If you accept the axiom that “super-heroes are our modern mythology,” then allow me to start this review with a little bit of myth-busting. It’ll be fun, I promise.
Myth #1 : I reflexively hate all Marvel movies. This idea has become so entrenched among my friends and readership (such as it is) that I’ve come to accept it myself. But before I sat down to write this thing — well, okay, I was already sitting down, but I hadn’t started writing yet — I looked back over my past reviews of Marvel flicks and discovered something curious, namely : I’ve actually “gone easier” on most of these than even I thought.
Thor? I gave that one a pretty decent write-up. Captain America : The First Avenger? I gave that a glowingly positive review. X-Men : First Class and X-Men : Days Of Future Past? Again, wildly enthusiastic notices from yours truly. The Avengers? I wasn’t even all that negative on that one, more just — meh. The Avengers : Age Of Ultron? Again, just sort of tepid, but I actually said it was better than I thought it was going to be. Veering more towards the “positive” again, we have my reviews for The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
Really, the only Marvel flicks that I’ve expressed outright disdain towards were Thor : The Dark World, Captain America : Winter Soldier, Iron Man 3 and Guaradians Of The Galaxy. I was admittedly pretty relentless in my condemnation of all of those, but fuck it — I still stand by every word I said and think they’re pieces of celluloid shit with basically no redeeming qualities whatsoever. On the whole, though, I’ve actually written more positive reviews of Marvel movie product than I have negative ones. Go figure.
Myth #2 : Marvel’s latest, Ant-Man, had a “successful” opening weekend. I’m calling pure bullshit on this one, and it’s frankly astonishing to me how few people are willing to state the obvious here — that they’ve got their first flop on their hands since The Incredible Hulk.
Let’s talk about some obvious double-standards here, shall we? When Green Lantern took in $53 million its opening weekend, it was was touted as a “disaster” for Warner Brothers and DC. Likewise for Watchmen’s opening take of $55 million. Superman Returns was immediately written off as a major disappointment when it hauled in $52 million. And how about The Amazing Spider-Man 2? That flick was subject to an almost relentless “netroots” smear campaign co-ordinated by Marvel and aimed at Sony for the express purpose of getting them to throw in the towel on the franchise and “bring it home” to the so-called “House Of Ideas.” It raked in $91 million its opening weekend and was instantly labeled a “failure” thanks to Marvel’s uncanny ability to essentially control the entire fucking internet when it wants to.
All of which brings us back to Ant-Man. It made $58 million this past weekend — barely more than Green Lantern, Watchmen, and Superman Returns (despite having higher 3-D ticket prices than those three flicks), and far less than The Amazing Spider-Man 2 took in — and yet the headline on IMDB this evening reads “Ant-Man Comes Up Giant.” Please.
Reading the full text of this week’s chart analysis on boxoffice.com, the truth becomes more evident : you’ve gotta go down a couple paragraphs, but the ugly reality Dis/Mar can’t ignore is in there : this represents the second-lowest opening weekend for a Marvel movie ever (after The Incredible Hulk), and the lowest, when adjusted for inflation, in terms of actual ticket sales. It’s also highly unlikely that it will have much in terms of “legs” going forward, because it’s got a heck of a lot of competition out there right now. This movie landed with a thud — but it almost seems like people are afraid to say so.
Normally I’d just chalk that up to Marvel’s overpowering PR machine “spinning” the message as they always do. Or possibly to the fact that Ant-Man has been a troubled production almost from the start — original screenwriter/director Edgar Wright bailed out over “creative differences” in favor of the apparently-more-pliable Peyton Reed and there have been reports of cost over-runs leaking into the entertainment press here and there — and maybe all the negative early scuttlebutt convinced casual or “on the fence” fans to take a pass, but ya know what? At this point I think there might be something more going on. Have you taken a look at the upcoming release schedules from Dis/Mar and Warner? Both Marvel and DC films are going to be positively ubiquitous for the next 5-6 years, and if the whole super-hero trend is finally starting to run on fumes, Hollywood is in for a very rough half-decade. Nobody’s saying that Ant-Man is flop because Hollywood can’t afford even the idea of a super-hero movie flopping right now. They’ve put all their eggs in one basket, and the frankly monumental degree to which this one “under-performed” right out of the gate has studio execs all over Tinseltown nervous.
And now that we’ve got all that business concluded, let’s talk about the film itself, shall we? I promise to keep it brief.
Dear God but this sucked, didn’t it? I mean, seriously. And I can say that in complete safety having established my bona fides as “nowhere near the Marvel-basher my reputation would suggest.” This is just a bad movie. Paul Rudd is likable enough in his lead role as ex-con-turned-reluctant-hero Scott Lang, but from there it’s all just downhill. Michael Douglas is an obviously tired and disinterested shell of his former self as “original” Ant-Man Dr. Hank Pym, Evangeline Lilly has all the charisma and charm of a Denny’s omelette as supposed “leading lady” Hope van Dyne, Corey Stoll is particularly uneven and unbelievable as chief baddie Darren Cross/Yellowjacket (although I give the half-dozen-or-so screenwriters credit for admitting, even if by accident, that corporate CEOs and psychopaths are often one and the same), the talents of Martin Donovan are absolutely wasted in a two-bit “supporting villain” role (and speaking of wasted talent, why have Hayley Atwell’s Agent Carter in here at all?), the humor is flat, the pacing uneven, the idea that a guy could train to shrink down to sub-atomic size over the course of a weekend without losing his mind is a heck of a stretch even for a Marvel movie, and they give away how the whole thing’s gonna end pretty early on when they explain how Ant-Man’s red and blue discs work ( old-school Doctor Who fans will know what I mean when I call this scene the film’s “Hexachromide moment” ).
If all that weren’t enough, though, there are also Ant-Man‘s hideously offensive racial politics to consider. Sure, Scott’s done time, but he go busted for a Robin Hood-style crime of stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Why, he’s even got a Master’s degree in electrical engineering (he tells us so himself). He’s also, ya know, white. His trio of prison buddies, though — well, they’re real criminals. Why, just look at ’em — one’s Latino (played by Michael Pena), one’s black (hip-hop star T.I.), and one’s a dirty Russian immigrant (David Dastmalchian). All three of them are dumber than a box of rocks, too. Good thing they have their educated friend around to keep ’em out of trouble.
The only character in the film who’s anything other than a one-note cipher is a cop named Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), who’s married to Scott’s ex-wife and starts out thinking the worst about our “hero” but ends up coming around. Even his “character arc” is fairly cliched, true, but at least it exists. Everyone else is basically the same from start to finish. And all of this is brought to you via Reed is Marvel’s dull-as-day-old-dogshit “house style” that makes every movie look and feel like a two-hour TV episode with a huge budget.
There’s a bit of a small-scale tragedy in all this, of course — Ant-Man is definitely an “also-ran” character and the potential was here to do something altogether different than what we’ve come to expect from typical MCU fare. But I think that potential probably headed out the door along with Edgar Wright. “Different” is something Marvel just doesn’t do at this point — but they might want to re-think that stodgy mindset pretty quickly, or the next few years could be long and hard ones indeed. Ant-Man‘s poor showing at the box office certainly isn’t proof positive that a “super-hero implosion” is necessarily upon us just yet, but it’s a strong signal that one could be in the offing, and the more rigidly Dis/Mar adheres to their strict assembly-line formula, the more quickly they’ll usher in the day when people really do just find themselves getting tired of the same old stuff.