(there are very light, gentle spoilers in this review)
Ant-Man is a film of contradictions.
It is Marvel’s most standalone film, yet its most interconnected film. It’s a modern action comedy, but also a throwback to ’70s heist movies while also a throwback to 2008’s Iron Man. It’s mostly low-key and small-scale, yet features (and makes literal) abstract quantum ideas. It’s a family film suitable for almost all ages, yet stars a motley crew of ex-cons and criminals. Perhaps the most striking contradiction: Ant-Man is a radical departure from the comics, yet perfectly captures the tone and spirit of reading Marvel superhero comic books. This is both good and bad: the film has bizarre backstories, groanworthy lines, and a plot that is somehow convoluted yet barely-there.
But Ant-Man is deeply character-driven, focusing on the inner life and emotions of its heroes. It has grand visual ambitions, taking our ordinary world and making it new, strange and fascinating. Ant-Man is flawed, but still manages to capture the fundamental humanism of Marvel Studios’ other films. (And in grand Marvel Comics tradition, there’s even a Marvel Team Up.)
Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, a man fresh out of prison. Though Scott is well-educated, his convict past leaves him working menial jobs, unable to pay child support and cut off from his daughter. Scott finds himself recruited by Hank Pym, a super-scientist and ex-superhero. Hank needs a burglar to infiltrate a highly guarded facility to steal an exceptionally dangerous weapon. Pym equips Lang with the Ant-Man suit, a piece of vintage superhero tech armed with an eclectic mix of superpowers.
Lang’s arc is pretty simple: he starts the film as a well-meaning man trying to make right, and he ends the film having made right. Instead of bringing his characteristic cockiness, Rudd plays Lang as a man haunted by his own failures. There’s a moving scene early in the film where a despondent Lang realizes that if everything goes his way, he still won’t be able to see his daughter for another year. Though Lang’s character is light on the page, Rudd gives Lang a real sense of depth and humanity.
Most of the plot centers around the bristly, arrogant, pacifistic Hank Pym, played by Michael Douglas. Unfortunately, the character doesn’t quite work. It seems like every other scene, Hank Pym was introducing new exposition, breathlessly filling in the backstory so they can advance the plot to more backstory. At times, Ant-Man confuses exposition for drama.
Pym is also a shitty mentor. Instead of being the Mr. Miyagi to Lang’s Karate Kid, Pym has no emotional connection to Scott Lang. It’s unclear why Lang is working for Pym in the first place, since it doesn’t seem like Pym is paying him. In earlier drafts, Pym and Lang have more of a mentor/mentee dynamic. But rewrites and new writer/director changes mutated the original concept to a weird three-way dynamic between Hank, Scott and Hope, Hank’s bitterly estranged daughter, played by Evangeline Lilly.
Hope is the emotional throughline of the film, growing alongside both Scott and Hank. Lilly is serviceable in the role, playing Hope with an icy ferocity that becomes more playful around Scott. So much of the film is dedicated to healing the gulf between Hope and Hank, but their tragic backstory is so ludicrously sci-fi that it’s straight out of a b-movie. The b-movie aesthetic works in action scenes, but can make the emotional character development laughable.
But that b-movie action truly is sublime. Ant-Man is utterly fixated on superpowers, but unlike the power fantasies of Thor or Iron Man, Ant-Man’s powers result in legitimately clever applications. Scott’s army of ants are cleverly deployed, different species serving different functions in Scott’s arsenal. Scott shrinks and grows haphazardly, employing momentum to throw his opponents off-guard (even if the force of the momentum is a little inconsistent from scene-to-scene). Refreshingly, Ant-Man is the most vulnerable hero in the Marvel pantheon. Scott is tazed and arrested by the police while wearing his superhero suit. Can you imagine that happening to Thor, or even Hawkeye?
Despite being the centerpiece of the film, the actual heist is a bit of a bust. The training scenes feature more interesting variations on the ants, and the mechanics of the heist aren’t very interesting. The final fight between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket (a hilariously hammy Corey Stoll) has quite a few jokes, but it’s still a wash of CGI characters punching and blasting each other.
But the biggest cartoon in the film isn’t the CGI action, but Michael Peña’s Luis. Scott’s waffle-loving criminal roommate earns the film’s biggest laughs, and is one of Marvel Studios’ best characters to date. Ant-Man features a full, breathing cast of civilians. It takes a team of six to pull off the heist, and Scott is the only one with superpowers.
Ant-Man is Marvel’s most playful film, quick-witted and silly and family-friendly. But there’s a definite subversive element running throughout. Lang is sent to prison for whistleblowing, which has shades of The Other Guys, another action comedy by co-screenwriter Adam McKay. Scott reveals Vistacorp’s predatory, greed-driven actions toward its customers. And despite being virtually sexless, Ant-Man’s kink is far from microscopic. Hope stands over a sleeping Scott, cold and intimidating and wearing all black; Scott is nearly trampled by all kinds of shoes on a dance floor; Scott is swarmed by a colony of ants. Even the Ant-Man suit itself overtly resembles a BDSM outfit: black leather, long zippers and sensory deprivation. With the shrinking mechanics, this film mythologizes everyday, intimate objects, to the point where something like a phone or a keychain feels as important as an Infinity Stone.
Director Peyton Reed inherited a troubled production, but the film really seems like it bears his mark of silly, kinetic humor. The only reason this film exists is because of Edgar Wright’s decade-long commitment to the character, but it’s pointless to speculate about what his version would look like. Ant-Man easily could’ve been a soulless corporate film-by-committee, but Reed, Rudd, and McKay imbue the film with sincere heart and wit.
But the film could’ve used Wright’s touch in the editing room. It’s like the filmmakers kept trimming establishing shots for runtime. For example, Cross and Pym are talking, then there’s a cut to a previously unseen photo of teenage Hope being held by someone. Who is looking at the photo? We find out a second later that it’s Cross, but visually it’s disorienting. The whole movie is like that, trimming out minor establishing beats, at times feeling more like a music video than a film.
For Marvel’s Phase Two, producer Kevin Feige’s plan was to populate the MCU with films of wildly different tones and genres, creating a true meta-verse instead of a single Avengers franchise. In certain ways, Ant-Man is the ultimate Phase Two film. It’s so radically different than any other Marvel film, yet also feels like something distinctly their style.
Though Marvel’s Phase Three looks to be a sprawling epic of interconnected films, I hope more of their films dare to be as small and oddball as Ant-Man.
3.5 flying carpenter ants out of five. Ant-Ony is better than any Helicarrier.