Though it probably won’t be the galactic mega box office hit that Guardians of the Galaxy was for Marvel Studios and Disney last summer, Ant-Man certainly has plenty going for it in terms of cleverness, charm, and fun to make it a above-average entry in this summer’s list of “event movies.” It has its flaws, too — lots of them — but what cast, crew, and director Peyton Reed get right here still outweighs what goes wrong. That, along with lots of seeds of things to come in future Marvel films, make Ant-Man must-see material for the fanboy faithful and an entertaining few hours at the movies for everyone else.
Perhaps more so than any other Marvel film that introduces audiences to a “new” hero, Ant-Man makes its ties to other Marvel properties very clear from the outset. In the late 80’s, Dr. Henry “Hank” Pym (Michael Douglas) pioneered miraculous new technologies that allowed the shrinking down of matter to the size of an insect via what he dubbed “Pym Particles”, as well as rudimentary means of communicating with various insects. Fearful of his technology being weaponized by S.H.I.E.L.D. and rival tech innovator Howard Stark (John Slattery), he hid it and the “Ant-Man” suit he designed that incorporated and utilized all of his innovations away from the world, turning his energies toward building his own tech company and bettering the world through research and design in other fields.
Thirty years later, Pym’s efforts to hide the Ant-Man technology are on the brink of being undone by his one-time research assistant, Darren Cross (Cory Stoll), who has succeeded in duplicating Pym’s work and hopes to mass produce and sell it to the highest bidder. Pym and his daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) know that can’t be allowed to happen, but they differ strongly on how to stop Cross. Hope believes she can simply do it herself, but for reasons he keeps to himself Pym chooses to recruit Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a former thief and recent ex-con who’s finding that it’s tougher to go straight on the outside than he thought it would be.
Scott needs help establishing a legit life for himself so he can spend time with his young daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). Pym needs Scott and his non-legit skills to use the Ant-Man suit and make sure Cross’s plans don’t come to fruition. An uneasy partnership/apprenticeship is born, as Pym and Hope undertake training Scott to be the new Ant-Man and with him plan a heist unlike any Scott has ever undertaken, one that will hopefully protect the world from Cross’s invention and those who would pay him billions to exploit it.
As the 12th in the line of “Marvel Cinematic Universe” films brought to the big screen by Marvel Studios (as opposed to the Marvel superhero films produced by Sony and Fox), Ant-Man arrives with a great deal of fanboy trepidation and public skepticism. After all, despite being a character whose history dates back to the 60’s and the inception of the Avengers, Ant-Man is without question a B-List Marvel property whose very name tends to inspire snickers more often than “ooohs” and “ahhhs.” He’s Marvel’s equivalent of Aquaman — one gets laughed at for supposedly being useless out of water and talking to fish (he doesn’t, by the way), and the other gets laughed at for being tiny and talking to bugs. Well-read comic book readers know better and can argue to the contrary, but impressions such as these are hard to escape for those not in the know.
And then there’s all the controversy surrounding the high profile exit of writer-director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) from the project after spending more than two years adapting it for Marvel. Wright’s script and the talent were all in place when he apparently clashed with Marvel’s Kevin Feige over the tone of the film, and once he was gone the script got an overhaul from Rudd and frequent Will Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay. Wright’s replacement in the director’s chair, Peyton Reed, also did little to inspire confidence, as his directing resumé includes such noteworthy box office juggernauts as Yes Man and The Break Up. All that considered, it’s fair to say that if Marvel fans were nervous about Ant-Man, they had a right to be.
It’s also fair to say that the final product isn’t nearly the letdown the doomsayers expected it to be. Yes, it’s an uneven film, one that tries to be lighter in tone while still being consistent with Marvel’s style of character-driven storytelling and action. Like the more successful films in Marvel’s line of films, Ant-Man co-opts a different genre of film — the heist flick — and builds its story around that set of tropes while incorporating its superhero elements. The effort is only partly successful, and that’s due in part to the fact that heist films require very deft direction and a consistent flow and pace of storytelling. Stephen Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Trilogy”, in particular the first film, Ocean’s Eleven, is arguably one of the best modern examples of the right blend of slick, innovative direction, smooth pacing, and comic relief in just the right amounts that needs to go in a successful heist flick. In comparison, Ant-Man‘s heist flick elements come off as ham-handed and forced due to rushed pacing in certain spots, harsh transitions between scenes and plot beats in others, and jokes that fall flat almost as often as they inspire a chuckle.
What does work in the film are its many visual effects, as Ant-Man does make creative use of the growing/shrinking powers of its title character to provide audiences with lots of views of different environments from “ant level” and to put fun spins on fights and chases. Casting for the most part works out well, too — Rudd is his usual likable, cheeky self, while Michael Douglas brings heft and credibility to his take on Pym, who was once an action hero himself and now has to take a supporting role in things due to age and wear and tear. Evangeline Lilly, while she doesn’t have all that much chemistry with Rudd in their shared scenes, benefits the film overall with her screen presence and physicality — she’s certainly someone that audiences could come away from Ant-Man looking forward to seeing in future Marvel projects. Stoll also delivers solid work as a villain that’s at first easy to hate, someone seemingly driven simply by amoral ambition, but whose motivations prove to be more emotional and complicated. Michael Peña, Tip “T.I.” Harris, and David Dastmalchian round things out as Scott’s de facto heist crew, who mainly support the production through comic relief — theirs are the humor beats that usually work. You’ll want to listen closely to some of the background music choices in the film, too, as there are a few insect-inspired tunes thrown in to cute effect.
So all that said, is Ant-Man worth a look this weekend if you’re not a die-hard fan of Marvel movies or superhero movies in general? It’s important to qualify the question because for the Marvelites this is a must, if for no other reason that Rudd and Scott Lang will be back in next year’s Captain America: Civil War and other films in Marvel’s Phase 3 slate. But for the casual moviegoer, yes, it’s worth it — again, it’s got enough “good” in it to entertain, and a great deal of its special effects will most likely be best appreciated on the big screen. It’s not perfect and Marvel has certainly cranked out far better, but in comparison, this summer in general has delivered far worse.
Starring Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Peña, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Wood Harris, Judy Greer, David Dastmalchian and Michael Douglas. Directed by Peyton Reed.
Running Time: 117 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.