Director: Peyton Reed
Starring: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lily, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, and Michael Peña
Ant-Man as a stand-alone film would be a nearly perfect summer superhero movie. It has a likeable hero, an appropriately evil villain, jokes, a love story, sidekicks, a sage old mentor, a train sequence (something every movie can benefit from) and a suit that allows a man to shrink to the size of a grain of salt.
But Ant-Man is not a stand-alone movie. It’s a Marvel movie, which means it must give shout-outs to the Avengers, to Captain America, to the incoming Spider-Man, to other films and other franchises. When a character whistles “It’s a Small World,” is that because the movie is about shrinking people or because Marvel is owned by Disney? At some point the “Marvel Universe” ends and greedy corporate synergy begins, and that’s when this mostly witty movie turns into a footnote in a sub-paragraph of the third appendix of the next Avengers movie, itself a slave to the decades-long Infinity Gauntlet storyline. This might sound blissfully orgasmic to fans of Marvel movies, but it’s maddening for me. I like movies to have beginnings, middles and ends — they should be at least mostly self-contained, even sequels. Ant-Man is like a jigsaw puzzle with all the edge pieces removed: the completed picture tells a full story, but those jagged edges are made to click into other films, other characters, other franchises. And where does that leave Ant-Man? Borderless. This increasingly cantankerous ranting is becoming a weekly tradition for me as I slog through another, and another, and another superhero movie. I’ll do it again in the rebooted Fantastic Four very soon. In any case, here we are with Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man, a movie about a man who can shrink down to the size of termites and fleas and ticks. Oh, and ants. The man in the shrinking costume is Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and he has an opening scene with Tony Stark’s father and a young lady in old-lady makeup — Agent Carter on ABC, check your local listings. “The suit is too dangerous, and the only way you’ll get it is if I’m dead,” Pym tells them.
Decades later, Pym’s technology has been discovered by a power-hungry tech corporation, which has a CEO that personally liquefies his critics if they dare speak their minds. Pym, too old to don the shrinking suit to fight him, sets a trap for a master thief, someone perfect for the new Ant-Man. He catches Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), who ingeniously uses superglue, a metal ring and some packing tape to break through a fingerprint lock. When Scott puts the suit on for the first time he thinks it a motorcycle outfit, but then he fidgets with the buttons and whoosh, down he goes to the size of a bug. He braves a tsunami in a bathtub, stomping feet and a spinning record in a dance club, and narrowly misses being sucked up into a vacuum. The suit comes with other perks, including an earpiece that allows him to speak to four different species of ants, which comes in handy at picnics.
This is all pretty straightforward superhero movie stuff. It doesn’t deviate too far from any of the formulas established by Spider-Man, Iron Man or Batman. It benefits greatly from Rudd, though, who is genuinely charming and funny as he clobbers his way through Pym’s nemesis. One of the great early scenes shows us how Scott learns of Pym’s heist frame-up: the camera swoops into a wine-tasting event, a gangster grill-out and a softball game as rumors and tips are exchanged from one criminal to another. The film also benefits greatly from Michael Peña as Scott’s waffle-making best friend, who sums up an entire heist explanation with “We’re gonna steal some shit.”
The Ant-Man powers are especially nifty, if only because we get to see giant versions of things, including a fight on a Thomas the Tank Engine toy. The film explains that the suit allows Ant-Man to shrink to the size of an ant, but he still punches like a 200-pound man. Ok, whatever — it works, though.
The movie loses focus after Scott has to break into the Avengers headquarters to steal something largely inconsequential to the plot. In the screening I was at, the Marvel fans (mostly everyone) reacted to this scene about the same way as Elvis fans at Graceland. I mostly rolled my eyes because I knew what the scene was: Marvel shamefully cross-promoting a yet-to-be-made future movie with a C-list superhero during Ant-Man. The arrogance of that is just astonishing, and it makes the film pander as a marketing hack.
But what do I know? I’m just a guy who wants to watch a movie, just a single movie, without being told about another one, a better one, that’s in the pipeline.