking Scott over her, however they come together when they realise how dangerously close Darren is to perfecting and weaponising the Ant-Man technology. Still, Hope is very abrasive to both Scott and her father, referring to him as “Hank” or “Dr. Pym” for much of the film and constantly annoyed at Scott’s ignorance. Familiar with both Darren’s research and personality, as well as the particulars of Hank’s technology, to say nothing of the company’s security measures and systems, Hope is also Scott’s physical superior in every way; she sees Scott as a bungling, naïve fool who’s in over his head and is greatly frustrated at her father’s apparent lack of trust in her. To be fair, Hank distrusts almost everyone; he resents both S.H.I.E.L.D. and the flamboyant nature of the Avengers, and sees this job as being more about subterfuge then barging in all guns blazing. Hank is also tortured at the loss of his wife, who joined him for his pint-sized adventures as the Wasp and was lost to him after she was forced to reduce herself down beyond the limits of the suit and got lost in the “Quantum Realm” as a result. Scott’s influence on the two is palpable; by sharing with Hope that Hank clearly loves her and doesn’t want to risk losing her, he not only learns the trick to communicating with Hank’s ants but also helps mend the rift between father and daughter, finally revealing the truth about her mother’s death and her father’s inability to cope with the grief of his greatest failure. Consequently, all three are forced to set aside their differences, and self-doubts, in order to redeem each other and keep Darren from potentially threatening the world for the next generation.
One thing that sets Ant-Man apart from other films in the MCU, particularly at the time it was made, was its strong emphasis towards humour; humour has always been a big part of the MCU, but Ant-Man is basically part-comedy and shines all the brighter for it. Paul Rudd impresses in the title role with his incredible screen charisma, likeability, and comedic timing and the film features not just the traditional snark and biting wit of the MCU but also some truly amusing gags relating to Baskin-Robbins (they always find out) and Titanic (Cameron, 1997), but also excellent use of sight gags and editing (the film consistently cuts away from the drama of Scott’s shrunken adventures to see him barely having an impact on the real world). Ant-Man also separates itself from other MCU movies by being as much a heist movie as it is a superhero affair; Scott and his crew undergo a great deal of preparation and planning before breaking into Hank’s house, which involves acquiring uniforms, cutting power lines, and communicating from a nondescript van. Once Scott is inside the house, we get to see just how capable and adaptable he is; he’s slick and agile, easily able to slip inside with barely a whisper, and cobbles together unique solutions to break into Hank’s antique vault using only household items. Whilst being trained in combat by Hope and the particulars to the suit by Hank, Scott lends his skills to planning the assault on Pym Technologies, which involves studying the layouts and the security systems and the defences surrounding the Yellowjacket suit. This requires a highly co-ordinated attack on all fronts, using every resource at their disposal, including not just Scott’s crew (much to Hank’s chagrin) and also an infiltrating into the Avengers compound. This leads to a brief scuffle between Ant-Man and Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) that is the first true test of Scott’s newfound abilities, and additional opportunities for Luis and Scott’s amusing cohorts to shine with their hilarious shenanigans.
Ant-Man absolutely excels in its visuals and presentation. The Ant-Man suit itself is a thing a beauty; fittingly drawing its influences from Scott Lang’s comic book adventures and more modern interpretations of the character, it’s not a mechanised suit of armour or made up of fancy nanotech and wis, instead, a very tangible and almost rudimentary costume that resembles a motorcycle outfit. It looks advanced, but not so advanced that it’s impossible to believe a genius like Hank Pym could have made it at home and with limited resources, and I love how it seems so functional and practical. The helmet is especially impressive, especially in this first outing for the character; rather then peeling back like nanotech, it flips up and is a largely practical prop, all of which works wonders for bringing this frankly ridiculous character to life. Darren’s Yellowjacket outfit is functionally similar, but noticeably different; for starters, it was brought to life using digital effects but I sure as hell couldn’t really tell that when watching the film. Yellowjacket has always been a bit of an absurd character, costume, and concept for me but the film presents the character as very menacing and technologically superior to Ant-Man in everyway. While it’s admittedly very “safe” for the film to wheel out the dark doppelgänger trope again, Yellowjacket can not only shrink and grow himself and other objects but he can also fly and sports stinger-like blasters on his back; this, coupled with the characters’ distinctive red and yellow colour schemes, really makes it much easier to distinguish the two in their climatic fight scene.
Naturally, Ant-Man’s most unique selling point is the character’s ability to shrink down to a near-microscopic level; this effect is rendered using digital technology and directly attributed to the suit and the Pym Particles, meaning that Scott must stay in the suit and the helmet at all times to stay alive when shrunken. Although minuscule in size, Scott retains his full-size strength and weight, effectively making him superhuman when he’s shrunk. However, the dangers surrounding him are many and varied; normal, everyday things such as a person entering a room, rats, and water are life-threatening hazards and the effect is, quite naturally, very disorientating for Scott for much of the first half of the film. Thanks to a lengthy (and amusing) montage sequence, Scott slowly learns to master the suit, which enables him to shrunk and grow in a fraction of a second to pass through the smallest openings, strike with near-superhuman speed, strength, and swiftness, and enlarge or reduce everyday objects to be used as weapons in combat. As versatile as the suit is, perhaps the greatest benefit of the suit is the ability to control ants using electromagnetic waves. Hank is obviously the absolute master of this; he controls flying ants to spirit Scott across the city, commands “Bullet Ants” to keep him subdued, and even directs drones to communicate and pass sugar cubes. While Hank is very clinical about this ability, preferring to number the ants rather than name them and grow attached to them, Scott is much more appreciative of their help and bonds with them like one would a pet. He names his flying ant “Anthony” and is devastated when it is killed near the finale, but also learns through his training of the particular differences and practical applications of each of the different types of ants at his disposal: “Crazy Ants” can conduct electricity to fry electronics, Bullet Ants deliver an excruciating sting, “Carpenter Ants” allow him to fly about at high speeds, and “Fire Ants” not only bite but also form bridges and pathways. By the finale, Scott has fully mastered the suit and the ants, and is able to shrink and grow in the blink of an eye to dodge bullets and take down entire groups of highly trained, armed men, leading to some of the MCU’s most unique action sequences as everyday locations are rendered exciting and action-packed thanks to Scott’s diminutive stature.
A particularly frosty confrontation between Hank and Darren sets Cross off and sees him beefing up security, leading to an escalation in Hank’s plans. Although he despairs of Scott’s friends, Hank begrudgingly accepts their help in causing distractions and infiltrating Pym Technology. While Ant-Man and his ants fry the servers and cause chaos to the security systems, Hank puts himself in considerable danger as Darren negotiates the selling of the Yellowjacket technology to Carson and his Hydra associates, and the two finally reveal their true faces as hated enemies. Although Hank is wounded in the fracas, the timely intervention of Hope allows Scott to escape when he’s captured; Hope’s pleas to Darren fall on deaf ears and, pushed to the edge by the destruction of his company, he dons the Yellowjacket suit for himself and fully embraces his hatred and lust for power. This leads to some fun and incredibly unique fight scenes as Ant-Man and Yellowjacket battle not just on a damaged helicopter but also in a suitcase, bouncing about between packets of sweets, keys, and a mobile phone, and Ant-Man bats Yellowjacket into a fly zapper with a table tennis pad. Darren’s knowledge of Scott’s identity leads to him targeting Cassie, escalating their conflict significantly and leading to my favourite fight sequence of the film where Ant-Man and Yellowjacket duke it out on a toy train set and across Cassie’s bedroom, leading not just to an enlarged ant being set loose upon the city but a gigantic Thomas the Tank Engine crashing out into the street! Yellowjacket’s titanium armour proves too tough for Ant-Man and, with his daughter at risk, Scott has no choice but to risk going sub-atomic in order to disrupt Darren’s suit and reduce him down into a twisted nothingness. Adrift in the Quantum Realm, Scott is disorientated and bombarded with bizarre visuals but holds on to his memories and love for Cassie and uses those emotions to force himself back to consciousness, repairing his regulator and returning to the real world. His heroic actions and self-sacrifice earn him not just his daughter’s adulation but Paxton’s respect, finally allowing him to be a part of Cassie’s life once more or for them to build a family unit. His return also gives Hank the hope that he might be able to retrieve his wife one day, and finally sees Scott and Hope act on their mutual attraction for each other. The film concludes with Luis (eventually) relating that the Falcon is actively seeking out Ant-Man for help with a much bigger problem that affects not just the superhero community, but the entire world, and Hank finally gifting Hope with her own Wasp suit for the next go-around.
I wasn’t expecting much when I went into Ant-Man; the MCU was growing and starting to veer away towards the cosmic and outlandish and it seemed like their days of doing more grounded, more human heroes were all but done but Ant-Man definitely set a precedent for diverse storytelling that the MCU continues to stick to. It’s amazing to me that even after expanding their scope towards Gods and the depths of space and hinting towards larger cosmic threats the MCU is still masterfully able to snap back to ground level with a character like Ant-Man, and Scott Lang was such a breath of fresh air for the franchise. Paul Rudd is so immediately likeable, and he brought a real comical, heartfelt performance to Scott Lang, and it’s largely thanks to him that I found myself actually caring about Ant-Man for the first time in…I think forever. The comedy and gags on offer were absolutely top notch, with Luis being an obvious highlight, but I also really enjoyed Michael Douglas’s performance; he played a world weary, cranky, slightly unstable former superhero-come-mentor perfectly and brought so much presence to every scene he was in. He, like all of the actors in this, also seemed to be having a great time with the film, which doesn’t take itself too seriously and perfectly incorporates elements of a heist movie to give it a unique flavour. While we see incredible cosmic visuals and escalating threats quite often in the MCU, Ant-Man’s shrinking sequences are still really impressive; I love how our senses are changed alongside Scott’s when he’s smaller and how everyday things we take for granted suddenly become a life-threatening obstacle for Ant-Man. It’s fun seeing Scott learn about the suit and what he can do, and seeing him bond with the different ants and work alongside his crew, and while I think Ant-Man probably would have been better placed in the MCU’s first phase, it was a much-needed palette-cleanser at the time and remains one of the most entertaining and unique entries in the MCU.
Did you enjoy Ant-Man? How did you think it compared to other films in the MCU? What did you think to the emphasis on comedy and heist elements and on Scott’s status as a struggling ex-con and father? Did you enjoy the film’s unique action sequences and shrinking effects? Were you disappointed that Yellowjacket ended up just being a dark mirror of Ant-Man or did you think Darren’s character stood out enough to justify it? Were you a fan of Ant-Man prior to this film and, if so, which iteration of the character was your favourite? Whatever you think about Ant-Man, sign up to drop a comment below or leave a comment on my social media, check back in next week as Sci-Fi Sunday continues.