The release of any Marvel film brings with it the question of “where does it rank among all the other Marvel movies.” However, in the case of Ant-Man that question brings with it an added amount of weight and focus, as Ant-Man is also the conclusion to Marvel’s entire Phase 2 enterprise. This was meant as the big, showy example of everything Marvel could with both Disney’s money and the assured popularity of a mass fan base in the wake of Phase 1’s success at finding an audience for their B & C-list heroes. Oh there have been installments in phase 2 meant to broaden Marvel’s character rosters but more often than not that job fell to the sidebars of individual films. New characters like Iron Patriot, The Vision, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and the Falcon weren’t the focus of this experimental phase. No, the big push of phase 2 has been capitalizing on previous success to move things around for the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe story and there’s no getting around the truth that for the most part it just didn’t work.
Now don’t misinterpret me here, Marvel’s phase 2 isn’t bad, in fact none of Marvel’s films are objectively bad though there are quite a few that are empty, tedious, or most commonly flawed and that’s really the order of the day for Marvel’s phase 2. A big part of this has to do with the nature of the Marvel cinematic universe and how it worked in phase 1 versus in phase 2. In phase 1 the emphasis of the MCU elements in the film were built entirely around building up to Avengers, all the Easter eggs, universe mechanics, and character development were building up to a major pay-off. In Phase 2 that really wasn’t the case, in fact Avengers: Age of Ultron actually took great steps to betray the previous continuity. Stuff like Iron Man blowing up all his suits, Loki’s supposed death, the fall of SHIELD, and Baron Strucker’s scheme go almost completely ignored or end up swept under the rug in Age of Ultron. This has the effect of making the entire Marvel phase 2 pointless in terms of a grander narrative, just a great big middle section for the upcoming cosmic stuff, just 5 movies worth of holding pattern.
That wouldn’t be so bad if the individual films had a greater ambition beyond “another blockbuster for brand recognition” but for the most part they don’t. Stuff like Thor: The Dark World or Iron Man 3 really don’t have a point thematically or artistically beyond simply representing the Marvel brand name at the box office. There are obvious exceptions to this, mainly in the form of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy but even they fall prey to the blockbuster sausage factory nature of Marvel’s phase 2. This is most visible in the recycled tropes that’ve come to populate every Marvel film like always boiling down to a fight with legions of disposable henchmen inside a villainous doomsday machine that threatens to destroy everything but the heroes blow up before the end.
All of this has the unfortunate effect of failing something I’ve come to call the ‘Marvel Promise.’ Awhile-back Marvel Studios president Kevin Fiege did an interview where he said that he wanted Marvel films to be superhero adventures movies second and genre films first, that a film like Thor: The Dark World should be considered a science fantasy flick that just happens to star a comic book character. That’s a noble goal and for the most part Marvel has done a great job infusing their movies with some of the artifice of genres like fantasy, spy, space opera, and ‘80s action comedy but this crippling sameness still persists through all their titles. That’s because all Marvel films are branded blockbusters first and genre films second. The important point of Thor: The Dark World wasn’t to be a fantasy epic like Lord of the Rings or Maleficent; it was to be a Marvel fall blockbuster.
It’s possible that Marvel Phase 2 will end up just a failed experiment, an attempt by Marvel to skirt by merely by maintaining a blockbuster presence and prepping for bigger things to come. It certainly seems that way so far this year based on Age of Ultron’s lackluster cultural impact and moderate box office take compared to competition like Furious 7 and Jurassic World. My biggest hope for phase 3 is that Marvel takes careful note of its success like Winter Soldier, Daredevil, and Agent Carter; things that break the blockbuster mold as much as they can and try to ground themselves in less unique but more engaging genres. It’s easy to forget but in Marvel phase 1 this really wasn’t the case, so many films like Thor or Captain America: The First Avenger stand as a unique experience of genre blending rather that simply yoking a few key points into an assembly line formula. It’s just a shame that when it came time for the follow up Marvel took Iron Man 2 as its main source of inspiration.