by Nathan Sacks
[Note: The following is an attempt to write an Ant-Man review without using the words “Marvel,” “comic book,” “superhero,” or “corporate,” thereby avoiding lapsing into constant cliché.]
Ant-Man’s descriptor is a built in contradiction—the tiny blockbuster—that can either be seen as clever and refreshing or unbearably precious. Your mileage may vary, and it might depend on your appreciation for source material like Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man (1956) or the film Fantastic Voyage (1966) and its Isaac Asimov novelization. Honey I Shrunk the Kids aside, we haven’t seen many movies about people who shrink since the golden age of '50s sci-fi. Ant-Man demonstrates that this is an unheralded sci-fi niche that, with the right approach, modern audiences can come to appreciate.
Director: Peyton Reed
Producer: Kevin Feige
Writers: Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, Paul Rudd, Stan Lee (comic book), Larry Lieber (comic book), Jack Kirby (comic book)
Cinematographer: Russell Carpenter
Editors: Dan Lebental, Colby Parker Jr.
Music: Christophe Beck
Cast: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, Abby Ryder Fortson, Michael Peña, David Dastmalchian, T.I., Hayley Atwell, John Slattery, Martin Donovan
US Theatrical Release: July 17, 2015
US Distributor: Walt Disney Studios
Made for a mere $130 million, Ant-Man is almost a quiet, ruminative dramedy. Superscientific devices abound, and things explode (and surprisingly, implode) a lot, but Ant-Man tends to stick to mundane settings. It is these explorations of common spaces that give shrinking scenes their extra punch of trippiness. When a character shrinks in a dirty bathtub, the dirt and grime of the setting is heightened; the character bounces around in a hoover vacuum, runs laps with ants underground, and scurries across the floor of a day-glo EDM rave.
Michael Douglas plays Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man. Secretly active since the '60s, his suit shrinks and his helmet has the power to affect ants’ olfactory senses, making them susceptible to telepathic direction. Pym’s miracle invention is the Pym particle, which “harnesses the space between atoms” or something and therefore, per conservation of mass, Ant-Man retains the density and strength of a normal-sized man (making his punches superhumanly powerful). A prologue scene set in the 1980s establishes Pym as a super-scientist/S.H.I.E.L.D. adventurer who experienced a traumatic event that led him to hang up his suit. Douglas’ face is digitally de-aged, and oddly young Pym looks astonishingly like Gordon Gekko.
Hank was the original, but this film’s protagonist is Scott Lang (Paul Rudd). Scott has just gotten out of prison and is looking to reconnect with his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder-Fortson). His ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her new cop boyfriend (Bobby Canavale) think Scott is a bad influence, which is weird, because Scott’s crime was stealing from a multinational corporation and returning its millions to the customers it fleeced. By the time he is led by Pym to put on the suit, Scott has struggled outside of prison and tried and failed to go straight.
Pym sees Scott’s skill as a thief and hires him to steal a new generation of shrinking suit from Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Secretly, Pym’s estranged daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) is working with Pym and Lang to bring Cross down. Lilly is okay, but Corey Stoll (who has a magnificent bald head) seems to really relish mugging and monologuing as a villain—you can see him just stop himself from going full-on Gene Hackman.
A lot of people seem to be approaching this movie with uncommon trepidation. One reason I see is that Ant-Man is supposedly a “lame” character. If you judge the lameness or coolness of a character based on his/her capacity to inflict violence, then yeah, Ant-Man isn’t Wolverine. He’s actually a lot cooler. Ant-Man doesn’t just run away from people trying to step on him, and director Peyton Reed concocts a number of scenarios that demonstrate the coolness of shrinking powers, which are actually very useful in a fight. If your problem is the “communicating with ants” thing, well, at least these digital ants are pretty cute, and their abilities are used in surprising and visually delightful ways.
The problem with the film, instead, is the occasional lax pacing in the first two-thirds. The screenplay (with contributions from Paul Rudd) spends way more time setting up the dominoes than watching them fall. There are obviously meant to be parallel narratives between the two father daughter combos (Scott/Cassie and Pym/Hope) but only one of these relationships (the Pym/Hope one) shows any growth. Michael Douglas plays Pym with a lot of fascinating depths, and there are hints of hidden darkness in this character, but not much beyond hints (I suppose one always needs to leave a few things on the table for a sequel to resolve). The film’s last sequence, which features an unlikely train crash, is by far its best because it embraces the full colors and theatricality of its source, and it would have helped if there was a scene in the first third of the film to parallel that level of color and splendor.
It is well-known that the film’s original director, Edgar Wright, departed the film due to creative differences with the studio. Which parts of the film are his I could not speculate, but I imagine he might not have been happy with characters from other movies (particularly a notable Avenger) showing up. Peyton Reed (previously considered for both Fantastic Four and Guardians of the Galaxy) is probably the ideal replacement, and now that I think about it, Down With Love and Bring It On are both way better movies than Shaun of the Dead or Scott Pilgrim.
Reed’s auteur sensibilities are apparent in the vibrant pop-art primary colors especially evident in the film’s quiet, abstract denouement to the special effects climax. Reed definitely accomplishes what must have been the hardest goal, which is to preserve the weirdness of the concept while making it cool. If you go into it hoping for CGI effects that don’t bludgeon, but instead delight and surprise, you will likely not be disappointed by Ant-Man.