Published on July 23rd, 2015 | by Conor Smyth0
Ant-Man is a small guy but he comes with a lot of baggage. With the high-profile mid-production replacement of Edgar Wright, a stylistically idiosyncratic film-maker with cult buzz, with Yes Man director Peyton Redd, much of the nerdtariat has already pegged Ant-Man as a test case for the limits of auteurism in the Marvel factory. And the pint-sized adventures of Scott Lang, Paul Rudd’s incredible shrinking superhero and the latest addition to the Avengers fringes, definitely invites this perspective. The film is immediately readable as a kind of Rorschach test, with tone, story and character work that stretches from inspired to production-belt bland. Ant-Man is an often daring but ultimately muddled break from the world-building mega-ness of tiny men and blond gods. It’s big, small and too much in-between.
Rudd’s Lang is Marvel Studios’ best attempt yet at an everyday hero, a Robin Hood cat burglar who’s behind on his child support and just wants to see his daughter. After being fired from a name-tag ice cream job (‘Baskin-Robbins always knows’) and now desperate for cash, he commits to his crew and steals a strange leather suit and helmet from a rich old dude’s safe. Turns out the rich old dude is Michael Douglas’ Hank Pym, a scientist with a strong interest in the tiny, and the suit is a special particle-powered shrinking device. Lang’s a click away from centimetre height, only with human-sized strength and a telepathic connection to his namesake insects. Despite the hero’s tiny feet, the film is surprisingly not nimble in the set-up and middle training section, when Lang, Pym and Pym’s daughter (Evangeline Lilly) are planning their corporate heist. Pym’s former protege (Corey Stoll) and corporate replacement is developing the shrinking technology to sell to shady organisations. Lang’s introduction to the world of the small, where falls through the floors of his apartment building in space-warping macro photography, is a startling and fantastic sequence, but much of what follows it feels disjointed and unsure of itself.
The subtext of pained paterfamilias is attractive, but is expressed in some clunky dialogue (Lang is told to be the hero his daughter already thinks he is not once, but twice). Douglas, Rudd and Lilly never really gel, their performance styles interacting uncomfortably. Douglas is too portentous, Rudd is too dopey and Lilly is awkward as the cold daughter and obligatory love interest – some of their scenes really could’ve done with another couple of takes. The film’s MVP, Michael Pena as Rudd’s over-enthusiastic friend, pitches his comedy a little too manically, but he delivers the film’s funniest lines. There is a wonderful whip-pan montage where Pena relates an overly-complicated six degrees of separation story, peppered with great throwaway lines about rosé wine and neo-cubist art.
In the final third, Ant-Man finds some terrific form. The heist around which the middle training section is orientated, breaking into Pym labs to steal the suit, isn’t that exciting but does finally deliver superhero fight scenes that are actually fun, Lang zig-zagging between big and small in dynamic punch-ups (a run-in with the Avengers’ Falcon is a pure big-universe plug, but is well put together). The weirder it gets the better, with some fantastic over-sized gags involving the dead eyes of a grinning Thomas the Tank Engine. When Lang overdoes the shrinkage and fades into the sub-atomic nether-realm, his daughter’s voice echoing in the background, it’s the most visually abstract scheme Marvel has allowed in their monotone movies, a tantalising callback to the oddball hippy visuals of their older comics. And it could have been a franchise peak – a high-concept marriage of aesthetic boldness and paternal melodrama – but it’s over much too quickly, and struggles with stakes that haven’t been properly defined. You’re left thinking they aimed too small. Conor Smyth
Summary: Ant-Man (117 min, certificate 12A) is on general release.