Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man is a surprisingly fleet-footed, dexterous little film when it wants to be. The troubled production, with the film written by British screwballs Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, Scott Pilgrim) and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) with Wright planned to direct, ended with Wright leaving the film over concerns about its need to fit in with the Marvel universe. Adam McKay and star Paul Rudd rewrote the screenplay to make it more accessible, and the journeyman Reed took over directing. The film leaves no doubt that Wright’s version would have prevailed (not spectacularly so, but still more than your average Marvel film) but enough of that manic British deadpan is retained to cheer the film up a little beyond the usually grim, dour Marvel attempts (see Avengers 2) to layer self-serious gravity onto their flicks. Comparatively, Ant-Man is a chipper, domestic, even lightweight affair that benefits from never raising the stakes too high.
Yet all of the good Ant-Man brings us is ultimately in service of a Faustian bargain, for all that works about the film comes couched and engulfed in the corporate monstrosity that is Marvel entertainment. There’s a decent if paternalist human story at the core of Ant-Man about a thief (Scott Lang, played by Paul Rudd) helping a scientist (Hank Pym, played by Michael Douglas, and, in one scene, a waxworks CG Michael Douglas) in a simultaneous bid to correct their fatherly wrongs. To do so, Lang has to put on Pym’s special suit designed to shrink the wearer to the size of, well, an ant at the push of a button while enhancing their strength due to something about atoms or some such science shenanigans. Which is a fine basis for a small-scale, miniscule caper film focused on character over complication.
But boy does Ant-Man attempt to shoot itself in the foot when it introduces evil gentleman scientist Darren Cross (Corey Stoll, a bald evil gentleman scientist I might add, for a spoonful of baldness, as we all know, helps the evil go down). The relationship between the players, primarily Lang’s in relation to his daughter, ex-wife, and her new husband who dislikes Lang, are watered-down to the point of drippiness, and the theoretical affair between Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lily) – Pym’s somewhat estranged daughter – and Lang is dead in the water, with the Marvel series continuing to have not one iota of an idea what to do with its female characters beyond their wallpaper status as objects upon which men can change and apparently better their identities.
Not to mention, the film loses its way in the middle with a severe case of the superheroes. There is, for instance, a fight scene with another Avenger who shows up with the sort of bemused smirk that suggests he has wandered into the wrong film. He fights Ant-Man for a few (antiseptically directed) minutes and then wanders away. The sequence, more than any other, reeks of corporate synergy, and it stops the film dead in its tracks. A similar statement, unfortunately, could be said about various moments in the film, and a diaphanous veneer of arbitrary also-ran corporate sheen blankets the film throughout.
Still, for the most part, Ant-Man is enough of a refresher for the palate. With every summer film striving to go bigger and more gluttonous, Ant-Man gives us a breather by being, essentially, a heist film. Reed, for his part, has a little fun with the direction, cutting with a screwball edge and a tart, rat-a-tat energy that focuses on the motion of the heist and the clockwork of breaking and entering. The best version of the film would consist of entirely this and continue Wright’s interest in playing various genres for comic riffs, whilst also playing homage to the classics of the genre.
Michael Peña certainly understand this sense of weird homage, playing Lang’s sidekick Luis with a blissful burst of edge-of-your-seat mania. The character is little more than a racialized sidekick similar to decades of unfortunate cinematic characters, written loosely and with no eye for treating the figure seriously. Peña single-handedly saves the role, however, with a sort of perplexing zest, like a hazy whip-cracker, as if Howard Hawks had directed a stoner comedy. Russell Carpenter, on cinematography, meanwhile, develops a vaguely cotton-candy sense of domesticity and mundane everyday life in the film. It is nothing groundbreaking, but it recalls the first Captain America in the way it uses lighting to tell the story, and he and Reed certainly try to dabble in comedy that relies on visual contrast rather than simply dialogue, another refresher.
The film’s best shots occur in the final climax, set in a child’s bedroom where cuts in the ant-sized fight between hero and villain emphasize the contrast between perspective: the fight is titanic and volcanic to the two participants, but arbitrary and shrug-inducing to the larger world. The climax is punctuated by a sublime series of flashbacks dressed in flashbacks with Peña narrating every character’s mouth movements (a trick we are told came not from Wright’s script, but if so, it is obvious that McKay or Reed watched a whole lot of Edgar Wright films when making their version of the film). Together, these moments form the girders of a conclusion marked by its ingenuity and momentum, two characteristics that are not lost in the film, but two characteristics that struggle to show their best sides amidst all the pressure to be a Mighty Marvel. Like so many modern superhero movies, there is an unfortunate lingering miasma that Ant-Man could have been if not great, at least quite good. But it just had to go and be a decent superhero movie.