I’d have never guessed that the Marvel movie of 2015 I preferred was the apparent gamble that is ANT-MAN rather than the seemingly sure thing that was AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON. It just goes to show how bang-on Yoda was in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK with his disgruntled query “Judge me by my size, do you?”
Convicted cat burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) struggles to gain work after his latest spell in prison, and finds himself increasingly shut out of the life of his young daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) until he proves he has truly changed his ways. His chance comes from an unexpected source – shutaway genius Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) – who asks Scott to help him pull off a dangerous heist for the betterment of humanity, a heist that requires Scott to use a very unusual suit…
There’s a good number of critics out there (and probably a fair few audience members as well) who are developing a certain lethargy for filmed comic book adaptations. I guess it’s understandable, as superhero movies have been the dominant summer blockbuster genre for around fifteen years now. This is by no means a modern phenomenon in the Movie Business. Westerns were all-consuming in the 50s, disaster movies in the 70s, horror in the 80s – Hollywood has always moved in trends. If we are to see a superhero movie monopoly for the rest of this decade and beyond, each example has to be very different from the last. Keeping these formulas fresh is Marvel’s specialty – they’ve done superhero deconstruction (IRON MAN 3); superhero conspiracy thriller (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER); and now a superhero heist movie with Ant-Man. It’s not Marvel/Disney I’m worried about, but DC/Warner Bros (grim and operatic becomes monotonous fast).
When did Paul Rudd become such a great leading man? He’s been a reliable supporting player in comedies for years, usually lumped with the smarmy best friend role, but here he’s really able to stretch his dramatic chops as well as his usual charm offensive. As Scott Lang, he looks like he’s been put through the wringer, and there’s a real pain in his eyes throughout. Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly convincingly play Hank and Hope’s complex father-daughter relationship, and both have a lot of fun putting down Rudd’s overconfidence. Just as Hank Pym could have ended up as just an older version of Tony Stark, Darren Cross could have just been a younger Obidiah Stane, but Corey Stoll gives him enough nuance to interest, playing Cross as a genius with the morals of a cruel seven-year-old who likes pulling the legs off of things. Michael Peña, T.I and David Dastmalchian all play stereotypes as Scott’s cronies, but they’re knowing stereotypes and fun characters with some of the funniest exchanges.Co
It’s funny, while the premise of Ant-Man sounds pretty bizarre and out-there, it’s probably Marvel’s most grounded and contained movie to date. The threat of experimental technology falling into the wrong hands and threatening the world isn’t a new premise, particularly not within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (all three IRON MAN movies, Age of Ultron had the same plot) but it is nice to see the threat pretty confined for a change, mostly limited to a San Francisco suburb and two families rather than the entire world and everything on it.
The action is superb, and very different to anything we’ve seen before in Marvel’s previous efforts. The creative use of scale inherent in portraying the character lends itself to unique, eye-popping and comic set pieces. We see normal household objects in colossal scale as miniature characters leap and flip over them as is common in shrinking movies, but we also often cut to see the action in normal scale, as lightning-fast specks bounce around the environment, which gives the action a concrete geography. There’s a very clever fight that takes place entirely inside a suitcase falling through the air, and that battle on a Thomas The Tank Engine toy that’s been all over the trailers has a killer punchline when it concludes.
The idea of different species of ants being used for different roles is a neat one (the flying Carpenter ants function like a scout plane squadron; swarming Crazy ants can form bridges and ladders; Bullet ants distract guards with a formidable bite) and this makes the inevitable heist planning montage feel fresh and amusingly oddball.
An idea I thought was less well executed was the concept of shrinking to a sub-atomic level. There’s a few key dramatic scenes that incorporate this idea, of taking the ultimate risk to achieve your objective. Visually, it’s interesting enough, going almost psychedelic to portray such a concept. The issue is much the same as the visual portrayal of inter-dimensional concepts in INTERSTELLAR – I didn’t like how they appeared, but at the same time I don’t know how else you’d do it better. The difference between the two films is that Interstellar (and the Nolan brothers) had ideas above their station, whereas Ant-Man and Edgar Wright/Peyton Reed made it essential to the plot and characters’ journeys.
I’m pleased they didn’t go for the over-used sick daughter plot device (a trope even used in my favourite Marvel movie Iron Man 3), but rather Lang becoming “the hero she already thinks he is”. The filmmakers really commit to Lang being an ordinary man becoming extraordinary, a guy who has made some big mistakes in his life using his pint-sized superheroics to redeem his soul. Edgar Wright may not have directed his passion project, so many may feel the final film lacks his distinct dynamism, but many of his script ideas and the general arc of his story remains, and you can’t diminish Peyton Reed’s achievement for coming in at the eleventh hour and still producing something so satisfying. SSP