The bug-sized hero finally gets his time to shine, but is it a giant-sized success for Marvel?
Initially planned to be one of Marvel Studio’s smaller-scale, modestly-budgeted Phase One trial run movies, Ant-Man has at long last become a reality after a long, troubled production history. It serves as the conclusion to the studio’s Phase Two of film production, entering multiplexes just months after the gargantuan Avengers: Age of Ultron to induct a new hero into the always-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. British cult director Edgar Wright was originally slated to direct Ant-Man, but creative differences prompted his departure just weeks before shooting, leaving Marvel scrambling to get the movie ready in time for its already-scheduled release date. Unfortunately, the studio recruited Peyton Reed to direct. With Reed having previously helmed the likes of Bring It On and Yes Man, he’s not exactly a name one would think of to oversee a tent-pole comic book action extravaganza. And alas, the finished movie is even weaker than the arguably underwhelming Age of Ultron, a mostly monotonous effort that perpetually seems to be stuck in first gear.
A professional cat burglar, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is fresh out of prison, seeking to turn his life around and do right by his young daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). Desperate to land a job but finding employment impossible with his criminal record, Scott begrudgingly lets his ex-cellmate Luis (Michael Peña) talk him into breaking into a mansion for a big score. Scott works his magic to get through various levels of security, but instead of money, he only finds a unique suit with the ability to shrink and strengthen whomever wears it. The suit was designed by Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a brilliant physicist who created the groundbreaking formula to allow the shrinking process and vowed he would never allow it to fall into the wrong hands. But Pym’s former protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who has taken control of Pym Industries, is close to replicating the code and weaponising the Ant-Man tech. To disrupt Cross’ plan, Pym chooses Scott to don the Ant-Man suit, much to the frustration of his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly).
The screenplay for Ant-Man was punched up by Adam McKay, presumably reconciling Wright and Joe Cornish’s original narrative structure with the demands from Disney/Marvel that compelled Wright to exit the project. Ultimately, the broad strokes of the narrative do work, even if they are derivative of the archetypical “origin story” format. Rather than the grandiose scale of The Avengers, Ant-Man is more character-focused like 2008’s Iron Man, with a fairly basic story to make room for the laughs and drama. There are emotional stakes here, with a nice father-daughter redemption arc, but, unfortunately, none of it makes the impact that it probably should. The subplot involving Scott, his daughter, his ex-wife, and his ex-wife’s new lover in particular comes off as a clichéd distraction, and the resolution is vague and head-scratching.
Worse, while the actors are consummate professionals who definitely suit their respective roles, the likes of Rudd and Douglas are often left struggling to make various scenes work, burdened with heavy exposition that does them no favours. McKay was brought in for his experience in comedy, but his previous flicks (Anchorman, Step Brothers) rely heavily on the improvisational talents of the actors rather than witty screenwriting. Thus, there’s no life or spark to the often painfully perfunctory dialogue. There’s the niggling feeling throughout Ant-Man that the movie should have been better and braver – it’s all rather safe, manufactured to pander to the younger demographic. Furthermore, a number of Marvel Cinematic Universe references do sneak their way into the script, but they feel blatantly shoehorned in for the sake of it. This is most notably felt in a tangent involving a certain Avenger that amounts to nothing, clearly included for the sake of an MCU tie-in, and could’ve easily been excised for stronger storytelling. It’s clear that standalone superhero movies are no longer possible in the MCU.
There are some hugely creative ideas here – Luis’ long-winded storytelling raised a few guffaws from this reviewer, and it’s especially brilliant that the destructive climactic battle between Scott and the villainous Yellowjacket occurs atop a table of children’s toys – but the material is mostly limp in the hands of Reed, who exhibits little in the way of style and personality. There’s nothing invigorating about the movie, which often feels more like a television pilot due to flat cinematography, humdrum direction, workmanlike action scenes and simplistic humour. It’s full of digital effects, of course, which bring some of the more creative scenes to vivid life. But while the CGI is competent, it’s by no means spectacular; it still looks too digital, in need of the tangible aesthetic of bygone superhero adventures. As always, the picture arrives with a 3D option, and though the conversion is competent, it does nothing to enhance the movie, which is a shame considering the possibilities. Reed just isn’t a visionary filmmaker.
Although enjoyable at times, Ant-Man falls towards the lower spectrum of Marvel productions, down there with The Incredible Hulk and Thor: The Dark World. It ultimately feels like a producer’s vision, without much in the way of personality or energy. Guardians of the Galaxy was bolstered by the quirky disposition afforded by indie filmmaker James Gunn, while the Russo Brothers turned Captain America: The Winter Soldier into an exhilarating espionage thriller. Peyton Reed, on the other hand, was ostensibly hired to be a yes man to Marvel’s demands, and that’s a shame. Superhero fatigue is beginning to set in for this reviewer, making a production like Ant-Man even more disappointing. Potential sequels will need to up their game – hopefully, Ant-Man 2 will be overseen by a more competent action craftsman who will do the character justice. As ever, be sure to stick around during the end credits, as there are two additional scenes.