Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Review: Ant-Man (2015)

Ant-Man (2015)

Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence

It's obvious at this point that the Marvel Cinematic Universe, whatever it may have started out as, is now firmly a part of the Hollywood system that Marvel Comics was rebelling against when they created their film studio in the first place. These aren't auteur films with bigger ideas in mind, like Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy -- they're mass-produced products no different from what the other studios make. I've said it before, but I'm saying it again here because, for a while, Ant-Man seemed like it would the point where they'd finally crack and make a bad movie. In this day and age where film studios have grown increasingly open with journalists in the name of hyping their films, the very public departure of original writer/director and geek god Edgar Wright (for whom this was a passion project) on less-than-amicable terms, and his swift replacement on both the script and in the director's chair, cast one of the darkest clouds that Marvel's faced yet. But when it comes to populist action films, if crap like the Transformers series or the Amazing Spider-Man films are the equivalent of '70s-era GM, then Marvel Studios is like Toyota or Mazda, one of the best in the business, able to quickly take care of a potential quality control problem and stop it from wrecking their brand. Even with one of the most troubled productions they've ever seen, they still turned in a high-quality, lighthearted, and very competent action flick, one that's far from their greatest but which still convinced me that doubting their ability to make good films is a fruitless exercise at this point.

Ant-Man follows Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a master thief fresh out of prison for pulling a daring heist against his former employer. His ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and her new fiance Paxton (Bobby Cannavale) don't want him over to visit his daughter Cassie, and his criminal record means he can't even hold a job serving ice cream at Baskin-Robbins, forcing him back into a life of crime with his friend and former cellmate Luis (Michael Peña). Scott and Luis' latest job revolves around a rich old man who's out of town and has a massive safe in his basement that likely contains untold riches. It turns out that the old man is one Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a scientist and former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent known as "Ant-Man" who had designed a suit that could allow him to shrink down to the size of an ant -- and he had set up Scott and Luis for the heist so that he could recruit Scott for a much bigger job. Dr. Darren Cross, Pym's former protege at the laboratory he founded, has been trying to replicate the technology of the Ant-Man suit in order to sell it to the highest bidder (i.e. the terrorist secret society known as HYDRA), and he's close to a breakthrough, which Pym is desperate to sabotage in order to prevent disaster. He'd do the job himself, but he's getting old and he's not in the best health, and while Pym's daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) is eager to put on the suit and is clearly capable of doing so, Pym is afraid of losing his only child, especially after the death of his wife Janet. And so Scott, Pym, Hope, and their partners in crime create their plan for a daring heist against Pym Laboratories to steal and destroy Dr. Cross' experimental Yellowjacket suit.

Marvel's greatest success over their last several films has been in shaking up the superhero formula by mixing it with elements of other genres, giving each film its own flair. While the flagship Iron Man series is a pretty conventional superhero story, the Thor movies added high fantasy to the mix, the first Captain America movie combined it with a WWII adventure film, the second Captain America movie combined it with a '70s-style spy thriller, and Guardians of the Galaxy was more of a space opera in the vein of Star Wars than a superhero flick. In Ant-Man, we get a smaller-scale inspiration: a heist film in the vein of Ocean's Eleven. Most of the action in this film is concentrated in the second hour, with the first half dedicated to not only establishing the characters, but also watching them plot their heist against Dr. Cross -- and it is very much a heist rather than a raid, only with exotic technology as the goal instead of money or jewels. Half the main characters are criminals, including the protagonist Scott, and that's not counting the villains. This isn't a setup that lends itself to spectacular action set pieces, but it does give us a lot of characters who, at the very least, have more than one dimension. While the script didn't do a whole lot to explore the two father-daughter relationships (Hank and Hope, and Scott and Cassie) that make up this film's emotional core, the actors definitely sold the hell out of them. Paul Rudd proves, much like Chris Pratt, that he has no problem jumping from comedy to playing an action hero, especially with his befuddled reactions in the first half to the strange world he's stepped into. Rudd's Scott makes this one of Marvel's more overtly funny films, representing the Marvel ethos in a nutshell: their films are meant to both kick ass and leave a smile on your face while they do so. Michael Douglas, of course, brings his usual class and gravitas to Dr. Hank Pym, but he's Michael friggin' Douglas, was that a surprise?

The real breakout stars, though, are Michael Peña and especially Evangeline Lilly. Peña easily proves a match for Rudd in the comedy department, helping to keep the tone fun with his antics even in the second act when Scott Lang is more concerned with the heist and, later, genuine superheroics. Lilly, meanwhile, has been bouncing around for a few years since Lost ended, but if this film is any indication, she's probably on her way to at least the B-list. Not only is she great as Hope van Dyne, but her character is a great commentary on a complaint that's dogged Marvel, and superhero films in general, for years now. This film knows that Hope would make a great superhero in her own right, just like (minor spoilers) her mother Janet was, and Hope knows it too. The fact that Scott, and not she, becomes a superhero is treated as especially unfair -- she's the one who teaches Scott how to fight and use the suit's technology, and the only reason she can't do it herself is because her father Hank is telling her "no". (That, and this film is called Ant-Man.) With Marvel finally gearing up to make a Captain Marvel movie featuring that character's Carol Danvers incarnation, even they're starting to recognize the silliness of how, for so long, they've hesitated to let female superheroes take center stage, even as Black Widow and Gamora proved to be excellent, well-rounded heroines in supporting roles in other films. When Hope says "it's about damn time" during one of the obligatory post-credits scenes at a reveal that I won't spoil, it felt like someone at Marvel speaking for all the women who've followed these movies from the start.

There really aren't a whole lot of flaws to this movie, beyond what have come to be Marvel trademarks at this point (a forgettable villain, familiar story beats). Beyond that, though, apart from the heist setup and the meta commentary on Hope, there's really not a whole lot that stands out, either. With the characters, it's really the actors who do all the heavy lifting and make them likable, as otherwise, they're fairly thinly written, perhaps the most visible scar of this film's troubled production. I'd still love to have seen Edgar Wright's version of this film, especially given how much I loved his "Cornetto Trilogy" (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World's End) and his adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World -- while I'm not sure if it would've been the better film, it definitely would've been an interesting contrast. Still, director Peyton Reed turns in very good work, even as a "hired gun". The transformation of mundane environments like bathrooms into daunting set pieces when Scott shrinks is highly inventive, and gets put to full use in the final battle scene, where a little girl's bedroom gets trashed like Metropolis in Man of Steel. And towards the end, this film goes to one of the weirdest places Marvel's ever been to: the "quantum realm" that's teased throughout the movie. This is another thing Marvel's good at: taking outlandish concepts from the comics, like a galactic space opera and the world of Norse mythology existing alongside our own world, and making them accessible for mainstream moviegoers without losing the things that make them so interesting to begin with.

Score: 4 out of 5

Ant-Man doesn't do much new as far as Marvel movies are concerned, but it does everything with extremely high competence. At this point, you know what you're getting with these films, and this is no different. I probably don't even need to give my recommendation, but for those few of you who are still on the fence: yeah, see it.

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