Sunday, September 27, 2015

Fun, Inventive "Ant-Man" Makes A Compelling Case for Ant-Man

Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas star as Ant-Man, past and present.
In the past, Marvel Studios has found a way to get modern audiences to embrace possibly laughable scenarios involving warring Norse gods or gun-toting raccoons with alien tree sidekicks, but with Ant-Man they’ve managed something even trickier. They’ve found a way to make a seemingly lame super hero incredibly awesome.

For those unfamiliar, Ant-Man revolves around a super hero who can shrink down to the size of an ant and command ants to do his bidding. He may not be the lamest sounding super hero – Aquaman takes the cake there, as exemplified by shows as diverse as Family Guy and Big Bang Theory – but he's not far off.

However, via a series of inventive fight scenes, including a one-on-one battle with Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Ant-Man makes an excellent case for why Ant-Man deserves a place at the Avengers' table. It's exciting to imagine the havoc the little guy could wreck when playing alongside the big boys.

Like nearly every film Marvel Studios has made over the last seven years, Ant-Man struggles with a weak villain and repeats the same basic story about keeping a powerful McGuffin from falling into the wrong hands. And, although it was long-billed as a heist movie, the central heist of the film is underwhelmingly derivative.

Despite all that, the film is a blast. Structurally, it hits many of the same beats as Iron Man with a disgruntled second-in-command and a strong redemption angle to boot. The film offers an interesting retcon of the MCU thus far, positing that Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) was another player in the fight against Hydra, much like Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Howard Stark (John Slattery).

Some super impressive CGI is used to de-age Douglas for a flashback that establishes Pym developed a suit that allowed shrinking to the size of an ant via the use of Pym Particles. Although Pym used his tech to fight America's enemies as The Ant-Man, he refused to share his formula, fearful it would fall into untrustworthy hands (smart move given Hydra had infiltrated Shield by that point even if they remained hidden until the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Years later we see him struggling with the notion that his former protégée Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is on the precipice of cracking the formula and preparing to sell it to Hydra (who else?).

Enter Scott Lang (Rudd), a wronged-engineer who struck back at the fat cats as a Robin Hood-like cat-burglar and wound up in prison. At the outset of the film, he is released from jail, and we see the struggle he has getting his life back together so he can reconnect with his beloved daughter Cassie. Pym, who has a troubled relationship with his own daughter Hope (Evangeline Lily), targets Lang as the ideal candidate to use his suit in an effort to stop Cross.

This is the first post-Avengers film to really address why other heroes aren't lending a hand, and best of all, the reason is rooted in character. Immediately after hearing Pym's pitch, Lang says, "I think we should call the Avengers," and it's refreshing as hell to hear. But Pym had a strained relationship with Howard Stark, and so he refuses to seek the help of his son, whose Iron-Man suit he dismisses as "cute tech" when compared to the Ant-Man one.

Thematically, the film does a lot with fatherhood, exploring the notion of earning the adoration our children naturally give us. The film is borderline cloying at times, but the coupling of the off-center tone and a game cast keeps everything together. This is far-and-away the jokiest Marvel film to date, and all of it lands perfectly. The film gets a lot of mileage out of size-related humor and Douglas, Rudd and Lily charm in the lead roles. However, despite filling the second most generic major role in the film (first goes to Judy Greer's no-fun mom, a role she recently played in Jurassic World), Michael Pena practically walks away with the movie on the strength of his unfettered energy and a great running gag.

Few would argue Peyton Reed is as strong a filmmaker as Edgar Wright (who shepherded the project for years but then left right before production due the creative differences), but, as a big fan of the character, Reed was a good choice to take the project across the finish line. Ant-Man is a real winner for Marvel, and another testament to their ability to turn outlandish properties into four-quadrant entertainments. Jury’s out on if they can continue that trend with next year's Dr. Strange, but I wouldn’t bet against them. B+