With Marvel’s Ant-Man finally heading into cinemas this week, Luke Owen looks back at its bumpy ride to the silver screen…
It may be hard to remember, but there was a time when the Marvel Cinematic Universe didn’t exist and movies based on Marvel characters were just released to make money and become franchises. Some films achieved this goal (Spider-Man, X-Men) and others failed (Daredevil, Hulk, Ghost Rider, Fantastic Four). But there was one movie that had been rumoured for some time, but never seemed to make its way out of Development Hell. And when ‘Marvel movies’ became ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe movies’, it became one of the more interesting ‘what if’ scenarios of the last decade. The movie was Ant-Man; and its director was Edgar Wright.
In the late 1990s, Marvel sold all of their characters off to the highest bidders in order to avoid bankruptcy. One of those parties was Artisan Entertainment, who had struck fame in 1999 with the independent horror movie phenomenon The Blair Witch Project. However, Artisan’s success was short lived, and the group merged with Marvel Studios in 2000, giving the House of M properties back like Man-Thing, Black Widow, Luke Cage and Ant-Man.
A year later, a fresh-faced TV director named Edgar Wright, along with close friend and writer Joe Cornish, had meetings with Artisan Entertainment about doing an adaptation of a Marvel character. Wright had just finished a TV show in the UK called Spaced, starring Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson, which had gained a huge cult following and was turning him into a must-meet director. Cornish had also had success in the UK from his comedy show The Adam & Joe Show, which entertained late-night Channel 4 audiences in the mid-to-late 90s with its wacky and off-the-wall sense of humour. The pair decided to put together a pitch for Ant-Man, a movie that would see Scott Lang steal the Ant-Man suit from its original owner. “I had the John Byrne Marvel Premiere from 1979 that David Micheline had done with Scott Lang that was kind of an origin story,” Wright told SuperHeroHype in 2006. “I always loved the artwork, so when I saw that, it just immediately set bells going off kind of thinking going ‘Huh, that could be interesting.’” Wright went on to say that their version of Ant-Man was less of a superhero movie, and more of a crime movie that happens to have a guy in a cool suit. However, Artisan went back to Wright and Cornish and said that they wanted something more “family friendly” and Wright believes that they never showed Marvel the treatment.
A few years later in 2004, Wright met with Marvel producer Kevin Feige at the San Diego Comic Con, while Wright was over to promote his new movie Hot Fuzz. Since the first meeting with Artisan, Wright had become a cult-favourite director that could rival the likes of Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino in terms of popularity thanks in part to his comedy movie Shaun of the Dead. When Feige asked Wright if he would be interested in working on a Marvel production, Wright admitted that he’d already pitched them something before. As luck would have it, Cornish was acting as Hot Fuzz’s official blogger for a DVD extra, and the trio had a meeting about working on Ant-Man. Wright and Cornish would present their treatment for Ant-Man the following year, and it seemed like the wheels were beginning to turn.
But there was a big change made in 2005 at Marvel Studios, and it would be a change that would affect Ant-Man in ways no one could have seen coming.
“Marvel Enterprises Inc. is expected to announce today that it has changed its name to Marvel Entertainment Inc. to reflect its expansion into film production with the closing of a $525-million loan deal with Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith Inc,” The L.A. Times reported on September 6th, 2005. “Marvel said it would use the money to make 10 films with budgets of as much as $165 million each, including one about Captain America, whom Avi Arad, chief executive of subsidiary Marvel Studios Inc., called the ‘Holy Grail’ of comic book characters waiting for a big treatment on the big screen.”
Kevin Feige, a man who had acted as producers on Marvel movies but would soon become president of Marvel Studios, had a vision. A world where all of the Marvel movies took place within the same universe, and could cross-over with each other just as they did in the comic books on which they’re based. It would begin with Iron Man, before being followed by The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America before they team-up together for The Avengers. It was a bold plan, but it would be one that would pay off massively.
This, however, raised a problem for Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man. Discussions about this movie had never been a part of the overall Marvel picture that was now in place, but that didn’t stop them announcing the movie one year later at the 2006 San Diego Comic Con. In an interview with SuperHeroHype at the event, Wright admits that adapting a lower-level character like Ant-Man has its advantages. “Some of the best comic book adaptations were either of lesser-known titles, like Men in Black or they were films that traded so much on comics without actually being an adaptation like RoboCop and The Matrix, they’re both kind of steeped in comic book lore,” he said. “Robocop probably wouldn’t have existed without Judge Dredd. The Matrix may not have existed without a lot of Anime and stuff or Grant Morrison.” He also said that the story will follow a similar one to their pitch to Artisan back in 2001 and that the film was “basically about Henry Pym and Scott Lang. So you actually do a prologue where you see Pym as Ant-Man in action in the 60’s, in sort of Tales to Astonish mode basically, and then the contemporary, sort of flash-forward, is Scott Lang’s story, and how he comes to acquire the suit, how he crosses paths with Henry Pym, and then, in an interesting sort of Machiavellian way, teams up with him.”
With production of Hot Fuzz now finished, Wright was looking towards his next couple of projects: a conspiracy comedy called Them with Nacho Libre’s writer Mike White, an adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim and Marvel’s Ant-Man. But of all the projects, Ant-Man was the one that seemed the least likely to move forward. “Ant Man is in a bit of a holding pattern,” the director told IGN in 2007. “We’re figuring things out with the script and we haven’t initiated casting. We still have quite a bit to do. I expect I’ll have more to say about it in a few months.”
Those couple of months came and went, and still no progress had seemingly been made. He told Empire in 2008 that he and Cornish were working on a second draft of the script, but it was now taking on a different tone. “It’s going to be less overtly comedic than anything else I’ve ever done,” he told the magazine. “It’s more of a full-on action adventure sci-fi film but with a comedic element – in the same spirit of a lot of escapist fare like that. It’s certainly not a superhero spoof or pastiche and it certainly isn’t a sort of Honey I Shrunk The Kids endeavour at all.” He did however say that the overall theme of Scott Lang and Hank Pym working together as the old and new Ant-Man was still a prevalent factor.
In that same year, Iron Man was released in cinemas to critical praise and box office success. But it wasn’t the numbers or reviews that cinema goers were focused on; it was the post-credit sequence that saw Samuel L. Jackson come out of the shadows as Nick Fury and tell Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark about The Avengers Initiative. A few months later, a post-credit sequence on The Incredible Hulk saw Tony Stark show up in another Marvel movie and talk to Thunderbolt Ross about his large green foe. These two moments made comic book fans stood up and took notice; Marvel had a plan and it was moving forward.
But while things were moving along for Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, with hype surrounding the releases of Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, news of an Ant-Man movie had all but gone quiet. By 2010, a script was still to be green-lit by Marvel, forcing Wright to shift his priorities to his adaptation of the Scott Pilgrim series of comics, which was now going under the name Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Futhermore, Joe Cornish had moved onto his own directorial project, a London-based alien-invastion flick named Attack the Block, which was being produced by Wright.
Once Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was finished, Wright told told MTV that Ant-Man could be his next venture. However, he also admitted that the character was not high on Marvel’s radar at the present moment. “Because that character isn’t one of their biggest properties, it’s not like a tentpole deadline,” Wright explained. “It’s more like me and Kevin [Feige] [saying], ‘let’s make a really good script.’ We’ve always agreed on that – ‘let’s make a good script that works, that’s all about a great genre film, and that isn’t necessarily relying on anything else.'” Although a cryptic couple of tweets from Stan Lee about a lunch meeting with Wright suggested that things were moving faster than he was letting on.
By July, however, that didn’t seem to be the case. At the San Diego Comic Con, Marvel brought out and announced the cast for The Avengers – a movie that would see Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Black Widow and Hawkeye team up for an epic blockbuster, set for release in 2012. Missing form that line-up was Ant-Man. Wright told a round-table discussion for Scott Pilgrim vs. The World that discussions had taken place between the director and Kevin Feige about including him in the movie, but it never moved any further than that. “I talked to Kevin Feige about that a while back where we just discussed about whether he would be in The Avengers,” Wright told the press. “The thing is, the script that I’ve written, you know, whether it’s next or not I don’t know, the chronology of it or the way it works wouldn’t really fit in with what they do. And my film is very much an introduction to that character, and so it wasn’t something where it felt right to introduce him in that film. Maybe if I do the solo Ant-Man film and maybe there’s a later Avengers then they could draft him in later. But it didn’t work with the kind of the angle that we were going to do with the origin that I’d written.”