Big Thrills and Small Shortcomings in “Ant-Man”

A man who shrinks and talks to bugs is the star of Marvel Studios’ latest adventure. But a great cast and amazing visuals show why Ant-Man has been a superhero staple of Marvel Comics for more than 50 years.

Marvel’s Ant-Man follows the story of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a burglar looking to set his life straight after getting out of prison. But his struggles lead to him meeting legendary inventor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who requires Scott to become the new Ant-Man and stop tech genius Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) from harnessing Pym’s shrinking power to create a world-destroying army of miniature soldiers. Teamed with Pym’s daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and looking to win his way back into the life of his young daughter, Scott fights huge battles on the smallest scale imaginable.

It’s been made very public that work on bringing Ant-Man to the big screen has been a long and tumultuous process. Writer and director Edgar Wright was hired by Marvel Studios to create the film back in 2006, but while then-in development movies like Iron Man were created and went on to birth the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ant-Man stalled. After numerous rewrites and delays, Wright left the production just before it was set to film. In his place was director Peyton Reed and writer Adam McKay, who teamed with star Rudd to rewrite the script developed by Wright and Joe Cornish. With the movie in turmoil, it was clear that Marvel had to overcome more challenges than typical to finally bring one of their longest lasting heroes to the screen.

Thankfully, Ant-Man is a thoroughly enjoyable superhero film filled with laughs, action, and solid chemistry between its lead actors. It’s also a welcome change of pace from many of the films coming from the Marvel Cinematic Universe lately. Rather than focus on some massive global catastrophe or set up the next piece of its giant film-spanning saga, Ant-Man is a self-contained and simple story. After all, how could a story about a family man who shrinks and teams up with ants be anything but small?

Sure, there are plenty of Easter eggs and references to both other Marvel movies and comic book lore, but they don’t get in the way of the story like they did in the recent Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s a smaller cast, smaller scope, and smaller stakes, but it feels refreshing at this point in a cinema landscape filled with universe building. It’s clear that Ant-Man takes place in the MCU, but it’s not constantly being pounded over your head.

Instead, Ant-Man incorporates elements of a heist movie into the superhero genre in order to continue diversifying the Marvel movie line. The theme of father-daughter relationships is also a key element in the film. While it doesn’t result in anything too deep, it does help give the film its emotional core. Rudd makes a great Scott Lang – a normal man who is clearly smart and skilled, but whose journey into being a superhero is based on his love for his daughter above all. Plus, he has an awesome looking costume that is somewhat retro while still feeling fresh. In addition, Douglas is solid as Pym, who is much older than his comic book counterpart but still rings true to the character. These two bounce off one another well to create a fun dynamic while Lilly’s Van Dyne further enhances the proceedings by being a smart, strong, and capable hero on her own. They’re also backed by a fun supporting cast, with Scott’s burglary crew adding some great laughs. In particular, Michael Pena’s Luis is hysterical and frequently steals any scene he’s in.

Where Ant-Man really shines is in its action sequences. Using kinetic camera work and boundless energy, these scenes make the most of their title hero’s shrinking ability. Scott learns to rapidly increase and decrease his size to use his speed, power, momentum, and physics to take on his opponents. At the same time, viewers are treated to cinematography that zooms in and out, flies around the room, and tracks its miniature hero through all manner of landscapes. It’s clear that plenty of work went into creating the giant-sized small-scale worlds that Ant-Man travels through in his journey. Even something like a dirty bathtub is turned into a marvelous world, with depth and scale used to full effect in an almost dizzying display of special effects.

While Wright was not part of the film’s rewrite process, it’s clear that his storyboard ideas, sense of pace, and editing style were kept intact for various parts of the film. These are on full display in Ant-Man’s action sequences and his signature comedy comes into focus in some of the film’s best uses of visual humor. In particular, Scott’s showdown with the villainous Yellowjacket on a child’s toy train set manages to balance thrills and humor. Moments of hero and villain causing massive explosions and huge destruction are quickly offset by establishing shots that show little toys bumping into each other and causing a minor mess. By having the emotional stakes set by this point, these laughs don’t trivialize the action; they simply make it much more unique.

Where Ant-Man does fall short is in the somewhat run-of-the-mill way the story moves forward, with the film not quite being able to hit the heights of other Marvel films like Guardians of the Galaxy or Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Thankfully, strong performances from Rudd, Douglas, and Lilly keep the film moving forward when the proceedings are less than thrilling. The obligatory training sequences, explanation, and character growth are all here like a typical superhero origin story. It’s in these spaces where the film stays more platonically enjoyable than exciting, although Ant-Man’s third act breaks free of the formula.

In addition, Stoll’s Cross is the typical villain seen in most MCU films by now – mostly one dimensional and less than dynamic. However, his Yellowjacket alter ego is one of the best looking comic book villains ever seen on screen and his climactic battle easily ranks among the best in superhero films. It helps to balance out the shallow aspects of the character, if not completely redeem them. It’s clear that these imbalances are a side effect of the bumpy road taken to bring Ant-Man to life.

While Ant-Man may seem unimportant in a sea of humongous superhero epics, it’s lighthearted fun and thrilling style mean there is far more fun to be had when it’s not a matter of simply setting up the next film to come.

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