Starring: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale and Michael Pena
Running time: 117 Minutes
Directed by: Peyton Reed
Year of release: 2015
The MCU rules the pop-cultural cage right now, and frankly the success or failure of Ant-Man won’t change that. Age of Ultron crushed at the box office – no matter what any hyperbolic stories about being a “disappointment” might say, $1.3 billion is a spicy meatball – and with their rivals over at DC setting themselves up for a massive crash and burn, it’s blue skies for Kevin Feige and Co. regardless. Ant-Man doesn’t have the same expectations as Ultron, and with early critical word being quite good, this doesn’t look to be anything more than a speed bump at worst and another well-earned notch in the win column at best
It does, however, highlight a legitimate concern as Marvel’s pop-culture juggernaut moves forward. Having established a basic bar for quality, and now that we’re all assured that even the least of their movies will be decent, where do they go from here? Do they play things safe: delivering solid, but predictable product churned out like sausage links twice a year until the public finally grows weary of it? Or do they really push things in unusual directions: expanding our idea of what a superhero film could be and moving this colossal franchise in new and surprising directions? No one expects them to do that with their tent-poles. The Avengers movies are going to stick to the script, as are Captain America and other “hard points.”
But Ant-Man, like Guardians of the Galaxy before it, is a bit of an outlier, and as such has the opportunity to take more risks. Guardians resolutely failed to do so, settling for reliable entertainment rather than going for broke and risking greatness. The heartbreaking thing about Ant-Man is that you can see it striving for more. Those times when it reaches those goals rank among the finest the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ever produced… but it can’t sustain that for the entire running time, and too often it plays it safe when it really could have grabbed ahold of something magnificent.
And before I get too much deeper into this, I need to say that we’re talking about degrees here. Reliable entertainment is nothing to sneeze at, and Ant-Man resolutely delivers in that department. Furthermore, it does so with a sense of the ridiculous that this character absolutely requires without devolving completely into farce. It finds a marvelous goofy energy that suits star Paul Rudd exceptionally well. His Scott Lang treats superheroics like his earlier characters treated talking to a pretty girl: meaning well, but resolutely unable to get out of his own way. It’s kind of brilliant, and when the film sticks to those instincts, it’s solid gold.
Lang did time in prison for a stick-it-to-the-Man act of burglary that brought justice to a bunch of disenfranchised employees, but couldn’t keep him from the wrong side of a jail cell. Now he’s out and determined to get his life back on track, but “Convicted Felon” just doesn’t look good on a resume, and desperation leads him haltingly back towards his old habits. That’s when he receives a message from Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a reclusive genius who has found a way to “shrink the space between atoms” and who now fears that his technology is falling into the wrong hands. Lang can use his astonishing shrinking suit and ear-piece that lets him talk to ants to break into his old company and wreak a little havoc for the cause of righteousness.
As long as Ant-Man embraces the possibilities of this character – from the weird perspective of looking at the world from an ant’s point of view and the outlandish action concepts that such an idea could foster – it can do no wrong. Credit for much of that doubtless goes to Edgar Wright, who invested years in the project before splitting over creative differences. His successor, Peyton Reed, clearly respects what Wright was trying to do, and keeps that cuckoo-nutty DNA intact a surprising amount of time. We’re treated not only to wonderful forced-perspective sequences of life on a miniature scale, but also the intriguing possibilities of what Pym’s technology can do, and the wild spin that puts on the expected showdown of good vs. evil.
Speaking of which, Ant-Man earns further kudos with its villain, something the MCU has struggled with at times but which can still sneak up on us in unexpected ways. Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), aka Yellowjacket, at first appears as another standard-issue villain representing the dark side of the hero he fights. But Stoll invests him with a chilling nonchalance that leaves a lasting impression: stressing the viability of the threat without disrupting the film’s humor or heart. That makes him perfect for Rudd’s out-of-his-league nice guy: a proper challenge to rise against in a franchise that sometimes leaves its bad guys coasting in neutral.
Had the film maintained these instincts from beginning to end, it might have changed the game the same way the first Avengers did. But too often, Ant-Man has to sacrifice those instincts in favor of the larger universe it inhabits. It periodically departs from the groovy vibe it’s worked so hard to create to remind us that there’s more to come, and in those moments, the wheels start to spin. None of it’s bad, precisely – Anthony Mackie makes a good sport in his cameo as The Falcon and Evangeline Lily’s tough-as-nails heroine represents one of the final missing pieces of the MCU’s puzzle – but those moments feel like they came from a different movie, glommed onto this one for no other reason than to remind us to tune in for the next segment.
That’s a minor quibble to be sure, and at the end of the day Ant-Man ranks as one of the franchise’s better efforts. Rudd marches to a resolutely different beat, while Douglas provides another much-needed example of just how great he can be. They bring the material’s inherent freshness to the forefront in ways we never could have anticipated, and remind us just what a bounty Kevin Feige and Co. have delivered. If only we weren’t reminded of the burgeoning timidity that comes from being the king of the hill: the need to hold the line and play it safe instead of striking out in bold, new directions. That’s Marvel’s Achilles’ heel: the one thing that may ultimately doom them if they’re not careful. Ant-Man demonstrates the dangers of toeing that line, even as it gloriously reminds us of the kinds of rewards a little risk can bring.