Starring- Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Anthony Mackie, Judy Greer, Abby Ryder Fortson, Michael Pena, David Dastmalchian, T.I., Hayley Atwell, Wood Harris, John Slattery, Martin Donovan
Director- Peyton Reed
PG-13- sci-fi action violence
I’m worried that I’m going to spend the next year or so in the position of Chief Ant-Man Apologist even though I didn’t quite love it. It seems that the critical reaction — and, to a lesser extent, the audience reaction as well — has been…not negative, exactly, but a pretty universal 6/10, “Eh, it’s all right.” It’s been met with acclaim mainly because no one thinks it’s outright terrible, in essence. And I just plain think the movie’s been overlooked even though, despite its flaws, it’s actually really good.
Look, I’m not under any illusions here. Ant-Man isn’t even in the ballpark of Marvel’s absolute best movies — Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, and The Avengers all leave it in the dust, and I’d add two or three more to the list on top of those. However, I think you could at least make a pretty strong argument that Ant-Man is Marvel’s best origin film.*
During the Cold War, scientist Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) research into atomic particles unlocked the secret to shrinking technology. Inventing a suit that could reduce its wearer to the size of an insect — while retaining human-sized strength and mobility — Pym served his country as the Ant-Man. However, not long after the end of the Cold War era, he became aware of the dangers inherent in the technology, so he withdrew from his company and from SHIELD, locking the suit away and leading a quiet, peaceful life.
Fast-forward to the modern day, and Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), CEO of Cross Technologies and a former protégé of Pym’s, is close to developing the same technology — something with which Pym doesn’t trust his politically ambitious one-time student at all. So, he develops a plan to bring the Ant-Man out of retirement for a mission to destroy Cross’s research before it falls into the wrong hands. The only problem is that he’s no longer healthy enough to wear the suit himself. Thus, he and his daughter and co-conspirator Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) recruit Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a petty thief fresh out of prison, to become the new Ant-Man.
Honestly, I think Ant-Man’s cultural esteem would be considerably higher if it had been released alongside Marvel’s other Phase One films. Right now, people find it tiresome because we’ve seen the superhero origin story done a dozen times by now, and even when it’s done well, it generally hits most of the same beats. I understand that, and I get why it’s an obstacle for some people. As for myself, I can be sensitive to formula under certain circumstances, but I forgive it if A) the formula is done well and B) there are enough fresh, exciting, imaginative concepts, characters, and scenes sprinkled between the old familiar bits. And I think Ant-Man delivers heavily on both, and it’s why I honestly think it might be the best and certainly the most sure-footed superhero origin movie Marvel has delivered to date.
The secret to its success is this — in Ant-Man, the formula is justified. It doesn’t feel as though it bends over backward to hit all the arbitrarily required notes. Rather, its story and characters are built so that the formula emerges as a largely natural outgrowth of the various setups associated with them.
I know I’ve said this in the past, but the source of my aggravation with superhero origin movies has been less the formula and more the fumbled execution. They usually start off strongly enough — they give us a relatable character with an identifiable personality, either give him superpowers or put him in an extraordinary situation, then examine the impact of those things on his character until he becomes a hero. Story over! Except for the additional hour tacked on after that, wherein the hero must have a climactic battle with a villain who may or may not have any interesting or emotionally compelling relationship with the protagonist, the story, or the themes. I like Iron Man a lot, but I like it for the scenes where Tony, Pepper, and Rhodey are bantering — the superheroing is so disconnected from them in the character sense that it almost seems like a different movie. I’ve come, over time, to like Captain America: The First Avenger, but it starts venting air very shortly after Steve Rogers gets his powers. The Amazing Spider-Man is a perfectly charming teen relationship drama until The Lizard starts crashing into it.
Ant-Man is the first superhero movie — if not in general, then at least in the Marvel canon — that gets more interesting and more fun after its main character becomes a hero. That’s because, in Ant-Man, the hero plot and the villain plot drive and respond to one another rather than hanging out separately until the movie abruptly mashes them together. Cross starts working on his Yellowjacket technology; Pym sees that and reaches out to Scott to stop him; Scott agrees and begins training to use the Ant-Man suit while he, Pym, and Hope work out the details of their planned heist; once that’s done, we enter into a climax that arrives at the appropriate time and is fully motivated on all sides. It’s formulaic, but it doesn’t feel formulaic — everything comes directly from decisions characters make and the way other characters react to those decisions. Cause. Effect. Consequence. On a structural level, Ant-Man is actually pretty decent storytelling — it wouldn’t surprise me if that was Edgar Wright’s contribution.
And formula aside, Ant-Man brings plenty of new, exciting touches to the proceedings. Mostly, that’s the fact that it’s a heist movie wearing a superhero movie’s skin. It’s nice to see a smaller-scale, lower-stakes entry in the Marvel canon; it’s nice to see a superhero whose powers require his brains far more often than his brawn. The action here is more in the vein of a Mission: Impossible movie than your average Marvel film — it’s Ant-Man navigating laser grids, finding imaginative ways to break into things, and trying to beat timers and various defense mechanisms. And the movie establishes those very well — the action sequences are weird but very fun, not quite like anything else I’ve seen on film before. They weave the humor in extremely well, able to rocket from intense action to silliness on a dime (personified by that scene in the trailer with the toy train — the climax has nearly a dozen such moments). The structure of the action also has the pleasant side effect of making Ant-Man one of the most guilt-free blockbusters in a long time. Its characters are sneaks, not killers, and their mission mainly requires them to outsmart, not outfight, their foes. The movie has a small body count to begin with, and that’s almost exclusively at the hands of the villain. In a cinematic climate where callousness toward human life is no longer the exception, a movie like Ant-Man, where the heroes take care to drag all the unconscious guards outside before blowing up the building, is an absolute breath of fresh air.
And as is the norm for Marvel, Ant-Man gets those heroes exactly right. Scott Lang ends up being a welcome addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s pantheon of heroes. I’ve been desperate to see these movies add a more ground-level hero — Iron Man is a genius billionaire playboy who pals around with politicians and celebrities, Thor is a demigod, Hulk is a brilliant scientist who deliberately avoids socialization, Captain America used to be an Average Joe but spent the rest of his life in the military and secret agencies. These movies needed a hero like Scott — an ordinary guy with an ordinary family and ordinary problems, the sort of person who reads the news and worries about what the Avengers are up to. Paul Rudd’s always been a likable screen presence, and he brings the exact right amount of that to the role. Scott hangs out with a band of other petty crooks, and they end up being show-stealers, particularly Michael Pena as his best friend Luis, an excitable, perpetually winded guy who can’t exchange even the most basic information without telling an extremely embellished and overly convoluted version of the story about how he got it. Michael Douglas brings his trademark cynicism and loathing to Hank Pym, making him a mentor in the same vein as Rocky’s Mickey, someone with a lot of wisdom to impart but enough edge to make you suspect he might not be the greatest person when the cards are down. And Evangeline Lilly is good enough to make you wish the movie let her be the Wasp right now instead of just hinting at it for later (seriously, Marvel, it would’ve been incredibly easy; all you had to do was rewrite the heist for two instead of one).
I think people are mostly down on Ant-Man because it’s really only one-third a great movie, and I don’t disagree with that — but I might differ on the reason behind it. Everyone else cites the formula as its main problem, but I obviously don’t think that’s it — the formula’s there, but it’s done way, way better than in most other movies like it. I think Ant-Man’s main problem is a reversal of what went right and wrong in its predecessors — whereas Marvel’s other origin stories were good at the drama and bad at the actual superhero, Ant-Man is good at the superhero and bad at the drama. Whereas the others were good at the first two acts and lousy at the third, Ant-Man is good at the third act and bad at the first two. When Scott dons the suit and becomes Ant-Man, the movie is about as fun as it gets. The scenes leading up to that…aren’t bad, exactly, but they’re stale and lifeless. Part of that is the movie budgeting its thrills for the finale, and that’s a smart move. But part of that is also the drama just plain not working. It’s a shame, because the structure is there, not only in that this movie actually has a story with causes and effects and plot motivations, but also in that there’s clear, deliberate thematic groundwork being laid. The movie is mainly concerned with fathers and their children. Scott’s entire motivation is that he’s a small-time thief, but his little daughter thinks he’s Superman, and he desperately wants to earn that. Pym and Hope’s relationship is a strained one — she resents him first for walking out on her emotionally after her mother died, and second for giving Scott the mission instead of her. Even Cross gets in on this — it’s clear that, when Pym was his mentor, he considered him a father figure and felt betrayed when Pym ended their relationship. It’s enough to put some emotional weight behind the climax, but standing on its own, it’s awkward and kind of boring. The characters are well-established but, for the most part, have no interesting spark on-screen. The main reason for this is that those character arcs I just outlined are established, developed, and resolved almost exclusively in dialogue. The movie is very on-the-nose about this; I know why Hope and Cross both resent Pym because they basically take the time out to tell this to Scott directly. That’s bad enough on its own, but the fact that this emotional development concludes in largely the same way only worsens it. It’s all very telegraphed and forced, and it leaves the first two acts feeling underwhelming at best.
Believe me, the climax more than makes up for it. The last hour of Ant-Man is some of the best fun I’ve had at the movies this year. And that’s probably why I find myself with such positive feelings toward it — if you’re only going to nail one-third of the movie, make sure it’s the part that’ll be fresh on my mind walking out of the theater. Not that the other two-thirds are bad — they’re just hovering somewhere near “mediocre.” Ant-Man is still a heck of a lot of fun, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see it getting a critical reappraisal in a few years.
*Unless you count Guardians of the Galaxy. I don’t, because it’s not really an origin story — the origin of the team, yes, but all of the heroes are already established at the start of the film — and because, honestly, it’s barely even a superhero movie.