A Marvel movie will aways be a Marvel movie. At this point, it’s become pointless to expect, or even hope, that any of their production will ever feel particularly exciting or distinctive. Ant-Man carries the burden of having once been the beacon of hope for people who were wishing Marvel would use the unmitigated success of their movies to experiment and push the boundaries of blockbuster filmmaking, and not to secure the profits of what was becoming one of the most valuable entertainment brands.
At the time it was announced, Ant-Man was to be written and directed by no less of an auteur than Edgar Wright, the beloved British director known for his clever pop culture parodies and audacious commercial bombs. This was the moment of truth. One of the most successful and powerful cultural brands and one of the most distinctive directors in the world would collide, and we couldn’t wait to see what would remain of the two. But it was not to be.
Wright was famously and controversially taken off the project sometime before filming began, and replaced by director Peyton Reed (by no means a slouch, having directed movies as good as Bring It On and Down with Love), and thus, Ant-Man comes into cinemas with relatively muted enthusiasm from those who are sad Wright is no longer at the helm, and others who find Ant-Man to be anticlimactically places as the follow-up to the gigantic Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Curiously enough, it’s the fact that Ant-Man is so reserved, compact, and modest when compared to most of the other Marvel movies that actually makes it better than your average Marvel movie. It would be foolish to pretend that the movie isn’t trapped by the limitations that the Marvel formula has forced upon its properties, and there is no denying that certain moments make one daydream about what Wright’s version would have been like, but there is a clever simplicity to Ant-Man that makes it stand out in the sea of Marvel’s lackluster product.
The plot of the movie is more similar to that of the first Iron Man than to any of the bigger movies Marvel has made since. Our hero is Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a Robin Hood-type cat burglar who has just come out of prison and is unable to find a job that will allow him to provide for his young daughter Cassie. Luckily for him, an eccentric millionaire and inventor named Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) has decided that Scott is the man he needs to pull off an elaborate heist that will prevent evil executive Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) from using Pym’s technology to arm the world with an army of miniature soldiers.
You see, Pym’s technology is a suit that allows people to shrink to miniature proportions while actually increasing their strength and power so they they become basically human bullets. Hence, the code-name Ant-Man, used by Pym back in the day when he used to be a secret agent for the government and inherited by Scott once he puts on the suit. On this note, the fact that Pym chooses Scott and not his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) as his successor will be frustrating for those of us who complain about Marvel’s lack of female heroes. The movie does promise Hope will put on the suit in the future, but we want our female superheroes now, thank you very much.
The focus on the one white male as the hero of the story is undoubtedly frustrating, but it is almost required when your movie’s story is going to play as safe as Ant-Man does. The plot is overwhelmingly familiar. It goes through the exact peaks and valleys that you would expect and comes out solid and predictable. It says a lot about how many times Marvel has subjected us to giant flying objects threatening to destroy a city that them going back to such familiar and low-stakes story-telling feels like a breath of fresh air.
This is partly because Ant-Man‘s pleasures are nowhere near its plot, but it in a couple key aspects of its execution. The first is the fact that the movie is very funny. Edgar Wright and collaborator Joe Cornish are still credited for the screenplay, alongside Adam McKay and star Paul Rudd, who did some re-writes after Wright left the project. Their material, paired up with Reid’s sense for comedy, do a lot to make the movie as swift and entertaining as possible. Instead of feeling like it’s trapped by its conventions, Ant-Man‘s comedy makes it feel liberated from the fact that it is a cog in a giant machine. It feels like just a movie.
Rudd’s laid-back style of comedy make him a pretty nice addition to the Marvel roster. He seems almost minimalistic when compared to the outsized personality of Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark or the winky goofiness of Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord. Years of working in comedy have allowed Rudd’s comedy to feel effortless, which makes us accept the fact that he will crack some jokes as a given, and not as an act. And even despite Rudd’s solid work, the comedic stand-out of the movie is Michael Peña, so funny as Rudd’s burglar friend that he should be the one to get a superhero franchise.
The other key aspect of Ant-Man‘s execution is, believe it or not, the visual effects. The blockbuster ethos is to always go bigger. To always fight more aliens, and always destroy more cities. By being a hero whose power is to become small, Ant-Man gleefully subverts superhero formula by destroying the model of a building instead of an actual skyscraper and setting its final battle in the a little girl’s bedroom instead of a floating city.
Even though the story is something we’ve seen a million times, the action sequences feel fresh by going into territory that is usually seen in animated film. These sequences, shot from the protagonist’s point of view feel like some of the more adventure-oriented moments of a movie like Toy Story or Ratatouille. Because there is Honey I Shrunk the Kids, but otherwise, seeing a person deal with the dangers of being shrunk to insect proportions is not something we have seen a million times before.
Ant-Man is by no means a great movie, but it is so casually laid-back about its existence that it actually is fun to watch. I tend to advocate for more daring and innovative movies, even when they are not always successful, but sometimes I enjoy a movie just because it was well made and fun to watch, and I’m ok with that.
Grade: 7 out of 10