Ambition is defined as the “desire and determination to achieve success,” but what happens once you achieve – and surpass – said success? Marvel Studios has literally gone to the moon and back (or, more aptly, other galaxies and back), building a devoted fanbase of cinematic worshipers who would see any MCU entry without hesitation. Feige’s team could dial it in for the next five movies if they wanted to and still dominate the box office, yet Marvel refuses to let their ambitious nature fizzle out. The last few Marvel flicks have rattled the cage more than expected, reaching out towards different subgenre undertones to drive each hero’s unique personality, and Edgar Wr…I mean, PEYTON REED’s Ant-Man is no different.
The story of Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his shrinking suit is built on science, stealthiness, and slapstick comedy – not mythical backgrounds or other-worldly invasions. Pym may be a genius scientist, but he’s merely human – much like his mentee Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), and original-mentee-turned-nemesis, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). This is why Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish chose to focus on the heist aspect of Ant-Man in their original screenplay (edited by Adam McKay and Paul Rudd), citing an attempt to heighten Lang’s criminal background versus other everyday-schmuck-destined-for-redemption origin stories.
It’s with this cheeky con-man charm that Lang takes over as the almighty Ant-Man, a hero who can reduce his size drastically while gaining super strength thanks to Pym’s magical particle-shifty-whatever formula. Pym knew that in the wrong hands his formula would be used for evil, which is exactly what happens when his jaded assistant-turned-heir, Darren Cross, takes over Pym’s company and creates his own super-shrinky formula. When pumped into his own suit, dubbed the Yellowjacket, Cross has all the same powers that Pym does, plus a sweet set of laser cannons. But of course Cross is a corrupt, unstable man, and he intends to sell his formula to the highest bidder. Pym won’t stand for such foolishness, so he teams up with Lang to pull off the smallest universe-saving heist known to man.
In the same way that Ant-Man must defy the odds and save the world, Paul Rudd is tasked with saving Ant-Man from a muddied production that has a few too many hands caught in the cookie jar at once. Wright and Cornish have a very British sensibility about their comedy, which favors quick-witted subtlety, while McKay is more well known for his brash, crude Will Ferrell collaborations. You might think these mindsets clash like oil and water, but it’s not that harsh – more like dirt and water, creating a murky product without definition.
I don’t have any insider information on how much of Wright and Cornish’s script was ACTUALLY altered by the Anchorman alumns, and we all know the not-so-secret directorial drama that went on, but I CAN tell you that the conflicting styles are noticeable when watching Ant-Man. The contrast isn’t jarring, but it’s noticeable enough to make us yearn for an Ant-Man movie under the full guidance of Edgar Wright (who inexplicably walked from the project). The current film is a blander-than-expected product of the Marvel formula, and Wright may not have been able to do much better – but it’s impossible not to wonder “What if?”
Peyton Reed was the man who Marvel called upon to translate the words of many scribes into one coherent vision, and he tries his hardest to create a homogenized blend of comedic criminal action. Reed leans on comedy here because that’s what the goofiness of Ant-Man demands. What else do you expect from a heist adventure featuring a rag-tag team of jokey burglars, an inept hero who reveals his identity without hesitation (to Falcon), and animated ant henchmen? Lang himself isn’t the BEST fighter (although Rudd has some moves), which translates into a focus on smash-and-grab planning and collective teamwork. This is Ant-Man‘s attempted “twist” on Marvel’s spandex regurgitation, and while it is welcoming, Reed has trouble differentiating the thrilling heist at play from average, run-of-the-mill superhero heroics.
In that simplicity, Ant-Man succeeds in delivering laughs, pint-sized thrills, and an astonishingly grand scale for battles that hearken back to WWII sieges upon bloody, sandy beaches. Rudd is known for scoring snide laughs, but he also gets some serious support from Michael Peña as his fast-talking, waffle-loving buddy, Luis. These are the obvious points of Reed’s vision that work, never delving too deeply into any origin mumbo-jumbo. In its best moments, Ant-Man tells a story of redemption through the most unbelievable of ways, and finds admirable amounts of light-hearted humor amidst a battle of good and evil.
At it’s worst, Ant-Man is a bit of a jumbled slog. The pace doesn’t really pick up until an hour into Reed’s film, once Yellowjacket’s insanity kicks into full effect. Pym’s fears all revolve around the dangers of unlimited power, represented by his unmatched suit technology, yet Cross’ villainous turn could be one of Marvel’s weakest arcs. He’s nothing but a greedy, mad scientist, with almost zero emotional connection to any of the characters (despite being Pym’s protégé). It doesn’t help that the science behind Ant-Man’s suit is pretty fuzzy, as Reed relies heavily on flashy mirror imagery and screen-saver like material distortions in the place of actual explanations. But hell, subatomic planes of existence are probably pretty boring anyway (a joke made when Pym puts Lang’s squad to sleep with talk of the suits inner-workings).
That’s to say Ant-Man feels a bit more hollow than previous Marvel efforts. Reed’s production feels like nothing but a reason to further the Marvel Cinematic Universe (more so than most entries), where Ant-Man himself seems to play an increasingly large role IN THE FUTURE (hinted at by BOTH mid and post credit scenes). But we’re in the now, and even in his own film, Ant-Man appears as a gimmicky side character.
Michael Douglas makes a fine Hank Pym, grizzled and tormented beyond his years, and Evangeline Lilly teases a more important future for Hope van Dyne, but large parts of Ant-Man come off as too unnecessarily inconsequential to capitalize on the familial drama of the situation.
Credit has to be given to Abby Ryder Fortson, who plays Lang’s younger daughter with a tremendous amount of maturity, but Judy Greer’s second 2015 turn as a worried mother (Jurassic World) gives her a role with absolutely no depth. Bobby Cannavale, meanwhile, grimaces as an overly-committed cop, T.I. plays one of Luis’ associates with a downgraded comedic value, and David Dastmalchian does the same with even less comedic success. Why couldn’t they just clone Michael Peña and give him all of the supporting parts?!
Scott Lang’s greatest allies are the ants themselves, and Rudd’s greatest chemistry comes from his connection with these easy-on-the-eyes insects. When commanding his crawling army, Rudd shows a care for his allies through a strangely lovable camaraderie, and they prove to be able fighters as well. The battle sequences between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket are admittedly exciting, and make the most of any miniature gag imaginable. In recognizing the full potential of these shrunken warzones, Reed is always sure to pull the camera back to remind us of the film’s deceptively small scale – one of the few comedic tactics that continually delivers.
Like the cut-and-paste theatrical poster for Ant-Man suggest, it’s just more of the same Marvel storytelling. Reed tries to inject a heist movie atmosphere as a small differentiating flavor, but a staggered build-up and unbalanced road to Lang’s explosive action finale lead us down a strangely repetitive comic book path. Not to mention, there are some noticeably lackluster visual effects presented when Scott morphs down – a complaint I’ve NEVER issued in any Marvel review.
For such an obscure Marvel hero, Ant-Man sure feels a hell of a lot like a generic universe-building cash in. I can only hope that Scott Lang gets the cinematic treatment he deserves during the impending Infinity War, and that Luis gets his own YouTube cooking show where he makes waffles once a week and discusses neo-cubism artwork.
Marvel One-Shot, you know what to do.
Ant-Man cares more about setting up the future than addressing the present, and for that, Paul Rudd's best efforts as the wise-cracking insect companion are overshadowed by what's to come.