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« Curio: Paperback Love | Main | 73 Questions w/ Nicole Kidman »
Monday
Jul202015

Review: Ant-Man

Tim here. Ant-Man is maybe the most typical film yet made in the now 12-picture Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is up to the individual viewer to decide if that's a compliment or a vicious & lacerating criticism. But it's really hard to think of it as anything other than a factory-pressed rebuild of the same basic story beats, character arc, gags, and conflicts that have become locked-in through Marvel's seven-year multifranchise experiment.

The film's distinguishing elements are all at the margins: in the hands of director Peyton Reed (who is much more in Yes Man-style "mercenary hack" mode than Down with Love-style "crafty stylist" mode), this is the most generously comic of all Marvel films to date, with the zippiest, silliest performances; the stakes are refreshingly low, and there's no aerial battle with the fate of nations and worlds at stakes in the final act. The cinematography by Russell Carpenter - an Oscar winner for Titanic - is distinctly more interesting than anything in any Marvel movie so far, with something resembling a thought-out purpose for the muted colors and rough lighting. It strips back some of the polish and gleaming surfaces in the Marvel movies of yore, to make a film that feels like it takes place in an actual world.

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Behind the uncharacteristically soft visuals, though, lies a perfectly ordinary story, originally by Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish, then revised and "Marvelified" by Adam McKay & the film's star Paul Rudd when Wright dropped out of directing in 2014. I should say, "perfectly ordinary at best": it's unquestionably true that the corporate insistence on tying the movie in with the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most persistently-rumored explanation for Wright's departure, has had specific negative effects across the board. The most spurious and least-interesting action setpiece, by far, is the one that exists solely to introduce a pre-existing character into the goings on;t he dozen or so lines of obviously inserted dialogue self-consciously referencing the other movies in the franchise all clang uncomfortably against the rest of the movie.

The less corporate Ant-Man gets, the more enjoyable it is, though there are problems that go down to the bone: the Marvel problem with boring villains, for one thing, has only ever been worse in Thor: The Dark World, with slimy corporate boss Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) steadfastly refusing to be interesting for any other reason than his arrestingly shiny bald head. But at least the plot tries to have something animating it. Newly-released con Scott Lang (Rudd), desperate for any way to reconnect with his daughter, almost turns back to crime, but he is saved by Dr. Hank Pym (Douglas), a disgraced genius ever since his refusal to weaponise his miraculous Pym Particles, which allow him to change the size of any human being down to the size of, well, the title makes it pretty clear.

The mission is to stop Cross from selling the rediscovered shrinking technology, but the stakes are far smaller: lousy dads attempt to reconnect with their daughters. For Pym's resentful offspring Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) is his man on the inside, and she's disgusted by his literally patriarchal refusal to let her take on the Ant-Mantle, at least up until the sequel hook.

The littleness of Ant-Man is extraordinarily soothing after the increasing bloat and bombast of Marvel movies in the past few years. But it's not always the case that the execution is up to the concept: Lilly (making a generic "The Girl" role even more colorless) is a tremendous detriment that the film has a hard time compensating for, and nothing that Rudd does can make the "criminal dad resents his burly rival for his child's affection" stock scenario feel minutely insightful. More of Ant-Man is likable than not, though, especially when it goes off the map completely to indulge most fully in comedy.

The film's obvious secret weapon is Michael Peña, as Scott's ex-con BFF. What madness drove him to decide that the way to play the role was as a combination of a plucky reporter from a '30s screwball movie and the designated pothead from an '80s teen comedy is hard to imagine, but the results are truly impeccable. There's not a single line delivery that doesn't shock and delight with its unexpected velocity; he's invaluable to selling the film's best conceit, in which he narrates nested flashbacks through a flurry of zoned out, slangy patter. I frankly don't want to ever watch another Marvel movie without Peña in it.

Even beyond him, there's enough bright comic momentum in the movie to make it fun to watch, when it's not going through the motions. The good news is, things never ends up in the latter rut long enough for it to detract from the film as a whole; the bad news is, there's enough of those longueurs that the whole movie, which is already overlong and far too slow to rev up, is rather sleepy and aimless. Comic book movies have been worse but they're not usually this indistinct. B-

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Reader Comments (15)

Nice review. And is Pena ever NOT amazing. He is the definition of underrated/underused in Hollywood.

July 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

Charlie Day as Eric O'Grady (it's very obvious casting, since O'Grady basically amounts to Charlie Kelly, Agent of SHIELD) and Kaitlin Olson as Janet Van Dyne. Ant-Man's Big Christmas. December 2019. I think that'd be awesome. Anyone else think so or is it too Sunny for Marvel to bite?

July 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Peña really was special here (and yes most anywhere).

July 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

anonny -- he is so good in everything. Loved him in CRASH even! yep, i said it.

July 20, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I liked this one a whole lot more. I thought it had a freshness to it that reminded me of Guardians of the Galaxy without quite as much smugness, and certainly the longest I've had my interest held since the first round of 'phase 1' where films weren't designed as homework for future sequels.

July 20, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

As far as the Pena lovefest goes: my pick for his most valuable saving throw in an otherwise insufferable movie isn't Crash, though I agree with Nathaniel on that one, but that terrible World Trade Center by Oliver Stone that nobody has thought about since 2006.

July 21, 2015 | Registered CommenterTim Brayton

Fuck another Marvel film with Pena, that's a waste!

What I really want is for Edgar Wright to have seen Pena (and Douglas') performance and go "yeah, I'm definitely casting them in my next film".

July 21, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSTinG

When people say there's remnants of the Edgar Wright version still in the movie, I think it must be the Pena scenes, which remind me of Scott Pilgrim. I was so excited to see Film Experience contributor David Dastmalchian as one of the trio. I wonder if in the Wright version, the trio characters were given more time, but cut down to only a few parts with Pena. Pity.

I also liked the way Evangeline Lilly grounded the narrative by behaving like a real person. Douglas was veering towards too stylized and Rudd towards too lightweight, and she kept them nicely on track. I like Lilly's warm, real, naturalistic presence.

July 21, 2015 | Unregistered Commenteradri

I quite liked "Ant-Man". I feel that its likability outweighs its flaws, of which the review really nailed down (although I will never complain about getting any amount of Anthony Mackie in any circumstance).
But Marvel does really need to get its supervillain game in gear; outside Loki and Cap's baddies Marvel has made a real habit of not only making villains uninteresting but wasting really talented actors in those roles. Also like in "Ant-Man" the weakest action sequences in many Marvel movies are when the hero and villain finally face off.

July 21, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJJsDiner

JJsDiner: Except that's always kind of been the Marvel problem. DC, at it's best, is GREAT at hero v villain, even if their heroes (ESPECIALLY Superman, Wonder Woman, Barry Allen and Hal Jordan) can read kind of square, while Marvel has phenomenal heroes but, outside of the Spider-Man corner, a spotty track record with villains outside of them looking cool. It's part of the reason I'd LOVE to see Ant-Man's Big Christmas as their second solo in this franchise. I get the issue, because it'd need to be either a Pym and Janet prequel or an Eric O'Grady (and HOPEFULLY Janet?) sequel and it wouldn't really have action in any capacity. Still, if they controlled their production budget to $80 million, they could probably still count it as a success.

July 21, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

But just to leave a last bad note: Douglas and Lilly, respectively, want Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michelle Pfeiffer as Janet Van Dyne. Which: WOW, guys. I know you two want to work with your wife and the actress who gave us Elvira Hancock, but anyone who's seen Avengers: EMH? Would basically tell you that those ideas are TERRIBLE. You're casting Janet Van Dyne, right? Hyper active, fun, and not even REMOTELY femme-fatale like Janet Van Dyne? Yeah, where did you leap to those choices from? That's right, ONLY because you want to work with those actresses.

July 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

volvagia -- i never know what you're talking about. PFEIFFER? how is she related to this?

July 22, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Nat: I'm talking about who the actors playing the characters related to Janet Van Dyne want playing Janet Van Dyne. And that they're really freaking BAD choices.

July 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

but where are you getting that from?

July 23, 2015 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

you couldn't be more wrong about Evangeline Lilly; she was the best thing about the film - sexy, funny, sassy, lovely. HOT. Can't wait for her get her own spin-off movie(s) - as THE WASP.

August 23, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterUlrich

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