Alibi V.24 No.30 • July 23-29, 2015 

Film Review

Ant-Man

Marvel gets small for latest addition to its cinematic universe

Ant-Man ()

Directed by Peyton Reed

Cast: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly

Ant-Man

Fanboys and fangirls can argue for all eternity over which publisher has the better lineup of superheroes and supervillains. Are you a Marvel maniac, or do you love DC? At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. Both have indelible and iconic characters. (And like Star Wars and “Star Trek,” you actually can appreciate both.) One thing that’s hard to dispute, however, is how successful each company has been translating their respective comic book universes onto the big screen. Based on its recent output, DC has a single dictate: All superheroes have to look as grim and gray as possible. It worked for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series just fine, but it made for a controversial (at best) Man of Steel. And based on the trailers for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, we’re in for a lot more of the same. Marvel, on the other hand, has done something rather remarkable with its “universe” of films. It’s acknowledged that all comic books are unique, and that some require an entirely different style than others. Hence, in the last 12 months, we’ve been treated to a tongue-in-cheek space opera (Guardians of the Galaxy), a gritty political thriller (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and a WWE-style royal rumble (Avengers: Age of Ultron).

Comic books, you see, come in all shapes and sizes. There are funny ones, serious ones, dark ones, satirical ones, completely fantastical ones. Some feature photorealistic art. Others are cartoonish. Some are impressionistic in their style. And they can, if they want, change from issue to issue, from creative team to creative team. So it’s been nice to see Marvel experimenting with this a bit, allowing directors with differing styles to tackle projects. (Shakespearean-trained Kenneth Branagh helming Thor or indie auteur James Gunn interpreting Guardians of the Galaxy.) But movies are also a business—even more so when you're dumping anything north of $200 million into their budgets. As the business of superhero movies has built, Marvel—and their overlords Disney—have become somewhat more formulaic with their most recent efforts. Distinctive directors like Branagh have been swept aside for party-line-toeing hired guns. Visionaries like Selma director Ava DuVernay (who was tapped to direct the upcoming Black Panther movie) have started to step away from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, citing “creative differences.” Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Marvel’s latest, undersized addition, Ant-Man.

When it was first announced, the film was supposed to be written and directed by cult filmmaker Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End). It sounded like another inspired choice on Marvel’s part. Since the screenplay was going to be based on the second, more irreverent iteration of the character—thief-turned-hero Scott Lang—Wright seemed like just the man to shepherd Marvel’s first full-on action comedy. But those “creative differences” surfaced, allegedly based on Marvel’s demands that the film fit more into the increasingly interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe. Wright departed, leaving behind one star (Paul Rudd) and half a script. He was replaced (rather illogically, some would say) by Peyton Reed, the genius behind ... 13 episodes of “The Weird Al Show,” the cheerleader dance movie Bring It On and that stupid Jim Carrey movie Yes Man. That Ant-Man emerges from all this as a happily entertaining summer movie is a testament to the quality of the basic product Marvel has to offer. But it’s the first of the MCU films to really show the stress fractures of a process that’s becoming less art and more manufacturing.

We start, comfortingly enough, with Paul Rudd, an appealing actor with good looks and comic chops. He plays Scott Lang, a Robin Hood-style cat burglar who ripped off his last employer for being a heartless, money-grubbing corporation. Scott gets paroled from prison, but finds it hard to land a decent job or to reconnect with his cute moppet of a daughter. Pushed by some criminal associates into an allegedly high-paying job, Scott ends up breaking into the home of hermit-like inventor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, adding some measurable gravitas to the proceedings). Turns out it’s all just a setup on Hank’s part to trick Lang into donning the “Ant-Man” super suit he invented years ago.

The suit allows its wearer to shrink to micro-size, yet retain human-sized strength. (Also, you can control insects with it.) It’s a powerful device that the government wanted to use to create an army of super soldiers. But Hank wouldn’t sell and was forced into retirement. Now, years later, Hank’s old business partner, the oily Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), has come up with his own knockoff technology called the Yellowjacket suit. Basically, Hank wants Scott to break into his old company, steal the Yellowjacket suit and destroy all the computer data. The story plays out as a heist film, a small-scale Ocean’s Eleven riff with superpowers instead of Brad Pitt.

The size-changing special effects are a blast. Everybody involved obviously thought through the use of superpowers in this one. And it’s fun to see the frequent adjustment of scale. The film’s climactic battle between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket (you knew that was coming) is the opposite of epic—taking place inside a briefcase and on the floor of a child’s toy-strewn bedroom. In these moments, Ant-Man comes into its own. But the rest of the film feels a bit patchwork. As the end result of two very different creative teams, Ant-Man is neither fish nor fowl. There’s a decent amount of humor, most of it supplied by Lang’s wacky team of misfit ex-cons. But the film is ultimately much less of a comedy than Guardians of the Galaxy was. Rudd is amusing in the lead role, but he’s quite a bit less of a wiseass than his comic-book counterpart. I mean, I thought that’s why they hired Rudd. It’s kind of his thing. But no. He’s nearly the straight man here. At the same time Ant-Man is much less of an action film than the titanic Avengers: Age of Ultron. This lack of ambition could leave audiences hungry for more.

At some point, you’ve got to admit that Ant-Man isn’t exactly Marvel’s biggest character (so to speak). The guy has been there since the beginning, but he’s hardly an A-lister. With a character this small, his debut film needed a lot more style and spark. Instead, it occasionally stumbles into what could be called a “generic Marvel movie” style. That’s a bad precedent to start. But it’s hard to avoid now, what with Marvel stringing every outing into an endless parade of sequels. This is starting to mess with the organic nature of each individual film. Why, for example, did Thor wander off to take that prophetic skinny dip in the middle of Avengers: Age of Ultron? Because Thor: Ragnarok, that’s why. And why does Ant-Man find himself tangling with “quantum realms” in the middle of a relatively down-to-earth heist film? Because Doctor Strange. A little less attention to brand development and a little more consideration for the story at hand, and Ant-Man would have been an unqualified success. Instead, it’s Marvel’s first truly qualified success.


Ant-Man

The latest Marvel Cinematic Universe offering is smaller than its fellow superhero movies in a number of ways. Paul Rudd is fine and dandy as a cat burglar recruited by an aging scientist (Michael Douglas) to don a powerful shrinking suit and fight the bad guys. The size-changing special effects are a blast, but the film is neither fish nor fowl. There's not enough humor to make it a comedy, and too little action to compete with the big boys of summer. It's perfectly entertaining in moments, but this one needed a bit more style and spark to avoid the "generic Marvel movie" pit it occasionally stumbles into. 117 minutes PG-13.