A few years ago Burger King launched a big ad campaign to promote an exciting new product called the Rodeo Burger. The first twenty seconds of their main commercial acted as if this sandwich was going to change your life, as if it was the hottest culinary invention since sliced bread - almost literally, since Burger King loves to employ flame imagery whenever they can. Then at the very end of the ad they admitted that it was basically just their regular hamburger but with barbecue sauce instead of ketchup.
It pains me to say it, but Ant-Man is basically Marvel's version of the Rodeo Burger. The pre-release hype promised us a movie that would be substantively different from the other entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Which totally makes sense - Ant-Man is a dude wearing a science-y suit that allows him to shrink down until he's pocket size, not a god like Thor or a tank-tossing monster like the Hulk, so of course his story would have to be more intimate when measured against their larger than life adventures. And indeed, in many ways Ant-Man is different from your average Marvel movie - it is certainly much funnier. But at the end of the day a Marvel movie with more jokes is just like a new burger with barbecue sauce: there is a layer of fresh flavor and then underneath that splattering of razzle-dazzle there is a whole bunch of the same old thing.
For example, as the movie opens Scott Lang, who will eventually become Ant-Man, is just getting out of prison for burglary. Now that is a set up with real potential: most of the current Marvel stars are relentlessly noble so having their newest superhero be a bit of an anti-hero would be a pleasant change of pace. Unfortunately, the film squanders that potential by making it clear that Lang went to prison for (non-violently) stealing a bunch of money from some corporate crooks that he immediately returned to their victims. Basically, Lang is like a rom-com version of Robin Hood - dashing, handsome and two dimensional.
No, Lang is not even close to being the anti-hero that the MCU desperately needs. Sure, he makes a few wisecracks and he hangs out with a few petty criminals that he knows from his prison days, but he isn't half the bad-boy that the similarly sardonic Iron Man is. After all, Tony Stark is a nuanced enough character that you believe that he would risk his life to save the world but you also don't blink an eye when he sarcastically mocks a young boy directly to his face (as he does in Iron Man 3.) Lang might be willing to bend the rules a bit, but we all know that he would never be an asshole to a child because his entire character is defined by how devoted he is to his adorable little daughter. I have nothing against heroes who have noble reasons for heroing, but it is a little tiring to watch movie after movie where every character is interchangeably righteous.
Ant-Man's plot is similarly acceptable but underwhelming. The script's basic structure feels as if it could have been created via Mad-Libs, since Lang has to go to [a place] to stop [some insane businessman] who wants to unleash [some evil technology], but before he can do that he has to go to [some other place] to get [some other meaningless gizmo] that does [some ill-defined but necessary thing.] Obviously I'm being a little reductive; I don't want to make it sound as if this film completely lacks imagination when there are plenty of scenes where Lang outruns unusual obstacles (like a record player's needle) that feel fresh and exciting. Still, the presence of a few great visuals wasn't enough to distract me from how familiar this movie's overall groove felt.
Of course, this is all by design: Marvel wants their movies to be as comforting and familiar as possible because their goal is to produce the media equivalent of comfort food. And Ant-Man serves that purpose nobly, because it has enough visual zip and funny one-liners to support multiple rewatches. A movie like this doesn't need characters, it needs quip machines, and Lang definitely delivers on that front.
In all honesty, I probably wouldn't be so focused on Ant-Man's underwhelming aspects if I wasn't so convinced that this was a project that once had real potential. The Ant-Man character would not be out of place in a cheesy 60's b-movie, and with a little bit of a push this movie could have been an amazing homage to classic drive-in pulp. But no, an out-and-out throwback adventure would have been too much of a derivation from the traditional Marvel Movie format so the bigwigs decided to minimize the film's sillier sci-fi facets and maximize its superhero story elements. That decision is not necessarily right or wrong, but it does anchor the movie into a genre that is becoming increasingly tiresome when it could have been a breath of fresh air.
Of course, this could just be a case where a little bit of extracurricular knowledge really cost me quite a bit of enjoyment. It isn't a secret that director Edgar Wright spent years and years working on Ant-Man before being fired by Marvel at the last minute, and I'm one of those nerds who sat through Peyton Reed's actually produced version wondering about the film that could have been. Honestly, I don't know if Wright's version would have been better - although there are good reasons to think that it would have been - but his auterist version would have at least been different.
I'm well aware that all of the Wright-stuff is problematic because it isn't fair to judge the film that we got against a ghost-movie that will never exist, but at the same time the unmade Wright Ant-Man is such a glaring what-if that I can't ignore it. Wright's movies are smart and kinetic and most importantly they are interesting, so his attachment to this project raised my expectations quite a bit - and high expectations are almost always the death of a would-be blockbuster. If Ant-Man has always been merely another Marvel movie in my mind I would have been happier with it - sure, it didn't reinvent the wheel, but it was pretty decent as popcorn flicks go. However, if you put the perfectly fine film we actually got on the scales against the phantom colossus we could have had then of course the scales are going to tip in the wrong direction...
Ah, I'm just being a grump. Honestly, it is my own fault for buying into the hype. I'm old enough to understand that every ad exaggerates what its product can do, and I should have known better than to buy into the myths that Ant-Man's commercials were selling. In my defense, however, I wasn't expecting this movie to be the best thing since sliced bread, I was just expecting it to be fresh. Can you really blame me for wanting to believe that a new movie was actually going to be new?