by Nathan Ellis
"Is this a joke?" an inquisitive friend leans over and asks, befuddled and annoyed as Michael Douglas describes the dangers of shrinking for an eternity in a quantum reality. Minutes later I find it hard to come up with a response when Paul Rudd enthusiastically stumbles his way through a montage next to a swarm of stampeding insects. I hate to address the elephant sized anteater in the room so early, but one has to wonder if more audiences would have felt in on the joke rather than the butt of it had writer/director Edgar Wright not departed his long awaited, hellish production weeks before filming. The film nerd and British comedy genius behind Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World's End had been developing Ant-Man since 2006, two years before Robert Downey Jr. even put on the Iron Man suit, only to drop out due to creative differences a year before the announced release date. I'm not going to beat the dead horsefly on what could have been, it's not fair to current director Peyton Reed and the talented crew, but it's hard not to be blinded by hindsight in this case.
After serving his time for high level burglary, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is excited to get back in the world and clean up his act, showing his estranged wife and daughter that he can lead a decent life. His friend and roomie Luis (Michael Pena) attempts to lure Scott back into his previous occupation of honorable thievery, but an ex-Shield scientist named Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) has other plans for our would-be reformed criminal. In the meantime Pym must convince his daughter Janet Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) that Scott's the right man for the job before a powerful shrinking technology can be unleashed on the world. Product placement galore, self-deprecating dialogue, and enough family drama for 3 CW shows infect what should have been the quirkiest Marvel fare since Guardians.
To preface the rest of the review, the film is full of delightful moments and I enjoyed myself quite a bit by the time the post-credits rolled. That said, Ant-Man stands next to the Thor franchise as the fluffiest and least surefooted product in the MCU. Trust me, I wish I was saying something puntastic and fun like " this small hero makes a big impact!" but the truth is (and by truth I mean one person's non peer reviewed opinion of a superhero movie) this outing for Marvel ended up being about three or four awesome ideas wrapped up in a generic, streamlined blanket of mediocrity. Where Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk teeter on the borderline of being bad movies all together, Thor and Ant-Man commit an even more egregious sin by using the excuse of having a risky concept to take no risks at all creatively. Both sit comfortably in their snarky, self-aware safety bubble of half assed storytelling, while simultaneously skull fucking unnecessary romances and cloying unsure exposition into the brains of the audience.
Let's at least talk about those three or four awesome ideas I mentioned previously to lighten the unpleasant mood that last sentence created:
1. Paul Rudd and his adorable daughter have great chemistry. Their dynamic is the only standout two-way interaction between any group of actors in the whole movie.
2. Michael Pena and his "he said she said" montage shots. With the exception of one annoying, repetitive gag towards the half way point, Pena's delivery stays consistently good and couples beautifully with the clever editing during two shining sequences of what would have otherwise seemed like expository dialogue.
3. Wasp takes flight with the original Ant-Man during a missile crisis to defuse a bomb. The scene was brimming with atmosphere, standing tall as a visually stunning beacon of heroism and a shining example of how to use an appropriate amount of pulp fantasy.
4. The climactic action sequence. No matter how shoddy and convenient our main villain's motivation is, the ending itself was far from generic when it comes to superhero finales. Giant ants, Thomas the Tank Engine used as an action set piece, and a psychedelic trip into the micro-verse made for a unique experience that almost washes away the horrid taste left by the second act out of our popcorn filled orifices.
END OF SPOLIERS
If you're casually interested in seeing it, I would say the above examples do warrant the purchase of a ticket as long as you temper your expectations in comparison to other MCU movies like Avengers, Guardians, and Winter Soldier. Although, a list of things that were totally meant to be awesome and failed comes to mind just as easily:
1. A poorly written and downright lazy cameo appearance from a newly appointed Avenger is crammed into the middle of the film to remind us we're all man/women-children that will eat up any possible tease of a team-up.
2. A pre-title scene with equally lazy cameos hammers home the idea that Hank Pym is a violent asshole first and a scientist second. Something Marvel probably should have decided against, especially when they won't acknowledge their title character is primarily known for creating a super villain and hitting his wife.
3. Evangeline Lilly's role as Hope Van Dyne. What was clearly meant to be the empowered female element of the film quickly turned into the most embarrassing and off base depiction of an intelligent business woman since... well... Bryce Dallas Howard in last month's Jurassic World. Even down to the weird Cleopatra haircut. She's a tumbleweed of bad writing, picking up every stray cliché she can find along the way. "Ooooh, I'll be a hard ass CEO lady! What's that over there? A strained father/daughter relationship in which the mother died and said father feels guilty! I'll take that one too!" She becomes so bitter that by the end it's hard to find her the least bit likeable.
4. Our villain. Darren Cross served as nothing more than a conceited protégé to Hank Pym. A corporate cutout with little reason to risk his entire career by breaking and entering multiple homes, even taking a child hostage.
5. The heist for the Yellowjacket suit. The comic book caper aspect was something the studio and previous director had been promising for years, even thought of as a 70's genre picture at one point. The uniformity of the tone and obligation to be so safe lead what could have been brimming with tension into a poorly paced burglary. Without the craft that goes into a Mission Impossible set piece, and without the tension that goes into 70's capers like Dog Day Afternoon.
I truly think that had the scheduling not been delayed so long, an Edgar Wright directed, pre-Age of Ultron Ant-Man would have wrapped up phase two nicely and cemented the MCU as an invincible power house. However, this recent twosome of fun but poorly scheduled parts of this Marvel hype train have revealed a few cracks in the paint I was happily oblivious to a year ago. What's worse and far scarier, to quote another close friend, is the revelation that “Maybe we're finally at that age where everything coming out looks like redundant shit that we don't understand". I pray to Galactus that he's wrong and that Civil War reinvigorates my loyalty to this franchise. It absolutely terrifies me that I'm more excited for the upcoming quasi-sequel to Man of Steel than I am for the next Avengers movie.