Ant-Man — a smaller, leaner and more agile superhero film than anything Marvel has made in ages — shows that bigger isn’t always better. The latest entry into the comic book company’s universe of films is low-key in both story and presentation compared to the busy, bloated Avengers: Age of Ultron. And it’s all the more enjoyable for it.
There are many ways that a film could go wrong with the ridiculous premise of a hero who can shrink to the size of a bug, punch with the velocity of a bullet in small size and command armies of ants to do his bidding. Ant-Man avoids most of them, offering a consistently entertaining mixture of offbeat caper, superheroics and 1950s-style tale of wonder in its two-hour running time.
Following the typical Marvel template of genre-meets-comic book hero, Ant-Man is Mission Impossible by the way of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Imprisoned for stealing from a crooked CEO, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is determined to go straight when he is released so that he can spend more time with his daughter (a winsome Abby Ryder Fortson).
But he is fired from his job at an ice-cream parlour (Baskins Robbins, in a particularly obnoxious product placement) when his manager finds out about his past. In desperation, he teams up with some boneheaded prison buddies (including a scene-stealing Michael Peña), who have convinced him that there’s an easy score in some rich old guy’s house.
The wealthy man turns out to be Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the inventor of a suit that allows the wearer to shrink radically in size while growing exponentially in strength. Hank has been watching Scott all along and wants to recruit him for a job. It’s at this point that the superhero action starts to heat up as Scott finds himself heading for a confrontation with an insect-scale villain.
That Ant-Man has turned out reasonably well is something of a miracle, given its troubled production process. The replacement of geek hero director Edgar Wright with the unproven Peyton Reed seemed to bode ill for Ant-Man, threatening that Wright’s offbeat flavour would be drained completely out of the film. While Ant-Man isn’t as wacky and irreverent as Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead, there’s still enough of the Wright stuff to set it apart from the superhero throng.
I suspect that many of the best parts of the film are remnants of the original script that Wright wrote with collaborator Joe Cornish (they share screenwriting credits with Rudd and Adam McKay). These include some comical montages narrated by a fast-talking Peña and some great sight gags about how absurd Ant-Man’s heroics look when viewed from the perspective of a full-sized human. Sure, some of the ideas are familiar from films such as The Incredible Shrinking Man and The Fly, but they’re executed with flair and ingenuity.
The film’s tone is a bit lumpy, with some parts where Marvel’s house style and the work of the creative teams don’t quite congeal. Some of the more conventional story beats — such as the relationship between Pym and his estranged daughter (Evangeline Lilly) — are uninspired. And Corey Stoll’s embittered villain, Yellow Jacket, never really figures as much of a presence in the film.
But although there are moments when it looks like Marvel’s boot might squash Ant-Man’s inventiveness, the film’s winning cast, unfussy storytelling, and endearing sense of humour escape unharmed. Rudd makes for an appealing hero — cocky and quick-witted, without being smarmy. Playing Pym with sour amusement, Douglas looks like he’s having the time of his life. And Lilly plays off both with a shower of sparks.
Compared to most Marvel films, Ant-Man is lighter on the large-scale action sequences, focusing instead on humour and tension than on explosions and mayhem. This culminates in a climactic showdown where the stakes are more personal than the rubbishing of an entire city or planet. At the same time, it’s joyfully incongruous and self-aware. It’s a welcome departure from the sameness of the large-scale destruction that usually concludes Marvel’s films.
Ant-Man is also self-contained, unlike so many recent Marvel pics, which seem to exist mostly to advertise upcoming films. There’s an Avenger shoehorned into the film and a post-credits scene that hints at events to come in the Marvel cinematic universe, but on the whole, Ant-Man feels like it exists for its own sake rather than to further a moviemaking empire. It is the best time I’ve had with a Marvel film since Guardians of the Galaxy. — © 2015 NewsCentral Media