Ant-Man is a fascinating departure for the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a (god, I’m so sorry for this) smaller-scale picture, dealing with a completely different kind of hero and a completely different kind of conflict. No cities are destroyed, there’s no massive-scale damage, there’s little in the way of devastation or shots of tear-streaked citizens watching the world about to end. There’s no cockiness to it, little of the brash confidence that the Iron Mans and Thors and Captain Americas of the Universe have come to display.
Instead, Ant-Man is just a guy. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a brilliant engineer who also had a taste for crime, spent a few years in jail and learned the errors of his ways. Or at least, wants to learn the error of his ways, except that it’s hard out there for an ex-con, especially one who still surrounds himself with his ex-con friends, including Luis (Michael Peña ), Dave (Clifford “T.I.” Harris) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian) who are constantly trying to drag him back into the life. Eventually, Lang comes into contact with genius billionaire Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who decades ago was known as “Ant-Man” after designing a suit that enables the wearer to shrink down to … well, you can figure that part out. Anyway, Hank’s protege-cum-nemesis, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is close to replicating his technology, so Hank, along with his embittered daughter Hope (Evangeline Lily) draft Scott into donning the suit to help them take on Cross before he can recreate the design in the form of the weaponized “Yellowjacket” and sell it to the bad guys.
That’s… basically it. There’s no world-shaking, planet-breaking event to deal with. At its heart, much of Ant-Man is simply a heist picture, and a pretty decent one at that. Sure, the heist involves ridiculous technology and a guy who herds ants and flies on one’s back, but much of it really is simply a series of heists being planned and executed. Much like the excellent Iron Man 3 was a smaller-scale (except for its bombastic climax) buddy cop picture, Ant-Man scales back the action in favor of storytelling, focusing the first half of the picture strictly on Scott’s plight — dealing with life after prison, trying to reconnect with his daughter who is being guarded closely by his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her new fiance (Bobby Cannavale), and simply trying to live his life. The action picks up once he meets up with Pym, and from there it’s a breezily paced, often enjoyable, and lighthearted affair. The action itself is engaging and exciting, even if the effects are often clunky and the armies of CGI bugs never come even close to being believable.
It’s fun, even if it doesn’t always land all of its punches. Ant-Man is in some ways a welcome departure and a nice break, especially in the wake of the chaos of Age of Ultron, and it’s to be lauded for that. The catch is that its flaws are tough ones to overcome. As much as I appreciate director Peyton Reed’s efforts to work with Joe Cornish and Edgar Wright’s script (Wright had originally been tapped to direct as well, but left due to creative differences), it’s clear that that original script got garbled with Adam McKay’s subsequent rewrites. As such, its humor succeeds as often as it stumbles, making for a bit of unevenness. Rudd is terrific as the hapless, sardonic Lang, and Douglas is great as the tired, frustrated Pym. Stoll is absolutely wonderful as the simmering, seething Cross, even if his transition from awkwardly bitter protege to megalomaniacal lunatic is a bit abrupt. Lang’s buddies are a bit of a mixed bag, playing for comic relief that sometimes works very well, and sometimes is listless, lazy joke writing injected simply because it felt like someone was assembling a script based on an “INSERT JOKE HERE” kind of screenwriting.
But its biggest problem is its pacing, which is a sometimes a mess. The film’s front half does an OK job of setting the stage and establishing the stakes. The bigger problem is that, frankly, it’s boring. It’s not that I was dying for action, it’s that it meanders and takes too much time establishing plot points and is too fond of exposition dumps (at one point, Lang actually says “I have a PhD in electrical engineering,” as if there was no other way to establish this fact). It takes a while to get rolling — too long, in fact, and after 45 minutes or so you could feel the audience start to check out. Once it does find its feet, it’s a good time, but it’s hardly a film that warrants a two hour running time.
But when it works, it’s a weird, clever, surprisingly charming film. Thematically, it’s the most accessible for kids, as its violence is goofy and silly and bloodless, and I mean those things in a very good way. The fact that it uses a child’s train table as an action set piece is hilarious, and even better, that sequence is really well done, evoking both laughs and thrills in equal measure. And of course, it does find a way to cram in references to the larger MCU, but it does so in a nicely organic fashion and the cameos are some of the best — and most involved — that we’ve had.
It remains to be seen whether or not Ant-Man is going to be a viable property for Marvel. It’s a risky picture, an unknown character played by an actor not renowned for action, and while that gambit paid off for Guardians of the Galaxy, there’s no way it happens for Ant-Man. It won’t have the same draw, and honestly it isn’t a strong enough or consistent enough film, though for summer fare you could do much worse. In the end, Ant-Man is a fun film, even if it may ultimately prove to be a forgettable one.