Perhaps the most formulaic Marvel movie to date, though it ends on a high note.
Mental real estate is growing scarce as the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to expand, introducing dozens of new characters (both super-powered and not) every year for fans to get acquainted with. Mere months after the jam-packed, super-sized Avengers: Age of Ultron hit theaters, we’re visited by the Ant-Man, a funny little fellow whose brothers in arms aren’t Asgardian gods or raging green monsters, but tiny critters skittering about, virtually invisible to the naked eye. Where does a mini-hero like Ant-Man fit into the pantheon of larger-than-life superheroes? Will anyone even notice?
Probably not. Peyton Reed‘s Ant-Man is a respectably entertaining cog in the MCU machine, but it does little to set itself apart from its beefier big brothers. It’s got things other Marvel movies don’t: it’s a heist movie; Ant-Man’s the first superhero father (Hawkeye’s a secret agent!); the action is small-scale (and very easy to follow). But Reed ain’t foolin’ nobody. This is as formulaic a movie as Marvel’s ever produced. Its third act is a lot of fun, but everything beyond that feels safe, as if the movie is afraid to dive into the loony ideas it dips its toes into (James Gunn‘s Guardians of the Galaxy dove straight into the deep end, positioning it as the cooler, edgier alternative to the Avengers). If only all superhero movies could be as courageous as their mighty protags.
Michael Douglas anchors the film as Hank Pym, a scientist who in the ’70s invented a super suit that grants its wearer the ability to shrink down to bug size while retaining the strength of a 200-pound man, essentially making him (or her) the stealthiest, most dangerous super soldier the world’s ever seen. Fearing the chaos that would ensue should the technology fall into the wrong hands, Hank hides his invention away to never be found again. Fast-forward to present-day, and it’s found, again, by his former protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who’s taken over PymTech and plans to unleash an army of shrinking suits on the world.
Unwilling to let his ass-kicking daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly) don his old suit, he employs talented thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) to infiltrate Cross’ labs and steal back the dangerous tech and end this mess. Scott’s just been released from prison and has vowed to give up his former life of crime, but Hank promises to help him reunite with his young daughter (Abby Ryder Forston), who lives with Scott’s ex-wife, Maggie (Judy Greer, underutilized again) and her husband (Bobby Cannavale). Unable to secure a clean job due to his dirty record, Scott agrees to take on the proverbial “one last job.”
Formulaic. Formulaic. You can smell the tropes from a mile away. Just as the plot gets set in motion, the film screeches to a halt as we watch Scott learn to use the Ant-Man suit and speak to ants with his mind (it’s a protracted training montage). Running parallel is a story of father-daughter resentment, which comes to a head in a terrifically acted scene between Lilly and Douglas that nonetheless makes you feel absolutely lousy in an otherwise largely comedic affair.
Rudd always seems to know how to make a scene funny, but seldom do I find his smartass-ness downright hilarious. He’s a comedian of modest talents, though he’s well-rounded and handsome enough to make him a viable leading man. He gets a passing grade. His greatest strength as an actor is that he’s pretty hard not to like, which in the case of a movie like Ant-Man comes in handy: we genuinely want to see him reunited with his daughter. (Just for the record, Ryder Forston is insanely adorable; she’s missing her two front teeth, so none of us stand a chance.)
The surprise standouts of the cast are Tip “T.I.” Harris and Michael Peña, who play Scott’s bumbling burglar buddies. Peña’s comedic delivery is off-the-charts good, and he actually sort of makes Rudd look bad; Rudd’s jokes get mild chuckles while Peña’s makes the audience explode with laughter. Stoll has a great look, his powerful frame and villainously bald head making him more physically imposing than your typical mad scientist. If you blink, you’ll miss his best moment: somberly, like an abandoned child, he asks his former mentor why he pushed him away. Hank replies, “Because I saw too much of myself.” The movie’s pervading theme is one of the passing of generations, which stimulates little thought and doesn’t lend the movie much richness. It does, at least, give the story a solid foundation.
Thankfully, the movie gets really darned good once the big heist gets underway. After an hour or so of mediocrity, things really click into place; the action becomes more playful and inventive, and the actors start to let loose (especially Peña’s character, who sucks so bad at going undercover he just starts clocking security guards left and right and talking smack over their unconscious bodies). The final battle takes place in a little girl’s bedroom, and the ensuing visual gags are wildly entertaining and super funny. Ant-Man‘s micro-comedy isn’t as funny as the stuff Pixar did with the Toy Story franchise, but it comes close, which is a major compliment.
If Ant-Man‘s finale wasn’t so great, I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest you skip the movie entirely. References to other movies in the MCU (a certain winged Avenger makes a guest appearance) are cute and fun, though your enjoyment of that stuff depends on your geekiness level. Edgar Wright had an infamous falling-out with Marvel Studios partway through production and was replaced by Reed, and I wonder if the balls Ant-Man seems to be lacking went away along with the Shaun of the Dead mastermind.