Someday, after the perpetual-motion machine that is Marvel Studios finally ruptures and dies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be analyzed in its totality, with what I predict will be a combination of admiration and annoyance - admiration for maintaining a remarkable tonal consistency over God knows how many films and Phases, and annoyance for converting blockbuster filmmaking into a game of sequel-baiting crossed with “spot the reference” in place of dramatically complete character and story arcs.
Movie Review: Ant-Man
By Ben Gruchow
July 23, 2015
This is not necessarily a bad thing - is anyone really going to vouch for the return of the Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle School of Summer Filmmaking, as opposed to even a lesser Marvel entry? - but it does kind of dull the edge of the storytelling experience when nothing’s ever really that permanent. More than each incrementally weaker and stronger individual part, the MCU is seemingly its own reason for existing, which accomplishes the odd effect in the component films of everything being important while nothing is important. This occasionally works out in the film’s favor (last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy), and as time goes on lands more often with a slight whoofing sound (this summer’s airless, galumphing Age of Ultron).
Ant-Man cares not a whit about any of the larger MCU except in the moments when it absolutely has to in order to have any semblance of a reference to the outside world, and it’s not a coincidence that these moments are by far the weakest in what is otherwise a perfectly agreeable, breezy little action comedy. In fact, the movie stumbles a little any time it has to concern itself with starting or developing a formal plot thread; the first 15 minutes of Ant-Man are so void of anything but the most basic let’s-get-this-over-with shot setups and editing, it’s unreasonably hard to hang on to the idea that the people-shaped objects on screen are supposed to be important. This despite us being introduced to just about every major character, and every plot element short of Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang, freshly out of prison and fired from his first legitimate job, deciding to jump into the robbery pool one last time and burgle the house of a man who’s out of town.
That man is Hank Pym, played by Michael Douglas, and at the point of the burglary, Ant-Man more or less restarts itself; the subsequent change in tone and confidence of the whole enterprise shifts - subtly and gradually, but perceptibly. The camera has a better idea of where to point, the editing has a better idea of when to move with a character or cut from one shot to another, and the characters - well, they mostly stay the same. Rudd, though, develops a spark and an edge to his line readings that makes a fine replacement for the non-presence he was prior. Really, chop out the first 15 minutes of the movie, and the burglary would make for a pretty good opening sequence. None of Rudd’s earlier scenes (nor Douglas’, for that matter) tell us anything that we’re not able to glean with just a little bit of effort here anyway.
What happens with a refreshed energy given just enough wiggle room to pretend the movie’s only starting? We’ve got nicely-paced world building, and dialogue back-and-forth that actually sounds like people having a conversation. A lot of this is down to Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish’s sarcastic and irreverent script, but Rudd’s and longtime collaborator Adam McKay’s fingerprints are on this, too, with what I assume are the movie’s more earnest (and honestly, less-successful) character moments.
Evangeline Lilly and Corey Stoll round out the principals in the story, with Lilly playing the Marvel token female with a pronounced lack of interest in any scene that doesn’t involve Douglas’s Pym, and Stoll playing Pym’s early protégé Darren Cross. Stoll being the main villain is something the film doesn’t even pretend to conceal; in case you couldn’t guess from his placement and expression on the poster, the movie wipes out all doubt in Cross’s very first scene, with his intonation and gesticulation set to the hammiest broad interpretation of a malcontent you could hope for in a movie that’s not an open spoof. The character couldn’t announce his intentions, actions, and ultimate fate any more clearly than if he had opened his first scene by devouring a puppy. In between dialogue exchanges, Lang learns the ins and outs of being Ant-Man, and there’s just enough run time left to concoct and execute a save-the-world plot when the bad guy gets ahold of a similar suit.
This is all pretty tremendously low-stakes; rarely is there a sense of conflict, and almost never a sense of true danger. Cross is spared from being the weakest Marvel villain by virtue of Lee Pace’s Ronan from Galaxy being a thing, but he really is a non-entity - as faint and unimpressive an antagonist as you could hope for, and fairly inconsequential to the film he’s in. Even without him: when characters are in jeopardy, it’s never for very long. But you know what? I don’t think the movie was ever going for consequentiality, and it’s kind of difficult to blame a movie for not going somewhere it never intended to go.
Ant-Man reminds me in total of nothing so much as Iron Man Lite - the protagonist is loose and sarcastic in a relaxed and featherweight way, the supporting characters are all confident and easy to watch if thinly drawn, and the whole thing never really takes itself seriously or plumbs much conceptual or character depth - outside of one sequence, set up by earlier story logic, that briefly hints at a far bolder and visually audacious Ant-Man; it’s so baldly different in its progression and depiction of the environment from anything else in the immediate vicinity that it adds a pretty sizable jolt to everything around it, and even succeeds in creating some tension out of nowhere. As a whole, what we’re promised is a fairly simple origin story, and on that level the movie delivers (with a lot of the success being the result of some truly snappy chemistry between Rudd, Douglas, and Lilly).
The whole enterprise is surprisingly enjoyable, the humor is abundant and just subversive enough to sneak a chuckle or laugh out of you before you’ve realized what happened, and (this is a big one) the action sequences are visually unique and distinctive enough to stand apart from other Marvel films. It’s the second wide release of July I’ve seen, after Magic Mike XXL, that just doesn’t care as much about executing the right formal technique and showing the appropriate emphasis on dialogue and incident as it does about proceeding laconically and lightly from one point to the next. It sits comfortably in the middle of the Phase 2 films: not quite as effortless as Guardians of the Galaxy or The Winter Soldier, but more sure of its identity than Iron Man 3, and a sight better than Age of Ultron. About Thor: The Dark World, I remain rather blissfully unaware.