Movie fanboys, including me, were disappointed when Edgar Wright, the British cult director of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End, left the big-screen Marvel Comics adaptation Ant-Man reportedly because of the demands of making his movie continuous with past, present, and future Marvel superhero films. Now that I’ve actually seen Ant-Man, I’m disappointed all over again, but not on behalf of Wright. No, it’s because Marvel, like Pixar, has become more than the name of a movie studio. It has come to stand for a certain standard of storytelling skill and characterization to go with its whiz-bang CGI effects. Ant-Man falls short of that standard, making it the weakest Marvel movie since The Incredible Hulk.
This is not an origin story. Aside from a brief prologue, the movie takes place some 20 years after Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) invented a suit that shrinks its wearer down to insect size while allowing the person to retain a human being’s physical strength and speed. A falling-out with S.H.I.E.L.D. led Hank to hide the technology from the world to keep it from being weaponized, but he and his estranged daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) are forced to take the suit out of mothballs when they learn that Hank’s former protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), has invented the tech on his own and intends to sell it to the highest bidder. To wear the suit, Hank and Hope recruit Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a former electrical engineer, cat burglar, and recently released ex-convict looking for redemption.
The new director is Peyton Reed, who did Bring It On and Yes Man. While the script’s original draft was by Wright and his sometime writing partner Joe Cornish, the revisions were done by Rudd and Adam McKay, who collaborated on Anchorman. For all these people’s background in comedy, this movie isn’t overly funny. Scott’s attempts to find a job with a felony conviction on his resumé could have provided some stinging social commentary. Instead, the filmmakers gloss over it. Hank and Hope’s initial meeting with the ragtag bunch of thieves that Scott has fallen in with (whose ranks include T.I. and David Dastmalchian) should yield much more comic material than it does. Even Rudd’s performance in the lead role is off — though Scott’s criminal past is rooted in altruism, the actor is such a straight arrow here, you still can’t believe that this guy would ever turn to burglary in the first place.
Other issues abound. The planning of the heist that will sabotage Cross’ plans is done with no invention. Neither are Hope’s double dealings as an inside man working for Cross. The villain himself isn’t interesting. When Scott first discovers the suit’s powers and later when he learns to command armies of ants, the moment is devoid of any sort of wonder. Scott’s desire to make things right with his young daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson) after his time in prison is supposed to make us root for him, but this part of the movie is done so sloppily that it comes off as cheap pandering. The only time the movie gains any emotional traction is during a monologue when Hank cracks and reveals to Hope what actually happened to her mother.
The movie does have its moments of visual wit. Many of them feel like they’re out of Wright’s movies, like the rapid montage when Scott’s former cellmate Luis (Michael Peña, once again stealing scenes left and right) relates how the word of a potential job filtered back to him through friends of friends, with Luis’ voice emanating from the mouths of women, African-Americans, and Stan Lee. The scene with a shrunken Ant-Man running through Cross’ architectural model while agents riddle the structure with bullets is fairly nifty. Two fight sequences — one with Ant-Man tangling with Falcon (Anthony Mackie), the other his climactic showdown with Cross — make clever use of the hero’s ability to switch instantly from human-size to insect-size, and the latter sequence results in some terrific gags as other objects get reduced and blown up. Reed and company want to embrace the inherent silliness of a comic-book hero whose superpower is to shrink himself, but they don’t seem to know how. While there are no guarantees, it sure looks like Marvel crippled its own work when they chased away its original director. Maybe this will teach them to value the franchise over making a good movie.
Starring Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly. Directed by Peyton Reed. Written by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and Paul Rudd, based on Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby’s comic book series. Rated PG-13.[/box_info]