Tuesday, July 21, 2015
ANT-MAN Delivers Solid Marvel-Style Action
- Marvel has very smartly shaken up their go-to formula over the last few years. Guardians of the Galaxy went full on comic-book-cosmic-weird, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier paid homage to 70's-era paranoid political thrillers. But ANT-MAN is a return to the tried-and-true, "How To Make Movies The Marvel Way" template. It's not a bad thing - the movie is light, fun, funny, and breezily entertaining. But it also feels fairly slight and forgettable. There's not enough unique or memorable enough about Ant-Man for it to leave much of a lasting impression. Indeed, the most interesting thing about the film may be the future storyline possibilities it teases. First though, we must get through the obligatory origin story. As far as obligatory origin stories go though, you could do a lot worse.
ANT-MAN gets a lot of mileage out of its titular hero being played by the great Paul Rudd. Rudd is pretty much the perfect Marvel superhero lead - a versatile actor who happens to have impeccable comedic timing - and, as expected, he makes Ant-Man/Scott Lang into a likable and easy-to-root-for protagonist. Rudd's natural likability helps sell Lang as a noble ex-con, whose driving motivation is to spend time, post-divorce, with his daughter and find a way to course-correct his life. Lang is given that opportunity by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) - the original Ant-Man. Pym and his daughter realize that their scientific work is being jeopardized by the sinister Darren Cross - Pym's protege, who is out to uncover and replicate Pym's secret size-control tech, with the goal of weaponizing it and making big bucks by selling it to the highest bidders. Pym needs professional thief Lang to break into his own corporate HQ and sabotage Cross' dangerous device. Lang agrees, and recruits his crew for one last big heist, after which Lang hopes to finally - with Pym's help - go straight and put himself on a new and better path.
But what Lang least expects is that part of the job involves donning Pym's old Ant-Man suit and mastering the art of strategic shrinking. The suit and the power comes with it means that Lang's journey isn't just about pulling off one last heist, but also about becoming a bonafide superhero in the process. What's fun about Lang is that he is a unique character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe - a crook-turned-hero who, even after he gets the Ant-Man suit, is basically just a regular dude. Not a scientific genius or a multimillionaire - just a guy who happened into an extraordinary set of circumstances. And again, Rudd pulls it all of to a T and makes Scott Lang feel like both a unique addition to the MCU, and like a character who fits right in to the tapestry of this world.
In fact, a lot of the most fun moments of Ant-Man are those that tie the film in to the larger MCU, even filling in some timeline gaps that had yet to really be explored in prior entries. I got a huge kick, for example, out of seeing a 60's-era Agent Carter (the now-iconic, to me, Haley Atwell) interact with Howard Stark and a de-aged Michael Douglas (thank to some truly mindblowing special f/x wizardry) at S.H.I.E.L.D.. There's also a really entertaining throwdown between Lang and Anthony Mackie's Falcon, that felt like the kind of misunderstanding-leads-to-fisticuffs fight that have long been a staple of Marvel Comics.
Rudd shines, but the whole cast of the film is very, very strong. Douglas is clearly having a lot of fun playing Hank Pym, and his presence brings some veteran gravitas to the table. Corey Stoll, also starring on FX's The Strain, is clearly in his element as smarmy scientist-turned-supervillain Cross, aka Yellowjacket. I'm a fan of Stoll (could have been a fun Lex Luthor ...), and he chews scenery here with aplomb. The only downside to his character is that, in my view, he's too much of the typical Marvel-movie villain - going from a guy who's just sort of a jerk to a murdering, costume-wearing, sociopath supervillain without much explanation.
But the two surprise stand-outs of ANT-MAN are Michael Pena and Evangeline Lily. Pena is always great, but I say he's a surprise because I didn't even realize he was in the movie going in. But as Lang's right-hand-man, Pena kills it. He plays a would-be gangsta, bumbling thief - and he's absolutely hilarious, elevating this potentially marginal role into one of the film's most memorable turns. Similarly, while I'm a fan of Lily's, I wasn't sure what to expect from her in this film, playing Hank Pym's daughter Hope. As it turns out, Lily is incredibly badass in the movie. Not only does she run the show at Pym's company, but it's actually Hope who teaches Lang how to kick ass and take names. If nothing else, the movie leaves you wanting more of Hope, and hoping (pun intended) that she'll have an even larger and more hands-on role to play in future Marvel movies.
To that end, where ANT-MAN fumbles a bit is that it plays things, overall, pretty safe - even as it seems to want to be way crazier than it is. Perhaps that's the leftover DNA of the film as originally conceived by mad-genius writer/director Edgar Wright. What was exciting about Wright's involvement was the notion that a Marvel movie would break from the mold and go crazier and weirder than we'd yet seen. But every time this version of the film hints at a left-turn, it ends up staying the course. Hope is the perfect example. Intended or not, Lily's Hope is a show-stealer, and the movie leaves us crossing our fingers that Hope will get her turn at bat to be a proactive, ass-kicking superhero in her own right. But the film proves too by-the-numbers to throw us that curveball, and leaves Hope mostly on the sidelines - to play the all-too-prevalent part of undeveloped love interest - despite all signs pointing to her total untapped potential as a Wasp-y companion to Lang's Ant-Man. Sure, it could happen in future films, but why delay the gratification? Break the mold, I say, and go a little crazy. Another tease happens when Lang goes so microscopic that he enters the sub-atomic, quantum realm. For a moment, I thought the movie might go full, Guardians-level insane on us. But it quickly pulls back, as if to say: "sorry, but you're not yet ready for that jelly just yet."
Director Peyton Reed is not bad. He gives us some really fun sequences of a shrunken Ant-Man in a giant-sized world, and his ability to nail comedic sequences is on-point. But overall, there is a workmanlike quality to Reed's direction that delivers action in a fun but very straightforward manner. A lot of scenes, I think, could have benefited from a loopier, trippier aesthetic.
The timing of ANT-MAN's release feels opportunistic. After the bloat of Avengers: Age of Ultron, there is indeed something refreshing about the next Marvel movie being a much smaller-scale, more straightforward, light-on-its-feet, back-to-basics superhero story. ANT-MAN is eminently likable - it's fun, has a great cast, and it gives us a hero in Scott Lang who is clearly going to be a great addition to the MCU (and really, who isn't excited to see Rudd's Ant-Man meet Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, and the rest?). The downside is that ANT-MAN lacks the major "wow" moments that would have really put it over the top, or the unique aesthetic that would have, in the long-run, made it truly distinct from the glut of other Marvel origin movies. As is stands, ANT-MAN is very watchable, very solid - but not quite the next Marvel classic.
My Grade: B+