Both movies were the product of embarrassingly public disputes between their directors and Marvel Studios, but Ant-Man managed to resolve itself into an entertaining (if lightweight) heist movie while AoU was a mess of conflicting subplots and franchise tie-ins: Joss Whedon's weird Black Widow issues and inconsistent characterization vs. Marvel's obsession with clumsy sequel foreshadowing. You could pick out certain scenes in Ant-Man that felt like Edgar Wright's work, but it didn't feel patchy like Thor's bizarre cave-swimming subplot did in Age of Ultron.
Ant-Man and the Marvel Cinematic Universe
More than any other MCU movie so far, Ant-Man captured the tone of a solo comic in a larger fictional universe: casually acknowledging the existence of other superheroes without going for an actual team-up. We've now reached the point where the MCU is big enough to support cameos from familiar side-characters without it seeming forced, which is great for worldbuilding purposes. It's just too bad this only happened after the departure of Edgar Wright, who wanted to make a standalone movie with (presumably) a more esoteric tone.
Ideally, Marvel should find a happy medium between franchise crossover moments and allowing filmmakers more freedom to make a personal mark. That's why comics like Ms Marvel and Hawkeye are so popular: they have a memorable sense of personality.
This version of Ant-Man would have been fine ten years ago, but after a decade of superhero origin stories it felt disappointingly formulaic. It's already bad enough to launch yet another white guy superhero before Black Panther or Captain Marvel, but beyond that it was simply a boring setup. An everyman hero, a tough female lead, a two-dimensional villain, some funny side-characters, and a frisson of daddy issues. Nothing we haven't seen before.
To make matters worse, there were no compelling narrative themes to chew on -- other than the focus on father/daughter relationships, I suppose. It felt like a film whose primary purpose was to introduce a handful of new characters to the MCU, rather than a story that could stand on its own in any meaningful way.
The Hope Van Dyne problem
It didn't help that there was no good reason for Scott Lang to be Ant-Man. I've already written about this at the Daily Dot, but basically this film shot itself in the foot by making Hope Van Dyne "too" competent. Scott Lang is likeable enough but since Hope is demonstrably more qualified than him, it's unclear why she isn't the protagonist.
When you look at the skillset provided by each of the main characters, it would make more sense to have Hope use the Ant-Man suit and cast Scott as her unlikely sidekick. You could even keep Scott as the POV character with the same backstory, just give Hope more screentime -- preferably with Darren Cross -- and a more active role in the heist.
The internal explanation for Hope's lack of superheroism is that Hank Pym was trying to "protect" her from using the suit, which makes sense from his perspective but fails to explain why she didn't just ignore him and take the suit anyway. To have Pym present her with the Wasp suit in the end credits felt like the final nail in the coffin, to be honest.
Basically, Hope Van Dyne is the personification of Marvel's attitude to female heroes: badass and skilled enough to be defensible as a "strong female character," but still shunted off into the sidelines for no good reason.
Costuming and design
I strongly suspect that Edgar Wright's Ant-Man would have been more visually interesting than Peyton Reed's, for reasons that are explained in this video about Wright's skill for visual comedy. Aside from some of the shrinking scenes, this was one of the most aesthetically nondescript films in the MCU franchise -- and that's saying something.
While Thor, Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America all have satisfyingly distinctive visual styles, most of the MCU movies follow a very bland American blockbuster aesthetic. Ant-Man's suburban homes and spotless corporate laboratories were so painfully generic they could have been lifted from any mainstream US blockbuster from Transformers to Tomorrowland. It also suffered from the same problem as Daredevil: a total failure to create a believable sense of place.
Hell's Kitchen (albeit a fictionalized version that retains its slum status in 2015) is a key aspect of Daredevil's story, but the show depicts it as an urban landscape with no distinguishing features. It's barely even recognizable as NYC, never mind a specific neighborhood. Similarly, Ant-Man's San Francisco setting was reduced to a handful of exterior shots, which I believe was a real misstep.
Stories do not become universal once they've been whittled down to the featureless outline of lowest-common-denominator familiarity. They are recognized as universal when the audience engages with the characters on a human level... and it's difficult to do that when those characters are projected onto a completely flavorless landscape.
I tend to believe that there's no such thing as a bad costume designer. Not at this level in Hollywood filmmaking, anyway. I also know for a fact that Ant-Man's designer did great work on other movies (Ex Machina, Hellboy II and Stardust indicate a pretty wide range), so I'm assuming the film's lack of stylistic individuality is a result of Marvel's desire to create a visually homogeneous universe.
Most of the main characters dressed in unassumingly bland clothes to the point of having zero personal taste (aside from Michael Pena, somewhat), with the most interesting detail being the contrast between Darren Cross, Hope and Hank's differing styles of businesswear. Meanwhile Scott Lang looked so boring he could have been the encyclopedia illustration for "generic white male." He had the visual personality of the dad in a family car commercial.
I'm hoping that Marvel learns its lesson from Ant-Man, and either gives its directors more creative freedom or starts aiming for its individual franchises to have more personal style. Because while this movie was fun, it felt passionless and unoriginal. Without a clear sense of its own identity, Ant-Man failed to provide a compelling argument for its own existence.
- Good work on the ants. There's something charmingly weird-90s-children's-movie about keeping a dog-sized ant as a pet, and I love it.
- That opening scene was just wild. Michael Douglas and the villain dude aged down. Hayley Atwell aged up. Howard Stark played by John Slattery again, even though most people have forgotten this casting from Iron Man 2 and now think of Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark.
- I've decided that Howard Stark was caught in some kind of weird industrial accident that transformed him from looking like Dominic Cooper to looking like John Slattery sometime in the 1970s. Either that or HYDRA swapped out for an unconvincing double because he was becoming too much of an annoyance. That's why Howard was always such an asshole to Tony: he wasn't actually Tony's real dad.
- Hope's role has apparently been cut from Civil War, which makes her end-of-movie teaser even more tragicomic.
- As always, not enough time was spent with the villain. I would've liked to see more of Corey Stoll being an obsessive weirdo asshole, especially opposite Michael Douglas.
- Scott's ex-wife was played by the same actress who played the Generic Mom Character in Jurassic World AND Tomorrowland. Hollywood is fucking grim.
Previously: Avengers: Age of Ultron -- The Empire of Tony Stark