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Ant-Man (2015)

ant-manDIRECTOR: Peyton Reed

CAST: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Michael Pena, Bobby Cannavale

REVIEW:

Like most of the solo outings of Marvel’s sprawling ensemble of superheroes, especially those coming after the “event” Avengers episodes, Ant-Man feels like filler, a lightweight diversion to pass the time while bored at the multiplexes waiting for the Avengers to assemble again.  The introduction of a superhero who is decidedly not considered among Marvel’s top tier (was anyone really clamoring for an Ant-Man movie?) also suggests Marvel Studios might be starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel in its continual quest to expand its cinematic “universe” and add more characters to its already crowded roster.  To that end, Ant-Man is an adequate diversion, but generic and forgettable.  The Marvel cinematic universe has moved on from this sort of thing.  

We open with a prologue in 1989, in which brilliant scientist Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, digitally de-aged into his 1980s self) resigns from S.H.I.E.L.D. (the secretive and morally ambiguous government organization which goes on to assemble the Avengers) in a fit of moral rectitude about his colleagues’ attempts to co-opt his Pym Particles which can shrink objects, objecting to his creation being turned into a military weapon.  Flash-forward to 2015, and the aging Pym has been pushed out of his own company in a corporate takeover staged by his ruthlessly ambitious former protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who is obsessed with completing Pym’s work.  Tipped off by his inside mole, his estranged daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who is Cross’ trusted right hand, that Cross is close to perfecting the Pym Particles and selling them to the highest bidder, Pym turns in desperation to an unlikely hero.  Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a former Robin Hood-esque cat burglar whose only concern after getting out of prison is finding a job to pay child support and earn visitation rights to his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson).  But when finding lawful employment is easier said than done for an ex-con, Scott gives in to his friend Luis’ (Michael Pena) goading about a tip he’s received about a wealthy mark who’s out of town for a week, leaving his safe and its valuable contents unguarded.  Scott breaks in and uses ingenious methods to crack the safe, but soon learns it was only an audition arranged by none other than Pym himself to test his breaking-and-entering skills.  Pym wants Scott to be his inside man to thwart Cross selling the shrinking technology into dangerous hands, and in return he promises to help him get his daughter back.

Ant-Man at least tries to offer up something a little different by being more of an unconventional heist caper than the usual superhero formula.  The overall plot bears more passing resemblance to something like Ocean’s Eleven than Captain America.  Unfortunately, the movie soon surrenders to generic genre formula.  There is the generic “training montage” as Scott learns to use his powers, with the requisite amount of mildly amusing bumbling.  And we end with an obligatory mano-a-mano smackdown, as the pissed-off Cross suits up in his own costumed alter ego, “Yellowjacket”, for the over-the-top battle with the hero.  Along the way, there are annoying “comic relief” sidekicks (Michael Pena, T.I., David Dastmalchian), a climactic kiss between Scott and Hope that comes out of nowhere, and underdeveloped subplots with Pym trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter Hope and Scott trying to reconnect with Cassie.  These are obviously meant to draw a parallel between mentor Pym and pupil Scott, but this dynamic is given short shrift, as is our villain Cross’ love/hate feelings toward his former teacher.  There are hints of ways in which the generic Cross could have been an interesting villain.  It’s alluded to that Pym decided not to share the Pym Particles with Cross after realizing the ruthlessness of his ambition, but from Cross’ perspective, his mentor first nurtured him, then cast him aside and withheld his technology from him, then added insult to injury by handing it over to a common thief.  Alas, the movie barely scratches the surface of these potentially more complex character motivations and is mostly content to have Cross doing a lot of sneering and mustache-twirling.  The movie tries to make Scott’s love for Cassie an emotional center, but it has little effect, mostly because it feels exactly as perfunctory and obligatory as it is, and Cassie, Scott’s ex-wife (Judy Greer), and her unnecessarily jerkish cop boyfriend Paxton (Bobby Cannavale) never feel like more than one-dimensional archetypes who hang around for two purposes, for Paxton to show up as an annoying plot complication and cause problems for Scott at inopportune moments, and for Cassie to, of course, eventually be menaced by the villain in the climax.

Lest my review sound too derisive, Ant-Man is not at all unwatchable, or even a “bad” movie, just a generic and run-of-the-mill one.  Using a combination of CGI and practical effects, it convincingly takes us down to a shrunken world where Scott rides a carpenter ant, gets washed down a shower drain, and gets himself into all kinds of weird situations.  Later, there is some trippy imagery as Scott shrinks down to a sub-atomic level.  The CGI de-aging Michael Douglas back to his 1980s self in the opening scene is mostly effective, but makes him look slightly weird in close-up shots.  Terminator: Genisys did a slightly more seamless job de-aging Arnold Schwarzenegger in its 1984 sequence.  There are some nifty bits in the miniaturized scenes, especially part of the climactic battle taking place on a Thomas the Tank Engine toy train track.  As usual in solo MCU outings, we get gratuitous references to The Avengers, the Starks, and S.H.I.E.L.D., and a hand-waving explanation of why The Avengers don’t get involved in the action (although we do get a Falcon cameo).

ant-man2Paul Rudd, who might be considered unlikely superhero material, is likable and entertaining, but is better at throwing one-liners around than he is at being serious.  Evangeline Lilly, continuing her post-Lost comeback following her role in the Hobbit trilogy, brings a little toughness to what could be a budding action heroine.  Low-profile character actor Corey Stoll gets the thankless role of the sneering villain, and tries to do a little scenery-chewing, but his heart doesn’t quite seem to be in it.  Michael Pena tries to be the comic relief sidekick, but he’s mostly annoying.  Judy Greer gets the same bit part as a generic Mom that she did earlier this summer in Jurassic Worldand Bobby Cannavale plays her annoying plot complication of a boyfriend as one-note as he’s written.  As Robert Redford did in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Michael Douglas provides a reliable veteran presence to lend a touch of class and authority to the production, though his role could hardly be described as challenging.  This is not a distinguished bunch of characters.  There’s a small role for Martin Donovan, and cameos for familiar MCU faces like Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter and John Slattery’s Howard Stark.  The biggest cameo is from Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, who gets to take part in a fight scene (and embarrassingly get his ass kicked) with Ant-Man.  If viewers stick around for the obligatory after-credits bit, there is a second appearance by Falcon along with cameos by Chris Evans’ Captain America and Sebastian Stan’s Bucky/Winter Soldier (clearly setting the stage for the upcoming Captain America: Civil War).  It’s telling of Ant-Man‘s general “meh”-ness that the after-credits Cap/Falcon/Bucky cameo gets our intrigue more than most of what we just watched.

With its modest goals, Ant-Man comes across like a throwback that missed the boat, something that might have been adequate entertainment in the days before The Avengers but is small potatoes these days.  It’s watchable, and entertaining, but forgettable filler.

* * 1/2

 

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