Wednesday July 15, 2015 3:50 PM
There are many reasons to praise Ant-Man, but there’s one that stands above the rest. Forget that it’s a delightful sendoff to 1950s B-movies in a scale and budget the likes of Corman and Castle could’ve never dreamed about. Forget that it’s an excellent example of ditzy popcorn entertainment that fully embraces its goofy premise instead of wedging its head firmly up its own rectum in a futile attempt at regurgitating yet another needlessly gloomy late-00s superhero "epic". Instead, focus on this: Ant-Man is a 130-million-dollar summer tentpole blockbuster where the climactic battle between the forces of good and evil take place around a Thomas the Tank Engine playset inside a little girl’s bedroom. Now that, my friends, takes balls.
As much as Avengers: Age of Ultron was full of self-aware humor and irreverence, it’s The Dark Knight times two compared to Ant-Man’s willingness to bathe in abject silliness in its simple goal to entertain. This is as close as we’ll get to Marvel trolling itself. The film’s campy creature feature/action/adventure style fits the titular character. Out of the many iconic superhero creations by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby during the early 1960s, Ant-Man is perhaps the one that fit the b-movie sci-fi and comic book nerd culture the most. Turning the tale of a man who can shrink to the size of an insect while able to command armies of ants to accomplish his missions into a Man of Steel-style gloomfest would have resulted in disaster.
Yes, I’m also lamenting the sudden departure of Edgar Wright from the director’s chair while still being curious about his possible batshit crazy vision for this already ridiculous material. Wright left the project over "creative differences" (The Alan Smithee of reasons for resignation in Hollywood) after working on it for more than a decade. Gun for hire Peyton Reed, who helmed some forgettable comedies in the past such as Yes Man and The Break Up, replaced Wright at the last minute. Wright is still one of the four credited screenwriters, along with Joe Cornish (Attack the Block), another Brit who usually has a blast stretching genre conventions. In the end, it’s hard to tell how much of Wright and Cornish’s material made it into the final product, and all we can do is to evaluate the version of Ant-Man that we got.
I have to admit that Reed’s direction is the film’s weak link. Apart from the breathtakingly crisp and detailed miniature sequences that show our hero fighting bad guys while the size of an insect, Reed’s direction of the "regular-sized" live-action material is a bit too flat and lacks the kind of visual pizzazz, fast pacing, and forward momentum required from a big budget actioner. Fortunately, the performances that have fun with the absurd story while not forgetting to construct three-dimensional characters pick up the slack during sections that begin to drag.
Ant-Man’s best element is the screenplay that fuses the meta-parody blockbuster sensibilities of Wright and Cornish with the absurdist comedy of Adam McKay and Paul Rudd. With this combination, Ant-Man captures a delicate tone that manages to excite the audience with genuinely thrilling action set pieces while not taking itself too seriously. Almost every bombastic and climactic moment that takes place inside the miniature world is capped off with a long shot from the normal size world that shows how inconsequential and boring the whole affair would have looked through human eyes.
As Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), one of those conveniently selfless movie criminals who was hand picked by the original Ant-Man Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) to don the red costume, dodges rocket-sized bullets through a city model, we get yet another MCU set piece full of wonton destruction. Only the originality in this case lies in the fact that the only thing destroyed is a bunch of cardboard.
Having a superhero character motivated to save people from evil simply because he or she is a noble person is good enough for these movies, yet I feel that these characters work better whenever a more personal and relatable connection is made between the hero and the audience. The fact that Scott’s main motivation to become Ant-Man is to make his daughter feel proud of him makes the character more human. As soon as the thematic link between Scott’s relationship with his daughter and Pym’s longing to reconnect with his own daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) is succinctly set up, we can sit back and enjoy this proud piece of nonsense knowing that the base character and theme requirements for such fluff is duly satisfied.
Unfortunately, Marvel’s string of utterly forgettable villains continues with Ant-Man. With Corey Stoll’s Darren Cross, we get yet another deranged businessman willing to risk the destruction of the world in favor of the highest bidder before putting on the evil version of the hero’s costume for the climactic tete-a-tete. This trope became stale before the first Iron Man ended, and it’s downright inexcusable now. That being said, Ant-Man is a prime piece of silly, silly mass entertainment and a godsend for those of us who appreciate particularly well-made schlock.