Ant-Man film

Ant-Man: A Scaled Back Lark

Friday, July 24, 2015 Rob Samuelson


Director: Peyton Reed
Writers: Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, Paul Rudd
Starring: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll
Rating: Three and a half stars out of five.
Available in theaters now.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is known for having a producer-driven (Kevin Feige) "house style" to its movies. The benefits to this are large. It allows for a strong continuity between films where events matter. Iron Man is aware of what Captain America is doing. Each hero is affected by the consequences of the other heroes' adventures.

But the house style has its issues. Not every one of these bits of continuity is especially strong. They can often be handled in a ham-handed manner. This year's first Marvel release, Avengers: Age of Ultron, suffered mightily from the weight of trying to fit in reactions to the previous films' consequences and set up threads for future movies while trying to create a cohesive narrative for itself.

The good thing about Ant-Man is that it largely shies away from the clumsy "fitting everything together" stuff. It takes place in San Francisco, away from the New York of the Avengers and Los Angeles of Iron Man. Its goals are not world-encompassing, which is refreshing for this series. This allows the movie to breathe and play with its characters' immense and idiosyncratic personalities.

Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, a corporate whistleblower who took things a bit too far by punishing his thieving former employers by doing a bit of Robin Hood-ing, using his cat burglar skills -- the movie gives no reason for his abilities as a thief, so just roll with it. His sense of justice lands him in prison, loses him his wife and daughter (they're alive, no worries, just ashamed of him), and keeps him from securing a non-service industry job once he exits the slammer.

Scott's a bit of a goofball. He lost years of his life and the things he cared about because of trying to punish people for doing wrong, but he's silly. He makes the best of things. He befriends the other guys in jail with him. When recruited by Michael Douglas's genius scientist Hank Pym to steal his shrinking formula -- the thing responsible for Ant-Man and the film's villain, Corey Stoll's Yellowjacket -- he agrees with a shrug. "Makes sense," he says with half a grin. His friends and one-time family are full of humor and a real sense of warmth. There's a melancholy acknowledgement of others' flaws, but an acceptance of them anyway. Sometimes that acceptance is pragmatic, sometimes it's full of grace and wanting what's best for everyone, but it's there. It matters. And it's consistently hilarious.

Ant-Man eschews the biggest narrative problems that crop up in a shared universe. There are only two scenes connecting it to the other Marvel movies, one of which is completely based in character action and motivation and the other an action sequence that works as part of Scott's training to use the suit and shrinking powers. They feel a little like they were plopped into an otherwise self-contained story, but they don't detract the way the other MCU holdover does, because Ant-Man is not a particularly handsome movie.

Like the Iron Man movies, The Incredible Hulk, and especially Thor before it, Ant-Man is lit like a trip to Target. Expensive suits -- business suits, not the superhero variety -- look like plastic. Sets meant to imply great scientific achievements instead look like 20-year-old microwaves. A burglary sequence, supposedly under the cover of dark, is flooded with light like a beer league softball game that has gone just past dusk. And it's not just the lighting that makes Ant-Man a poor visual film. The action sequences are tossed off, paint by numbers. It's edited in a way to follow each beat, which is a plus, but nothing truly innovative happens. This is sad because Ant-Man's powers are such that henchmen falling over from the punch of an unseen assailant should carry more optical oomph. The same goes for the shrinking effects, with the in-transition stuff looking more like a half-rendered video game than the latest release from a billion-dollar franchise. The transformations look more like a child's flip book animation, all stuttering, and less like the quickly rolling change it should.

Action lackadaisicalness aside, Ant-Man succeeds. The humor stays fresh by varying itself with sight gags, wordplay, ironic shot juxtapositions, and more to couple with the themes of family, learning when to bend the rules to do what is right, and accepting the flaws of the people in your life. And my oh my does it breeze by, making this caper the perfect way to wash down the bloat of the previous entry in this shared universe experiment.

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