It’s time for my third and final post on Ant-Man and the Marvel Cinematic Universe! In case you missed them, the first post was about the villains of the MCU, and the second one talked about the MCU’s character diversity. Each of these posts looks at Marvel’s latest film, Ant-Man, and uses it as a springboard to examine elements of the entire MCU.
This post is gonna use some plot points in Ant-Man and examine them against the plots of some of the other MCU movies, with a light emphasis on Marvel’s Phase Two. So, of course: Spoilers ahead, not just for Ant-Man, but for everything that’s been released so far in the MCU. This includes all twelve movies and its three current television series.
The first thing to note about Ant-Man is that the movie has a considerably smaller scale than all the other MCU movies. Released just two months after Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man greatly benefits from its smaller world. Yes, the Avengers exist, and they’re not only name dropped, but one of them appears and battles Scott Lang. Fortunately, these small instances of world building are hardly the focus of the movie.
Scott isn’t trying to save the world–he’s trying to stop Darren Cross from selling the technology behind the Pym Particles. It’s a heist movie, and a fun one at that. If Scott fails in his mission, and this technology does, in fact, get into enemy hands, then it’s not automatically the end of the world. Rather, a larger threat is created for a sequel. (Note: bad guy Mitchell Carson actually does escape with the particles Cross created.) Because there’s a sense that Scott could actually fail in his mission, I’m immediately more invested in the plot than I would be if the world was in danger.
The problem with superheroes saving the world is that there’s never any doubt that they’ll do it. Thor: The Dark World and Avengers: Age of Ultron standout in this category for me. I’m never wondering if Malekith is going to succeed or fail in his attempts to cover the world in darkness, because, y’know, duh. There’s not going to be an Avengers sequel if everyone is dead. Likewise, in Age of Ultron, no one ever doubts that the world is going to be saved by the Avengers and Ultron is going to be stopped.
I think that having a save-the-world plot could be okay, if you create stakes elsewhere. Maybe the world is certainly going to be saved, but there is believable danger in getting to that point. Outside of a few examples I’ll discuss, Marvel seems intent on not having those kind of stakes.
If you look at every one of the MCU’s Phase Two movies, you’ll notice something alarming: every film pretends to kill a character, only to reverse that action by the end of the movie. We’ll start with Ant-Man, which is the only film of the bunch that does it in a mild, acceptable manner: Hank Pym is shot, and it looks like he dies in his daughter’s arms…or, at the very least, that he is dying. Five minutes later he’s just fine, and by now, we expect that. The past five movies have given us reason to. Let’s take a look:
- Iron Man 3: Pepper Pots is dropped into a blazing inferno. She lives, though.
- Thor: The Dark World: Loki sacrifices himself to save his brother, in a move that actually would have been a brilliant sendoff. Butttttt he faked it. He’s actually Odin.
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Well, for starters, our villain died seventy years ago in the first Captain America movie, but whatever. Let’s cut that one some slack. However, Nick Fury dies, and a lot of time is dedicated to this death, but, uh, y’know, he’s actually all good.
- Guardians of the Galaxy: In a scene that should be all sorts of emotional, Groot sacrifices himself to save his friends. Its emotional impact is robbed by the sting of the last few MCU films: we know there’s no way in hell Groot is actually dead. He’s dancing again by the end of the movie.
- Avengers: Age of Ultron: The first thing Ultron does is kill off JARVIS, immediately establishing some personal stakes. But, hey, just kidding, JARVIS is alive and saving the world incognito.
- Bonus Round! In Phase Two television, Phil Coulson was killed in The Avengers, but he’s fine and dandy by the time Agents of SHIELD hits TV. The mystery of his resurrection is a big focus of the first season, and it’s ultimately super fucking disappointing.
That’s pretty dumb, man. Can we expect any actual stakes from Marvel?
Well, yes, I think so. Age of Ultron does manage to kill Quiksilver off (barely). And a look at Captain America: The Winter Soldier shows exactly how to create a movie where the world can be saved, but our heroes still face engaging conflict. SHIELD has been infiltrated by HYDRA, and Captain America completely dismantles SHIELD as a result. This is a huge loss for our heroes. It was game changing, and universe changing, too. That kind of bold storytelling needs to infiltrate the MCU more.
Daredevil, on Netflix, also established itself as a force to be reckoned with when it came to upping the ante. Many–including myself–were blown away by the way the Kingpin actually killed Ben Urich, a central figure in the Marvel Universe. Urich’s surprising death is just one of the many reasons Daredevil remains the single best thing in the MCU canon for me.
Ant-Man also benefits greatly from the absence of any of those damn Infinity Stones. Don’t know what I’m talking about? That’s alright, Marvel hasn’t made it easy to understand. They get explained briefly in Guardians of the Galaxy, and you’ll see them in Thor’s really weird, highly edited subplot in Age of Ultron. At least one shows up in Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Avengers: Age of Ultron. This is all set up for the MCU’s big bad, Thanos, who won’t be doing much of anything until Avengers: Infinity War.
I mean, look, props to Marvel for laying the groundwork for the movie eight years beforehand, but shit, often that setup bogs down the movie you’re watching. Marvel tends to focus too much on setting up future installments when it should be focusing on what’s going on right now. It’s true Ant-Man does its share of universe building, but it never feels distracting, like when Thor goes off and does his own weird shit in AoU.
Looking back on these three posts, it’s easy to see why I loved Ant-Man as much as I did. While it wasn’t the home run that The Winter Soldier was, it successfully carved its own little niche in the MCU, and felt like something new. My hope is that Marvel’s new projects like Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel follow a similar pattern. I want to see more compelling villains, more diversity, and I want to get some believable dramatic and personal stakes for our heroes.
And that’s a wrap on my three part series on Ant-Man and the Marvel Cinematic Universe! Leave a comment or send a tweet and let me know what you think about it all!