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Film Review: Ant-Man

Ant-Man (2015; Directed by Peyton Reed)

Marvel’s Ant-Man is inherently ridiculous. A superhero who can shrink himself to the size of an insect and who has an army of formicidae at his command? A ludicrous idea, even for comic books. Even in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that stands astride the Hollywood blockbuster like a colossus, such patent silliness would require more than a spoonful of sugar in order to go down easy with audiences. A movie about Ant-Man would need to balance precariously on a very thin line between acknowledging and laughing at its own goofy central concept while also treating it with the species of furtive seriousness common to the Marvel movies that aids in compelling acceptance from audiences.

Ant-Man, every inch a professional and capable product out of Disney’s increasingly sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe, achieves this balance well enough, relying on the entwined crutches of the genre conventions of the heist movie and the fast-paced action-comedy. If it’s disappointingly limited as the former, it’s successful enough as the latter, although mostly as a tantalizing shadow of what it might have been. Ant-Man was initially green-lighted with Edgar Wright, the energetic auteur of independent-minded cult action-comedy funfests like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End, as writer and director. Wright eventually left the project due to those hoary old “creative differences”, although Ant-Man is one instance where those “differences” between director and studio, between the creative and the money men, aren’t at all difficult to fathom. The final product, helmed by veteran comedy director Peyton Reed (whose previous career highlight was, perversely, Bring It On), plays like a watered-down Edgar Wright film (he retains a story and an executive producer credit), with echoes of delirious ideas and set-pieces remaining but without the borderline-dangerous and unstable verve, momentum, and buried political rebelliousness that distinguishes his best work.

Like previous Marvel films, Ant-Man is an accomplished mixture of world-building, excitingly-staged action sequences, familiar thematic development, and emotional character motivations. It begins with a pair of separate plot strands that meet and weave together part of the way through the film. First, there is the technology business tension and conflict between Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a scientific genius, inventor, and retired secret shrinking superhero, and Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), a brilliant but unscrupulous protégé of Pym’s who has taken over his company and his research into subatomic particles and is obsessively seeking the key to the technology that will harness it for weaponized purposes. Such applications attract the interest of former S.H.I.E.L.D. agents with much more sinister current loyalties, which alarms Pym, who resigned from S.H.I.E.L.D. himself decades before in order to keep his shrinking suit technology out of their hands. Pym’s semi-estranged daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) becomes involved in his plot to stop Cross as a useful double-agent in a central role in Cross’ company.

Meanwhile, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is released from prison in the San Francisco Bay area. A physically capable man with a degree in electrical engineering, Lang was put away for a semi-activist electronic theft of funds from an unsavoury corporate employer. The laudable morality of his petty crime neither reduced his sentence nor his barriers to reintegrating into straight society, however. He can’t hold down a job due to his criminal record, even getting fired from a position slinging ice cream at Baskin-Robbins (the manager thinks it’s really cool that Lang is a criminal, but still lets him go), and it also costs him a closer relationship with his beloved daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), whose mother Maggie (Judy Greer) has remarried a cop named Paxton (Bobby Cannavale) who understandably takes a dim view of a crook inserting himself into their family life.

Thus failed by America’s broken convict rehabilitation system, Lang falls in with his former cellmate Luis (Michael Peña) and his crew of thieves and reluctantly agrees to follow up on a suspiciously juicy tip about a promising score in an old mansion. With the support of his crew, Lang displays cleverness and ingenuity in infiltrating the house and the safe therein, but finds only what appears to be an old motorcycle suit and helmet. He takes it anyway, but finds when he tries it on that it shrinks him to the size of an ant. The whole heist turns out to have been stage-managed by Hank Pym as an elaborate recruitment test; he has his eye on Lang as his potential successor as Ant-Man and a collaborator in his plan to swipe Cross’ Yellowjacket technology, much to the chagrin of Hope, who feels herself eminently capable of stepping into the suit.

This set-up is achieved with good humour, narrative intelligence, and simple-but-potent character development. Rudd, who took a leading role in the screenplay as well as onscreen after Wright’s departure from the project, smooths over Lang’s burglar-ish side with good-natured rakish charm and steers the film along that trajectory at least as much as Reed’s formalistically pedestrian direction does. There’s plenty of visual cleverness displayed on the effects level, with Lang’s rapid size shifts front and centre as a tiny speck darts across the screen, punching out anonymous baddies and, in a tangential sequence almost cynically foregrounding Ant-Man’s coming role in Captain America: Civil War, duking it out with Falcon (Anthony Mackie) while attempting to snatch a device from the Avengers HQ. His climactic battle with Cross/Yellowjacket, encased in a suit that grants him simlilar and perhaps superior powers, plays out in Cassie’s room with a witty irony that represents the closest Marvel’s films have come to a self-effacing puncturing of the massive balloon of the self-consistent importance of their shared universe. As the diminuitive foes go toe-to-toe amidst a toy train set, lobbing train cars at each other and derailing the locomotive, Reed cuts from the mythic action in miniature to a wide shot that wrily diminishes their exertions, placing them on the level of a little girl’s toys.

Both this sequence and a repeated jokey cut-away montage of characters re-enacting Luis’ idiosyncratic dudespeak account of learning through various sources about heist opportunities will wring appreciative chuckles or more from the viewer, certainly. But they are stylistic approximations of Wright’s furious, quick-cutting comedic and action riffs in a neutered form. Not only that, but Ant-Man in general lacks the dense sociopolitical thematic elements of Wright’s work, and indeed even of most Marvel films. The aforementioned implications about ex-cons’ structurally-predetermined difficulty in reintegrating into American life are mostly rote and played for laughs, and the usual alarums over corporate power and defence-contracting dangers have been drained of blood after three Iron Man movies and two Avengers outings. Ant-Man is fun (Peña is pretty enjoyable, and Douglas is having a grand old time with this froth himself), emotionally and thematically consistent, sometimes even ingenious, but basically never more than a shallow diversion. Marvel movies are usually the first three and more than the fourth, and Edgar Wright’s movies are exhiliratingly inventive and sometimes rather subversive recombinations of similar genre pieces.

It’s a worthy ambition (that I have mostly failed to live up to) to attempt to judge Ant-Man for what it is under Peyton Reed’s stewardship, rather than pining for what it might have been under Edgar Wright’s. It’s quite possible that Disney and Marvel and the considerable moneyed interests arrayed behind a summer MCU tentpole release got the sweats when faced with Wright’s surely more singular and challenging vision, whatever it was, envisioning with terror a repeat of the talented but distinctive director’s Scott Pilgrim film, a creative burst that was a painful commercial flop. Marvel has, at least on the surface, built a popular and generally compelling big-screen world by entrusting talented moviemakers with their comics’ characters and storylines, and not merely by throwing money and professional craft at the material with hacks rather than artists holding the reins. Ant-Man‘s final form, suggesting Wright’s particular style even though it slipped away from him, is not exactly a full-on compromise; Reed and his collaborators are too capable for that to be the case. But it does suggest, in its story of a big hero who becomes very small, that perhaps the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in terms of artistic scope at least, is not as large as it might seem.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. May 17, 2016 at 3:44 pm

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