Guardians of the Galaxy. But in an age where bloated superhero franchises buckle under the weight of obligation and fan service, it's almost refreshing that Ant-Man—the concluding chapter in Phase Two of the scrupulously planned Marvel Cinematic Universe—feels so cheerfully trivial. Sure, Tony Stark's dad shows up in the prologue, and the post-credits stinger ties it in with next year's Captain America offering, but for the most part, this is a minor movie about a down-on-his-luck dad trying to get a job so he can pay child support and see his daughter. It is not exactly the stuff of legends, but there is valor in its modesty.
And in its lightness. Ant-Man benefits from a relaxed,
nonthreatening tone that makes it feel less like a superhero adventure
than a hangout flick. That begins with its casting of Paul Rudd as Scott
Lang, a reformed thief trying to make it on the straight-and-narrow.
Rudd has never displayed great range as an actor, but he's developed
into a quasi-superstar through sheer affability, not to mention a gift
for bemused reaction shots. His presence lends the film a laidback vibe
that it mostly embraces, which helps deflect the absurdity of its plot
and the stupidity of its pseudo-science.
Unfortunately, there is still entirely too much of that. The central storyline in Ant-Man
doesn't really involve Scott at all. It instead focuses on Dr. Hank Pym
(Michael Douglas, acquitting himself nicely to this bombastic
environment), a brilliant scientist who decades ago developed a secret
formula that allows a soldier to shrink to the size of an insect,
provided he's wearing a specialized suit that looks like Immortan Joe's
getup in Mad Max: Fury Road crossed with Hazmat gear. Hank
ultimately abandoned the project because of fears that the military
might pervert it, fears that his successor, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll,
enjoying his first flirtation with true villainy), is intent on
realizing. Hank is thus scheming with his daughter, Hope (Evangeline
Lilly, borrowing Uma Thurman's wig from Pulp Fiction), to steal
Cross's revamped technology (or, I dunno, something) before Cross
delivers it into the hands of Hydra, the sinister baddies whom Robert
Redford slyly commanded in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Now, if only Hank and Hope had a line on a particularly talented and desperate thief...
levitate Luke's X-Wing out of Dagobah's swamp,
but did he ever teach ants to put sugar cubes in his coffee? It doesn't
help that Peyton Reed, the director, can't fathom a way to visualize
this mental process; he just trains the camera on Scott's face and
watches as he tries to amass the requisite concentration, which only
results in Rudd looking constipated.
Failing to communicate Scott's mind-power isn't the only area where Ant-Man
falls short visually. Admittedly, as foolish as the movie's foundation
may be, it gives rise to some intriguing possibilities in how to depict
its tiny hero and its microscopic world. But while Reed shrewdly toys
with scale, he never fully capitalizes on the movie's big-versus-small
dichotomy from an action perspective. We see ants skittering from one
area of the frame to another, but we never properly understand how they
use their strength, or their speed. As a result, Ant-Man's action
sequences are skillfully edited but often confounding. It is difficult
to lose yourself in a fight scene when you're constantly wondering how
the hell the hero is pulling this off.
Yet in spite of these many flaws, Ant-Man is persistently
enjoyable, largely because it rarely takes itself seriously.
Surprisingly, even though Reed pinch-hit for Edgar Wright after the
latter departed the project due to "creative differences" with Marvel,
the movie never feels splintered or erratic. It has a bouncy, infectious
wit, and it is substantially more playful than the typical dour
franchise fare. There is, for example, an amusing scene in which an
apologetic Ant-Man battles an Avenger (Anthony Mackie's Falcon),
systematically immobilizing him while constantly professing that he's
sorry. And while the movie dutifully obeys the unwritten rule that all
comic-book adaptations must conclude with a lengthy,
special-effects-driven action extravaganza, this is undoubtedly the
first that does so within the realm of a Thomas the Tank Engine train
set. Even the soundtrack gets in on the act, at one point switching
suddenly from Christophe Beck's unmemorable score to the transcendent
and inspiring synths of The Cure.
But the best bits in Ant-Man, as you might expect, feature little
action at all. They instead involve the unforced banter between Scott
and his confederates, be they Hank and Hope or, even better, Michael
Peña as a motormouthed sidekick who can't relay information without
wandering off into discursive tangents. It is in these scenes where Reed
demonstrates real flair—he flashes back to different characters talking
in rapid succession, only they all speak in Peña's voice, a technique
that transforms the usual expository info-dump into a comic delight.
All told, Ant-Man distinguishes itself from Marvel's usual
pyrotechnics, both for good and for ill. It is funny, entertaining, and
even kind of sweet. But it is also undeniably asinine, with a paltry
storyline and mediocre craftsmanship that fails to measure up to the
studio's enviable standard of technical excellence. Of course, I suppose
this is only logical. Here is a movie whose quirky peculiarity is both a
feature and, at the same time, a bug.