Eleven months ago Marvel Studios presented us with a movie featuring a mouthy, machine gun totting raccoon and an adorable talking tree. Yet, somehow, it always felt like Ant-Man was the harder sell. Maybe its because Guardians of the Galaxy wasn’t exactly straying far from the successful path of sci-fi epics to come before it (Star Wars comes to mind) while Ant-Man could more easily come across as silly without the necessary cool factor. And furthermore, maybe my own sense that Ant-Man might need to put in more work to hook me comes from some kind of generational gap. After all, Ant-Man was never one of my super heroes growing up. Spider-man, Iron Man, Captain America, sure they all have the same history stretching back as Ant-Man does. But somehow the classic size-altering Avenger got lost in the gap between his glory days and Marvel’s current cinematic empire. I’m willing to admit very openly that I might be part if not most of the problem with my reservations going into Ant-Man. But in the end it doesn’t matter what reservations I may have had going into the movie. Because walking out of the theatre I shook my head wondering how I could have doubted the almighty machine that is Marvel Studios.
The true strength of Ant-Man comes from its dedication to its core themes and motivational centre. Starting with the former, Ant-Man’s most prominent theme is the idea of inheritance and legacy. But not just what we inherit from those who come before us but what kind of inheritance or legacy we pass along to those who come after. When Hank Pym, the previous tiny titan, shanghais Scott into being Ant-Man it is importantly sudden and almost inexplicable. The plot glosses over rather quickly the note of how Hank has been watching Scott for some time, a seemingly random act even with the notoriety behind Scott’s crimes, in order to make him the new Ant-Man. But what might be considered expositional avoidance or a minute piece of wobbly set-up is actually a crucial part of how the movie presents its themes. Unlike Hank’s daughter Hope, Scott is not primed and ready to accept his inheritance. Instead, he must learn to understand the responsibility he is given. Hope demonstrates on more than one occasion that she would be a better choice for the suit than Scott. But Hank refuses to allow her this inheritance. Instead, he has accidentally passed down to his daughter the mantle of his wife, her mother, the Wasp. It is an inheritance that debilitates her, him, and their relationship. Hank must struggle with the legacy he has accidentally passed on to his daughter and the question of what kind of inheritance he really wants to impart to her. He is already fighting to keep the Ant-Man legacy from Darrin Cross, the films charismatic buisness-villain. Despite Hank’s best intentions and efforts he cannot keep the Ant-Man technology buried. His legacy lives on and corrupts Cross, partly due to Cross’ inability to shoulder the inheritance given to him and partly because he’s fourteen kinds of crazy before we even make it to the end of the first act. With Hank Pym we see how his inheritances, his legacies, stagnate and overwhelm their inheritors. But with Scott Lang we see how they flourish and that, coupled with his unwavering core motivation, is what makes him so compelling and effective as the hero of the story.
Scott Lang, the newly recruited ex-con turned shrinking saviour, is caught in the middle of these two aspects of inheritance. On the one hand he has inherited the mantle and the responsibility of being Ant-Man and on the other he is faced with the question of what kind of legacy he will be passing on to his daughter. The movie has a wonderfully slow burn throughout the third act as Scott, Hank, and Hope plan the heist of Pym Technologies and Scott attempts to embrace his Ant-Man inheritance. In this way, the smallness of Ant-Man’s ability lends itself perfectly to accentuating the true largeness of his responsibilities. The scenes depicting Scott’s training are funny and show off how unprepared he is, but the movie seems to make a clear distinction between unpreparedness and unworthiness. Scott is certainly worthy. Unworthiness is what turns Darrin Cross into the psychopathic Yellow Jacket when he attempts to take Scott’s inheritance, Hank’s legacy, as his own. That and, according to Hank, the fact that he sees “too much of [himself]” in Cross.
The question now becomes what it is exactly that makes Scott worthy of the Ant-Man legacy. I believe it is Scott’s unwavering dedication to his core motivational source. At one point his daughter asks his ex-wife, her mother, if “[her father] is a bad man” and she replies “No, [he] just gets confused sometimes” but I do not think this is true. The movie is not attempting to blur the lines between what makes a person good or bad so much as it is trying to get at the heart of, given someone’s actions, whether that person is defined by those things or by something else. Scott’s ex-wife thinks he gets confused sometimes but I would argue that Scott is never confused, not about what defines him. Throughout the whole movie he knows that he wants to be “the hero she already thinks [he] is” the only question he is faced with is how to be that. Scott does not just have to consider the responsibility of the Ant-Man inheritance and his own legacy that he is passing down to his daughter, but also the inheritance he has received from her. He has inherited her perception of him as a hero. Its what makes Scott Lang a good character, a likeable character, and a good hero. When he is breaking into Hank Pym’s house and safe, then later when they are staging their major heist of Pym Technologies, even when he is fighting an Avenger, Scott doesn’t feel like the bad guy because we aren’t invested in the burglary so much as we are invested in the motivation behind it: becoming a legacy worth passing on to his daughter.
Ant-Man has a wonderfully paced five-act structure that knows how to work a slow-burn for maximum pay-off and how to avoid confusing exposition with character development. By the end of the second act Scott has been perfectly positioned into becoming Ant-Man, the third act effectively begins the slow-burn of our expectations for the heist. But it also focuses on developing his character and his relationship with both Hope and the Ant-Man legacy (an important distinction from his relationship to Hank Pym). By the time we hit the fourth act and the heist is on the stakes have been effectively raised, the dominos are set, and the wrench is ready to be thrown into the works to keep the tension of the heist alive. What Darrin Cross lacks in character development he makes up for in presence. His insanity is less a progression and more of an established fact. The man liquifies innocent baby goats for crying out loud. There is no animosity developed between Scott and Cross. They more or less meet and are already knee-deep in their confrontation. And this is because they’ve already been battling for the entire film over the Ant-Man legacy. The heist, the whole plot, is about Ant-Man’s legacy and which version will survive and be handed down to the world: Scott’s or Cross’. This thematic confrontation makes the match-up between Ant-Man and Yellow Jacket have more gravity than it would have if Cross and Scott had simply bantered more during the first three acts of the film. Now, this is not to say Cross doesn’t make the fight with Scott personal, he wouldn’t be a true villain if he didn’t. No spoilers of course. All I’ll say about the fifth and final act is that it wraps things up nicely but also prepares us for Ant-Man’s future
I could not possibly cover everything there is to discuss about Ant-Man. Instead, I have chosen to focus on one of what I believe to be the major themes of film and how that plays into the characters and narrative of the film. There is plenty more that could and should be said about the film. Ant-Man is fun, another Marvel movie that is polished in the way we have come to expect from the studio. Whatever my reasons for harbouring (unwanted) doubts about the story, they were quickly put to rest by the films confidence in its material, its themes, and its characters. And the confidence is not misplaced. Overall, it is definitely not my favourite Marvel movie nor is it the best Marvel movie. But it does something new with the established formula, it introduces a character who is new and interesting rather than a mimic of other Marvel characters, and it looks great while doing it.
Final Score: 8/10