'Ant-Man' is a wasted opportunity for an idiosyncratic superhero movie
Ant-Man Walt Disney Studios
Director: Peyton Reed
Screenplay: Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay and Paul Rudd, based on characters created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby
Starring: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Michael Peña, Bobby Cannavale and Judy Greer
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 57 minutes
July 17, 2015
(out of four)
Marvel's Ant-Man is an unintentional argument against screenplay efficiency. It is lean, well-structured and to-the-point. It cuts out all the fat ... and with it, the depth and the idiosyncrasy. What it gives us is an empty husk of a story made up of plot points, more plot points and characters whose actions - entire arcs, actually - are driven almost entirely by story mechanics.
Virtually everything in the movie feels mechanical. We have a protagonist stuck in a mechanical redemption story centered around a mechanical relationship with his estranged daughter. We have an entire zero-to-hero narrative arc that's every bit as mechanical as the most perfunctory training montage you've ever seen. We have a mentor character with a tragic backstory that is "dramatically" revealed at the most mechanical of moments. We have an adversarial relationship between a leading man and a leading woman that mechanically (and nonsensically) "develops" into romantic affection. We have a mechanical villain with no real reason for being except for the screenplay's mechanical need for him to exist.
Everything falls in line so perfunctorily, it's disheartening. A lot of things happen at the "right" moment, but never the organic moment. We know this is how screenplays work, but we're not supposed to feel the gears grinding at every moment. It creates this strange dichotomous tension within the film - it's trying to be free-spirited and offbeat, while simultaneously compelling itself to go through the motions. It is, as I said, efficient storytelling, but to a fault. What it leaves us with is an origin story devoid of any meaningful action or growth, a romance devoid of any chemistry, a tapestry of emotional conflicts that are only stated (never depicted or experienced) and a central conflict devoid of any credible adversary. For all that is fitfully, superficially amusing about Ant-Man, it fails on almost every level. Not embarrassingly so - if nothing else, it is merely a mild failure, but a failure all the same.
Its mildness is kinda the problem, actually. With the probable exception of a couple of our anthropomorphic Guardian friends, Ant-Man is, of all the Marvel characters put on screen to date, the one seemingly most ripe for weirdness and experimentation. This is a heist movie about a guy who shrinks to the size of an insect and controls ants with his mind; it has all the potential and every impulse to be something unique, but none of the eccentricity. For a Marvel movie that resides mostly outside the bounds of the growing cinematic universe, Ant-Man still can't manage to forge much of a personality of its own. What personality it does possess is limited to a few individual sequences, but it fails to translate to the movie as a whole.
To be fair, I'll give it credit for feeling different from the other movies in this sprawling mega-franchise. It's simpler, more stripped-down, more direct in its focus and its intentions. It doesn't have all that extra Marvel noise. (A shoehorned-in scene where Ant-Man takes on Falcon briefly disrupts that focus.) But neither does it take advantage of the opportunity to be different. (Let's also give the movie credit for nailing two Marvel staples: 1) a crappy, nondescript villain; and 2) a terrible, exposition-laden opening scene.)
There's a point late in the film where it finally gets ambitious - finally gets interesting - and that lasts for all of 30 seconds, I kid you not. The scene's central character simply flips a switch to instantly fix the problem and get everything back to normal, in the process making the film uninteresting again. The sequence makes clear, if it wasn't already, that this is a film that firmly believes the destination is more important than the journey. It never sinks its teeth into anything because it's too eager to solve every dilemma as economically as possible.
While I would be remiss not to at least mention the obligatory fact that this movie was originally intended as an Edgar Wright joint (he developed the film for years before bailing over creative differences last year), it's also unfair to try to make some imaginary comparison about what a Wright-directed version would have been. The bottom line is I have no idea because that movie does not exist. I like some of what replacement director Peyton Reed (Down with Love and the rather underrated The Break-Up) did with his version. Most notably, there's a running series of very funny, terrifically overcomplicated storytelling sequences described/narrated by Michael Peña's character, stylishly paired with a famous segment of Roy Ayers' Coffy score (the same piece memorably repurposed by Tarantino in Jackie Brown). These scenes (and Peña in general) deftly play up the comic possibilities in a way most of the rest of the movie doesn't.
Reed also nicely plays with perspective when Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is first figuring out how to use his incredible shrinking suit - and not just with the newly distorted proportions of his surroundings, but with a heightened sense of noise and (especially) color, an effect put to great use when he finds himself dodging platform heels in the middle of a nightclub's crowded dance floor.
In fits and starts, we see the ingenuity of something that could have - or should have - been a lot more impressive and a lot more unusual. But it's too programmatic in its approach to introducing these characters and all the baggage they bring with them; aside from the Peña sequences, there's no looseness to the movie. It's just a rigidly executed series of events that pretends to reach emotional and dramatic conclusions it never really works for. Rudd, Michael Douglas (as Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man), Evangeline Lilly (as Hank's daughter Hope van Dyne), Peña and Corey Stoll (as Hank's former protégé, now intent on weaponizing the shrinking technology) all escape relatively unscathed, as they give satisfying performances for what are ultimately very unsatisfying roles. They try their best to inject some flavor into the proceedings - and at times, they succeed. But the filmmakers owe them a lot better material and a lot more patience.