Let’s start with the obvious: There’s no way you can make an Ant-Man movie without it being a little silly. He has the power to shrink down to the size of an insect. He can control an army of ants, which, on the surface, seems like a skill that wouldn’t be useful very often. He might be to Marvel what Aquaman is to DC Comics, another character who, fairly or not, has a reputation of being a pretty campy superhero (although, to Aquaman’s credit, he can summon a killer shark whenever he may want one, so there is that). This is probably why, for the longest time, an Ant-Man movie seemed like a cinematic impossibility, even as Marvel was releasing one box office hit after another, ultimately, of course, leading to the titanic-sized success that was The Avengers. After that Hulk-smashing good time became a pop culture phenomenon, Marvel was in a place where it could afford to take on more risky projects. Edgar Wright, of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and Hot Fuzz fame, wrote a script and became attached to direct. Things were looking bright for a movie that many thought would never actually get made, until…
Well, at this point, you probably all know how the story goes. Wright, for reasons that remain unknown, dropped out (or was let go?) only months before production was set to begin, leaving the studio without a director and needing to hire one at the last minute. Peyton Reed, director of Bring It On and Down With Love, was eventually brought on board. Production was back on track for the film without any notable problems to report, but fans were still left wondering what Wright’s Ant-Man–which prior to his exit had been receiving strong buzz–would’ve been like. Adding to the skepticism was the hiring of Reed, who despite having a fair number of hits under his belt had never directed anything resembling a big budget comic book movie.
The biggest sigh of relief after watching Ant-Man is that the movie ends up working, with Reed proving to be a perfectly capable handler of the material. The film’s briskly paced, the tone is silly without ever being stupid, and the action scenes, while not as flashy or elaborate as those found in some of Marvel’s other blockbusters, are possibly some of the studio’s most imaginative to date. Marvel’s track record–which, believe it or not, actually rivals Pixar’s–remains untarnished, with Ant-Man being yet another fun, breezy winner for them.
Somewhat disappointingly, though, the movie is also rather…well, for want of a better word, “normal.” Despite being a film in which Michael Douglas gives unironic speeches about ants and how brave and loyal they are, Ant-Man never really lets itself get too weird, providing a pretty straightforward take on one of Marvel’s more bizarre characters. In fact, Ant-Man follows so many traditional superhero story beats that I don’t think there’s any need for me to explain the film’s plot. From the beginning, you know what the hero’s goal is going to be. You can tell right away who the supervillain’s going to be (although he is so cartoonishly evil that at first I almost thought he was going to be a red herring). You know that Michael Dougles is going to be the wise old mentor, and that Evangeline Lilly will eventually become the love interest. To be fair, given how “odd” the title character’s powers are, you could say that it’s understandable (at least from a financial standpoint) for the studio to want to take the safest approach possible when bringing him to the big screen. Still, after last year’s gloriously offbeat Guardians of the Galaxy, it is a bit of a letdown.
The good news, however, is that what Ant-Man lacks in originality, it more than makes up for with likability. Even more so than most Marvel movies, the film knows better than to take itself too seriously, and manages to be self-aware while stopping short of ever officially winking at the camera. In terms of narrative, this is probably the studio’s most focused movie since the original Iron-Man, which Ant-Man borrows heavily from in terms of tone. As with that film and Guardians, we have a snarky hero who has a heart of gold, with Paul Rudd, as one would expect, being perfectly appealing as Scott Lang. The rest of the cast, as is the norm with Marvel, also doesn’t disappoint. Michael Douglas is great as Hank Pym, although I would’ve liked to see more of his past as the “original” Ant-Man. Evangeline Lilly is fine as Hank’s daughter Hope, but one wishes she were given more to do, especially since she proved to be an extremely lively presence in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. Michael Pena might be the film’s MVP as Scott’s lovable partner in crime Luis, while Corey Stoll makes the Yellowjacket into an enjoyably manic bad guy.
Still, the best part of Ant-Man just might be the fight sequences, even if the film waits until the final reel to get to most of them. Although they don’t quite pack the adrenaline punch found in this summer’s Mad Max: Fury Road or Jurassic World, they are so much fun that you won’t care, and the sight of characters shrinking and enlarging while throwing objects fifty times their size at each other is thrilling. Even cooler is the way the movie plays around with scope, managing to make a battle inside a girl’s bedroom seem as epic as if it were taking place in a big city. These scenes are so good that you ultimately wish there were more of them, but I suppose that with all of the alleged drama that took place before production began, Disney didn’t want to risk letting the budget go overboard.
We will never know if Wright’s Ant-Man would’ve been better or worse than what we got, but at the end of the day, that doesn’t matter. What we do have is an enjoyable if not somewhat bland superhero adventure which, in spite of its frankly baffling PG-13 rating, is still suitable for family audiences. It’s no where near being one of Marvel’s best, but the studio produces such entertaining films that even their so-called “average” ones are pretty darn good. It’s perfectly decent summer fare…albeit on a smaller scale.
Walt Disney Pictures
July 17, 2015
Directed by Peyton Reed