Flawed Heroes, Edgar Wright and the Incorruptible Ant-Man

Which one won?
The grand “what might have been.” The eternal tale of how life is. Image from here.

Director Edgar Wright’s departure from Marvel Studios’ Ant-Man before it was due to start filming will keep film critics and academics in coin for years. Wright, one of the most creative and inventive directors around, had worked for several years on the film and retains both executive producer and screewnwriter credits on the final feature. However, for all that Ant-Man retains some of the hallmarks of Wright’s work, it’s not one of his films. For better or worse, his replacement as writer and director, Peyton Reed, has made it his own. Trying to split hairs over what belongs to Wright and what belongs to Reed is unfair to both directors, and to the film. (Which isn’t to say that people aren’t trying.) Ant-Man is more than just a good movie. It’s a funny, clever action comedy, anchored by the ever-likeable Paul Rudd in the lead role, with a climactic action sequence that manages to be both thrilling and laugh-out-loud funny. (As one of my co-cinema-goers pointed out, it more or less takes Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel finale and simultaneously parodies and improves it.) Among the Marvel Studios films, which have been fairly high quality so far, it’s a solid mid-ranker. The fact that it isn’t better is mostly down to the script, which is disjointed in a way that may indicate its history of having been crafted in two parts. Several times, characters often hint at a deeper story, then veer off into less satisfying explanations. The result is that the emotional heart of the movie is nowhere near as powerful as it might have been, with good guys that are too good, and a bad guy who’s too bad. It’s easy to suspect that this might not have been the case had Edgar Wright remained involved. His most notable films to date have all focused on flawed heroes who’ve had to grow up and face their shortcomings amid hilarious cartoon violence. In the “Cornetto trilogy” (Shaun of the Dead, Fuzz, and The World’s End), Simon Pegg played the man-child part, whereas and Wright’s previous venture into comic-book adaptation, Scott Pilgrim, (based on a series of books more or less built around this idea). Ant-Man’s central character, Scott Lang, would seem to be a perfect example of this. A man of squandered potential, he slides into burglary as he tries to support his ex-wife and daughter, and the film begins with him getting out of jail. There’d be plenty of opportunity for growth in a character who’s screwed up and is offered a way out. Except that his screwing up is a matter of circumstance, not personality: Lang is portrayed as a Robin Hood-style “burglar,” who stole from the rich to give to the poor. As a result, when he gets a chance to be a hero both to his daughter and the world at large, the fact that he decides to go for it feels a little thin. The person who offers Lang this chance is Michael Douglas’s Hank Pym, once the Ant-Man of the 1960s and now a recluse. Pym, a brilliant inventor who created a shrinking device, lost his wife (Janet van Dyne, Marvel’s Wasp) while playing spy and hero for SHIELD in the 1970s. His guilt and culpability over his wife’s death and the implications of his technology would provide great motivations for his actions, except that when he reveals the truth to Lang and his daughter, Hope (played by Evangeline Lilly), there isn’t really that much for him to feel guilty about, so the revelation and his reasons end up a little thin. As a result, Hope is particularly ill served by the film. She’s a more-than-competent aide to Pym in his efforts to frustrate Darren Cross, Pym’s former assistant and the villain of the piece. Smart and physically capable, she insists that she ought to be the one receiving the Ant-Man suit and its abilities, but her father insists he doesn’t want to lose her the way he did her mother. It’s a thin argument that would have been given greater weight had the film leaned more on the idea that the Ant-Man technology has a deleterious effect on the user’s mentality, but that idea gets dropped almost as soon as it’s mentioned. Except, that is, in the case of Corey Stoll’s Cross, whose descent into villainy (he never seems insane, just angry) is blamed on the technology. This doesn’t fit though—Cross doesn’t (indeed, can’t) use the shrinking technology until the very end of the movie, whereas Pym supposedly rejected him years before the movie begins. Likewise, though Pym used the original suit for years, neither he nor his wife are ever described as suffering any ill-effects. There’s a disconnect here, as Cross’s grudge would be a lot more meaningful if Pym’s change of heart about using his technology was better ground. So what’s missing? Well, in the comic book, Hank Pym has a chequered past. He did indeed go insane (the cause of this depending on the writer), at one point assaulting his wife and later developing a split personality. Douglas’s Pym’s isn’t insane, but his unwillingness to tell Hope what happened to her mother would make a lot more sense if the original idea was to have her the victim of his technology-driven insanity. That insanity would also go a long way to explaining why Pym hid his technology from the world—a squadron of insane micro-super soldiers is a fate worth avoiding. There’s a scene in the middle of the film, that makes me sure this is how things originally were. It comes after Pym reveals the truth behind his wife’s demise.  Scott points out to Hope that the reason he’s wearing the suit is because he’s expendable. Coming after Pym’s story of Janet’s loss, it’s a logical deduction, albeit one that paints Pym as a callous manipulator. If, however, Pym had been more directly culpable, he would have become a more tortured figure. And in being willing to take on part of his guilt, a less noble Scott would have been turning away from the role of a crook and towards the role of a hero. There’s one more element here that might clarify the issue: Pym’s wife didn’t die, she shrank into the sub-atomic realm, where “time and space are completely different”. How Pym knows this is never explained, but he’d originally hoped to retrieve her. A more haunted Pym might have genuinely believed his wife was irretrievably lost, compounding his guilt. At the very climax of the film, Lang himself shrinks into the sub-atomic realm to save his daughter, thus proving his heroism. The fact that he manages to return is noted but glossed over, but it might have been a moment of redemption for Pym, the chance of retrieving his wife suddenly a reality again. Most of the speculation regarding Wright’s departure from the film suggested that it was due to conflict about shoe-horning in “franchise” elements, like the Avengers and SHIELD. That doesn’t seem too likely though—the elements that are there fit in pretty neatly. Even the sub-atomic realm, which is said to lead into the upcoming Doctor Strange movie, sits pretty well with the rest of the movie. But what if the real issue was Marvel being uncomfortable a Pym who thought he’d killed his own wife through his technology, or a Lang who was an actual thief given a chance to redeem himself? Both Hope and Cross would be victim’s of Pym’s fears, their character proved through the choices they made in reaction to it: to forgive or to take umbrage. Those kinds of characters sound like ones Wright might have written. It’s all speculation, albeit fun speculation, and not everything is meaningful. Marvel’s NDAs are probably solid enough that it will be years (if ever) before we see the original script for the movie. For the moment we’re just going to have to wait for Wright’s next movie, unfettered by the demands of the Marvel mega-franchise, and Ant-Man will have to succeed or fail on its own merits.

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