Silver Screen: Ant-Man ***1/2
It’s hard not to watch Ant-Man both as the movie it is and the movie it could have been.
The B-list Marvel superhero was ushered onto the big screen by British genre parody master Edgar Wright, whose trilogy of films with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost riffed on horror (Shawn of the Dead), action (Hot Fuzz), and sci-fi (The World’s End). Ant-Man is, even by superhero standards, an improbable character— he’s tiny but still real strong, and can command actual ants!— but perhaps Wright could use that very improbability as an asset.
Alas, Wright left the project after years of development. The screenplay still bears his name (along with original cowriter Joe Cornish, of Attack the Block fame), and the movie itself is tinged with his influence. In its zanier, more inventive moments, Ant-Man is great fun, but it’s dragged down by the gravitational force of Marvel superhero conventions. In the new world of “shared universe” movies, individual installments must be homogenized to fit with the brand. Ant-Man strains and squirms to be different but can’t quite break out of its restraints.
So, yeah, a guy who can shrink himself down and talk to ants. That’s pretty low down on the list of desirable superhero powers, ranking somewhere between the Grammarian and the Masked Compromiser. But it worked well for Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who used his scientific discovery— explained with Hollywood technobabble as shrinking the space between atoms— to don a tiny suit and battle the forces of evil. But, worried about the risks of the technology falling into enemy hands, Pym shelved the project and hid his research in an underground bunker.
Pym’s conniving assistant Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is close to replicating Pym’s shrinking technology in order to sell it to military contractors, but he still needs a bit of his old mentor’s tech. To prevent Cross from inevitably swiping his secrets, Pym entrusts his Ant-Man technology to kindhearted thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), fresh out of jail for perpetrating a Robin Hood-inspired scam on crooked billionaires.
Lang makes for an appealingly distinctive superhero. He’s not a billionaire, a science nerd, a soldier, or a concave-chested geek chosen by fate. He occupies neither side of the power fantasy divide. As the ever-charming Rudd plays him, Lang is an underachiever with a mischievous streak, quick with a quip and not spoiling for a fight in the slightest. He pals around with his chipper former cellmate Luis (Michael Peña, all goofy charisma) and just wants to square his relationship with his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and estranged young daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson).
Ant-Man is at its best when it’s fashioned as a super-comedy— not a parody but a character-driven action-comedy with superhero trappings. It crackles with energy during a pair of inventive sequences when the digressive Luis tells a rambling story where every character takes on his voice, or when Lang verbally spars with Pym and Pym’s flinty, resentful daughter (Evangeline Lilly). Some of the actual sparring is pretty great, too, especially on a miniscule scale; the movie’s best fight scene is all staged inside a tumbling briefcase.
But too often the Mighty Marvel Formula prevails to rein in the antics and make Ant-Man more Avengers-friendly. It’s a curious misstep, given that Guardians of the Galaxy succeeded mostly on its quirks and irreverence. For all the fun Ant-Man can have at the micro-level, the producers have their eye on the macro, and they’re playing it safe with anything on the same table as their bread and butter. Thus the generic villain, yet another generic scientist/businessman who uses the hero’s same technology for evil— just like the Green Goblin, Tony Stark’s nemesis from the first Iron Man, Tim Roth’s villain from The Hulk, Green Goblin again in a reboot, and on and on. It’s tired, and the scenes play that way, no fault of Stoll’s.
Replacement director Peyton Reed dutifully captures these obligatory moments, which look especially worn and weary contrasted with the shinier, sillier scenes he’s allowed to inject with a little verve. Reed does solid work, even if it’s impossible to imagine Edgar Wright helming any fight scenes so stodgy and formulaic.
Wright’s wilder, zippier version of Ant-Man will never be seen. It now exists on the spectral plane of tantalizing almost-was movies like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune and Terry Gilliam’s Watchmen, where it’s free to be perfect without the burden of actually existing and being scrutinized.
The movie that does exist is a scruffy, low-key good time. It can’t even compete with the reality of last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, much less the idealized notion of what Wright’s movie might have been. But in an era of increasingly grim, self-serious blockbusters dealing out destruction and mass casualty on a massive scale, Ant-Man’s tiny smirk is still welcome.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.