Ant-Man feels like an anomaly in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It doesn’t further the evolving storylines of Phase Two, nor does it set the stage for anything in Phase Three. That’s not to say that Ant-Man is disposable. It just feels different. Like an origin story thrown into the middle of a sprawling epic. It takes 45 wobbly minutes for director Peyton Reed’s film to find its rhythm, but it closes with some ingenious action set pieces that leave you feeling satisfied. Ant-Man is a quirky little orphan that will probably need some time and distance from its cinematic brethren to be fully appreciated.
Ant-Man bears all the obvious markings of production trauma. After Edgar Wright abandoned the director’s chair over the dreaded ‘creative differences,’ Peyton Reed and a gaggle of screenwriters grabbed the reigns. The lack of creative continuity is clear, as the first half is sluggish and perfunctory compared to its inspired conclusion. It feels like one director fully grasped the absurd cinematic possibilities of a shrinking man, while the other director wanted to tell a more realistic story. When your hero is riding winged ants and jumping through keyholes, realism is probably not the best approach.
The biggest problem with Ant-Man, and what nearly seals its fate, is that our hero is a zero. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is easily the least compelling protagonist we’ve seen from Marvel. He isn’t funny, he isn’t dashing, he isn’t a coward, he isn’t morally conflicted, he isn’t (overtly) brilliant, he isn’t a physical specimen, and he most certainly isn’t charismatic. All we know for sure is that he’s good with computers, as evidenced by his criminal calling card; he “burgled” a corporate raider’s ill-gotten booty and returned the cash to the victims.
This audacious burglary against the world’s preeminent security system draws the attention of Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). Back in the day, Pym, a brilliant scientist, was obsessed with develop a miniaturization compound that could be safely used by humans. That research ended, however, after the mysterious death of his wife, the estrangement of his willful daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), and the unwelcomed intrusions of his gifted, yet thoroughly-evil assistant, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll).
Like every other movie in recorded history, instead of using these miraculous discoveries for the betterment of mankind (like nano-robots in biomedical research wouldn’t be profitable?), the villains are intent upon militarizing the project. Hydra wants the tech, and Darren is determined to get it for them. Pym must enlist the special (yet non-existent) talents of Scott to infiltrate Darren’s lab, steal his miniaturization gear (the awesome Yellowjacket!), and destroy all traces of the research (file back-ups are for sissies!). Simple, right?
Making it through the establishment of these characters and their melodramatic backstories is a true endurance test. The screenwriting team of Wright, Cornish, McKay and Rudd (!!) seem to have missed the Marvel memo about creating memorable, yet relatable characters. Scott’s motivations are torn from page one of the screenwriting handbook; a father must prove himself worthy of his daughter’s love. As Scott’s ex-wife conveniently observes, “Be the hero that she (Scott’s daughter) thinks you are.” Though Pym is on a similar redemptive mission with his own daughter, any attempts to juxtapose the two storylines are ham-fisted, at best. Mostly, they serve as the rickety framework for some unconvincing emotional epiphanies.
What ultimately saves Ant-Man is an exhilarating second half that features plenty of impressive special effects and some genuinely inspired moments. In other words, Reed remembers that this is supposed to be fun. Rudd finally emerges from the shadows to take control of things, delivering the glib one-liners and non-sequiturs that make him so damn adorable. The macho showdown with a slumming Avenger is particularly fun, as are the introductions to Scott’s helper ants. There is a sense of discovery in these scenes that is largely absent from the other Marvel films once they enter ‘action mode.’ It’s yet another way that Ant-Man feels somewhat divorced from the larger franchise; it succeeds where the other films fail, and vice versa.
Rudd delivers capably in the lead role, but his particular talents are squandered for a huge chunk of the film. It’s almost as though Reed and his writers forgot that Rudd can switch effortless between smarm and sincerity. Michael Douglas shows off his deft comic timing, as well as his dramatic chops. He makes you wish this was his story instead of Rudd’s. Michael Peña has some good moments as the comic relief, but his scenes feel out of place until the action escalates to match his zaniness. Corey Stoll does his best as Yellowjacket, but is hampered by the fact he isn’t Loki (still the only interesting villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe).
Ant-Man is half of a good film, which is just enough to make it worthwhile. When we look back at the 12 Marvel outings so far, this will probably fall somewhere toward the bottom; residing near the first Thor and the second Iron Man. This feels like Marvel’s first attempt to shoehorn something into the canon that, perhaps, didn’t require its own origin story. Still, the unabashed fun and creativity of the finale gives one hope for Ant-Man’s future. When the filmmakers fully utilize the potential of this wacky world, magical things can happen. It might be coming a bit too late in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Ant-Man could prove a valuable cog in the Avenger machine.