I like the idea of Ant-Man. I like Marvel stepping away from world-ending climaxes to make a heist film that has an emotional core of father-daughter relationships. That’s the movie Ant-Man wants to be, but it falls drastically short because the genre and the relationships are just window-dressing for a story that lacks the pop, weirdness, and confidence of the studio’s previous features. Although there are moments throughout where Peyton Reed’s movie shines with offbeat humor and delving into the alien terrain of the micro-verse, the movie’s good intentions can’t overcome its dull characters and stale plot beats.
Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a recently paroled burglar who can’t get a straight job because of his record, so he gets back together with his partner Luis (Michael Peña) to heist a mysterious item based on a hot tip. When the item turns out to be a weird suit, Scott tries it on and discovers that it gives the wearer the ability to shrink down to the size of an ant. He also discovers that the heist was actually a test by the suit’s aloof, wealthy inventor, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). Hank and his estranged daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) need Scott’s thieving skills to raid Pym Industries, which is being run by the nefarious Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), Pym’s ex-protégé, who might be on the cusp of discovering the “Pym Particle”, which powers the shrinking suit. If Scott, Hank, and Hope, don’t stop Cross, then Cross will sell the shrinking technology to the highest bidder and there will be chaos.
In the future, I’m sure Ant-Man will be held up as a sign that Marvel movies are diverse. “We made a heist film!” they’ll say, and while Ant-Man technically exists in that genre, it’s not a particularly good heist film. It goes through the motions of having the characters relate the plan, enact the plan, and then overcome an unexpected obstacle in the middle of the plan. But beyond Luis laying out the tip, there’s not much pop in the way these heists are laid out. Reed’s past films Bring It On and Down with Love have effervescent storytelling, but everything in Ant-Man feels perfunctory. We’re watching A HEIST FILM™, and we’re supposed to be awed because it has a superhero at its center.
Unfortunately, Scott Lang is currently Marvel’s least interesting superhero. He checks the boxes of being skilled (theft) and having a goal (the money from the heist will let him pay child support and let him spend time with his adorable daughter), but there’s almost no character arc. Because Scott’s original crime was about laying the hurt down on a dirtbag CEO, there’s no redemption storyline. We also don’t get much of a sense of who Scott is on a personal level. He’s a nice guy and kind of a goofball. We’re basically watching Paul Rudd play Paul Rudd, and while you could do a lot worse when it comes to a lead character, it doesn’t leave much of an impression when it comes to a superhero origin story.
With the exception of Peña—whose fast-talking, impish character steals every scene he’s in—the rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better. Marvel’s villain problem continues with Cross, which is a waste of Stoll’s time and talent. Doulgas and Lilly have a few brief moments to shine, but it feels like their characters have been neutered. Pym is a bit of curmudgeon and when one of Scott’s crew refers to Hope as “Angry Pretty Lady”, it’s a joke that’s also a fairly comprehensive character description. The father-daughter bond that’s supposed to be the emotional center of the film is shoehorned in so awkwardly that it feels like an afterthought even though it does provide the basis for why Scott is tasked with putting on the Ant-Man suit instead of Hope.
I’m sure years from now we’ll have a better handle on the parts of Ant-Man that came from Reed and what came from Edgar Wright, who left during pre-production after he and Marvel could no longer agree on the direction of the film. In Reed and Marvel’s hands, that direction seems to be have landed in the most inoffensive, dry place imaginaible. If last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy is Marvel at its most daring, then Ant-Man is the studio at its safest up until the film’s climax when the picture gets refreshingly bizarre and crazy in its humor and visuals. Perhaps Reed and Marvel were responsible for the strongest elements as well, but no matter where the credit lies, there’s far too little of what makes Ant-Man super.