Friday, July 17, 2015

Ant-Man (2015)

I wrote in my review of Guardians of the Galaxy that Marvel Studios has been so unbelievably successful that they can make practically whatever movie they want at this point. They made a movie starring a gun-toting talking raccoon, for crying out loud! And it was a huge hit! It's probably this line of thinking that brings us here to take a look at their newest effort, Ant-Man. It may not be as risky a venture as the off-kilter space opera that was Guardians, but considering the Ant-Man character's relative obscurity among mainstream audiences, it seemed like it might have been a hard sell to some. But while Ant-Man may not be widely known among those who aren't comic book geeks, his movie is still a ton of fun.

The focus of our story is Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a talented cat burglar who, as we're introduced to him, is being released from a stint in prison after robbing his employers and posting evidence of their corporate malfeasance online in the process. His attempts to return to civilian life are wrought with failure; his ex-wife won't let Scott see his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) until he can start making his child support payments, but he can't hold down a job because most businesses won't hire a convicted felon.

Stuck in a serious Catch-22, Scott agrees to take a job breaking into a safe in a retired businessman's basement. He's able to get into the safe with very little effort, but the only thing inside it is what he initially believes to be a motorcycle suit and a odd-looking helmet. Scott, not wanting to leave empty-handed, takes the suit home and figures he'll try it on. But he's startled when he hits a trigger sewn into one of the suit's gloves and is shrunk to the size of an insect. The disorienting experience terrifies Scott so much that he immediately tries returning the suit to its rightful owner, only to be caught by the cops and arrested while trying to break back in.

Fortune soon smiles upon him, however, when he's visited in jail by Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). Pym reveals that he's not only the owner of that suit, but set everything up so Scott could steal the suit in the first place because he wanted him to have it. And since Pym has greater plans for him, he smuggles the suit into into Scott's cell so he can escape.

Hiding out from the police at Pym's house, Scott learns that his new benefactor had invented the suit during the Cold War, operating as an agent of SHIELD codenamed "Ant-Man." After forcing Pym out of the technology company he founded, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) ― Pym's former protégé and the current CEO of PymTech ― is now on the verge of replicating the chemical that Pym developed to allow the Ant-Man costume to shrink. Doing so would allow him to manufacture what he calls "the Yellowjacket," a flying suit of armor that could be used to create miniature armies. And to make matters worse, he fully intends to sell the prototype to everyone's favorite terrorist organization, Hydra.

Disturbed by Cross's growing insanity and refusing to allow his creation to be weaponized, Pym and his estranged daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) have conspired to sabotage Cross's plans before he can bring them to fruition. That's why Pym sought Scott out, because his history with burglary and corporate espionage makes him the perfect person for the job. Scott will need to break into PymTech in order to accomplish this, but he'll have to learn to properly use the Ant-Man suit and a built-in device that would allow him mental control over ants. And that'll be far, far harder than it looks.

A lot of people, myself included, thought Ant-Man might be kind of a hard sell to some people. The character doesn't have quite the notoriety of an Iron Man or a Captain America, and his powers (the ability to shrink and use mind-control on ants) admittedly sounds like a weird joke. And then there was the initially troubled development that saw delay after delay between its initial announcement in 2006 and the beginning of principal photography early last summer. The good news, however, is that while Ant-Man isn't one of the best chapters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it's still a funny, entertaining movie that is definitely worth checking out.

The movie was helmed by Peyton Reed, a last-minute replacement for Edgar Wright, who had originally been pegged to write and direct the movie. While I would have liked to have seen what Wright could have done with the movie, I thought Reed still made a movie that was better than I'd anticipated. His direction is tight, fluid, and makes the movie an engaging watch. The quick transitions from big to small as Ant-Man changes his size can be dizzying, especially if you see it in 3D on a large-format screen like I did, but other than that, Reed does a satisfying job building the movie.

I do wonder, though, how the movie would have turned out had Wright actually stuck around and directed the movie. Similarly, I'm also curious what would have happened had the script by Wright and Joe Cornish not been rewritten by Adam McKay and Paul Rudd. While Wright and Cornish are given co-writer and "story by" credits, I don't know quite exactly how much of their work survived the rewrites. The final result is something of a mixed bag. There are elements that are strong and well put-together, and the story ― a superhero-themed heist movie ― is simple enough to suit the movie's needs and make it stand out from the rest of the MCU franchise. I also liked how the characters of Hank Pym and Scott Lang were set up to mirror each other as two sides of the same coin. Scott is trying to rebuild his relationship with a daughter who never sees him yet adores him all the same, while Hank tries the same with a daughter who resents him for being too controlling. It's an intriguing dichotomy that isn't really dwelt upon for too long but still adds a bit of depth to the movie.

But there are also parts that that don't really click either. The relationship between Scott and Cassie is painfully underdeveloped, and ends up taking a back seat to Scott's training to become Ant-Man. The sort-of romance between Scott and Hope feels unnecessary and doesn't add much to the movie. And the movie ultimately feels like the first Iron Man movie was just retooled to suit the Ant-Man character and reflect where the franchise has gone in the wake of the two Avengers movies.

But at least the weaknesses are counterbalanced by its positives, among them its cast. Corey Stoll plays his character solidly, but much like Obadiah Stane in Iron Man, his character is a rather generic villain. Stoll still does a fine job with it and makes the role his own. Evangeline Lilly is capable and strong despite not having a lot to do other than react to everyone else in the movie, and I really enjoyed Michael Peña as the movie's token comic relief. But Ant-Man is really bolstered by the performances of Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas. I thought Douglas was appealing as Hank Pym, bringing a lot of depth and pathos to the role. Rudd, meanwhile, is charismatic and very likable as Scott Lang, but a bit more low-key than you might expect from Rudd's past roles. He plays the role in the way that makes the characters feel like he's realized he's in way over his head but knows this is the best chance to do something good. I know Rudd doesn't seem like he'd be the first choice to play any superhero, but he still plays it to the bets of his ability and the movie is better for it.

Ant-Man feels like it might be the least of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, with its smaller scale and lesser-known characters. But after the bloated mess that was Avengers: Age of Ultron, some low-key superheroics were a nice change of pace. It'll never be accused of being the best entry in the franchise, but Ant-Man is still an amusing ride that I thought was most certainly worth the price of admission. But I'll tell the truth: I still want to see how the director of Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World would have made Ant-Man instead of the director of Yes Man and The Break-Up. I can always wonder, right?

Final Rating: ***½

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