By Travis Trombley
In 2011, we asked how a Norse god of thunder could fit in with a science experiment and a man in a metal suit. In 2014, we wondered again about the wisdom of adding a talking raccoon and a walking tree to the mix. Both turned out rather spectacularly, yet audiences still furrowed their brows at Marvel’s newest title about a guy who can get really tiny and talk to insects.
The 12th - yes, 12th - installment of the juggernaut that is the Marvel cinematic universe and the end of Marvel’s “Phase 2,” director Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man was an unexpected but inspired choice, words that define the casting and some inventive action scenes. However, even this minuscule hero can’t escape the confines of a formula that’s proven itself effective time-and-again.
The film follows Scott Lang, played by Paul Rudd, a mechanical engineer / free-running burglar fresh out of prison and just trying get a job and make his daughter proud. He declares a desire to stop breaking into places and stealing stuff. Then, after some failed attempts at regular employment, physicist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) recruits Lang to break into a place a steal some stuff. That place is Pym’s old company, Pym Tech, and the stuff is the ‘Pym particle,’ a dangerous nuclear innovation that allows for the shrinking powers of the Ant-Man suit, but is - of course - capable of causing world-altering destruction. Pym’s protege Darren Cross forced Pym out of the company and plans to make a profit by selling the Pym Particle to the typical baddies. So, along with Hope Pym, Hank’s martial artist daughter played by Evangeline Lilly, the band prepares for a heist of Pym Tech.
In the same vein that Captain America: Winter Soldier crossed genres as a spy thriller in superhero spandex, so too is this film a superhero twist on the classic heist film throughout its first two acts. We see the recruitment phase, the planning phase (which doubles as the essential training montage of any superhero origin story), and the eventual heist, complete with a water-pipe entry, guard swaps, and laser grids. Sadly, though, the heist plot devolves into a Marvel-typical and rather hasty bang-boom-zap-whap fest for the last half of the third act.
Up until that flashy third act, the film spends much of its time on character and relationships. We sympathize with Lang’s desire to become the hero his daughter already sees him as while struggling just to get a job and pay child support. By the same token, Pym and Hope have to navigate the lingering scars of Pym’s distance after the death of Hope’s mom. Even Cross’ megalomania is due in part to a sense of daddy-abandonment, communicated by a mix of respectful indulgence and self-absorbed triumph. But with the inclusion of the unmemorable brawl at the end, few of these character dynamics, with the exception of Pym and Hope’s daddy-daughter issues, get a chance to really land.
That pretty much sums up the film’s deference to the established Marvel movie structure. You want to see Rudd change it up, and it looks like he might with a voiced aversion to violence early in the film and his grounded origin not as super soldier, space pirate, or genius playboy philanthropist, but as a struggling father with money issues and a tendency to fall back into undesirable habits when life gets hard. But, in the end, there’s the wise old voice of consumerism warning the film away from tweaking with the formula and falling into a land low box office revenue.
Visually, Ant-Man is one of Marvel’s most innovative films to date thanks to the the Ant-Man shrinking mechanics. When Lang first tries on the suit, he finds himself on shrunken odyssey through his apartment building during which he was caught up in tidal waves of bath water, dodged the dancing feet of raving teenagers, fled a roaring mouse the relative size of an elephant, and was sucked into a vacuum cleaner. Later fight scenes including a bout in a brief case which spills into a child’s toy-laden bedroom further the Toy Story inspired technique of changing up the typical action paradigm with new views on the mundane, like iPhones and a Thomas the Train set.
As far as acting, Rudd is a team player, adding his name brand dry and awkward sarcasm to scenes, but generally serving in a reactionary role rather than drawing attention to himself. Douglas’ Pym, on the other hand, steals every scene he’s in, whether with a witty remark and a tearful admission. Lilly plays Hope as a hardened and determined female lead, balancing cold condescension with enough vulnerability to make the relationship conflicts that ground the film work. Corey Stoll tries so hard to make his Darren Cross equal parts spurred child and insane megalomaniac, but the writing never lets us care too much, and by the time Cross dons the Yellowjacket, he becomes little more than a video game villain frustratedly ranting at Lane. Lane’s culturally diverse gang of fellow thieves serves to provide some three-stoogy comedic relief, especially Michael Pena’s he-said-she-said scenes. But the real show-stealer in this film is Lane’s daughter, the adorable Abby Ryder Fortson, who utters innocent, awe-inducing one-liners through the gap where her two front teeth should be.
Ultimately, the film will convince audiences that Ant-Man is, in fact, cool. Heck, it will convince them that ants are cool! Novel visuals and fight scenes owing to Ant-Man’s powers mix up the traditional action movie pallet, though the attention to characters makes it okay when the people just talk to each other. In the end, this is a Marvel film, with all the humor and action associated with the name, though in this case, especially, the explosive third act is a betrayal of the better superhero-heist film this could have been.