Be it by the mighty hammer of Thor, Captain America’s shield or through Black Widow’s expert spy skills, the superhero Marvel team has saved the world an exhausting amount of times. The global (and then some) damage experienced throughout the first eleven entries of the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe is nearly tiresome to parse through. With it, there’s a small sense of relief that Marvel’s latest– Ant-Man— doesn’t involve any worldwide calamity. No cities get destroyed, there’s minimal property damage and the smaller, slenderer framework of this admittedly silly origin tale, in a microscopic way, re-charges the Marvel factory-brand batteries.
Yet, make no mistake, Ant-Man is still, for better and for worse, yet another cog in the Marvel assembly line. The same muted visual aesthetic and bland musical scoring that has been there since the first Iron Man opened in the summer of 2008 is still there. However, there’s a looseness and jokey (if never exactly funny) tone that’s felt early on in Ant-Man— it may just be the most relaxed superhero origin story ever put to film. Part of that surely comes from leading actor Paul Rudd (portraying our bit-sized hero and his alter ego Scott Lang), a performer who has always maintained an effortless, calm demeanor on screen. There’s nary a hint of grandstanding or histrionics on display in Rudd’s performance and he generates a pleasurable, easy-going vibe that goes a long way with all the housekeeping and exposition the movie needs to get through.
We first meet Lang as he’s being released from prison, but he’s not a bad guy, it’s stressed immediately. A non-violent offender, Lang’s more a modern day Robin Hood, a cat burglar who stole from the rich and gave it back to the poor. His plan is to go straight for the benefit of reconnecting with his young daughter Cassie (Transparent‘s Abby Ryder Fortson). To do so, Lang needs a proper income– a requirement from ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer, continuing a dismaying trend of playing marginalized mother-type characters in major Hollywood tentpoles; see: Jurassic World, Tomorrowland)– and recent employment (and abrupt termination) from Baskin-Robbins just won’t do. With a tip in hand thanks to his buddy Luis (an always welcome Michael Peña) and cronies Dave (T.I.) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian, Prisoners), Lang returns for one more heist. As such, Ant-Man is styled in the vein of an old-school con picture, at least at the start.
This is no ordinary heist, however, as it brings about nothing in the form of money or jewels but instead a super suit that has the ability to shrink one down in size. Through a convoluted set of details, Lang is presented as mere patsy to Dr. Howard Pym (Michael Douglas), scientist and inventor of the suit. The real con job comes in the form of Lang becoming enlisted by Pym to steal a similar suit from his former protégé and current sketchy Pym Technologies head Darren Cross (an all scowls Corey Stoll). To even the stakes, Pym (like Lang) has a daughter he’s trying to reconnect to as well named Hope (Evangeline Lilly), a theme that is a bit too broadly underlined to tug at any heart-strings. To notch, it’s noted that Hope was the deciding vote in ousting Pym from his own company.
The character of Hope is puzzler in it of itself. Lilly acquits herself rather well, proving herself a spark plug even in the midst of maddeningly dull lines of dialogue. The puzzle (or rather, a sense of irritation) sets in as she’s established as an expert of martial arts with the intelligence, savvy and willingness to get the job done herself. In sad 2015 (meaning retrograde) fashion, Hope is repeatedly sidelined with continued hectoring that it’s for her own good. The scripts strains credibility in this aspect rather quickly, proving an often-prodded point that Marvel has a woman problem. Even more troubling is Marvel’s continued villain problem. Cross is Ant-Man‘s Big Bad, as is evidenced from the first slimy introduction of his character. As played, without a shred of nuance by Stoll, Cross is a corporate goon with motivations to sell his bite-sized suit to an ever more menacing brand of corporate goons.
The plot tics or Ant-Man are nearly by-the-numbers all the way through. Starting with reluctance from all sides at the start, a requisite training montage in the middle (which includes a brief shot of Rudd’s newly defined mid-section) and acceptance of a new team starting to form as we head towards the finale. It’s all fairly standard issue and frankly, a little bit dull, for the most part. Director Peyton Reed (Bring It On, Down With Love) famously inherited the project from Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Shaun of the Dead) who left the film due to “creative differences” and it’s difficult not to look at the film under that somber mindset of what it could have been had a true visionary been at the helm. As is, the pacing is a bit slack, the narrative feels band-aided together (particularly by way of fan servicing events that occurred in May’s Avengers: Age of Ultron) and the only sense of thrills are saved for the last half hour or so of the movie. Wright, for what it’s worth, retained a screenplay credit alongside Joe Cornish (Attack the Block), as did Adam McKay (Anchorman) and Rudd himself.
Yet, there’s a sense of wonder and perhaps even a bit of magic as Ant-Man wraps up its silly origin tale. With flights of fancy and a weird, grandly needed sense of play matched with an amusing visual wit, the conclusion sweeps in a fashion rarely granted in the Marvel universe. As Ant-Man and his jolly army of ants (from different shapes and breeds) flood the scene over nicely illustrated miniature set pieces, a lightness prevails and the movie finally enlivens. This breed of ingenuity and anarchic sense of mischief (also on display in the better moments of Guardians of the Galaxy) comes a bit too late, but should leave a smile on the face of audiences looking for summertime goofiness.
The Verdict: 3 out of 5
At this stage in the game, we know what to expect from a Marvel entry. For those already in the tank, Ant-Man is required viewing, surely. The jokey, game-faced vibe of the film feels generally in tandem with the slightly smaller scale of the project, of which feels perfectly welcome within the typical Marvel Cinematic Universe bombast. While the narrative chugs along at a familiar click, Rudd makes a nicely relaxed superhero. It’s easy to see him jelling well in future installments shooting the breeze with The Avengers team.