Ant-Man (2015) is a great movie. A lighthearted sci-fi heist adventure with great comedy, imaginative setpieces, relatable characters, and brimming with themes of redemption, legacy, and responsibility. If you haven’t seen it, it’s absolutely worth your time and money. It’ll surprise you and leave you feeling like a kid again. Now, having said that…
It could be better.
The first act is very slow because it’s telling two stories, the connection between them not initially clear; the heist itself has little in the way of tension as Ant-Man doesn’t exactly struggle with anything; and Yellowjacket, though evil shit, doesn’t make much of an impression or offer any more depth or complexity. Again, great movie, but there’s a constant sense -both apparent from the story structure and from narrative beats- that the movie would’ve easily been better as Hope Van Dyne’s -the Wasp- movie.
Seriously, nearly every element of the movie would’ve improved with her as the protagonist. It would’ve been more tense, more exciting, more rich, and even more affecting. Answering “how” involves getting into…
…so with that, let’s look at…
1. THE CHARACTERS
Make no mistake, Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang/Ant-Man is a fun protagonist. Imprisoned for robbing from a corrupt CEO, he’s a down on his luck ex-con who’s trying to provide for his daughter with the whole world against him. He’s creative, resourceful, and an everyman with the same quirky humor as you’ve come to expect from Marvel movies -an archetypical thief with a heart of gold, really- but his connection to the plot is only tangential. Sure, he’s motivated to infiltrate Pymtech and destroy & steal the Yellowjacket technology, but only to help his daughter. He’s no personal connection to the mission whatsoever. He doesn’t NEED one, and the movie functions decently without it, but as a result, all of his major decisions lack punch and character-coherency. We’ll get into that in a bit.
Hope Van Dyne, meanwhile, is a slick businesswoman working under Darren Cross, the villain, and has been doing so for months, monitoring his process in attempting to replicate her father’s shrinking formula. She’s never recovered from her mother’s mysterious death; she’s got a strained relationship with her father who she doesn’t trust and who, conversely, doesn’t seem to take her seriously; she’s trained herself, body and mind, to peak physical condition for the purposes of the heist -even to the point of demonstrating extreme finesse with ant-communication technology; and she’s straining under the expectations of men who want to run her life for her. Stealing and destroying the Yellowjacket technology means everything to her: it means validating her agency for herself and to her father; it means escaping the specter of her mother; and it means saving some semblance of her relationship with her father.
Hank Pym, the former Ant-Man & Hope’s father, functioning mainly as the overseer of the heist, is haunted by his past. He laments bringing Darren Cross to a position of power at his company, Pym Tech and he’s struggling to fix his relationship with his daughter before it’s lost forever. Central to this, he’s still mourning the loss of his wife, Janet Van Dyne -the former Wasp. On their last mission in the 60s, She sacrificed herself to stop a nuclear missile, apparently dying by shrinking out of existence into the theoretical Quantum Dimension. It is later reviewed in a mid-credits scene, that he’d been working with Janet to create an enhanced Wasp suit prior to her death, which has been in mothballs ever since.
Darren Cross/Yellowjacket, is by all accounts, a mustache-twirling villain. Guy’s a ruthless, cunning, and inhumane businessman …and that’s about it. The movie pays lipservice to his mind being addled by the Yellowjacket shrinking formula, which is utterly unnecessary. His boss/assistant relationship with Hope borders on the romantic, but its founded out of Cross’ sense of abandonment by his mentor, Pym.
The characters don’t work to their fullest as the first act runs through nearly all of this, winding up telling two loosely-connected stories -one Scott’s struggle to provide for his daughter, the other Hope & Pym’s struggle to stop Cross, and it’s all too clear that Scott’s story, while deeply relatable and funny, has nothing to do with Hope & Pym’s story.
To be fair, there’s some thematic overlap between Scott and Hope & Pym’s stories; both are redemptive and attempts to do right by their respective daughters. While that offers some thematic unity, it doesn’t create story unity. What that means, is every beat that is or should be Hope’s -drama, suspense, and action- comes across muted. Scott and his cohorts’ (one of which played by Michael Pena who SINGS in the role) stories and presence muddy all of that. The script coverage solution is simple:
2. REMOVE SCOTT LANG.
Seriously, removing Scott from the narrative, or at the very least minimizing his presence improves nearly everything.
A) THE LEAST AMOUNT OF REWRITING APPROACH: Rather than going through all the motions of Scott being down on his luck after his release from prison, just simplify by having Pym approach him in prison. This way, you have more time to keep the story focused on Hope & Pym’s political intrigue and their reconciliatory father/daughter arc. Scott acknowledges at one point that the reason Pym refuses Hope the Ant-Man suit is because Pym hired Scott to be expendable. When the heist goes south -because of course it did- kill Scott Lang. This raises the stakes. It forces Hope to make a decision against the wishes of Pym, which forces him to acknowledge that he can’t protect her forever. That would force Hope to take out Cross/Yellowjacket by shrinking out of existence, which would mirror what happened to her mother and be traumatic for her and Pym, which would be more powerful and make her subsequent escape even more powerful.
What’s interesting is that the movie constantly supports a story of this structure anyway. Hope clearly outshines Scott throughout his training, outstaging him every step along the way. She practically screams at Pym to let her use the Ant-Man suit, and when she’s rebuffed enough times, demonstrates nearly unparalleled skill at ant-commanding -possibly to catastrophic proportions. The script is building toward her suiting up and carrying on the mission -especially with her personal connection to the villain, who she comforts as a younger -maniacal- brother… It just opts out of going that way. It’s a shame that in a universe that has no problem killing Quicksilver to advance Scarlet Witch’s story, the same could not be done to Ant-Man for the Wasp.
B) THE FULL REWRITE APPROACH:
Much of the movie would play out as before: Pym quitting SHIELD in 1989 over the unapproved culturing of his Pym Particles. Cross has long since booted Pym from his own company, Pym Tech, and has renamed it Cross Tech. Hope dealing with Cross’ discoveries. Pym discovering how close Cross is to discovering his formula. Pym & Janet getting desperate to stop him…
And Hope discovers where Pym had been keeping the Ant-Man suit all of these years.
She tries it on, and Pym sends her through a trial by fire as punishment, which only deepens the wedge between them, leading to more conflict. Meanwhile, her interactions with Cross are deepening to something like a romantic relationship, although it has a dangerous -almost pitiable- quality. Guy’s arrogant as hell, but deeply insecure with a massive inferiority complex. Hope knows she’s getting closer to him to discover his strategy & weaknesses… but knows that he’s clinging to her out of a sense of mutual rejection by Pym.
Pym tries to wear the suit again, and things go horribly wrong -either physically, PTSD, or both- leading him to realize that he flat can’t use the suit again… but neither can Hope. He feels he’s GOT to protect her.
Little does he know that Hope’s been wearing the suit and training in secret, rapidly gaining in power… in direct correlation to Cross’ Yellowjacket formula’s progress and their relationship. There’s a sense that she can redeem him… but not in a way that’s healthy for either one of them. She begins to subtly sacrifice his feelings to discover weaknesses in his plans. She discovers the worst: he’s just successfully tested his Yellowjacket formula and is ready to make the sale to Hydra.
Pym’s discovery of Hope’s secret training leads to a major falling-out between them, leading to Hope going rogue with the Ant-Man suit to try to take out Cross’ Yellowjacket formula. She gets very close, but her heist goes very badly, leading to Cross discovering her duplicity and very nearly killing her with the Yellowjacket suit. While she manages to disable the Yellowjacket’s weapon systems and escape, she’s at death’s door. Pym arrives just in time to rescue her and escape.
As Hope recovers, she and Pym freak out at each other, leading to Pym revealing how Janet sacrificed herself by disabling her shrinking regulator and shrinking out of existence to stop a nuclear missile. How if it was his choice, he wouldn’t have allowed it. Hope smiles through tears, “But it was her choice.” Pym nods, and shows Hope what he’s been hiding all along: that he and Janet had been working on an enhanced Wasp suit in the days leading up to her death. With the Ant-Man suit destroyed, it only makes sense for her to wear this.
However, to get past Cross’ defenses now that he’s aware of her, Hope’s going to have to steal some critical technology from an old Stark base -that they discover on the Halo drop in is now an Avengers base, leading to a confrontation with the Falcon.
Meanwhile, having discovered the power of the Yellowjacket suit firsthand, Cross/Yellowjacket wonders why he should bother being a petty arms dealer when with his powers, he could run Hydra -and thus the world. He attacks a Hydra base to download their files and use his shrinking formula to blackmail world leaders. Hope & Pym, discovering this, launch a counter-sabotage mission before he can succeed. Hope/Wasp uses her creativity and ability while Pym operates as her eye in the sky.
Confronting Yellowjacket, he collapses into a mental breakdown about her, Pym, and how everyone should take him seriously and know how much better he is than them. He didn’t need Daddy’s help or respect. The ensuing fight leads back to Pym’s house, where Yellowjacket prepares to assassinate Pym. Wasp, realizing there’s no other way to stop him but to disable her shrinking regulator. A tearful final conversation between Wasp & Pym. One realizing she may never see her father again after coming so close to closure, Pym realizing that he’s going to lose his daughter as he lost his wife -just as he feared. Wasp begins shrinking out of existence and utterly dismantles Yellowjacket. While going through the acid trip that is the endlessly shrinking trip to the Quantum dimension, Hope recalls a lesson from Pym, and reverse-engineers the technology to escape back to normal size.
With stability returned and Hope & Pym’s relationship repaired, they resume control of Pym Tech with the goal of making the world a better place through variations of the Pym Particle formula. However, they find themselves approached by the Falcon to aid in a major crisis to the Avengers…
The point of all this is twofold: enhance the natural drama to the fullest extent and to raise tension throughout the movie. For a heist movie, there’s almost no fear of getting caught and no real mistakes or moments of suspense in the heist itself until the very end. It’s strangely toothless. This rewrite would force the movie to keep a focused narrative while making Cross’ villainy more tangible and nuanced, leading to two suspenseful cat & mouse-style heists.
Of course, that represents the barebones rewrite -and honestly, probably the best way to do so. That said, one could easily include scenes throughout the 1960s during the height of Pym & Janet’s time as a superpowered spy team leading to the reveal flashback of her demise to Hope. This would show a different side of Pym -a carefree, optimistic spy who believed in his particle and all the good it could do, and the deeply passionate love he and Janet had for each other, which would make seeing her scene of sacrifice all the more affecting.
C. THE LEGO MOVIE
What I mean is, Peyton Reed might be a helluva lot smarter than I’m initially giving him credit for.
Y’see, The Lego Movie is 100% deconstructive of the modern blockbuster. At every opportunity, it subverts and criticizes tropes, from its tabula rasa protagonist, to its gender politics, to its exposition, to the way it handles action, to its very direct address of conformity and following the instructions. The Lego Movie thinks it’s deeply unfair for Emmet to be the protagonist and wants you to feel it too.
And it’s possible that Ant-Man‘s doing the same.
In a bloated blockbuster of increasingly meaningless wholesale destruction and nearly unbelievable scale, here comes a movie mocking by dealing with things as small and inconsequential as ants. It tells a much more personal story to greater effect. It parodizes disaster porn with literally blowing up scale models and climaxing by leveling a 4 year-old’s bedroom. And it’s all played as matter-of-factly as the destruction in its competitors’ films.
In the same way, it’s all too clear -and directly stated by the movie- that Hope SHOULD be the protagonist. In every way she deserves it and the movie would benefit from it. But perhaps that’s the point! Perhaps, in lieu of permission to make a female-led movie, Ant-Man‘s creative team made a movie lamenting that there just aren’t female-led superhero movies. Hope’s line in the mid-credits scene when she receives her Wasp suit seems to underscore this. “It’s about damn time.”
But how much of this is intentional? I’d argue maybe 50%. Where The Lego Movie was focused through Emmet, WyldStyle and her struggles were central to the narrative and remained so until the very end. Arguably, while Ant-Man attempts to echo this, with Janet’s protracted shelving, it doesn’t keep her meaningful throughout the climax as would be the logical response. While The Lego Movie‘s message is “Things are shitty, but they can get better, Ant-Man‘s is “Things are shitty. Deal with it. Or maybe not. I don’t know.”
D. SO… WHY DIDN’T OPTION B HAPPEN?
The “Wasp” movie could’ve been written to happen so easily, one wonders if it wasn’t deliberately prevented. As I’ve said, Marvel Studios has a big problem with female representation. That seems to be the most obvious answer. The company still feels it has to work up to “big ideas” like female-led movies, which I still feel is a massive cop-out.
All that said, thanks to his infamy in the comics for beating his wife and creating Ultron, Ant-Man’s a hair more well-known, but the Wasp has nearly always been his teammate and has certainly been on the Avengers for longer than he has. It makes just as much sense to make a Wasp movie as an Ant-Man movie.
The fact is, despite the relatable everyman charm and tension-diffusing humor that Scott Lang brings to the table, we’ve seen his like too many times before in the MCU: the archetypical trickster. Ant-Man, 3 Iron Man movies (5 if you count the Avengers movies), Star-Lord, and Loki. What’s more, Marvel knows comedy works. Guardians of the Galaxy got a much-needed push from its comedy, as did the Avengers. Arguably, Age of Ultron “suffered” at the box office from having less of it. Thus far, Winter Soldier is the MCU’s only “serious” thriller, but that was a sequel to an established property. Unless Marvel found a way to mine comedy from it, my “Wasp” rewrite suggestion probably would’ve been too risky a pitch for their practices.
It could also be as simple as “Wright and Cornish wrote Ant-Man. We’re doing Ant-Man.” That’s the most fair answer that addresses the fact that Marvel’s been wanting to produce this script for over a decade. Removing Hope’s frustration and anger from the material reveals a script with a much older structure -one that befitted superhero movies of the mid-00s when the genre was beginning to find a consistent voice and reliable narrative structure. If released ten years ago, Ant-Man would’ve been among the high bar of superhero movies. Perhaps even with Batman Begins and just above Spider-Man 2. Today, its unbalanced-but-otherwise-direct origin story with “evil version of protagonist” villain feels like a throwback. Not an unwelcome one, mind you, but one that’s sort of behind narrative trends in the genre.
Moreover, with superhero movies -particularly Marvel movies- popular in the mainstream, we, as an audience, are a lot to choose from. We’ve seen some truly excellent stories, some clearly pushing the genre forward, and we’re beginning to demand that transcendence on a regular basis.
D. “LESS IS MORE”
This has been the lesson for 2015 blockbusters. Well, critically, anyway. The slick simplicity of Mad Max: Fury Road has been the model for excellence this year at a time where movies are bloating themselves to the point of breaking. Jurassic World was a baffling slurry of disjointed narrative, theme, and character beats all in the service of a nostalgia trip, and Avengers: Age of Ultron forced plot beats and themes that were inappropriate to its story, when the answer was as simple as “It’s Iron Man’s story.” Already, critics are praising Ant-Man for its comparative brevity to Age of Ultron, but those reviews are mixed, all highlighting central issues in story focus and pacing.
Is this a teachable moment for Marvel? With Captain America: Civil War on the horizon, I doubt it. That’s going to be Avengers-lite. Still, maybe there’s hope for the upcoming Dr. Strange, Captain Marvel, and Black Panther.
I’d sure like to think so, anyway.