May 16, 2016
Ant-Man is the first Marvel movie in some time that nobody really demanded or expected much of, and it more or less does what it needs to.
It doesn’t really have the scope or scale of something like Age of Ultron or The Winter Soldier, it isn’t introducing us to a radical new part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (as did Thor or Guardians of the Galaxy), and it isn’t really trying to set up anything especially important in the grand scheme of things. It’s a film where everyone goes in knowing that they could probably skip it, as it’s an origin story for a character nobody really knows much about. He’s not a major hero, he’s not tied to any important characters, and he isn’t really adding all that much to the mythos.
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That doesn’t mean the movie is bad, nor does it mean that you shouldn’t see it; it just means that the film is a bit of an oddity in some ways, and strangely comfortable in others. The tone and the character fit right in rather snuggly, and he’ll be a welcome addition to the ensemble Avengers cast, but the film feels more like a side story, or an epilogue to MCU Phase 2. It’s more of a “God, those last films were exhausting, let’s just chill out and relax with something nice and simple” kind of thing. If you imagine the Marvel franchise as the movie equivalent of a TV series, then this is sort of like ending the season on a standalone episode after a big climatic two-parter, starring a character you’ve never heard of, in a story that means almost nothing to the larger plot.
There’s nothing wrong with that, and in a way it’s a nice change of pace. Ant-Man is a little bit of a breather before Phase 3 comes along and throws a whole bunch of new characters and dimensions and big, epic storylines in our faces. But it still means that this is a film you don’t really need to see.
The film itself is good, but kind of forgettable. Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, newly released from prison for burglary and determined to go straight so he can support and spend time with his daughter, but he’s soon compelled to return to his thieving ways because as an ex-con he can’t find a job. He agrees to break into the empty home of a wealthy old man who supposedly keeps something valuable in his basement safe, only to discover what he thinks is just an old motorcycle suit.
In reality, it’s the Ant-Man suit, which allows the wearer to shrink to the size of an ant while granting them superhuman strength and agility. It belongs to eminent scientist, reclusive millionaire, and (secretly) ex-super soldier Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). Pym wants Scott’s help breaking into his old company Pym Industries, now run by the egotistical, childish, and not entirely stable Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), his ex-protégé who resents his old mentor and has rediscovered the Pym Particle that makes the suit work.
Cross has created his own version of the Ant-Man suit, the armored and weaponized Yellowjacket suit, which he plans to sell to the highest bidder and thus unleash a new generation of super-soldiers upon the world. And it’s up to Pym, Lang, and Pym’s daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lily) to stop him.
Basically, the film is another superhero origin story, much like what we got in Phase 1, except this time the Avengers already exist and operate, and much of the fictional world has already been set up. There’s a bit of a Hero of Another Story thing going on here, with the Avengers, HYDRA, and SHIELD all mentioned and playing a role in the background (one Avenger gets an extended cameo—I won’t say which, though) without being part of the main plot.
I do appreciate that the film does address and give a plausible reason for why Pym doesn’t bring in the Avengers on this (unlike, you know, every other Phase 2 pre-Guardians movie where it’s either not brought up or weakly hand-waved away), namely that he has a bad history with SHIELD in general and Howard Stark in particular (John Slattery and Hayley Atwell briefly reprise their roles as Howard Stark and Peggy Carter in a scene set in the 1980s), and he doesn’t trust Tony Stark for that reason. Nor does Hank think much of their performance in the previous movie, since after all, they solved a self-made crisis by (spoilers!) dropping a city on the Earth.
The cast is likeable, and handles themselves well. Paul Rudd is perfectly cast as Scott Lang, and you completely buy him as an inventive, well-intentioned but embittered thief, as well as a loving father and daring superhero-in-training. Douglas does his job as Hank Pym, and Evangeline Lily is equally good as Hope—if slightly underused, though there is setup for her to become the Wasp later. Corey Stoll is competent as the evil businessman we’ve seen a dozen times before, especially in the Iron Man movies, though he and the writers at least give him a bit of a personal grudge and bouts of instability to keep him a little bit more interesting.
What mostly makes the film work is the comedy and the special effects. While it’s not exactly hilarious, the movie is full of good-natured humor and doesn’t take itself too seriously. The Ant-Man scenes and the way Pym has weaponized shrinking and enlarging objects and people are pulled off flawlessly, and towards the end we get a few quite creative and funny moments with giant ants, a keychain that isn’t really a keychain, and Thomas the Tank Engine, of all things.
Most importantly of all, you totally buy what the movie is selling: while the ability to shrink to the size of an ant (and to control them, mustn’t forget that) might sound silly, lame, and useless, in the right hands it can be damn destructive and devastating. This is definitely a film that couldn’t have been made twenty, or even ten years ago; the technology had to catch up to make much of this believable. And it succeeds flawlessly.
The weaknesses lie in the script, which is the other reason nobody was expecting much of the Ant-Man movie. After Edgar Wright left the production, the script was rewritten, and ultimately had four writers, and though the film is tied together rather competently, well, all things considered… you can still kind of tell. Mostly during the third act, some scenes and schemes start to feel a little sloppy and not completely thought out, and some characterizations feel a bit forced or underdeveloped. It doesn’t break the film or anything, mostly because the plot itself is already rather straightforward, but you can certainly see where things have been glued together or just left out.
Nevertheless, Ant-Man is still a fun ride. While it’s a rather pedestrian outing for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s not an unwelcome or regrettable one. It still has heart, and it still has fun, and it’s not a particularly bad way to kill some time. And it’s nice to see how more “ordinary” people deal with and get caught up in this changing world of super-heroics and super-villainy. And it was probably more suited to the lighthearted tone that Marvel typically goes for than some of their other outings as well.
At the end of the day, it’s worth a watch, and if you’re a fan of this franchise, you’ll probably see it anyway. It’s not the best or most memorable Marvel movie, but it’s not a disappointment, either.