Hot off the heels of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Marvel is back with its second release of the year in Ant-Man. As the film’s title intimates, Ant-Man is essentially Marvel’s attempt to do a smaller film before ratcheting things back up in Captain America: Civil War. Of course, using the words Marvel and small in the same sentence is somewhat of an oxymoron—especially given its $130 million-dollar budget and Avengers-coattail-riding ad campaign (not to mention the tumultuous, widely-publicized departure of writer/director Edgar Wright). In a way, then, the publicity and buzz surrounding Ant-Man is emblematic of the irony of its seemingly contradictory aim: to embody magnitude and smallness in simultaneity. In this respect, Ant-Man speaks to the human condition in a unique way.
Striving for Smallness
Any film about a man who possesses a suit that shrinks him into the size of an ant will necessarily be smaller-scale in the obvious, thematic sense; and Marvel is keen to keep you from forgetting the fact, with numerous not-so-subtle references to the titular tiny insects scattered throughout the film. Moreover, the film’s tagline, “heroes don’t get any bigger” is there to remind you if all else fails. While Ant-Man is much more on the nose than most Marvel films, there are some genuinely impressive moments that epitomize its desire to be the smallest superhero movie ever. One of these moments takes place as an ant-sized Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) battles with his equally tiny nemesis Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) atop a Thomas The Train set. The action is filmed so that it is ostensibly as grand, epic, and world-changing as any corresponding scene in the Marvel canon, but this convention is then comedically turned on its head as a wide-angle shot shows the train set in the context of a child’s bedroom. Another, similar scene occurs as a miniature Scott Lang runs through a model-sized town while being fired upon by his life-sized enemies—the resulting effect of which smartly mimics the disaster porn sequence that is standard fare in virtually every summer blockbuster. In short, there aren’t many multi-million dollar movies that work so hard at being very, very small.
In spite of its attempts to embrace the scope and scale of its namesake, Ant-Man is an undeniably large film that wants to be seen as such. The ad campaign made that much clear when they released a series of posters that boasted of Ant-Man’s tremendous power. He doesn’t need a hammer or shield to be as cool as the kids down the block, they said. And then there’s the film itself, which goes (way) out of its way to pit Ant-Man against an Avenger, with the former emerging victorious. In other words, Ant-Man spends too much time trying to fit into the MCU (Marvel cinematic universe) and not enough being true to itself. It is one thing to formally experiment with the themes of scope and scale (see the examples from the previous section), but it is another thing entirely to continually prod the audience and tell them how awesome and epic your protagonist is and how he is totally on-par with the Hulk.
Going to the Ant
While it is easy to attribute Ant-Man’s size problem to the departure of Edgar Wright, the awkward tension actually is quite indicative of the human condition. In a very real sense, we like to feel small. We go to the Grand Canyon, gaze at the stars, watch Planet Earth, and ride rollercoasters because we are imbued by God with a sense of our smallness, our insignificance. We all bear the imago that tells us we are small for a reason. Conversely, Ant-Man shows that our desire to feel small has limits. The sublimity that often accompanies our attempts to confront our smallness is acceptable only insofar as we can control it. Marvel’s dilemma—that they want to make a movie about being small while simultaneously controlling how and when we feel ant-like—is, therefore, our dilemma. In other words, we want to visit the Grand Canyon to see that we are tiny, but we do not want to be lost at sea in order to attain to that same end. The problem for us (and for Marvel) is that we can’t have it both ways. We are tiny … but the Lord is sovereign.