The task that lies before a movie reviewer is generally a straightforward one: Watch the movie, go bowling with your friends as deadline approaches, tell your editor that you’re almost done but need a few more minutes to analyze the film’s mise-en-scène and really ponder the sociopolitical ramifications of its final act, organize your sock drawer, ask for an extension to “finish it up” even though your editor knows you haven’t started it yet, and, finally, review the movie you saw.
Sometimes, though, the movie you really want to write about is the movie you didn’t see. I saw Ant-Man, and I had fun with it. I was charmed by the cast, I was suitably impressed by the FX, and I laughed in all the right places. Unlike other recent Marvel fare, such as Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I didn’t leave the theater with any burning desire to see the film again. Still, Ant-Man is a good movie, and a perfectly respectable entry in the canon of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Call it a win, but a relatively small one.
But it’s also a movie that, at least for fans of a certain type, is defined by what isn’t there as much as what is. It’s tempting to stare into the yawning chasms left in the wake of Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright’s 11th-hour departure and wonder if there’s a glorious, unrealized Ant-Man that will forever float in the ether.
Anyway, back to the movie that made it onto the screen, courtesy of veteran comedy director Peyton Reed (Down With Love, The Break-Up). Ant-Man comes into the game with a bum ankle, so to speak—it’s an origin story for a character that a substantial number of viewers had probably never heard of before the film was announced, so there was a considerable burden of exposition, no matter who was at the helm.
There’s a lot of ground to cover before the film really gets down to business, and the first half suffers for it. First we meet Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), an aging scientist who’s had control of his R&D firm wrested from him by his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), and his protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). According to Marvel’s cinematic mythology, Pym’s most notable accomplishment was creating the Pym particle, which allowed him to develop a suit that could shrink a man to the size of an ant while retaining his man-size strength. (To comics readers, Pym will forever be known as the creator of Ultron, but we nerds are nothing if not utterly flexible in our opinions and amenable to changes made to beloved characters and storylines.)
The suit eventually ends up in the wardrobe of electrical engineer/cat burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), who’s just been released from prison and can’t find gainful employment that doesn’t involve stealing things or scooping ice cream at Baskin-Robbins. Scott reluctantly decides to pull off one last heist in order to raise child-support money. Unbeknownst to Scott, the gig is actually a sort of superhero tryout, and Scott eventually agrees to take on the Ant-Man mantle. But before Scott can squash Darren’s diabolical scheme to sell Pym’s technology to bad guys, he must learn to use the suit, and also to telepathically control ants. Cue training montage. And could that be a romance heating up between Scott and Hope?
Ant-Man’s first half is as formulaic as they come, though the cast and jokey script keep it mostly entertaining. The second half, which packs in countless one-liners and some inventive, shifting-perspective sight gags, is considerably better; thanks to the novelty of characters who can shrink and unshrink at will, Ant-Man offers a welcome alternative to guys in super-suits punching the snot out of each other. The reduced scale is a point in Ant-Man’s favor. In light of movies like Man of Steel and The Avengers, there’s something really charming about a third-act beatdown that decimates a toy train set instead of an entire city.
What Ant-Man lacks, though, is any sort of real authorial voice. With a few notable exceptions, Reed is mostly content with recreating other shrinking-man FX sequences, and seems most interested in beefing up the film’s comic elements. The script, credited to Wright, Attack the Block director Joe Cornish, frequent Will Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay, and Rudd, feels as cobbled together as it probably was, though it’s sweet and often funny.
Like most origin stories, Ant-Man is front-loaded with setup and relatively short on payoff. But even if it plays like more of a footnote than a major chapter, it’s a pleasant enough way to wrap up Phase Two and prime the pumps for Phase Three.
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