The Joke That Had to Die So That Ant-Man Could Thrive

By  · Published on July 15th, 2015

Marvel Studios

There’s nothing worse than a movie that doesn’t believe in its own world. When a film ‐ generally a comic book movie or a feature based on a cartoon ‐ starts poking fun at itself, that doesn’t lure in an audience member in, it only distances them. A recent offender is last summer’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which didn’t holdback in nudging and winking at audiences, basically telling them, ‘We know big, talking, and fighting turtles are silly, but just go along with it!’ That’s not self-deprecation, but an ironic distance that, in most cases, is unnecessary.

Marvel studios scored big last summer with Guardians of the Galaxy. Director James Gunn’s space adventure was their weirdest movie yet, and audiences embraced a feisty, talking raccoon and a badass tree with a heart of gold. Marvel’s latest film, Ant-Man, is a superhero movie that takes place in the real world, but its concept is as out there as Guardians of the Galaxy.

A thief, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), becomes a miniature-sized hero with super strength and the power to control ants? A few years ago audiences maybe would have scoffed at the idea, but now, that’s unlikely. “I’m sure Marvel was emboldened by Guardians,” director Peyton Reed (Down with Love) tells us. “It’s a crazy movie ‐ a swing for the fences. They just don’t want to repeat themselves, and that’s a healthy instinct.”

In 2011’s Green Lantern, when Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) poked fun at Abin Sur being a purple alien, it killed the drama and reality of what should have been an emotional passing of the torch moment. That disastrous comic book movie didn’t embrace what should have made it weird and special. Ant-Man isn’t embarrassed by its concept, which is why the filmmakers cut a flat joke we all saw in the first trailer for the film.

“There are a lot of decisions along the way about this,” Reed says. “All over the advertising was that moment between Pym and Scott, where Pym says, ‘I need you to be the Ant-Man.’ Scott asks, ‘Is it too late to change the name?’ We cut it out of the movie, because any kind of joke like that only needed to happen once, and the better version of it is in a fight scene, when he’s asked, ‘Who are you?’ ‘I’m Ant-Man,’ he says. ‘What? You’ve never heard of me? Of course you’ve never heard of me.’ He’s saying who he is, being self-deprecating and acknowledging who he is. The other joke [we cut] felt more like, ‘Hey audience, we know that, on the face of it, this seems stupid.’ This movie has to believe in itself, and that’s one of the beauties of having Paul Rudd playing Scott Lang. His whole self-deprecating thing and reactive style of comedy serves as the eyes and ears of the audience. There is something inherently absurd, conceptually, about Ant-Man, which I love. Paul’s reactions are probably similar to what an audience member’s is going to be, and that’s a great strength of Paul’s.”

Like Guardians of the Galaxy, a reason why Ant-Man works is that it fully invests in its story, especially when it comes to emotion. The worlds and situations aren’t realistic, but the feelings and conflicts the heroes experience are tangible. As silly as things may get, the drama and stakes are played straight. “I don’t want to do a movie that doesn’t commit to itself,” Reed concludes. “I have no interest in a winky-winky movie that only exists to poke fun at itself. You have to commit, or else an audience shouldn’t be expected to. I feel like we commit whole-heartedly to the concept, and it’s a weird concept.”

Ant-Man opens in theaters July 17th.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.