The humming hit machine that is Marvel Studios is serving up two entries in its cinematic universe for us this year. One (Avengers: Age of Ultron) is a sure-fire hit sequel, while the other (Ant-Man) is a little on the quirkier side. Seemingly conscious that a film about a superhero who can shrink himself to microscopic size should possess some self-awareness, Marvel released a poster that depicts the protagonist as a dot against a vast empty field, and a postage-stamp sized teaser that had to be viewed on YouTube with a magnifying glass. But rather than stick to winking self-deprecation, yesterday's full trailer seemed to promise another fearfully serious origin story. “I need you … to be the Ant-Man,” intones mentor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) to Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), as a dramatic score swells in the background, and thudding drums cue up footage of Scott riding, well, an ant.
What's especially strange about this turn of events is that Marvel enjoyed such success last year with Guardians of the Galaxy (still the top-grossing movie of 2014), which was presented with a real sense of playfulness from the beginning, down to the rollicking '70s soundtrack and a villain's puzzled "Who?" when our hero introduces himself as "Star-Lord." Using its increasingly bulletproof brand to showcase less well-known heroes, Guardians was also the most visually distinctive Marvel movie to date, partly due to its cosmic setting and the inspired choice of hiring director James Gunn. Ant-Man seemed poised to mimic that approach, and was originally being developed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), who cast Rudd in the lead role before suddenly departing over creative differences with Marvel last May.
Wright's exit was a crying shame, and seemed to suggest there was only so much room for inventiveness within the Marvel infrastructure. Still, he was quickly replaced with director Peyton Reed (who made the exceptional comedies Bring it On and Down With Love) and the script was re-done by Rudd and Adam McKay (who wrote and directed all of Will Ferrell's biggest hits), suggesting Marvel wanted to embrace a lighter touch. There are hints of levity in this trailer—"Huh!" Lang exclaims at his mentor's weighty monologue. "One question: Is it too late to change the name?"—but that zinger that might land smoother if it wasn't followed by another almighty orchestral bang.
Given Ant-Man's rushed production timetable in the wake of Wright's departure, it's possible there simply isn't much for us to see at this point—and there are plenty of examples of a film turning out to be much better than the advertised project. But this clunky launch underscores what a delicate proposition each new superhero launch will be in a Hollywood increasingly choked by them. It's hard to make an origin story seem fresh, and one reason Marvel has pulled it off is by presenting every new character as the latest entry in a grand franchise: When The Avengers came together as a team, it didn't seem like a beginning so much as a continuation of five different stories at once.
With Ant-Man, it's sadly pretty easy to guess the story parameters from one minute and 48 seconds of footage: there's an old scientist, a magic suit, a down-on-his luck hero (with a daughter, for some emotional stakes), an evil-looking industrialist, and a butt-kicking love interest. Shake-and-bake for instant heroics.
Part of the problem might be Ant-Man's labored comic book history. Three different Marvel Comics characters have taken the name; the first being Hank Pym, a founding member of the Avengers who was a renowned scientist with some severe emotional issues, cycling through various costumed identities and beating his wife (a hero called the Wasp) in a fairly groundbreaking 1980s storyline. The second was Scott Lang, who followed a classic (read: dull) hero's journey, going from small-time burglar to Avenger, but never distinguishing himself enough to really stand out from the pack (his arc seems to be the one being employed for the film). The most recent was Eric O'Grady, an amoral government employee who gains access to the shrinking suit and uses it mostly for personal gain, in a memorable 2007 series called The Irredeemable Ant-Man that served as a meta-comment on the tortured history of the hero.
That would likely be too self-referential a direction for a blockbuster film to go in, but it's disappointing that Marvel has tacked hard the other way in trying to sell us on its latest protagonist. Audiences have proven, time and again, that they can handle the unusual. Why then try to sell an "Ant-Man" as another in a long line of dark, gritty, ab-flexing anti-heroes? As the world of costumed champions grows ever larger, surely there's plenty of space for something more off-kilter.