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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Movie Review: #AntMan

Ant-Man isn't the disaster that we feared but it's not an unqualified success either.

Review by Matt Cummings

Among the oldest Avengers in Marvel Comics, Ant-Man is also the least appreciated. He has neither the hammer nor the iron suit, and his ability to grow multi-stories or shrink to the tiniest proportions still didn't make him more popular compared to The Hulk. Thus when Marvel Studios announced a standalone Ant-Man movie, average viewers had every right to ask, "Who?" A troubled production almost from the beginning, the movie replaced its director/visionary Edgar Wright with comedic helmer Peyton Reed, and then proceeded to bore audiences, both at 2014's San Diego Comic-Con and with a less-than-memorable marketing campaign. And while the final version isn't the disaster I expected, it certainly misses a lot.

After the loss of his wife, Doctor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) decides to hang up his Ant-Man persona in order to keep it and his Pym Particles from being turned into a weapon. More than two decades later, Pym has been replaced as the head of his company by Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who's figured out the formula and the technique Pym used to shrink himself. Faced with war on the micro level, Pym recruits the cat burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) to destroy Cross' facility using the Ant-Man suit. But Lang will need help, courtesy of the no-nonsense Hope (Evangeline Lilly) and Lang's roommates (including Michael Pena). When Cross discovers Lang's infiltration, he launches a war against his family, putting Lang's estranged wife (Judy Greer) and daughter in danger.

Ant-Man suffers from a slew of problems, most notably the lack of an emotional core. Director Reed never amps up the tension or reveals the cost that both Scott and Hank have paid for their lifestyles, settling instead on too many 'tell-you' scenes rather than 'show-you' ones. Reed's lightweight Down with Love and Yes Man never needed such seriousness in their stories, but Ant-Man suffers from an almost pedestrian feel. The story also shares many elements of 2008's Iron Man, but does none of them nearly as well. There's the madman executive who wants to rule the universe with a Civil War-like Iron Spider-man suit, an owner who fails to circumvent the madman's plans, and a violent throw down that destroys both their building and the bad guy. I can't imagine that Wright's version contained such similarities, but if so then it's understandable why he was shown the door. Unfortunately, those elements aren't corrected along with its utterly predictable storyline. We've seen plenty of examples this year of films that suffer from this problem yet still manage to entertain, and Ant-Man generally does. But we've become so used to Marvel's mastery that this one feels like a disappointment.

But its story isn't the only problem. Rudd is strangely de-clawed of any humor, content to mutter half the time while the writing core that includes Joe Cornish and Rudd seemingly check off the boxes for a laugh at the right time, then an action piece, then a few more jokes. Ant-Man's clash with a pseudo-Avenger doesn't feel as visceral as we're told it should, with that person's appearance having little impact to the story. Lilly does turn up the emotions at the right time, when she learns about the real cause of her mother's death, with Douglas suddenly laying it out for us in a transition that's terribly choppy. However, she and Douglas turn in good moments throughout, keeping the story afloat when it's just them; but then Rudd is added back to the mix, slowing things down again. What's also clear is that, short of Loki, Marvel cannot give audiences a memorable villain. Cross is perhaps the worst villain since Vanko in Iron Man 2, and Stoll portrays him with only a minority of effort. Greer's glorified cameo matches the one she gave in Jurassic World, arising as nothing more than a concerned mother and divorcee.

There are definitely elements of Wright's original script here (he's given credit as well), which include a few funny re-tellings of conversations with actors saying the same words as Pena is speaking over. However, the jokes didn't land with the smattering of a test audience that showed up, nor did those various dramatic elements. It's only near the end that Ant-Man becomes something truly unique, but that time is all too fleeting before an odd ending is shoehorned in, placing an emphatic question mark on the whole thing. The bigger question of whether a human could exist shrunken to an ant's world is handled fairly well, with Rudd forced to run so much that I wondered how he could escape things around him that were moving much faster. Considering that we've not seen shrunken people since Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, that CGI is believable.

It's possible that moviegoers in the know about Wright's departure will forever debate the merits of what could have been, thus placing Ant-Man in a sort of cinematic purgatory. For me, it's something I couldn't keep out of my head, perhaps because I kept imagining better versions of what I was watching. The question arises as to whether audiences will react with that same critical eye, or instead choose to ignore its self-destructive internal politics, the poor showing at Comic-Con, and a marketing campaign that could only be called blahse. Ant-Man is a game changer alright, but not in the direction Marvel or we had hoped.

Ant-Man is PG-13 for sci-fi action violence and has a runtime of 117 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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