Super scientist and ex-Ant-Man, Hank Pym, recruits down-on-his-luck cat burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) to become the new Ant-Man. Hank’s ex-protégé and stereotypically evil businessman, Darren Cross, is about to rediscover Pym’s shrinking technology and sell it to terrorists, and Hank needs a new Ant-Man to stop the evil plan and destroy all records of the technology. And Hank’s daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), she…she…um…well, she’s there too.
The least of the Marvel Cinematic Universe* movies is a good time, which is handy, as Ant-Man is a lesser one. It’s fun, with a few laughs and plenty of wiz-bang superhero combat moments. You’ll enjoy it at a matinee with some friends and a large tub of popcorn. I enjoyed it, just not as much as the other MCU films, and any time I thought about anything in the film, I enjoyed it a little less. Still, it’s a thumbs up, if not enthusiastically.
Oddly, they get right the most difficult bit, the concept: a shrinking man with ant friends. If Thor and Iron Man were B-listers in the Marvel comic universe (before their star-making films), Ant-Man is a D-lister. Shrinking is not an exciting power (hmmm, I could have mighty strength, control lightning, and have a miraculous hammer, or I can squeeze through an old-timey keyhole… which would I choose?) and having insect buddies is best suited to a child’s cartoon. But Ant-Man manages to make the concept of shrinking both powerful and frightening. It is believable that Pym particles, which can compress the distance between atoms) could tear apart civilization. And ants make useful and fun sidekicks without being embarrassing. It is the concept of Ant-Man that was the problem the filmmakers had to solve. Once they beat that, and they did, the rest should have been easy.
But it wasn’t. Plot and character are beyond these filmmakers. The actors do their best. Paul Rudd is likable and a nice addition to the Avengers star roster, but he’s more along the lines of Anthony Mackie (Falcon) or Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye) then a Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man) or Tom Hiddleston (Loki). That is, he’s fine, but he doesn’t shine brightly enough to blind you to the flaws all around him. Michael Douglas does a bit better, bringing much needed weight (with still a sparkle in his eye), but he’s not given enough screen time to make his conflicted character really work. (Hey, Marvel—lost opportunity: you could have had Pym cameos in two or three earlier films so there was something existent to work with). As for Evangeline Lilly, she’s just wondering what she’s doing in the film, and why her wig-maker punked her.
Part of the problem is the sameness of it all. If Ant-Man came out before the recent wave of superhero films, it might feel less of a retread, though maybe it’d have to be moved to a time before light heist films, so, perhaps 1929. Lang is your generic criminal with a heart. His daughter is rolled out, dusted in saccharine, as his motivation. It’s not earned, it’s just dumped there. Scott gets his chance at redemption with the help of an aging mentor, and slips into a training montage. It all builds to a climax I could have predicted in 1985. The romance with Hope is shoehorned in because adventure-heist films have traditionally had a romance. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t fit. It’s part of the by-the-numbers script. Then there is the villain, Obadiah Stane. No, that’s the evil industrialist working with terrorists from IronMan. I mean Justin Hammer. No, that’s the evil industrialist working with a terrorist in Iron Man 2. I mean Aldrich Killian. Nope, that’s the evil industrialist working with terrorists from Iron Man 3. Well, you get the point.
But “I’ve seen it all before” isn’t the biggest problem. The problem, the huge, tidal-wave of swamp water sweeping away your brain, is the characters’ plans. On no level does anyone do anything that makes any sense. These are the stupidest plans I can recall in cinema (OK, there’s probably worse out there, but at the moment, I can’t recall them). There’s been a lot of dim plans in the MCU films, but they were either justified by severe psychological problems (Age of Ultron) or buried in a constant barrage of action and explosions (The Winter Soldier). But in Ant-Man, the plans are the plot. We have no choice put to focus on the plans as that’s what the characters are focusing on. And what are these plans? Cross’s plan is to develop the tech to shrink a human, because until then, he’s got nothing to sell his warmonger business partners. Really? He can shrink anything. Anything. Bombs. Buildings. Walls. He can also shrink people, they just end up being tiny blobs of meat. He has a perfect assassin’s weapon. And he can’t sell that? Any of that? Terrorists couldn’t use that for something? Huh. No, he needs the people shrinking part. Then there’s his concept of holding a meeting with those terrorists, and inviting all the people out to stop him.
But forget him. Let’s look at Hank. He needs a new Ant-Man. I’ll just skim over the bizarre lengths he goes to in order to get a thief, instead of anyone with combat skills. The obvious choice–the smack you over the head, stop the movie dead, scream in your face choice–is his daughter. The film knows this, so sticks in a reason Hank won’t choose her, a reason that just makes the flaw more visible and makes it clear this should have been The Wasp, not Ant-Man, but no one was ready to trust a superhero film to a female lead. There was a load a ridiculous complaints about Age of Ulton being anti-feminist. It wasn’t, and it is annoying that a small group of silly people wanted to yelp about that when they only had to wait a few months for this shining example. Ant-Man has a huge glowing arrow pointed at Hope the entire time, with the words “See, that’s a woman, and we’re not using her because she’s a woman.”
OK, so I’ll just sigh and accept he chose Lang. Should I also just ignore that they could have carried out all their plans in safety any time over the last ten years, without an Ant-Man. Hope has keys. She can just walk in and plant a miniature bomb which can be expanded by an ant as she leaves, and we’re all done. And Hank doesn’t use an ordinary bomb, but a shrinking bomb, which blows up big time and then sucks everything away. Cool. It’s very effective. In which case, forget about keys. Just toss the bomb on the lawn by the Pym Tech building and we’re all done. Well, except for all the people that bomb would murder but…oh, they did that anyway. Poor office workers.
OK, so I’ll sigh and accept that Hank and Hope have major procrastination issues, and bad pitching arms, so need Lang. Great. So the plan, without covering their tracks (they’re all going to jail when this is over), is to sneak in and short-out the servers and then blow up Cross’s tech and records. Right. So, no off-site backups? OK. And why do you short out servers before blowing them up or swipe a suit before blowing up everything? But lets let all that go and consider that they never talk about murdering Cross. He’s the one who re-developed the tech. So wouldn’t he just go make it again? I’m pretty sure that if an early Apple manufacturing plant burnt down, Steve Jobs would not have instantly forgotten what computers are.
These planning problems might not seem a big deal for those of you thinking, “I just want to see some cool fights and big booms.” But that’s Captain America. Ant-Man dwells on these ludicrous plans. The characters discuss them. The film is structured around them. You can’t ignore the stupidity.
All that does make the film sound pretty awful. It’s not. But wow, it could have been—should have been—better. Try not to think. Try not to dwell on what Hope’s purpose is or why anyone is doing what they are doing. Watch the cool shrink-grow-shrink-punch-grow battles. Smile at the three clown human sidekicks who exist only for comedy. Laugh at the train (there’s a good train gag). And eat that popcorn.
At least it isn’t dark and whiny.
For MCU geeks, Ant-Man is the least tied-in movie to date. A few Avengers references are made, Falcon pops up, and Peggy Carter and Howard Stark appear briefly, but the over-arching arc is ignored. There are no infinity stone MacGuffins and Nick Fury doesn’t show up to discuss The Avengers Protocol. The second after-credits sequence (yup, there are two of them) points toward Captain America: Civil War, but it looks like you could skip Ant-Man and not feel you’ve missed anything in the ongoing saga.
*The MCU are the films made by Marvel and based on its comicbooks. Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers, Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron. Captain America: Civil War. It does not include films made by other studios who bought rights to Marvel characters before Marvel realized they could do it better themselves. So the 5 Spider-Man movies, the soon to be 4 Fantastic Four movies, and the gaggle of X-Men movies are not part of the MCU.