Review: Marvel shrinks its scope, wins again with ‘Ant-Man’

Ant-Man was always destined to go down as one of the great “what ifs” in the Marvel canon, and little of that has to do with the actual film. Edgar Wright, the brilliant satirist behind Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, was originally tapped to write and direct the project. Along with writing partner Joe Cornish, Wright drew up three drafts of the script and even shot some test footage. By all accounts, it was Wright’s vision that convinced Marvel this weird character could actually carry a blockbuster in the first place. But just months before filming was set to kick-off, Wright left the project, citing “creative” differences. The script was re-done (though Wright and Cornish still receive a story credit) and Peyton Reed (Yes Man, The Break-Up) was hired to direct. To many fans, myself included, Ant-Man already seemed to be shaping up as a “what could’ve been” before production even began.

Luckily for the loyal legion of Marvel fans whose recyclable interests have made this shared universe possible, Ant-Man is quite good on a number of levels.

Paul Rudd stars as Scott Lang/Ant-Man. After getting out of jail (for robbery, errrrr…thievery) he’s not exactly dumbfounded to learn that there’s little out there for him. His daughter lives with ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her cop boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale). Despite the fact that he possesses master’s degree in mechanical engineering, he can’t hold a job, even on at Baskin Robbins, due to his record. So when presented with an opportunity for redemption, Scott doesn’t hesitate. That opportunity comes in the form of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the inventor and original wearer of the Ant-Man technology, who wants Scott to don the suit and break into Pym’s company so he can steal the same technology from Pym’s former protégé turned villain Darren Cross/Yellowjacket (Corey Stoll). Being inside the suit allows one to shrink, which also gives them super-strength, and to control different varieties of ants. There are other beats to the characters and story, different individual melodramas and details, but that’s an abridged version of this outlandish premise.

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The reason Ant-Man works is because it’s fully aware of this preposterousness and not afraid to mock itself (very much like another big movie this summer). There’s a moment when Pym essentially fits all the films exposition into a two-minute bit, explaining the technology and conflict to Scott. It’s lazy screenwriting, but Rudd saves the scene by responding, with that trademark smirk, “why don’t you just call the Avengers?” A lot of similarly mindful jokes are packed in, many of them likely due to Rudd’s involvement (he helped touch-up the script).

Rudd is a treat as the titular hero. You expect an actor like Rudd to bring his sardonic quibbling’s to a superhero role, much like Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Pratt have both done in Marvel films, but Rudd is more than just a funnyman here. In the films first act, when Scott Lang is a bruised and empty criminal, Rudd does a fine job capturing his apprehensions. This is key, because, outside of Rudd, the first half of Ant-Man is shockingly boring. We don’t get a spectacular action set piece to kick things off, nor is the film really an origin story. There’s a lot of exposition, a lot of snooze inducing daddy-daughter drama between Pym and Hope (Evangeline Lilly), and an all-around lack of conflict; as its clear early-on that the story is building up to the semi-climactic heist. When Rudd isn’t the physical and thematic focus of any particular moment in Ant-Man, it’s just not all that interesting. Corey Stoll gets a surprising amount of screen time from the onset before he technically even becomes a villain. I appreciate the effort, but like the dynamic between Pym and his daughter, any extended sequences with the supporting characters in the beginning of the film just make you want Rudd back on screen.

While it’s far from flawless, the best moments in Ant-Man rank amongst Marvel’s finest to date. There is some truly beautiful special effects work. The smaller scope doesn’t prevent Reed from proving he can handle action sequences. When Ant-Man shrinks, his environments are incredibly detailed. Bath water functions as a tsunami, certain ants look like giant monsters, and a toy train set is made to look like the transcontinental railroad. All of these digital worlds are complimented by some sharp editing work, as Ant-Man’s whole power comes from the way he can switch from normal to miniscule at the blink of an eye. When Ant-Man finally goes “sub-atomic” he floats through this gorgeous alternate reality resembling a kaleidoscope. This is a daring sequence given that it comes in the middle of the films climax and gives pause to the violence, but the visual artists nail it. It may be a touchy subject in the movie business, but films like Ant-Man show that, in some cases, digital photography really is the way to go. I did not see the film in 3D, but much of it was clearly shot with post-conversion in mind. I’d recommend forking over the extra $2 for some plastic glasses.

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Some are calling Ant-Man a “heist” movie. I view it as a satire of heist movies. This is most likely the aspect of Wright’s original story that remains intact. When the clichéd heist team is assembled, it’s done for laughs. David Dastmalchian, T.I., and most notably Michael Peña make up a fine tripod of comedic relief. Peña has long been one of Hollywood’s under-utilized comedic actors (he was hilarious on HBO’s Eastbound & Down). Here, Peña plays Ant-Man’s former cellmate turned roommate turned heist partner (he actually signed a three-film contract with Marvel). The film steps out of its own universe for two extended sequences that allow Peña to mock stereotypes of his own Mexican heritage when it comes to storytelling. Not only are these moments the funniest in the film, but it’s also refreshing to see a director confident enough to do something like this in the middle of an action blockbuster. With that being said, those moments certainly feel like they came from the mind of Wright, not Reed.

There are a few cameos in Ant-Man that attempt to connect it to Marvel’s larger story. Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Ant-Man have brief skirmish when the latter needs to break into the Avengers facility to get some piece of equipment. In the films opening flashback sequence, a young Hank Pym talks about his technology with familiar faces Howard Stark (John Slattery) and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). One of the films lasting images comes at the start, where the digital artists do some imposing and brush work to make Michael Douglass look thirty years younger. They do a respectable job using the same technology that was used to put Chris Evans’ face on a scrawny body in the first Captain America film. Douglas looked re-born during the scene. I couldn’t stop thinking of Gordon Gekko.

There are no infinity stones in Ant-Man. Also sitting this one out are any aliens, gods, or super-villains intent on world destruction. The overall scope of the film is insignificant compared to what happened earlier this year in Avengers: Age of Ultron. And that’s what makes Ant-Man so enjoyable (it is a MUCH better film than Age of Ultron, by the way). You don’t have to keep track of who’s who or what’s already unfolded in this universe. It’s escapist entertainment in its purest form, and probably the most pleasurable film of the 2015 summer blockbuster season.

The greatest accomplishment of Ant-Man is that -despite the director drama surrounding its development- the film successfully introduced a peculiar character to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Rudd will reprise the role in next years Captain America: Civil War and, judging by early numbers and audience reaction, there’s a good chance Ant-Man will get its own sequel at some point. Also, stay after the credits (duh). There’s a very progressive and self-referential/critical moment at the end that will have you whispering “finally” right along with Evangeline Lilly.

Ant-Man is far from Marvel’s biggest film, but its sense of self and impressive effects work make it one of the studios stronger offerings.

 

 

 

 

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