Ant-Man movie review: superhero reduction

Ant-Man yellow light

Marvel’s tiniest hero stars in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s smallest movie so far, one that loses Paul Rudd’s charm among familiar comic-book action.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Paul Rudd

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Marvel’s tiniest hero! Now starring in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s smallest movie so far. Also its most run-of-the-mill movie so far.

This was bound to happen eventually. There are only so many ways you can take a guy — always a guy! — who’s a little bit messed up but basically a decent fellow who just needs a little redemption to set him on the right road, expose him to a little magical mad science, give him a special suit to run around in, and set him loose on the bad guys.

We have seen this all before. Oh, sure, the details vary, but not a lot. I adore Paul Rudd (They Came Together, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues), headlining here as cat burglar Scott Lang turned compact superhero in a suit that shrinks him to the size of an insect, so it pains me to say that he comes across as a paler shadow of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man. Rudd’s charm is undeniable but feels lost among the big (and familiar) comic-book action and unnecessary 3D, which is more suited to the broader comedy of Michael Peña (Fury, American Hustle) as Lang’s former partner in crime, Luis. (Peña is a riot; he has always been a riveting screen presence, but I had no idea he could be this funny.) Scott is downsized in almost every way from the typical larger-than-life superheroes, but not in any way that the movie takes advantage of: this isn’t a different sort of story about how a regular guy copes with the unique challenges of secret identities and superpowers and the like. It’s a simple, straightforward origin adventure like we’ve seen too many times to be surprised by anymore.

And the film gets so close to finding a different path! We’ve been promised a Marvel movie somewhen off in the future about a female superhero, but Ant-Man could have been it. The movie directly confronts the fact that it would make much sense for Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Real Steel), daughter of the scientist creator of Ant-Man, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas: Haywire, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), to wear the Ant-Man suit and engage in the heroics required… and then the movie strains to invent reasons why she can’t, and why she must train Lang to do the job she is already more than capable of doing instead. The four (male) screenwriters may have thought this was a feminist nod to how male-dominated comic-book movies are, but all it does is underscore the problem and once again sideline a great female character. Worse, it’s hinted that Hope may get to wear her own Ant-Man suit in a future film, which only raises the question: Why couldn’t she do so now? Why not start there?

That would have given Ant-Man the freshness it needs to measure up to the other Marvel flicks.

Those screenwriters? They are Rudd, Adam McKay (Get Hard, The Campaign), Joe Cornish (The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, Attack the Block), and Edgar Wright (The World’s End, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), the latter of whom was originally slated to direct the film. The stamp of Wright’s unique and invigorating visual staccato pops up here occasionally… it’s in those bits where the film is its most fun. (Though the best sight gag was spoiled in the trailer.) Peyton Reed took over as director, and Ant-Man is a positive joy compared to his two most recent movies, The Break-Up and Yes Man. But he debuted with 2000’s awesome cheerleader comedy Bring It On, and his second film was 2003’s funky retro rom-com Down with Love, yet there’s little sense of any style or personality of Reed’s in the film: this could have been directed by almost anybody.

That those few Wright-ish hints survived to make it into the final movie is perhaps the only truly unexpected thing here: now that Hollywood only has other people’s sandboxes for filmmakers to play in these days, there’s a samey sameness to all the big blockbusters. This is very much in the Avengers universe, and it even deals in a smart way with the obvious question of “Why don’t we just call the Avengers to solve our problems?” But in having a party line to toe and a visual blandness to match without bringing anything new thematically, this cannot help but be a minor chapter in the Marvel story.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Ant-Man for its representation of girls and women.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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