Even for those spectators who observe recent Marvel releases, expanding beyond the primary colour palette of the features which established them as a cinematic force to encompass the political thriller The Winter Soldier and the far reaches of space in the company of the Guardians of the Galaxy as well as moving into television with the dark thrills of Daredevil, little Ant-Man can still be a huge surprise.
Here the studio which until now had followed the principle of their shared cinematic universe in which every subsequent instalment must be faster, bigger and more impressive than its predecessor have decided to take a creative sidestep. As a consequence, Ant-Man is not only a very unusual mixture of comedy, family drama and heist movie where for the most part the special effects are peripheral to the story but is also their most intimate and modest production.
Writer/director Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, The World’s End) had worked on the project for several years, but unable to agree with the studio he finally left, citing “differences in their vision of the film,” a disappointment as Wright’s directorial style would have seemed to be perfect for making a superhero movie, all his previous cinematic creations visually distinct and with a dynamic comic feel to them.
With the shooting deadline looming, Marvel unexpectedly delegated the task to Peyton Reed, previously known for romantic comedies such as Down With Love and The Break-Up and the knockabout Jim Carrey vehicle Yes Man, but while his work is competent it never rises above adequate, lacking the flair Wright would have brought to the screen.
Wright has already demonstrated that his bold style and tempo works well in a comic book setting on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and it should have been a natural leap for him to collaborate on a Marvel project. While the studio were willing to accept the outlandish Guardians of the Galaxy as an unconventional experiment within their canon, it seems Reed was appointed to ink strictly within the lines on Ant-Man which opens with a board room meeting featuring cameos from established Marvel Comic Universe characters.
While not a bad movie nor does it challenge the status quo or raise the bar in the way that The Winter Soldier or Guardians of the Galaxy did, principally because it is yet another origin story whose template which has become obvious and predictable. Where it does stand out against the rest of Marvel’s creations is that it is relatively self-contained, the few crossovers self-explanatory without requiring encyclopaedic knowledge of the extended universe.
Instead, Ant-Man feels light, fresh and funny, relieved of the pressure of building the story or presenting characters and incidents which will be relevant in future movies, for the most part a caper movie which just happens to be suited in spandex as former white collar convict Scott Lang (romantic comedy veteran Paul Rudd) is given a chance to put his life back on track by inventor and industrialist Hank Pym (Behind the Candelabra‘s Michael Douglas).
Training montages ensue as he dons Pym’s costume which allows him not only to shrink to the size of an ant but also to direct insects with his thoughts, but as befits the casting and low-key ambition the complications are more suited to a romantic comedy rather than a superhero film, with Lang’s ex-wife’s policeman boyfriend frowning upon him and preventing him from seeing his daughter while Pym’s own daughter Hope van Dyne (The Hobbit‘s Evangeline Lilly) competes with him for access to the suit she feels should be her own.
A more conventional adversary is presented in the form of Pym’s former protégé Darren Cross (The Strain‘s Corey Stoll), keen to sell the technology to Hydra, but with Hydra having been the main adversary in The Winter Soldier and corporate shenanigans and double-crosses having driven the plot of Iron Man this feels old hat, re-treading established plotlines when playing it safe is precisely what the film should not be doing if it wants to stand out.
Where it is more successful is when it makes the audience look closer, the nature of the story influencing the approach to the highly magnified action sequences, the transition from macro scale destruction witnessed in Man of Steel, Godzilla, and Age of Ultron given a new outlook when the action is brought to micro scale.
While some of the final confrontation suffers from the same problem as the equivalent scene in Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man where masked and suited opponents fight for supremacy, the new perspective of a duel inside a suitcase or on the track of a toy train feel refreshingly different, though the sparkly deus ex utility belt denouement tending more towards clapping for Tinkerbell than the cunning of Formicidae.
Surprisingly, given their diverse breadth of experience, the main problem of Ant-Man is the cast, the big Hollywood star power Douglas, Rudd and Lilly squeezed into parts too small for them, superficial characters each of which are dominated by guilt and resentment. With more attention given to the antics of Lang’s former crew, in particular Michael Peña, the lead characters are underwritten, unable to truly spread their wings and fly alongside the computer generated insects they share the screen with, reduced in dimension and ambition as well as size.
Ant-Man is now on general release and also screening in IMAX