Ant-Man is a movie I’m always arguing with myself over whether or not I should buy it. On the one hand, it’s not a great movie. It’s barely a pretty good one. It’s rife with problems that clearly stem from conflicting visions of what original director Edgar Wright wanted the movie to be and what Marvel dictated it needed to be in order to fit in with the style and tone of the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And yet every time it’s on TNT, I’ll happily keep it on in the background. It doesn’t demand to be watched like better Marvel movies, but it doesn’t infuriate like lesser pictures in the series. It’s perfectly inoffensive, and that gives it a unique charm that speaks to the film’s strengths and weaknesses.
The film comfortably exists within the confines of the heist genre, but it plays a lot like “Baby’s First Heist Film” lacking the energy, gusto, and imagination of better movies within the genre. Yes, the characters are stealing something, but their plan is pretty standard and while it makes use of Ant-Man’s powers, it also seems more like a rote checklist rather than anything particularly clever or inventive. If Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a superhero with a superpowered suit, then stealing something should easier for him. The inventiveness he shows when busting open the safe at the beginning of the film is rarely demonstrated later in the movie. Instead, it becomes “You need these kinds of ants to do X and these kinds of ants to do Y and then you’ll steal the Yellowjacket tech.”
Thankfully, what director Peyton Reed understands is that his strongest asset isn’t the heist, but the character relationships, although he still stumbles over some hurdles in this area as well. The movie has to bend over backwards to explain why Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is giving the Pym Particles technology to Scott and asking him to be Ant-Man rather than entrusting his far more capable daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly). Even if you buy Hank’s logic that he doesn’t want to put his daughter in harm’s way and that Scott is “expendable”, Scott’s expendability undermines the stakes of the plot. Either the fate of the world depends on Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) failing to discover Pym Particles or it doesn’t. If Scott fails, Hank can’t be like “Well, at least my daughter is safe,” because there will be an army of Yellowjacket soldiers that will ruin the world.
If you set the motives aside and just look at the character interactions, you have a much better movie and, welcomingly, a great cast for sequels. It’s fun to watch Rudd, Douglas, and Lilly bounce off each other, and of course Michael Pena basically steals the entire movie as the fast-talking Luis. But even the smaller roles get to shine like fellow thieves Kurt (David Dastmalchian) and Dave (Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris), although wasting Judy Greer, who plays Scott’s ex-wife, remains a frequent crime of all blockbusters. These are people that are fun to watch, and ultimately while the movie does have major stakes, it doesn’t really play to the seriousness of the situation. It’s a heist that’s always playing at the level of “breaking into a place and steal some shit,” so it’s free to just be fun.
That makes Ant-Man lighthearted, but oddly devoid of flavor. The first Guardians of the Galaxy is a lighthearted movie, but it has James Gunn’s personality all over it. The fact that Ant-Man is the product of a last-minute handoff and the studio scrambling to find a replacement makes the film oddly inert. That’s not to say that Marvel is a director-focused studio. Those that work there have to find ways to balance their ideas with the studios, but directors have found a way to do it. You see the socially conscious ideas of Ryan Coogler in Black Panther. You see the irreverence for tropes with Shane Black in Iron Man 3. Reed is a fun director, but you can see him struggling to leave an impression on the material since the action scenes were pretty much already set, and then trying to work within the boundaries of a story that needed to be reworked. The fact that Ant-Man came out as well as it did considering the last minute upheaval is a testament to everyone who worked on the movie.