Putting the boot on top of the Rant-Man for this one
Maybe it’s just me but I’m still struggling to wash that Avengers: Age Of Ultron taste out of my mouth as the fatigue of comic book films has undoubtedly begun to set in – creatively at least. After the overblown disappointment that repetitive superhero team-up was, I was more than happy for a year’s break before we roll around to whatever part of the masterplan Marvel Studios has next, but no we have Ant-Man to deal with.
You know Ant-Man right? That comic book movie beloved British comedy writer Edgar Wright (The World’s End) was working on, before he had “creative differences” with Marvel and he quit/mutually agreed to leave the project? The same one where they had nearly forgotten comedy director Peyton Reed (Yes Man) and funny film specialist Adam McKay (Anchorman 2) parachute in to take over at the last minute? On paper that sounds like it has a potential of a trainwreck with so many cooks in the iron fist ruled Marvel kitchen. But shockingly it manages to come together for a very good, borderline great entry with a tale of a decent guy who has done bad things trying to do well again.
Having had his technology development company swept away from him by a ruthless former protégé turned arms manufacturer, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll, The Strain), and his distant daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies), Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, And So It Goes) is worried that Cross may use his old shrinking tech for profiteering military use when it was designed for science. He manipulates fresh out of prison for burglary Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, Anchorman 2) into putting on his old ‘Ant-Man‘ suit to pull off a heist to stop Cross and his villainous ‘Yellowjacket’ suit, before it falls into the wrong hands.
It’s a rather mixed take on the traditional Ant-Man character from the comics (Scott is NOT the thief character who runs about in the suit and that guy is a bit more of a bastard), but it’s all the better for being so, as Ant-Man the movie provides a fresh and reinvigorating heist take on a superhero movie. Marvel have got it into their heads that a straight up comic book capes movie just doesn’t cut the mustard in the 2010’s and are doing their best to focus of a specific take for their properties. The last Captain America focused on being a spy drama. Guardians of the Galaxy took to space to focus on that part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Thor looks towards mythological medieval fantasy etc.
Here, all the jokes and put-downs in the build up to the release of this film about “Oh Ant Man you say?! What can he do?!” works to the character’s favour as the decreasing then restoration of size and the ability to control a limitless army of ants is perfect for a sneaking about, finding the macguffin story that we have here. Indeed, the line Cross delivers in the final act of “You’d think you’d save the world with a heist?!” rings throughout just as Scott reveals the last part of his plan in a total ‘Gotcha!’ moment. It also helps that whatever comedic plans both Wright & McKay have injecting into the plot are kept in with both filmmaker’s contributions being noticeable and yet don’t manage to tip over one another in a strange but functioning Frankenstein’s Monster of direction, comedy, heroics and thievery.
With the cast involved, you expect the acting to be at an acceptable level, even for a superhero film – but it’s surprisingly delightful. Rudd is Rudd and he balances his serious-to-comic expertly as always. He comes perilously close to dethroning a certain Junior as my favourite portrayal of a Marvel hero. Wisely ditching the wife-beating aspects of the comic book version, Douglas’ Hank is one filled with sorrow and remorse over the death of his wife Janet and Douglas expectedly excels in dealing with those characteristics & rebuilding his on-off relationship with his distant daughter. Lilly manages to bring an emotional depth in a comic book film not seen in awhile as the angry girl becomes closer to her father in years as he opens up behind the truth of Janet’s death and the waterworks open up. Best of all – and most surprising considering Marvel’s track record of their godawful attempts at bring their villains to screen – Stoll manages to become the closest to a Loki level of evil performance that we haven’t seen since the first Avengers. Whilst it’s an easy way to say he’s playing the same rich guy in a suit villain, like Jeff Bridges in the first Iron Man, a bit more focus on the corrupting elements of the Pym Particles formula he’s ripped off and he would possibly be one of the best villain performances ever. He’s so damn good at being snarky and scummy it’s hard to ignore, whilst retaining an alluring side in his quest to perfect his version of the shrinking formula, as he goes through multiple test subjects with squeamish body horror results. If there is one thing I could definitely say Reed had a hand in this film, after all the pre-production reworking of the script taking the limelight off his directorial appointment, it’s the fact that again he’s managed to get the best out of a good cast in this comedy environment. Similar to what he did with Yes Man, he’s managed to reinvigorate some castaway and forgotten cast members into a worthy group performance.
What makes Ant-Man work is just how unexpectedly original it’s take on a hero is. We’ve seen plenty of heroes who are straight laced and it’s getting a bit dull now, but Marvel have got the common sense to throw in some negative aspects to their characters. Scott is a burglar, but not a thief as he doesn’t usually condone violence (spelled out so you know it’s okay to root for him), so sure that’s morally wrong but he does it against people who are dodgier than him and he’s got a little girl he wants to see so it’s justifiable. I much rather see a man who has done bad things in an attempt to do good by himself and his family rather than see a morally righteous and unrelenting tirade of holier than thou in a superhero life. His power set is incredibly original as well. The sight of Scott constantly shrinking and regrowing never gets old and there’s just something about having an army of ants at your command that makes his quite archaic character seem quaint by today’s standards of grim dark heroes, yet the powers themselves under no circumstance lose any charm.
Moments help you decide if you’re behind Scott or not sooner rather than later. The training montage where Scott gets his arse kicked by Hope and takes a licking as he learns to perform the more acrobatic aspects of the suit (shrinking at speed to go through a keyhole, then regrowing on the other side of a locked door) are entertaining, as well as his scaredy cat auto-growing as he cowers in fear of his new ant friends… whilst being underground. In fact, the heavy use of CG does not dampen the high quality of the numerous computer graphics used. They’re quite ace when used to show Scott running through numerous ant herds. The comedic aspects to the action scenes work well, with fans of The Lego Movie’s up close focusing on an intense moment only to pan out to a distance to a hilarious moving about with noises gag being treated to the same with that Thomas The Tank Engine fight being a cool moment. When you throw in a couple of nice Avengers-related surprises and a post-credits scene that injects an element of mystery and intrigue back into the MCU, you start to see how despite being on a smaller scale to it’s bigger and stake-ier cinematic cousins, Ant-Man has earned the right to dine at the Marvel Studios table. An element of comedic love and care into this admittedly C-list hero was propelled him to being in the sweeter end and it’s a damn amazing ride… on the back of a flying ant.
There is a thought that I could not shake throughout watching this otherwise fine alternative take on super heroics. No single aspect or moment in Ant-Man made it rise above great due it’s mishmash of various contributors and creators. The offbeat humour you would expect from Wright and his writing partner Joe Cornish (The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret Of The Unicorn) is there but it’s downplayed and the laugh out loud lines don’t quite give the impact you expect someone like McKay to deliver on. This Frankenstein creation stints it’s perfectly fine and working appendages from functioning at 100% if you will. A nitpick maybe but it’s hard to argue that the talented Michael Pena (Fury) and his stereotyped character has set back portrayals of Mexicans back another 10 years. Also, that whole kissing scene at the end? That undid so much good work at fooling me into thinking you were going to go ahead and NOT do a forced love subplot just for the sake of it Marvel. In fact, it probably set both characters back. Boo. Boooo! Similarly, despite it being teased in the promotional materials, the final Ant-Man vs. Yellowjacket feels born out of a want – rather than a necessary need – to have it in the film as Marvel can’t seem to unglue themselves from their formula and the set up for the false danger at the end is neutered as we’ve been given plenty of foreshadowing to render it meaningless. Come on, it’s a Marvel film – when have you ever seen a ‘Bad’ ending for a hero in one of them?
A very nice surprise in the middle of an otherwise disappointing blockbuster season all the same, Ant-Man is worthy of your attention in a superhero take on a heist film combined with a top notch acting masterclass that comes perilously close to destabilising the established favourites in the Marvel Studios franchise. The problems in pre-production have managed to combine into a 85% functioning gestalt of a film that does leave you amused and pumped up as the action and comedy buttons are pressed – not quite as hard as you may have wanted though. Just don’t expect it to be the new Guardians Of The Galaxy or Marvel to deter themselves from their formula and you will be impressed in the Little Superhero Movie That Could.