There’s very little that’s surprising about Ant-Man. At this stage in the game, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is so established and the types of films Marvel makes so codified, it’s easy to guess what sort of experience you’ll get when you watch their newest release. This is the case with Ant-Man. It’s fun and clever, but it never gets your adrenaline pumping. It has some hilarious moments but also perfunctory tie-ins to the rest of the MCU. It thankfully shrinks the scale to a size appropriate to its titular hero, avoiding the requisite urban destruction of the superhero movie, but the narrative beats are the same thing we’ve been getting since Iron Man came out in 2008. Ant-Man is the same but different—a mantra for the film industry as a whole, and one that Marvel appears to have perfected.
Ant-Man follows Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), an ex-con struggling to reconnect with his young daughter after serving a sentence for industrial robbery. He needs a break as he can’t keep down a job that will allow him to repay his child support and work his way back into his daughter’s life. Lucky for him, he’s caught the eye of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a genius inventor with an estranged daughter who needs Scott to steal an experimental suit from his erstwhile protege, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). The suit is a variation on Pym’s own, one that allows a person to shrink down to the size of an ant and infiltrate and fight with all the powers of that insect. Of course, Scott dons Pym’s suit and becomes the Ant-Man, capable of breaking into Cross’s laboratory and stealing his suit before he sells it to arms dealers.
Much of the film’s appeal is the counterintuitive casting of Paul Rudd as Scott Lang. Rudd, the goofy, ageless comedian from the films of David Wain and Judd Apatow isn’t anyone’s first choice to play a superhero. Therein lies the strength of the casting. He’s the sole ingredient of the film that masters its attempt at irreverence. For example, about halfway through the film there’s an emotional confession between Hank Pym and his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly). Director Peyton Reed films the emotional moment as a conventional two-hander, intercutting between single close-ups, before bringing Hank and Hope together in the frame as they forgive each other. Reed then immediately cuts to Scott in the background, smiling like an idiot at the emotional moment he’s witnessing. He comments on what a beautiful moment it is, before realizing he’s ruined the intimacy of it and wanders off to make some tea, already having done his damage. Only an actor of Rudd’s earnest foolishness can accomplish a moment like this. He lends the film most of its charm.
Too bad the film doesn’t do as well with the other major characters. The aforementioned scene works because of Rudd’s wide-eyed goofiness, not because the emotional moment between Hank and Hope beforehand was earned. Ant-Man completely bungles how it uses the character Hope, a woman so smart, competent, and strong, it’s baffling Hank doesn’t allow her to wear the Ant-Man suit to save the day. There’s no compelling reason for her not to the wear the suit—Hank explains it away as him trying to protect her from Darren Cross and the film leaves it at that. In actuality the reason is that Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige has not deemed it time to exclusively feature a female superhero yet. Thus, Hope is someone who is stifled from meaningfully engaging in the action. Even though she can handily knock Scott down with one punch and understands the suit in a way Scott never can due to her years of research, she’s got breasts and a vagina, so too bad, she doesn’t fit the “creative vision,” I guess.
At least Ant-Man does some things right. It strikes a nice balance with its scale, understanding that a movie about a hero who can shrink down to the size of an ant shouldn’t climax with a city blowing to pieces. One scene involving a ping-pong paddle and a bug zapper captures the silliness and invention of the character. The actual climax, set on-top of a child’s train set, is clever in concept although not in execution. It may take place in a bizarre setting, but the CGI fight itself looks awfully familiar to the robot rumble on top of Stark Industries at the end of the original Iron Man. Marvel may come up with great ideas for action set-pieces, but their execution always stumbles.
This familiar ending epitomizes the film. Although the outfit may be new, and the humour may share some of the irreverence of last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, the film ultimately fits the familiar model. It has a new hero here, a new villain there, but the beats are patented MCU. That’s not a bad thing. It’s just results in an on-brand blandness—the kind we now expect from Marvel. Ant-Man is a capable film of small ambitions.
6 out of 10
Ant-Man (2015, USA)
Directed by Peyton Reed; written by Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish and Adam McKay & Paul Rudd, based on a story by Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish, based on the comic book by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby; starring Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Peña, Tip “T.I” Harris, Anthony Mackie, Wood Harris, Judy Greer, David Dastmalchian, and Michael Douglas.