Making an Anthill Out of a Mountain: Ant-Man Review

Last year, the success of The Guardians of the Galaxy seemed like an all-around win for Hollywood. For studios, it showed that audiences were willing to take a chance on an oddball, scrappy property that conventional wisdom would have said was too weird for mainstream tastes.[1] For audiences, Guardians was a worthy member of the growing superhero canon that fit in by standing out. But before 2014’s breakthrough hit was even released, the announcement of Edgar Wright’s departure from the upcoming 2015 release of Ant-Man sent shockwaves throughout the nerdverse, as many[2] expected the young filmmaker’s daring cocktail of comedy and action would prove a  perfect fit for the maligned and forgettable character. Wright was replaced with Peyton Reed, a capable comedic director who hardly inspired the same level of enthusiasm Wright did. Perhaps Marvel Studios was less committed to a more daring brand of blockbuster that Guardians was primed to deliver.

As a result, Ant-Man is a mixed bag. The premise and visuals of Marvel’s latest cinematic outing possess a shadow of the spirit Wright was set to offer while feeling the strain of rewrites and retooling Marvel ultimately laid down. The film tells the story of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a cat burglar recently released from prison who intends to go straight in order to stay in his daughter’s life. Meanwhile, former CEO of Pym Technologies Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), along with the help of his estranged daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), looks to stop former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) from replicating Pym’s shrinking technology for monetary gain. Forced into a corner with no other options, Pym recruits Lang and his ex-con friends to infiltrate Pym Technologies to sabotage Cross’s plans to weaponize the technology for HYDRA, the proverbial Nazis of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (M.C.U.)

This heist set-up sounds like the type of off-kilter addition to the superhero movie formula that is ever-threatening to grow stale. The central problem of Ant-Man, however, is that it fails to decide on which of its several key relationships it wants to focus on. Option one could have revolved around Lang and his daughter, which would have amounted to a conventional but reliable motivation for Lang’s success and reformation. Option two could have more heavily featured Pym and his daughter, with the mysterious absence of the mother causing a rift between the two. Option three, possibly the most interesting, would find Pym going head-to-head with Cross as the master squares off against the apprentice.[3] Even settling on a men-on-a-mission flick with Lang and his cohorts would have made for a more concentrated effort.

But that’s just it: Ant-Man refuses to commit to one and tries to handle them all. While this juggling attempt is admirable, it is inevitably misguided. While we have yet to know where Wright’s movie stopped and Reed’s began, it is not hard to imagine years of Ant-Man drafts being put into a single word processing document with minimal consideration being given to what stays and what goes. Of course, that is an awfully reductive way to articulate a blockbuster years in the making with hundreds of millions of dollars on the table. However, the bloat of Ant-Man seems odd for a movie that seems like a back-to-basics, self-consciously weird superhero movie in an age of hyperbolic shows of spectacle.

Though when it comes to spectacle, Ant-Man’s imaginative set pieces deliver in spades. Movies involving shrinking effects have a tendency to wow you at one moment and force a cringing expression in the next.[4] Ant-Man, on the other hand, takes great care in considering its environments and objectives, using the effects not only as an avenue for memorable action but worthwhile jokes. The fact that the climax of the film takes place in a little girl’s room amongst various toys is genius in its own right. The Marvel formula typically relies on charismatic leads (Downey, Evans, Pratt, etc.) with competent but less than noteworthy set pieces.  Here, Ant-Man delivers by inverting the studio’s priorities.

It is on this front of casting and performance that Ant-Man disappoints the most. Paul Rudd is a unique comic presence that exceeds best when he is the over confident idiot embroiled in a situation way over his head. Here, the script gives him little more to do than look slightly bemused, offer a wisecrack here and there, and fight to save his daughter.[5] Evangeline Lilly, once again[6], is tragically restricted to a thankless love interest that is defined solely by her relationship to her father or Lang. Michael Douglas, well respected elder statesman of Hollywood, does his tour of service in the M.C.U. adeptly and without incident.[7] Michael Peña even shows up for some chuckle worthy scenes of comic relief. All of these actors and their uses in the film are fine but feel like shruggable additions to the M.C.U. stable.

stoll

The only outright bad character is Corey Stoll’s Darren Cross: a.k.a. The Yellowjacket. Cross is just another power crazy maniac in a suit, a villain archetype that Marvel already wore out a few movies ago. His prime motivation is to spite Pym for never getting the recognition he deserved and to make lots of money. At this stage of the game, such bland characterization simply fails to cut it. Stoll tries to imbue Cross with a level of over-the-top comic book villainy that actors like Jeff Bridges in Iron Man and Lee Pace in Guardians pulled off much more cleanly. Unfortunately for Stoll, there’s nothing on the page for him to work with. He just ends up coming across as unnecessarily loud and demented.

Luckily, Ant-Man does not rely on end-of-the-world scenarios for Stoll to enact. Ant-Man feels like a throwback cut from the cloth of smaller scale superhero movies from the nineties, when the genre had yet to mature into universally beloved entertainment. Films like Spawn, Darkman, and Steel relied on well-worn clichés and easily recognizable character types that made zany comic book concepts like demon possession and mech suits go down all the more smoothly. While we are now twenty years removed from these sensibilities, a movie like Ant-Man, who tries to be a heist film anchored by family reconciliation, feels like a new take even though it follows an old example. In its own way, a slightly disappointing Ant-Man is an encouraging sign for the future of superhero films. After evolving wildly in the last two decades, the genre has oddly enough returned to the same place of genre mashing in order to stay fresh. If the medium has matured to the point where potentially shattering the world does not have to be the climax of every comic book movie is not a good sign, I do not know what is.

3 out of 5 stars

Paul-Rudd-Ant-Man-Movie

[1] Granted, said property was sold on the Disney and Marvel banners.

[2] Including myself.

[3] This is not to even bring up other alternatives like beefing up the film’s shrugging attempt at romantic subplot or the possibilities of Pym and Lang’s mentor-protégé relationship…but I digress.

[4] See The Incredible Shrinking Man and Honey We Shrunk Ourselves.

[5] Not exactly Academy Award winning material.

[6] See the boring slog known as The Hobbit Trilogy.

[7] Like Robert Redford and Glenn Close before him.

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