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“How the MCU Was Made” is a series of deep-dive articles that delve into the ins and outs of the development history, production, and release of all the Marvel Studios movies.
When Marvel Studios first announced its intention to produce its own superhero movies, Ant-Man was one of the initial projects to attach a writer and director and begin development. Ironically, Ant-Man would ultimately become one of the most troubled Marvel Studios productions not because it languished in development hell, but because the Marvel Cinematic Universe machine changed so significantly by the time Edgar Wright was finally ready to realize his passion project. This is the story of how Ant-Man survived a last-minute exit from its writer and director and came out the other side a viable MCU franchise.
Wright’s involvement in Ant-Man actually predates the creation of Marvel Studios, as he and Joe Cornish—who would go on to write and direct Attack the Block—wrote a treatment in 2003 for Artisan Entertainment, who at the time held the rights to the character:
“We wrote this treatment revolving around the Scott Lang character, who was a burglar, so he could have gone slightly in the Elmore Leonard route, and they came back saying, ‘Oh, we wanted to do something that was like a family thing.’ I don’t think it ever got sent to Marvel.”
Wright subsequently ran into Marvel’s Kevin Feige and Avi Arad as Marvel Studios was forming, and the two asked the Shaun of the Dead filmmaker if he had any interest in any Marvel titles. Wright then showed them the treatment he and Cornish wrote for Artisan, and that then served as the basis for Wright and Cornish’s Marvel Studios script.
Wright’s Ant-Man was announced as one of Marvel’s initial films alongside Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America. In fact, Wright even appeared at 2006 San Diego Comic-Con alongside Favreau to tease Ant-Man while at the same time hosting a panel for his then-upcoming film Hot Fuzz. And even way back then, he had the bones of the story for what eventually became the finished Ant-Man movie:
“The idea that we have for the adaptation is to actually involve both [Scott Lang and Hank Pym]. Is to have a film that basically is about Henry Pym and Scott Lang, so you actually do a prologue where you see Pym as Ant-Man in action in the 60s, 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. So it’s like an interesting thing, like the Marvel Premiere one that I read which is Scott Lang’s origin, it’s very brief like a lot of those origin comics are, and in a way, the details that are skipped through in the panels and the kind of thing we’d spend half an hour on.”
Wright completed his first draft of the Ant-Man script in 2008, but there was no pressure to get the film going ASAP given that the character, well, wasn’t exactly a top priority for Marvel Studios. They were busy trying to get their Phase One movies off the ground—Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America—and build to The Avengers, so Wright continued to work on Ant-Man in between other projects.
By 2011, Wright and Cornish had delivered a second draft of Ant-Man to Marvel after Wright completed his film Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and it seemed as though the stars were finally beginning to align to get Ant-Man made at long last. In May 2012, as Marvel was readying the release of The Avengers, Wright was being enlisted to visualize what Ant-Man would look like on film.
Indeed, in June of 2012, Wright shot a test reel for Ant-Man, showing how he would capture the character’s shrinking powers onscreen. As we later discovered, Marvel was actually eyeing Ant-Man was one of its Phase Two movies, but allowed Wright to delay production so he could instead make his original sci-fi film The World’s End first. You see, Eric Fellner—producer for Working Title, the studio behind Wright’s brilliant Cornetto Trilogy of films—was diagnosed with cancer, and Wright felt it important to fulfill his promise of a trilogy of movies for Fellner lest the producer’s condition worsened. Thankfully, Fellner recovered and The World’s End stands as one of Wright’s best films.
So Wright showed off the Ant-Man test reel during the Marvel panel at 2012 San Diego Comic-Con, a month after he shot it, which ended up being the only footage Wright ever shot for Ant-Man that was seen by the public. I was thankfully in the audience that day, and I can attest it was just as exciting and inventive as you imagine it to be.
So with his proof-of-concept complete and essentially a greenlight from Marvel, the filmmaker went off and shot The World’s End in the fall of 2012, and by July 2013 Wright and Cornish had a completed version of the Ant-Man script that was ready to roll. With The World’s End finished, Wright now turned his attention to making Ant-Man as his next movie. That’s when the trouble began…
While the Marvel Cinematic Universe was in the midst of expanding, Wright envisioned Ant-Man as a standalone story:
“In the time I’ve been working on it other things have happened in the other movies that could be affected in this. It is pretty standalone in the way we’re linking it to the others. I like to make it standalone because I think the premise of it needs time. I want to put the crazy premise of it into a real world, which is why I think Iron Man really works because it’s a relatively simple universe; it’s relatable. I definitely want to go into finding a streamlined format where you use the origin format to introduce the main character and further adventures can bring other people into it. I’m a big believer in keeping it relatively simple and Marvel agrees on that front.”
By October 2013, casting had begun and Marvel had staked out a July 2015 release date for the film. Marvel and Wright had narrowed their Scott Lang search down to Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Paul Rudd. Reportedly, it was Wright who wanted Rudd while Marvel favored Gordon-Levitt, hoping to inject some more youth into the MCU.
By December, Rudd had officially won the role, all the while production had to be moved from the UK to the U.S. due to a lack of soundstages. The next month, Michael Douglas signed on to play Ant-Man originator Hank Pym in what Wright and Feige described as a heist story, with Pym passing the Ant-Man mantle down to thief Scott Lang.
Casting continued as Michael Peña signed on, Evangeline Lilly entered talks to play Pym’s daughter, and Corey Stoll entered talks to play an unspecified role. But with filming due to get underway in July 2014, tensions began to arise between Wright and Marvel. Throughout early 2014, Wright and Cornish wrote two additional drafts of the Ant-Man script attempting to address Marvel’s notes without compromising their vision. Marvel even pushed the start of filming back from June to July to make time for the rewrites.
When the script still wasn’t to Marvel’s liking, the studio commissioned a rewrite from some of its in-house writers, without Wright’s input. It was when that draft of the script came back—reportedly lacking in Wright’s voice and entirely homogenized—that Wright decided to leave the film. This was May 23rd, roughly two months before filming was due to begin.
Years later, Wright reflected on his exit and confirmed that the studio commissioned a draft of the script without his involvement:
“I wanted to make a Marvel movie but I don’t think they really wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie. I was the writer-director on it and then they wanted to do a draft without me, and having written all my other movies, that’s a tough thing to move forward thinking if I do one of these movies I would like to be the writer-director. Suddenly becoming a director-for-hire on it, you’re sort of less emotionally invested and you start to wonder why you’re there, really.”
In the summer of 2014, Feige claimed they simply found out too late that Marvel and Wright weren’t a good fit:
“I wish it wasn’t as late in the day as it was, but it just had become clear that there was an impasse that we had never reached before. We’ve worked with lots of unbelievably talented filmmakers like Edgar before, and of course there are disagreements along the way. We had always found a way around it, a way to battle through it and emerge on the other side with a better product. It just became clear that both of us was just being too polite over the past eight years I guess! Then it was clear that, ‘Oh you’re really not gonna stop talking about that note?’ ‘Oh, you’re really not gonna do that note?’ Alright this isn’t working.”
Even Joss Whedon, who was hard at work on Avengers: Age of Ultron at the time, expressed his disappointment. He tweeted a photo of himself holding up a cornetto in solidarity after Wright left the project, and subsequently called Wright and Cornish’s script the best Marvel ever had:
“I don’t get it,” he said with a sigh. “I thought the script was not only the best script that Marvel had ever had, but the most Marvel script I’d read. I had no interest in Ant-Man. [Then] I read the script, and was like, ‘Of course! This is so good!’ It reminded me of the books when I read them. Irreverent and funny and could make what was small large, and vice versa. I don’t know where things went wrong. But I was very sad. Because I thought, This is a no-brainer. This is Marvel getting it exactly right. Whatever dissonance that came, whatever it was, I don’t understand why it was bigger than a marriage that seemed so right. But I’m not going to say it was definitely all Marvel, or Edgar’s gone mad! I felt like they would complement each other by the ways that they were different. And, uh, somethin’ happened.”
And while it was definitely a bummer for Wright to leave something he’d worked so hard on, the director moved pretty quickly into making his terrific crime thriller Baby Driver, which he had hoped Ant-Man would give him the clout to finally get off the ground:
“The good thing that came out of it is I got to kind of move on to [Baby Driver], which was a script that I had already written. And maybe one of the ironies about it is I had thought in the back of my head, ‘Well if the Marvel movie does well, maybe I’ll have enough muscle to get Baby Driver made,’ and so it’s ironic I guess that I didn’t make that movie and got Baby Driver made, and with a studio, which for an original movie is very rare. And the other important thing for me is almost the entirety of my crew who were gonna do that movie sort of left in solidarity, so it was really important to me to get another film going so I could kind of re-employ them all. So the funny thing about Baby Driver is it pretty much features all the [Heads of Department] who were gonna do the other movie with me.”
So Wright was gone, but Marvel still wanted to make the July 2015 release date—which meant they still wanted to make the July 2014 production start-date. Mere days after Wright’s exit, the studio first reached out to Adam McKay to take the helm. But a day later McKay took his name out of the running, while still agreeing to take a crack at the screenplay. McKay explained:
“[Rudd] called me when Edgar Wright stepped away from the project and told me what was going on. I went and met with Marvel, and I was a little dubious just because I’m friends with Edgar and I didn’t know what the story was, and then when I kind of heard what happened, that Edgar had parted ways, and then I saw their materials, I was like, ‘God this is pretty cool’. Ultimately I didn’t want to jump in as a director, I had too many other projects going and it was too tight, but I thought, ‘You know what, I can rewrite this, and I can do a lot of good by rewriting it.’”
So McKay and Rudd themselves set about rewriting Wright and Cornish’s screenplay to address Marvel’s notes:
“I’ve always known Paul Rudd’s a really good writer from improvising with him on set, but I had no idea he was that good—he’s really great with dialogue. So the two of us holed up in hotel rooms on the east and west coast, and I think it was like six to eight weeks we just ground it out and did a giant rewrite of the script. I was really proud of what we did, I really thought we put some amazing stuff in there and built on an already strong script from Edgar Wright and sort of just enhanced some stuff.”
McKay and Rudd were also responsible for adding the action sequence where Ant-Man confronts Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, which was McKay’s idea, while maintaining Wright and Cornish’s structure and dialogue:
“We just shaped the whole thing, we just tried to streamline it, make it cleaner, make it a little bigger, a little more aggressive, make it funnier in places—we just basically did a rewrite. Edgar had a really good script… We added some new action beats. I grew up on Marvel Comics so the geek in me was in heaven that I got to add a giant action sequence to the movie; I was so excited. So we did, we added some cool new action. There’s a lot that’s already in there from what Edgar did, there’s a lot of dialogue and character still in there.”
But while McKay and Rudd worked on the script, Marvel still needed a director. The studio considered Rawson Thurber (We’re the Millers), Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland), and David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer) before selecting Peyton Reed (Bring It On) to take the helm on June 7, 2014. Reed was previously a top contender to direct Guardians of the Galaxy, so he and Marvel had an existing relationship.
Rudd himself admitted he was devastated by Wright’s exit, and the two remained friends. He went out of his way to note that the bones of the film were very much still Wright and Cornish’s:
“The idea, the trajectory, the goal, and the blueprint of it all, is really Edgar and Joe,” says the actor. “It’s their story. We changed some scenes, we added new sequences, we changed some characters, we added new characters. If you took the two scripts and held them up together they’d be very different—but the idea is all theirs.”
Marvel subsequently brought in two new writers, Gabriel Ferrari and Andrew Barrer, to perform further rewrites on the script, but while most of the cast had already signed on when Wright left, Evangeline Lilly had yet to sign on the dotted line. Which, she explained, allowed her the opportunity to leave if she didn’t approve of the new script’s direction:
“We all, I think, signed on very enthusiastically with Edgar. We were excited to work with Edgar. We were fans of Edgar. So when the split happened, I was in the fortunate position where I had not signed my contract yet. So I had the choice to walk away, and I almost did. Because I thought, ‘Well, if it’s because Marvel are big bullies, and they just want a puppet and not someone with a vision, I’m not interested in being in this movie.’ Which is what I was afraid of.”
After reading the new script, Lily decided to stay on:
“I saw with my own eyes that Marvel had just pulled the script into their world. I mean, they’ve established a universe, and everyone has come to expect a certain aesthetic [and] a certain feel for Marvel films. And what Edgar was creating was much more in the Edgar Wright camp of films. They were very different.”
With a new August filming date set, Marvel brought the cast and Reed to San Diego Comic-Con in July—just two months after Wright left the project—to attempt to smooth things over with the fans. Production at long last got underway the next month, and was completed without any major issues.
Indeed, despite the major problems that occurred just before filming began, by most accounts Ant-Man was a smooth shoot, and Reed got along well enough with Marvel to be hired back for two further sequels. The biggest “controversy” that erupted after filming got underway was the announcement that Ant-Man would now serve as the final film of Marvel’s Phase Two and not the first film of Phase Three, as originally intended. Feige defended the decision and tried to play up the importance of Ant-Man to the larger MCU:
“The truth is the phases mean a lot to me and some people but…Civil War is the start of Phase Three. It just is. And Ant-Man is a different kind of culmination of Phase Two because it very much is in the MCU. You meet new characters and you learn about Hank Pym and his lineage with the MCU over the years. But at the same time, it also picks up the thread of Age of Ultron in terms of heroes—major heroes, Avengers—coming from unexpected places… And in that way it connects a lot. Also, Hank Pym’s attitude towards Avengers, towards S.H.I.E.L.D., and kind of the cinematic universe in general, is much more informed after the events of Age of Ultron, and in a certain way, before the events of Civil War.”
As it turned out, Ant-Man really didn’t have much of anything to do with the larger MCU, and it felt like after all the hubbub surrounding Wright’s “too distinct” voice, the finished version of the film approved by Marvel was largely inconsequential. Then again, perhaps it was the combination of Wright’s lack of enthusiasm for MCU easter eggs and his distinct aesthetic and shooting style that ruffled Marvel’s features, as the studio likes its directors to get a lot of coverage so they can make changes in post-production. Wright, meanwhile, is a very meticulous filmmaker, crafting each and every frame with specificity, and thus doesn’t traditionally shoot too much coverage.
Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man remains one of the greater “what if?” projects in recent memory, especially given how long the filmmaker worked on trying to bring that comic to life. And ironically enough, perhaps Wright’s version of Ant-Man could have gotten the greenlight earlier in Marvel Studios’ run, before they had established a foundational aesthetic and way of telling stories. As a consequence of Wright being busy with other original projects, by the time he was able to move back into Ant-Man the Marvel Cinematic Universe machine was up and running. And by his own admission, Wright is very much not a director for hire.
Ant-Man was released in theaters on July 17, 2015, miraculously meeting its planned release date after all. It only pulled in $57.2 million opening weekend, the second-lowest opening weekend in MCU history, but went on to clear $519.3 million worldwide. Not quite the heights of the other Phase Two movies, but a bigger total than Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Incredible Hulk. Almost more importantly, the film successfully introduced a charming new hero to the MCU in Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang, who would go on to become a highlight of subsequent movies. Ant-Man has since played a key role in Captain America: Civil War. After that, he headlined his own sequel, Ant-Man and the Wasp, a 2018 release. In Ant-Man and the Wasp, having survived a trip back from the quantum realm, Scott Lang teams up with Hank and Hope Pym once again to travel into this mysterious space-time locale in search of the Pyms’ long-lost matriarch Janet Pym (Michelle Pfeiffer). The end-credit events of Ant-Man and the Wasp launch Scott Lang five years into the future where he appears in Avengers: Endgame. Ant-Man then returned to the big screen in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.
Next week, we dig into the making of Captain America: Civil War and how a groundbreaking deal between two studios led to one of the most exciting superhero cameos in history.
If you missed my previous How the MCU Was Made articles, click the links below:
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