Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
The argument could be made that, while Marvel Studios is currently viewed as being commercially infallible, they’ve taken at least three real gambles with their film slate so far. 2008’s Iron Man, the first entry in their cinematic universe, starred a supposed has-been as a niche hero. 2011’s Thor asked audiences to accept a Norse god into their pantheon of traditional superheroes. 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy put a television star front and center in an laugh-oriented adaptation of a comic with zero real-world name recognition.
All three gambles paid off with audiences and (for the most part) critics alike, and now Marvel’s returning to theaters with their fourth risky venture. Ant-Man is far from a household name, his antics involve copious amounts of CG insects and the focus is as much on comedy as it is on action. But is it a winner? The answer’s yes, but only if you consider not losing to be winning.
Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is newly released from San Quentin after serving time for a burglary he committed as an act of social justice, but while he wants to go straight for his daughter’s sake he’s forced by circumstance to accept an offer on a sure-thing score. The job nets him only a weird suit and helmet, but after an exhilarating dry run experiencing the world from a bug’s perspective he discovers this was all part of Dr. Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) plan. Pym and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) need Scott to master the suit’s abilities – shrinking, controlling ants and, well, just shrinking and controlling ants I guess – and use it to prevent a greedy, insecure madman from sharing the technology with evildoers and the like.
Ant-Man continually makes strides to remind you it belongs in the Marvel Universe – from a brief opening scene featuring Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Howard Stark (John Slattery) to a scuffle with a third tier Avenger – but its DNA positions it more as a comical heist flick. We see Scott in action on a couple small thefts building up to the third act centerpiece, and along the way we spend time with some ex-con sidekicks, cool gadgets and even a quick Mission: Impossible homage. If the stakes and accompanying action set-pieces sound small compared to other Marvel films that’s because they are, but that’s not a bad thing. Not every movie needs to see the world in danger, and this film’s small footprint – both narrative and geographic – serves its hero well.
There are no skyscrapers falling down, but we do get energetic and fun fight scenes as Scott shrinks, grows and shrinks again in the process of completing punch/flip combos and other moves that leave his opponents flying through the air. The third act battle is a one on one situation, but it gains epic stature as the two men shrink to duke it out among everyday objects with the highlight being their fight around a toy train.
Rudd works well here to ground the character’s every-man nature with self-effacement and his typical comedic stylings, and Douglas brings the weight of a lifetime to his weary scientist in search of redemption. Lilly is equally strong with less to do, and the likes of Michael Peña, Corey Stoll and Bobby Cannavale all serve their purpose well enough.
For all that it gets right though the movie has some real issues holding it back. Chief among them is a script – credited to Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay and Rudd – that flails around unsure where to land at any given moment. The first half of the film in particular is something of a slog with few laughs and minimal high points as the characters and events are established, and in the case of Pym’s dire warnings about not going sub-atomic, re-established a few times more. Any guesses if someone will need to go sub-atomic?
Several scenes feature Scott verbalizing what he’s doing – even as we’re seeing him do it – as if we’re idiots incapable of deducing that yes, he is walking one foot at a time. The flip side of that sees numerous relevant factors go utterly unexplained including the role the Pym particle/juice plays and its effect on the user. Too much time is also spent on irrelevant side characters – this is Ant-Man’s origin film after all – including Peña’s admittedly funny ex-con and a pair of cops excessively and inexplicably determined to catch a low-level burglar. Not a single thing those detectives do feels the least bit authentic or necessary.
The lack of real laughs is perhaps the most surprising element here – it’s closer to Ang Lee’s Hulk than it is Guardians of the Galaxy in that department – but it’s not for lack of trying. Rudd tries to make several lines work that simply fall flat and Peña is having a blast, but it’s not until the second half that the pieces start falling into place with humorous results.
Marvel’s biggest gamble will be in 2018 with the planned arrival of their first female-led superhero film (Captain Marvel), but for now this small-scaled romp will surely test the waters of the studio’s fan base. It lacks oomph, but it finds some fun with its characters, attitude and playful action set-pieces. And if nothing else, it’s easily the best Marvel film of the year.
The Upside: Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly; some fun with shrinkage; small stakes; size-shifting fight scenes; some laughs; “Disintegration”
The Downside: First half drags; character bloat with cops and ex-cons; high percentage of comedic misfires; makes no attempt to explain much of anything; some painful ADR; uses “begs the question” incorrectly