Considering the global and galaxy-wide impact of the events of Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, it feels odd for Marvel Studios to close out Phase 2 of their cinematic universe with a film vastly smaller in both scope and scale; Ant-Man.
While the original Ant-Man from the comics, Hank Pym, was a founding member of the Avengers (and the original creator of Ultron, not Tony Stark), he’s obviously missed that boat now two Avengers movies have already been released, so Marvel has doubled down and introduced two generations of heroes to bear the mantle of Ant-Man in the one film. Pym (Michael Douglas), the original Ant-Man, is a scientist working with S.H.I.E.L.D in the 1980s, long before The Avengers Initiative was even a twinkle in Nick Fury’s eye. In a fun 1989-set sequence featuring some neat Marvel cameos, Pym finds out that his greatest discovery “Pym Particles”, a substance that can effectively shrink a person or object, is being developed as a weapon by elements within S.H.I.E.L.D., so he quits, taking his secrets with him.
Back in the modern day Pym’s work is, once again, at risk of being rediscovered and weaponized, this time by his one time protégée Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Pym along with his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) must enlist the help of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a talented cat burglar who’s trying to go straight, to assist him stop Cross before it’s too late. To do this Scott will have to learn how to effectively use the Ant-Man suit’s ability to grow and shrink at will, master how that effects his speed and strength as well learn how to mentally control various species of ant as well (Pym was heavily into themed research).
Along the way he’ll fail hilariously, find out more about Pym’s past as the original Cold War Ant-Man and even cross paths with an Avenger in one of the funnier scenes in the film that also lays some intriguing groundwork for phase 3.
While a welcome break from the escalating stakes of the previous films, (the threat here is a little less cataclysmic than an Infinity Stone or Ulton), Ant-Man does suffer in other areas in comparison to the previous films.
The story is different enough with its dual protagonists and it’s well told and pacy. Many of the action scenes are great, especially ones in the 3rd act with two combatants who can both change size on a whim, but in a film boasting a comedic lead of Paul Rudd’s talent and a lot of jokes, a surprising number of them fall flat. Avengers: Age of Ultron may have its detractors but it had a surprising amount of humour that worked, as did Guardians of the Galaxy and to a lesser extent, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, so at times Ant-Man can feel like something of a misstep.
Rudd’s scenes with Douglas and Evangeline Lilly are great, especially one where it’s revealed why exactly Pym needs Scott in the first place but nearly all scenes with Scott’s buffoonish support crew of Michael Peña, David Dastmalchian, and T.I. come off as desperately unfunny.
The special effects are well done throughout with the shrinking scenes using an effective stylized depth of field effect to focus the action on the character, reducing the relatively distant background to an out of focus blur. It’s approach that works well, particularly the first time Scott accidentally shrinks himself and experiences the familiar world of his apartment from the unfamiliar perspective of an ant. Once the action starts going though that part of your brain that recognises when a scene is 100% CGI can kick in, leaving the action to appear a little weightless.
Not all the effects are so showy, with the 1989 set prologue featuring Michael Douglas impressively de-aged to his appearance circa Wall Street, presumably using the same technology used to age Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter for her modern day scenes in the Winter Soldier. The technology has come a long way from Clu, the rubber faced younger version of Jeff Bridges from Tron:Legacy.
Ant-Man suffers most, not in comparison with the films that have come before it, but with one that will never see the light of day, Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man.
Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) was originally attached to direct Ant-Man in 2006 and to co-write the script with Joe Cornish (Attack the Block). In 2014 both departed the project, after Rudd and much of the cast were already attached and Peyton Reed (Yes Man, The Break-up) was brought in to direct. No stranger to screen-writing, having penned the screenplay for Role Models and episodes of Party Down, Rudd also took a pass at the script with long time friend Adam McKay (Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy, The Other Guys), although Wright and Cornish retain the “Story by” credit.
It’s all too easy to assign all the good parts of the movie to Wright and all the bad to Reed, but if you are familiar with Wright’s work, you can’t help but imagine how he would have handled some scenes.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I’ve been a fan of Wright since he directed one the best TV’s shows of all time, the UK produced Spaced and I’m a big fan of Scott Pilgrim Vs the World and his aesthetic.
Wright is a precision director, emphasising odd moments with Sam Raimi style camera work like whip-pans and crash zooms when you least expect it and has mostly impeccable timing when it comes to humour and editing. You can’t help but feel that some of the gags that feel flat may have “popped” a little more had Wright been handling directing duties.
Case in point, a gag featuring Siri being triggered on an iPhone during a fight between two tiny fighters and playing a song, falls dead when that song it plays music that neither matches the action or comically opposes it, it just comes off as an undeveloped idea.
This same sequence features a terrific build-up culminating in a fantastic moment involving a ping-pong paddle, that had the crowd roaring with laughter, but then the action comes to a screeching halt for a mostly unnecessary scene that seems to exist only to give the antagonist time to get to the location for the finale, entirely derailing any momentum the film had.
Still, taken on it’s a own terms Ant-Man is an enjoyable Summer action film that doesn’t quite live up to the standard that Marvel has been producing lately but does lay some exciting groundwork for phase 3 of Marvel’s cinematic universe.
As is now traditional for Marvel movie, make sure to stay until the very end of the credits. There are two scenes at the end of the film, one in the middle of the credits and one at the very end of them. The first appears purely to set up an alternative method for Marvel to introduce the character of The Wasp (originally Hank Pym’s wife Janet Van Dyne in the comics) with one way already introduced in the film itself.
The other clip features more Avengers, a slightly jarring tone considering the light-heartedness of the film that has gone before it and lays some intriguing hints for Captain American: Civil War.
Stars: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, [You’ll find no hints here about which Avengers turn up!]
Directed by: Peyton Reed
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