Last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy felt like a natural evolution of the Marvel brand. The newest addition to their ever-more-obscure superhero film roster, Ant-Man, feels more like an emulation. The movie has all of the requisite ingredients of any Marvel tale: a snarky yet charming leading man, fast-paced CGI-fueled action sequences and a jumbled blend of broad humor and melodrama. At best, under the direction of Peyton Reed (of Bring it On and Yes Man, uh, ‘fame’), Ant-Man has the distinct quality of a franchise on autopilot, and at worst it somehow manages to feel as though it were a rival company’s shallow replica of a Marvel movie. The pieces are all there, they’re even in the right places, but everything feels forced and tedious.
For threat of being too much of a buzzkill, Ant-Man has many things going for it, chief among them a fantastic premise and cast. Marvel often takes advantage of distinct genre tropes to keep each pillar of the brand fresh (Captain America‘s pulpy action-adventure, Thor‘s grand Shakespearean drama, or Guardian’s vivid science fiction), 2015’s model is essentially a kinetic heist movie, and I can’t imagine a genre better-fitting the hero’s shrinking ability. The potential of having a thief the size of an ant is endless, and the ‘small’ angle allows for a refreshing, much-needed counterpoint to the over-inflated scale of this summer’s other Marvel movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron.
As Scott Lang, Paul Rudd is an inspired choice and a welcome addition to the pantheon of unlikely comedic heroes following RDJ’s Iron Man and Chris Pratt’s Starlord. Rudd has a keen mastery of comedic delivery, and a genuinely unassuming, down-to-earth quality that I’d argue even Downey Jr. doesn’t possess. There’s also a scruffiness to the Role Models and This is 40 star that makes him a perfect fit for the thief/scoundrel Lang, a professional burglar who is released from prison determined to reform himself and become a better father. His casting continues to solidify Marvel’s penchant for taking chances with their leads, given that this is Rudd’s first role that has him being anything other than good-hearted goofball.
Most of the other casting choices are just as inspired. Corey Stoll has classic villain written all over him and is given plenty of scenery chewing moments to prove it. Michael Douglas’ gravelly performance as former Ant-Man Hank Pym is par for the course as a standard mentor-figure to Lang, who reluctantly takes the torch being passed to him. Evangeline Lily, as Pym’s daughter Hope, is another wonderful actress who fits snugly alongside fellow Marvel-lady Scarlett Johansson with enough agency and charisma to, at least in theory, transcend being mere eye candy.
Yet looking at the robust cast and then watching them in action demonstrates how all the choices made in the development stage of Ant-Man appear to be made off of a standardized checklist. Scruffy hero, check. Menacing villain, check. Prestigious actor as elderly mentor, check. Attractive, ass-kicking female, check. The amazing cast is wasted because they aren’t playing characters, they are playing types. Paul Rudd plays the scruffy hero and nothing more, Stoll the menacing villain and nothing more, and so forth. Beyond simple one or two word descriptions, these characters have absolutely no unique personality traits and never feel real, giving audiences no natural reasons to care about them or their actions. Guardian’s Groot felt like a more well-rounded character, and he was a tree with a
three four word vocabulary.
Though it has its moments, this is easily the most rote script in the 12-movie franchise, and perhaps the worst written to boot. Because these characters don’t feel like real people and, the movie turns to the most artificial, manipulative methods to make audiences care about them. Lang’s got the cutest daughter in history, but of course he’s barely allowed to see her because she lives with his divorced wife (Judy Greer, who I guess plays the mom in every blockbuster now) and her new husband (Bobby Cannavale, who never stops showing up throughout the movie even though he barely serves a discernible purpose). What did they decide to do in order to make you hate the villain? They have him kill baby sheep. He literally murders baby sheep! He must be evil!
The worst characters by far are Lang’s trio of ethnically-diverse but utterly idiotic burglar buddies (Michael Pena, T.I., and David Dastmalchian). Pena (a fantastic actor when actually given good material to work with) in particular is supposed to be the artificial ‘fan favorite’, always delivering the theoretically funniest lines. But this band of fools is nothing more than a group of bumbling ethnic caricatures that tried so, so hard to make me laugh but only did so about two times. The script’s labored attempts to draw a reaction felt more like an insult to the audience’s intelligence than a sincere desire to entertain.
It’s hard to figure out how much of this movie’s failure can be chalked up to the writing, though, because the direction and editing are equally skewed and often dampen both the drama and the comedy on a consistent basis. Humorous moments, which in theory shouldn’t be any less funny than in any other Marvel movie, are more often than not utterly cringe-worthy because of the way they are directed and cut together. An especially painful example of this is a tearful, revelatory (and exposition-heavy) conversation between Pym and his daughter, that ends with Rudd breaking the tension with some sort of improvisatory “I think we’ve really grown here”.
The editing of this entire scene is incredibly awkward, cutting multiple times to an expressionless Rudd. At this point in the film, there’s also no way Douglas’ character would be having this very private conversation in the company of a relative stranger like Lang, so the scene’s plausibility is strained as well. Furthermore, Rudd’s punchline (even had it not been so poorly-timed) completely deflates any and all emotion. Both the pathos and the humor in this scene are horrifically artificial and contrived, and if the audience still laughs, it’s because they’ve been conditioned to laugh after seven years of these films. The same could be said for any given scene in the film.
The best-written moments are a couple of efficient, energetic and legitimately funny sequences baring the trademark of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz writers Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, the former of which was set to direct but cut ties with the studio, likely over the studio’s desire (a stubbornly ill-advised one, in my opinion) to make all of their moves fit a very particular mold. But Wright and Cornish’s contributions are much too few to make a dent on the first half’s inexplicably slow pacing and inconsequential stakes. Since we’re given little to no actual motivation to care about the paper-thin characters or what they’re doing, I found myself truly bored for the first time in the franchise since 2011’s Thor.
Once Lang finally dons the Ant-Man suit, we are treated to some good-looking and inventive action sequences that shrink down to miniature size and then back to normal in the blink of any eye. Seeing common items from a very different perspective has the same natural appeal as it did in A Bug’s Life, but unlike those other movies, the usually-tiny environments become giant battlefields. Marvel’s big budget means that the scenery, from the bottom of a bathtub, to a giant pack of Lifesavers, are immaculately detailed and even provide some actually funny visual gags. Lang’s power isn’t just shrinking, but also controlling ant hordes with his mind, and though the lack of practical effects don’t make the insects feel as believably physical as in, say, Honey, We Shrunk The Kids, CGI does enough of the trick.
I could list off a whole laundry list of other plot holes and terribly cliched moments, but I think the point has been made that, though there are some redeemable action sequences towards the end that maybe just maybe make this worth seeing for action fans, I was not impressed by this film. Ant-Man is my least favorite of the Marvel movies and hopefully not a harbinger of the future of the franchise. If this movie didn’t have a previously-established universe to lean against (with pandering cameos and call-backs aplenty), I don’t believe it would be getting anywhere near the warm reception it has. In trying to fit nicely into the traditions of the brand, stuffed full of the superhero ‘necessities’ but without a single unique character, line of dialogue or angle, it gives up any identity of its own. Though I believe there is a ton of potential for Rudd to thrive in future movies in the series, the vessel that serves as his introduction is a pale imposter of a modern summer blockbuster.
Score: 2.5 out of 5