Thursday, December 10, 2015

All About "Ant-Man"

"Ant-Man" is the Marvel film that I've enjoyed the most since the first "Avengers." However, it's a little difficult to parse who is ultimately responsible for it.  "Ant-Man" was Edgar Wright's dream project for ages, but he parted ways with Marvel over creative differences, and was eventually replaced by Peyton Reed.  However, Wright's name is still all over the movie - he has executive producer, screenplay, and story credits.  Several of the comedic and action sequences are clearly his work.  Reed's a decent director, but frankly has never displayed the kind of proficiency with comic-book visuals on display in "Ant-Man."  On the other hand, it's not fair to attribute all the good bits to Wright.  There's a lot of good dialogue and Marvel worldbuilding that definitely didn't come from him.

Paul Rudd stars as Scott Lang, who we first meet being released from prison, determined to go straight, ending his career as a skilled thief and burglar.  However, finding employment is tough for an ex-con, and Scott needs money quickly to pay child support and be reunited with his young daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson).  He's convinced by his ex-cell mate Luis (Michael Peña) to break into the house of scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), to steal the contents of a mysterious safe.  It turns out the contents are a mysterious suit that allows the wearer to shrink to the size of an insect while retaining the strength of a full size man, and Pym engineered the whole burglary as a test for Scott.  Pym wants Scott to take on the mantle of the superhero "Ant-Man," and help him and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lily) to stop Pym's former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) from developing his own suit and selling it to the highest bidder. 

The familiar origin story formula has been shaken up in some good ways here.  First, it's largely structured as a heist movie, where Scott, Hank, and Hope spend the majority of the second act training, planning, and hashing out personal issues in preparation for stealing Cross's prototype suit from a heavily guarded facility.  Second, the shrinking powers allow for some very entertaining variations on the standard fight sequence.  Instead of a final showdown leveling cities or endangering planets, the finale of "Ant-Man" takes place in a child's bedroom amidst a heap of toys.  Other action sequences take place in a suitcase, in a bathtub, and in water pipes.  The conceit sounds very silly at first, but it allows for so much inventiveness playing with scale.  Scott also learns to command an army of loyal CGI ants, adding to the sense of epic in miniature.  He even rides a winged carpenter ant into battle.

I've never been much of a fan of Paul Rudd, but he fits into the role of Scott Lang nicely, giving him a sense of innate decency despite an impressive resume of wrongdoing.  However, Michael Douglas really stole the show as Hank Pym.  I love how much history and old, unfinished business the characters here have with each other, and how it plays into the story.  Pym's another version of the Tony Stark genius entrepreneur, one several decades further along who is now working to mend old relationships and address his mistakes.  Douglas really sells his stubborn pride and arrogance, with a mushy heart of gold underneath, of course.  He even gets the messy emotional stuff with his daughter to mostly work. As for Evangeline Lily, she was was decent but underused.  I can only hope this will be corrected in the upcoming sequel.

"Ant-Man" does suffer from some of the same issues that most of the other Marvel movies do.  Chiefly, the villain is a bust.  Corey Stoll isn't even trying to play Cross as anything other than a sober version of his character from "House of Cards."  Also, there are a few too many awkward tie-ins to the other Marvel movies shoehorned in there, from the pre-credits scene to the after-credits scene, to a contrived fight with one of the Avengers that probably should have been cut for time and pacing issues. The script could have used a few more passes too.  There are plot holes everywhere and the shrinking powers are terribly inconsistent.  Scott is awful at asking obvious questions.  And Hope having to spend the entire movie convincing her father to let her put on the suit made Marvel's problem with female superheroes all the more apparent.

Finally, I have to come back to the lack of Edgar Wright.  I enjoyed "Ant-Man" as it is, but I was also very aware of all the ways in which it probably would have been better if Wright had directed it.  I can't help thinking it's such a shame that we never got to see the movie he wanted to make.  Then again, we're lucky that the film did get made without him, and is as solidly entertaining as it is. 


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