The last film in the second phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe carries a lot of weight on its tiny shoulders, even if we aren’t entirely sure if ants have shoulders.
When it comes to things that are certain in life, death and taxes have recently seen Marvel Studios box office success join them as a roommate. Even so-called risky prospects like Guardians of the Galaxy have won over the world thanks to the Marvel gold standard, and it’s been in no small measure due to the singular vision of producer Kevin Feige and his team, along with a string of unlikely creators who have brought their voice to classic comics characters. Not for nothing, but a series of creator walkouts from Marvel productions raises reasonable questions about pressure to conform to that brand. Arguably, the most highly publicised of these was director Edgar Wright’s split with ANT-MAN.
There’s still a lot of Wright and co-writer Joe Cornish’s DNA in the ANT-MAN script, or at least their style, although there are a multitude of other voices as well. Picking up on a thread in the current Nick Spencer/Ramon Rosanas run of the Marvel comic, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is an ex-con and expert robber who is trying to get his life back on track and spend time with his estranged daughter. Drawn back into a life of crime by a trio of friends, Lang is hired by legendary tech wizard Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) to steal back technology he created from rival Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), much to the scepticism of Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly).
After a triptych of films that climaxed in large objects or cities threatening death from above, including the lurching monolith that was Avengers: Age of Ultron, it’s refreshing to see an event film that has a (pardon the pun) “smaller” view of the world. After a pre-credits flashback to the 1980s, employing some nifty digital de-ageing of Michael Douglas, ANT-MAN establishes its comedic tone and its distinction from the rest of the Marvel universe fairly early on. Tony Stark is a billionaire genius, Steve Rogers a super soldier, Thor an Asgardian immortal and Peter Quill a space jockey. Scott Lang, on the other hand, gets fired from a Baskin Robbins and robs people for a living. Sidekick Michael Peña’s rapid-fire descriptions of potential jobs offer surprisingly hilarious and random non sequiturs, and the notion of an ordinary guy given a tremendous power (and great responsibility) is played with the deadpan of Rudd. The 80’s are actually very present in the film, with it mostly feeling like one of the batty high-concept outings that were commonplace during that decade, and worked based on their sheer audacity.
Yet that tone is also incredibly inconsistent. The humour slaps up against a familiar plot of corporate rivalry and conflicting ideals for technology – so familiar in fact that it was largely the basis for the Obadiah Stane character in 2008’s Iron Man. However, Stoll’s Darren Cross is nowhere near as compelling as Jeff Bridges, or given anywhere near as much depth as his triumphant House of Cards role, and the stakes of his plans never feel particularly high. Even the strongest parts of the film, around the preparation of the heist, are muddied by a plan that is ill-explained and ultimately inconsequential to the final fight sequence.
Comic fans may be disappointed that Hank Pym, a founding member of the Avengers, is relegated to supporting role in Ant-Man’s first cinematic outing. Yet Lang’s loveable rogue is an excellent choice, and both actors make the most of their roles. It’s a shame that the rest of the cast don’t fare as well, including the horribly underused Judy Greer as Lang’s ex (and the second helpless mother character she’s played this year after Jurassic World). Lilly is almost there purely to provide a foil for Rudd, not to mention set up the future adventures of another famous Ant-Man character. Bobby Cannavale is far more of an active adversary for the hero than the actual foe, although his beleaguered cop has the most direct line to those 80s action flicks.
ANT-MAN still works best when it sticks to its loose heist movie premise, and the back half of the film leading up to the final action showdown is inventive, funny and combines the best elements of the film’s intended vibe. While there are multiple references and cameos from other members of the Avengers and the expanding universe, it also does a reasonably good job of standing on it own two diminutive feet. (It also goes without saying that you should stay throughout the credits for two extra ghost monkeys). Whether it is a victim of too many cooks in the kitchen is a matter for a tell-all biography, but the slower pace of the first act and an inharmonious tone keeps this firmly in the realm of fun diversions.