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The Ant-Man movies were a huge influence on the MCU

Iron Man and Black Widow are dead. Thor is busy with parenting. New versions of Black Panther and Captain America are likely still present at the Avengers orientation. So 2023 seems like a natural time for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to promote Scott Lang from ex-convict comic relief third-stringer superhero to Avengers frontman. But the press about Scott’s big leap in narrative responsibility chimed in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania overlooks the truth: The Ant man movies have been central to the workings of the MCU all along.

While the first and second Ant man movies acted as light breathers after mega team-up Avengers movies, the three-quel Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania landed a prime position as the kickoff movie for the MCU’s “Phase 5,” which introduced primary multiverse antagonist Kang (Jonathan Majors) to the big screen after a brief appearance in the Loki TV program. It seemed like a new direction for Ant-Man, especially with director Peyton Reed express his excitement about repositioning the series of post-Avengers palate cleanser to grand mythology main dish.

But there’s more to Ant-Man than even Reed gives him credit for, and it dates back to his introduction in 2015’s Ant man. So many heroes have been brought into the MCU right now through original story features and TV shows that it’s easy to forget how early in the franchise that movie arrived. At the time of its release, almost all Marvel-produced movies focused on the original Avengers release The AvengersLineup for 2012, each featuring several entries for mini-franchises centered around Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor. (It also had an Incredible Hulk movie in it, recast amnesia.) Ant man was the first origin story outside of that circle.

Image: Marvel Studios

Yes, Guardians of the Universe arrived in 2014, but that wasn’t a superhero solo joint: it’s a team-building movie in the Avengers vein and a space fantasy in the style of Star Wars. James Gunn turned that movie into something different from what the MCU was becoming at the time Ant man put the ‘more’ into ‘more of the same’.

by 2014, Ant man it seemed like it was largely produced because director Edgar Wright had done quite a bit of pre-production work on it before annoyed at Marvel interference and left the project, and because the profitable MCU brand could use a second movie that year. That also-run status strangely became key to Ant man‘s legacy. Movies like Ant man2016 Doctor StrangeAnd Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings would never have the same seismic impact on cinema as the franchise’s 2008 launch Iron Man.

But eight years later Ant man looks like a crucial signpost on the MCU road – proof that where Iron Man didn’t need Batman-level popularity to lead a huge franchise, future installments in the franchise didn’t must be Iron Man to be viable, crowd-pleasing hits. Casting an established star as a lower-level superhero didn’t always have to mean giving a Robert Downey Jr.-level star a career-redefining performance as a Tony Stark-level character. Beloved comics actor Paul Rudd who affably plays the little-known mainstay of comics Scott Lang could do just fine. Ant man wasn’t a huge hit to end Phase 2, but it provided a clear MCU baseline in a post-Iron Man world.

In hindsight the first Ant man also set a standard tone for the MCU as the company ramped up its production pipeline. That movie currently enjoys a reputation as one of the more comedic Marvel movies, and it certainly has a few more overt running gags than, shall we say, Doctor Strange or Black Panther. But look at the film again: there really aren’t that many jokes in it, especially for a screenplay co-credited by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and Paul Rudd.

A mini Ant-Man runs into a huge chest-deep crowd of CG ants in a scene from 2018's Ant-Man and the Wasp

Image: Marvel Studios

While the comedic tone of the MCU is often largely credited to a combination of Downey, Joss Whedon, and various attempts to imitate those two voices, the later films drift away from anything truly similar. Whedon’s writing is carefully calibrated (sometimes downright calculated) to weave genuine pathos, suspense-busting gags, and catchy turns of phrase. The shortcut-heavy language of the weaker MCU entries – the language of “So That happened’ or ‘I ruined the moment, didn’t I?’ – is much more Ant man than Century of Ultron. And like Rudd as Lang, it landed with an audience at a level that made it a viable way to approach projects in the future.

although Ant man feels like a template in many ways, that template process wasn’t instant or absolute. Some of the Phase 3 films that followed were among the studio’s best and least generic: Spider Man: Coming Home, Thor: Ragnarokand the triumph of the original Black Panther. Given the relative leeway given to directors Taika Waititi or Ryan Coogler, it could have followed that 2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp could lean further into the spunky style of returning director Peyton Reed, who previously made the dizzying cheerleading league comedy Bring it on and the retro romcom Gone with love. There was no reason why this relatively short, low-stakes adventure, set before the apocalyptic events of the just-released Avengers: Infinite War, had to commit to other Marvel movies. Reed could afford to actually make it the outlier Ant man originally seemed to be.

Instead of, Ant-Man and the Wasp even more MCU parameters determined – this time visually. Cinematographer Dante Spinotti, who shot Heat And LA Confidential, uses the same faded palette favored by the Russo brothers. It made sense for the grit of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but this style has come to flatten the look of movies all over the MCU, regardless of subject matter. As compared to Ant-Man and the Waspgrayness, the first Ant man looks like a model of vivid contrast, shadow and color – it looks like a real movie. Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: No Way Homeand a lot of it Shan Chiamong other MCU movies, largely mimic the Wasp look, even if they come from different (and in their other work often very distinctive) cinematographers.

Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) in full superhero costumes with their masks on sit in the back of a truck in a rather grubby, generic-looking scene from 2018's Ant-Man and the Wasp

Image: Marvel Studios

Even more than its predecessor, Ant-Man and the Wasp now feels like a test balloon: it’s a comedy-of-remarriage chase movie of sorts, with elements of Peter Bogdanovich’s 1972 screwball romance What’s wrong, doctor? and the 1988 action comedy Robert De Niro/Charles Grodin Midnight run. That sounds like a very distinctive project – except Reed puts all of these elements together into a standard-issue, bland superhero adventure with the lightness of satisfying action comedy, but not the actual laughs. It gives the impression of a good time with likeable characters and inventive special effects, but it also helps build an MCU where even the most specific visions have to match the look and feel of the house.

Wasp also marks the spot where fans should have realized the futility of hoping for individual MCU films to circumvent the franchise’s established boundaries. If the linked title characters of Ant-Man and the Wasp can’t share more than the occasional chaste kiss, it seems unlikely that other relationships in the MCU will get any real romance. The Ant man movies aren’t the only MCU projects to suffer for over-promising about genre experimentation. However, they feel influential when it comes to establishing clear narrative boundaries for even the lowest-stakes projects.

The fact that Quantumania completely subsuming the supposed smallness and modesty of the Ant-Man series into cosmic MCU world-building may seem like a change of pace, and in a few superficial ways, it is. There’s no Michael Peña telling a long and comically detailed story, no giant Pez dispensers, and no small-scale villains. This movie stars future Avengers adversary Kang and even reinvents a past Ant-Man antagonist as a bigger, weirder villain. The film deals with what should be a series of clever ironies: Scott opens the film with a story about how he feels like he’s on top of the world after his outrageous role in saving the universe in Avengers: endgame, only to be sucked into another world of consequences he’s not ready for. Shrinking the characters to visit the Quantum Realm makes the movie so “small” that it becomes big again.

But Quantumania doesn’t really twist itself to better fit the MCU. It completes a process of adapting the MCU to the middling levels of an Ant-Man movie, to the point where a lightweight, mildly amusing adventure is more or less indistinguishable from a universe-altering, dimension-crossing epic. Does this film juxtapose the complacency of an established superhero with the idealism of his teenage daughter, or does it invent a family-friendly adventure? Is it a funnier Star Wars riff, à la Guardians of the Universe, or a vehicle for Kang’s doomy sci-fi omen? The filmmakers would probably all say yes to it: it’s another one-stop shop for MCU entertainment.

Yet Quantumanialike many recent MCU films, it struggles with scale – and not in the original’s fun, playful way Ant man did with its satisfying action sequences (one of its strongest elements, and one that inexplicably didn’t carry over to any of the movies it seems to have inspired and modeled). Its weightless action takes place in a physical and spiritual void. To loosely paraphrase Norma Desmond sunset Blvd.Ant-Man didn’t suddenly get big – it’s the pictures that gradually got small.