There could be whole universes that exist in the tiny space between your toes. While it may seem far fetched theoretical quantum physics to some, it forms a critical part of the science fiction of Ant-Man, the last film of Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe ("MCU"). Ant-Man sets a different tone for the MCU at the end of Phase Two, but still looks and feels very much like a Marvel film. It also delivers one the most important backstory characters of the MCU and some of the most unique action environments in comparison with the other films, making this one of my favourites thus far.
The Ant-Man that almost never was
The backstory to Ant-Man is that it was one of the originally designed Marvel movies, back when the studio was coming up for it's plans for Iron Man, the Hulk and Captain America. The importance of the project was partly derived from Marvel fans' love of the comic book character, Ant-Man. Hank Pym (the original Ant-Man) was one of the founders of the Avengers. The behind the scenes features will let you know that the early Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk movie days of the MCU was an incredibly uncertain time for Marvel Studios as is it was unclear whether the MCU franchise could be built or even what the future for Marvel movies would have.
I would have loved to have seen Edgar wright's version of "Ant Man" as I am a fan of his frenetic, fast pace, but seamless camera work and he is usually very good with material he is passionate about. He has described his original concept, co-written with Joe Cornish for Artisan before Marvel Studios even came about:
“The idea that we have for the adaptation is to actually involve both [Scott Lang and Hank Pym]. Is to have a film that basically is about Henry Pym and Scott Lang, so you actually do a prologue where you see Pym as Ant-Man in action in the 60’s, in sort of Tales to Astonish mode basically, and then the contemporary, sort of flash-forward, is Scott Lang’s story, and how he comes to acquire the suit, how he crosses paths with Henry Pym, and then, in an interesting sort of Machiavellian way, teams up with him. So it’s like an interesting thing, like the Marvel Premiere one that I read which is Scott Lang’s origin, it’s very brief like a lot of those origin comics are, and in a way, the details that are skipped through in the panels and the kind of thing we’d spend half an hour on.”
Ant-Man became a pet project of Edgar Wright for many years and that's where the problems began to arise. Ant-Man became slated to arrive in a vastly difference MCU landscape in Phase Two. Given the subtle continuity of the films in the pre-Avengers Assemble, it's possible that Ant-Man, as originally conceived by Edgar Wright, might have seen the light of day in Phase 1 had there not been external production delays.
Certainly by Phase Two the connectivity between the MCU world was set and tonally apparent in every outing, at least within the films and partly on the TV shows. (Daredevil notwithstanding, but Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter definitely tow the MCU line.)
Production was further complicated by Wright's shooting schedule, which saw the film pushed from the test footage he unveiled at comic-con in 2012 (Wright's only actual footage of his version of Ant-Man). Wright was bound to finish The World's End before Ant-Man as one of the producers, a friend of Wright's, had been diagnosed with cancer and he wanted to finish that film first as a favour to that friend (completely understandable and a good demonstration of the friendship that can exist on projects in the industry).
In the meantime, the script went through rewrites. The main sticking point seemed to be that Edgar Wright wanted Ant-Man to stand alone at the time of release and Marvel was committed to including it as part of the MCU story in Phase Two. Following a studio re-write that homogenised the script, Edgar Wright left the project with the following comments:
“I wanted to make a Marvel movie but I don’t think they really wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie. I was the writer-director on it and then they wanted to do a draft without me, and having written all my other movies, that’s a tough thing to move forward thinking if I do one of these movies I would like to be the writer-director. Suddenly becoming a director-for-hire on it, you’re sort of less emotionally invested and you start to wonder why you’re there, really.”
I find the above interesting as, being a huge Edgar Wright supporter, it conflicts with the producer in me that wants to make sure the film is enjoyable experience and not a defiant statement. It's that whole "I in 'team'" speech we have all heard at some point or another.
By way of example, The Last Jedi was a film I personally really enjoyed, but which created all sorts of issues for the continuity that divided public opinion. Many of these issues were rectified for the fans in Rise of Skywalker, but the manner it which it had to be done had to be rushed and made the overall trilogy look unstable. I applaud Rian Johnson for his bold statements in The Last Jedi, however, where were the producers when he proposed the script!?
What makes Ant Man unique in the MCU?
One of the more interesting parts, for me, about this entry into the MCU is how well it plays with real physics, science fiction and technology to breathe new life into the age old "incredible shrinking man" story. The most famous pop-culture story I can think of in my generation being Honey I Shrunk the Kids (also by an MCU director Joe Johnston).
Popular opinion is always obsessed with the largeness of infinity and just how massive the universe might be. We rarely consider the opposite, that it is also (in relative terms) the infinitely small. There are loads of way to effectively develop this concept done in Ant Man via the challenges Scott Lang faces when he reduces to the size of an ant and also his brief (or not so brief, we will never really know) foray into the "Quantum Realm".
Luckily, before the film takes off on a Stephen Hawking-esque rant about how big and small really don't exist, the story is anchored to a battle between old and new scientist to prevent Hank Pym's shrinking/expanding technology from becoming the world's next big disaster (they are still recovering from Ultron). Add in some great characters like she who will later be called the Wasp (Evangeline Lily) and Luis (Michael Peña) and it makes the whole movie move quite fast despite the sheer amount of exposition about the founding of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Hank Pym's role in those early days that Michael Douglas is forced to explain.
Because of the new science being put on display here, the action sequences are also incredibly unique within the MCU. By the midway point for MCU viewing (including all of the TV shows, BTS, etc.), I will admit to a bit of CGI burnout. Sometimes Marvel could do well to just show people hand to hand fighting instead of entire sequences of computer graphics because it feels like you are watching an animation film sometimes.
Ant Man however, captivates in that the CGI scenes create the illusion of Scott Lang getting really small and there are many sequences (I imagine originally conceived by Edgar Wright given the quick and seamless cuts) that showcase the fun that can be had when you are able to go smaller and smaller (and the dangers that smallness can also bring).
How does Ant-Man progress the MCU story
MCU, like all great interconnected stories, relies on it's archetype core characters playing off of each other to expose more about what makes them tick (Age of Ultron was an over two-hour deep dive into this philosophy). New characters introduced into the MCU are now filling gaps vacated by the evolving core characters and are likely to find it much harder to effectively influence the narrative.
Because production was delayed so long, it is incredibly tricky to introduce a robust driver for the overall MCU story via Scott Lang. Instead the film must rely on it's thorough backstory to indicate why the technology in Ant-Man is so significant to the world of the MCU and why we are only learning about it at the end of Phase Two. To this end, I queried why this was not tied into a larger Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. plot-line as the shrinking/expanding tech would have fit the best in that corner of the MCU.
There is an issue that the story in the film is good (and heartwarming like most MCU films) and the technology (the superpower) is also interesting, but the connection between the two is not as strong as most other Marvel characters. While I think the suit is very cool, I do not see how it affects Scott Lang the way that the suit changes Tony Stark in the Iron Man films. In this sense, the suit is more a plot device than a core part of Scott's character. This is not fatal to the film, but is unique that Scott's "superpowers" are not necessarily connected with his current woes and his struggle.
At the heart of this film though is a redemption story ("dude with problem") that resonated with me and made me root for Scott. This fits into the MCU because characters like Tony Stark, the Hulk Natasha Romanov and the earlier film entry for Thor were all based on the theme of redemption. For example, the tragic flaw (and all of the main characters have a tragic flaw) is the Hulk's inability to achieve any form of real redemption because of the dual personalities of Bruce Banner and the Hulk (this will be briefly exlpored in Thor: Ragnarok).
Scott's backstory is one of a "robin hood" cat burglar/hacker who got caught and now doesn't seem to be able to get his life together despite making efforts to do so. I am sucker for a good daddy/daughter relationship and there is clear chemistry in the film that helps explain the choices Scott makes to become Ant Man and to later stop this movie's villain, Yellowjacket.
To this end, Ant-Man at times definitely plays like a Phase One film where all the different aspects of the film are not necessarily as connected as Phase Two. Yellowjacket comes across in a the same shallow fashion as The Abomination - see the Winter Soldier, Ronan the Accuser, Malekith or Alexander Pierce as good examples of this improved in Phase Two.
The above never creates enough jankiness to move you out of the film. The production team on Ant-Man certainly made enough right calls to easily make this movie part of the MCU and put a stamp on the end of Phase Two and a move into Phase Three - cue Thanos at the end of Age of Ultron.
I think the unspoken story of this film (and I do not know the production team to confirm or deny) is that it was very nearly dropped altogether, as it was finalised too late in the MCU progression due to external facors. However, a good production team (and excellent cast and crew) made tweaks to the film to make the fit seamless to the everyday big budget movie goer and the result is really satisfying.
Despite the split vision on the original story versus the MCU rewrite, Ant-Man is one of my favourite entries thus far in the MCU line-up. It has comedy, action and a big tie to the overall MCU story with introduction of Hank Pym. It also happens to show (like a good Rick and Morty episode) weird and wonderful things that can happen when looking at quantum physics. Playing with the space between particles is science fiction (well kind of - we do have the particle-colliders after all).
Ant-Man is one of the best everyday explanations of quantum relativity I have seen (Men in Black also has a funny rendition of this). Most people understand there is no limit to how big something can get, but what about how small something can get and what would that be like to examine the worlds within worlds!?
Ant Man is a must watch for those that like the funnier, weirder side of the MCU but that also like their MCU tales grounded in Earthbound heroes. Not quite as epic as Guardians of the Galaxy or as fateful as Thor: the Dark World, Ant Man thrives on making the ordinary extraordinary the way that your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man makes you think of the goofy teenager next door or Hawkeye drops your jaw as he introduces his simple but happy domestic life in the countryside. Scott Lang will make you smile as he injects an incredibly human dose of drama and reality into the ever fantastic world of the MCU moving out of Phase Two.