The breath mint of the Marvel universe
We all know that Marvel has done something special with their cinematic universe. Well, not just special, groundbreaking. They invented the cinematic universe, and despite being the first people to do one of these things they’re also the best at doing it. That’s obviously impressive, but how the hell do they consistently pull it off without crushing themselves under the weight of continuity and repetition?
Ant-Man is the answer. Or to be more precise, Ant-Man is the linchpin to understanding just how Marvel is so successful in keeping their films and universe feeling fresh and exciting. You see Marvel uses Ant-Man to bring their careening, massive, complex, and lumbering universe back down to size (oh yes, prepare for size puns). While other heroes help to build the MCU’s storylines out and enlarge the world, Marvel uses Ant-Man to pull the series back in and cleanse our palette. His films land directly after the MCU’s biggest, most explosive team-ups, and while those movies might be the ones with the biggest box offices it’s our diminutive hero (and now heroine) who truly anchor this entire franchise.
One complaint is of the MCU is that all the films are the same, and to an extent that is true. Marvel definitely has a look and feel that they want from their films that keeps the universe whole and coherent in their eyes, and it can lead to a certain feeling of malaise from an outside perspective. In fact, Ant-Man himself has been victim to this after Edgar Wright was moved off the first film. However, within the blueprint Marvel encourages and allows a good amount of wiggle room, with films hitting different genres and tones. It’s the key to keeping the MCU fresh — they’ve touched science fiction, heists, buddy cop, kung fu, Lovecraftian, horror, and even rom-com within their films. This variation is so important, and Ant-Man is the clearest example of it because of its important role in the MCU as a hard stop after the Avengers films.
Both Ant-Man and Ant-Man and the Wasp (our full review is coming soon) are comedies. I mean they’re big superhero movies, but their heart is grounded in comedy. While comedy plays a role in all of Marvel’s films, Ant-Man plays it for straight-up humor. The films are genuinely funny and play wonderfully with the intrinsic humor of a man riding an ant. It’s a great genre switch, but it’s important to note that these comedies come directly after Marvel’s biggest, boldest, cross-overiest films. In the middle of the universe going full steam ahead Marvel slams on the breaks and delivers what is for them a low-budget comedy without pretension or pomp. It’s just a brilliant movie. Instead of following up with some sort of attempt at trying to top their massive film, they simply step back and offer up a film they know won’t do as well, that appeals to a smaller audience, and they make the movie that way too. It lets the world take a breath, which is even more important after the climactic events of Infinity War.
Key to that very effort is the simple fact that save for a few callbacks and post-credit sequences these films are very functional as standalone movies. The first is a nearly stand-alone origin film, and the second occurs before Infinity War so its effects on the larger MCU have to be minimal. As such the movies are able to just have some fun, remind us all about why superheroes are cool, and not worry about what is becoming an ever more complex world of plotlines, rivalries and battles. Ant-Man’s films work as a clean slate that lets Marvel play in the MCU without being too involved in the MCU.
It helps that the character of Ant-Man is kind of ridiculous in and of itself. Of course, the casting of a comedic actor in Paul Rudd adds to this, but Ant-Man himself is pretty absurd. He shrinks and grows, runs around with super smart ants, and can shrink and grow things around him. His powers are relatively basic compared to a lot of the MCU, and since they skipped Pym’s Ant-Man and went straight to Scott Lang so is the hero himself. All this adds up to a character that works better in a film that’s not about massive, universe-spanning wars. He’s a perfect hero to get small with because he feels smaller in almost every way.
It’s hard to say whether or not other cinematic universes understand why all this is so important since most of them are struggling just to get launched in the first place, but we’ll take DC as an example of why it’s so important to have an Ant-Man. In DC’s misguided attempts to launch a cinematic universe they went from Man of Steel to Batman v. Superman to Wonder Woman to Justice League. These are all big, hard-hitting, massively important films with universe shattering plots that weight heavily on viewers even if they weren’t all so dark and angry all the time. It’s non-stop, big important stuff, and it’s just fucking tiring. Each movie needs to be seen to get the next one, and the decisions are all earth-shatteringly huge. There’s no personal story, no room for characters, no personal touch aside from Wonder Woman, which is still a big movie. It’s a cinematic universe that’s on high alert all the time, and as any comic book reader will tell you some of the best stories come from the little one-offs, not the mega-crossovers.
As anyone who has put together a dance mix for a party knows, playing non-stop hits doesn’t work. You need to give people a rest with a down song that’s fun but clears the floor a bit, then you bring everyone back in. Marvel uses Ant-Man to do this to wonderful effect while DC for a variety of reasons doesn’t. I’ll admit the comparison to DC is a bit apples-to-oranges, but DC is the closest thing we have to even touching Marvel’s success.
The fact is, a big universe like this needs to take a breath, and Marvel uses Ant-Man to do just that. Our next dive into the universe will be Captain Marvel, a movie that’s a prequel to the entire universe, but should still be pretty big in terms of the scope of the MCU. Then we return to Avengers with another earth-shattering film. That’s a lot of big deals landing, but for now Ant-Man lets the MCU and its audience have some fun. We get to take a break, laugh at the shrinking man, enjoy the introduction of The Wasp, and remind ourselves that superhero films are fun because… they’re fun. Without Ant-Man this whole thing would fall apart under its own weight. His films might not be the biggest money makers, but as our hero shows, it’s not the size that matters.