Review: Ant-Man Keeps It Small (Spoiler Free!)
Director: Peyton Reed
Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lily, Michael Douglas
Another white dude hero. A tempestuous production history where Edgar Wright drops out due to rumored corporate meddling. No Janet Van Dyne. Plus, it’s about a guy who can control ants. Ant-Man seemed destined for disaster almost as soon as it was folded into the broader Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). But, even with a couple fundamental problems, Ant-Man pulled through to deliver a funny, entertaining heist movie. Plus, ants. It really delivers on the ants.
Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is an earnest ex-con who has a master’s in electrical engineering, an adorable daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson), an exasperated ex-wife (Judy Greer), and a desire to better himself now that he’s out of prison. It’s that earnestness, combined with the edge of desperation, that helps set Rudd’s Lang apart from MCU’s other funny man, Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill. His primary motivation is being a good father; he doesn’t have visitation rights yet and has to get his shit together before he can get them.
The real strength in the writing is letting all the characters have personality. Maggie Lang isn’t a shrew or unreasonable for wanting Scott to get a job, and Cassie Lang is full of personality—her own person instead of an adorable prop. It’s weird having a child in a MCU movie, but it works really well.
Unfortunately, the script plays it too safe with Scott himself, taking pains to remind us that he’s an ethical thief. It sort of curtails his character arc from criminal to hero, since he’s mostly reputable from the outset. His criminal friends are softies too—Michael Peña’s Luis was in prison for stealing smoothie machines, and T.I.’s Dave and David Dastmalchian’s Kurt spend most of their time playing video games and eating waffles at Luis’ place. They don’t get a lot to do: Kurt is vaguely Eastern European and a hacker, and Dave drives. But they are surprisingly funny stock characters (it’s kind of a waste of T.I., who’s slowly been building up his acting portfolio, but he at least gets a moment). But Peña’s monologues pretty much stole the show, both hilarious and a stylistically cool departure for Marvel movies, so I hope at least he shows up again (sidenote: I am thrilled to have a not-HYDRA turncoat Latino in the movies, and while I’m conflicted that he’s skirting close to a stereotype, Peña sold it so well that it didn’t feel gross to me). On the whole, the humor is self-aware, but tonally different than the rapid-fire banter Marvel films normally rely on; the comic beats are different depending on the characters, so not everyone is a quipster. Also a plus: no jarringly sexist jokes!
Ant-Man also knows what universe it’s in and does a great job of actually being set in the world where the other films happened. Unlike some of the other solo movies, where heroes never mention their teammates from the ensemble films (you’d think the Iron Man suit could call up some friends when the president’s in danger), the movie weaves Hank Pym’s history with SHIELD into the plot and integrates the wider Avenger universe into the setting. The film is structured slightly differently than the MacGuffin plots of other Marvel films too, falling more into an Italian Job rhythm than Guardians, which gives it a more man-on-the-street feel than the epic reach of other MCU films. It works to make Ant-Man feel fresher (I enjoyed Guardians, but mostly in spite of the plot), but still coherent.
The science-chatter is nonsensical, but not distracting, which is good, because it really doesn’t matter how Pym particles work or why ants respond to mental commands, just that they do. And respond they do. There are a lot of ants in this movie—big ants, winged ants, electrical ants, and biting ants. Hope’s car appears to be full of ants. The ant scenes manage to be bizarre without getting too gross-out; the ants have some personality to them and the visuals are really fun. There’s even a few shots that seem straight out of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids! when Scott shrinks into grass for the first time. (Aside: Antony, Scott’s trusty carpenter ant steed, should have been a “she;” that size and type of ant could only be female. Marvel can’t even let lady ants get their time in the spotlight!)
The ant scenes highlight the most satisfying part of Ant-Man: it wasn’t afraid to get really weird with the small scenes. The inevitable final battle between two tiny guys in science suits is so effective, because it uses the small perspective to riff on the genre and gives us some new perspectives. There’s a real awareness of space that’s crucial for a size-changing character to succeed, and the movie gives it to us without any nauseating, shaking camera effects (note: I did not see this in 3D). I’m glad all the non-Ant-Man visuals were interesting, because the actual Ant-Man suit in action was pretty much a Kamen Rider, and the Yellowjacket suit was not even that cool, but also had lasers.
That brings us to the least satisfying part of Ant-Man: Hope Van Dyne’s role. On paper, her character is great—super competent, smart as hell, funny, and challenging. But in context of this film (and pretty much every other film in which a competent woman has to train up a sad sack guy), her greatness basically punches a huge whole in the plot. For Scott Lang to become Ant-Man, a mantle has to be handed over, triggered by a big crisis. But it seems like a big waste of time and effort to recruit Lang, when Pym’s daughter Hope is standing right there, able to order ants around and punch people in the face already.
The Marvel overlords seem aware there’s a gender problem with their movies and in the absence of Jan gave us Hope. But it becomes immediately obvious that Hope should be Ant-Man. The audience knows it, Scott Lang knows it, Hope definitely knows it, and says it, repeatedly. And so the movie itself knows it too. It’s actually more frustrating that the film is self-aware enough to know how dumb Hank Pym’s plan is, because it just highlights that while Kevin Feige knows there’s a problem, he still doesn’t know what to do with women heroes. There’s an in-movie explanation, which is well-delivered, if not particularly satisfying. Michael Douglas gives it his all, but still didn’t really convince me that a better, more woman-driven film couldn’t have been made instead.
If you can push that aside for the film’s duration (I did, with a lot of eye rolling), then you get something fun that isn’t quite like any of the other Marvel films, even it’s closest relative, Guardians of the Galaxy. There’s some real family drama here, giving Lang a different emotional tether and motivation than any of our other white guys in costumes, and it’s a really fun ride. Unlike several Iron Mans, and Civil War, there’s no broader political or social themes being explored in Ant-Man, and that’s to the movie’s benefit. By keeping it small and centered on familial relationships and weird science, Peyton Reed managed to elevate Ant-Man far higher than I ever expected it could go.