Movie review: Ant-Man clears the bar by lowering the stakes | Arts

Movie review: Ant-Man clears the bar by lowering the stakes


Honey, I shrunk the superhero: Paul Rudd as Ant-Man - COURTESY OF MARVEL STUDIOS
  • courtesy of Marvel Studios
  • Honey, I shrunk the superhero: Paul Rudd as Ant-Man
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So you planted your lore in World War II and then hurled it outward, filling a universe with superheroes, aliens and gods. You steadily pumped up the stakes, from a man saving himself (Iron Man) to a man saving the world (Captain America: The First Avenger) to a team saving the world (The Avengers) to aliens saving the galaxy (Guardians of the Galaxy).

What do you do when you can’t go bigger? The Marvel Cinematic Universe offers a clever answer with Ant-Man—think very small.

In some ways, Ant-Man is a lot like Guardians. Both are affable action-comedies starring characters without the wide recognition of Captain America or Thor, and both substitute a charismatic everyman for beefcake in the lead. This time, it’s Paul Rudd instead of Chris Pratt, but they really could have swapped roles without any trouble.

Pratt’s Peter Quill and Rudd’s Scott Lang are both bumbling charmers with boyish grins, more slapstick than heroic. They’re also both thieves, but of the loveable variety. After all, Quill was just an Earth boy thrust into space piracy, and could hardly be blamed, while the corporation Lang skillfully burgled, we are relieved to learn, totally had it coming.

But in Ant-Man, planet-hopping scale gives way to the rackety street-level rhythms of a heist movie. It’s a great fit for a guy who can command ants through a helmet and shrink to their size at the press of a button. Staying well below the MCU’s geopolitical intrigues and existential threats, this is your basic good-guy crime caper with a superhero sauce.

Fresh out of prison, Scott Lang is sticking to the straight and narrow for the sake of his young daughter. Her mother (Judy Greer) is now engaged to an unfriendly cop (Bobby Cannavale). Lang gets fired from Baskin-Robbins when they learn he’s a felon. Naturally, his former cellmate—an amusing Michael Peña, in a peanut gallery of accomplices that includes T.I.—has one last job in mind.

Meanwhile, Hank Pym (a very Michael Douglas-y Michael Douglas) visits Pym Technologies. Its CEO, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll, fairly subtle) greets him like a visiting dignitary, even though he got Pym ousted from his own company. Pym is the inventor of Pym Particles, which make people smaller and stronger. Cross, formerly Pym’s protégé, is nursing a grudge because his mentor hid the shrinking formula from him.

Cross has developed a battle suit (imagine if Iron Man were the size and color of a bee) called the Yellowjacket. It’s for the tiny soldiers he’s on the verge of figuring out how to make. We know Cross is evil even before he uses a janky shrink ray to turn a naysayer into a pile of goo and flushes it down a toilet, because he’s completely bald—and not in a kindly-dad way, but shaved to a sinister gleam.

Desperate to pay child support, Lang takes the one last job, and here, we come to the edge of spoiler territory. Let’s just say it’s no accident that he winds up wearing Pym’s Ant-Man suit, and you can guess that the villain’s miniscule munitions won’t go unbattled. Much of the second act is about training Lang to infiltrate Cross’ high-tech facility for a potentially world-saving theft.

Lang’s reluctant sensei is Pym’s daughter, Hope, played with uptight asperity by Evangeline Lilly, with the severest bangs we’ve seen this summer since Bryce Dallas Howard in Jurassic World. Hope works for Cross as an equivocal double agent. She has issues with her dad, because he kind of misplaced her mom (you'll see). She also doesn’t like Lang at first, because he’s a goofy felon and she’s a flinty ass-kicker who wouldn’t mind some ant-powers herself.

It's the shrinking conceit that makes Ant-Man more than a springy heist flick. We’ve come a long way since Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and it's exhilarating to share Lang's ant's-eye view of the world. Carpet fibers are like thick rows of corn; flying ants land with the ripple and chuff of helicopters. Lang falls into an abyssal bathtub, rides a tap-water tidal wave, gets flung off of a spinning record, dodges dancing shoes, swirls up a vacuum with a stray Lego piece and uses a mousetrap to catapult away from a monstrous rat. And that’s just in one fast-paced sequence.

Meanwhile, he develops his rapport with ants, who initially frighten him so much when he meets one in an anthill that he enlarges in a panic, popping out of the ground like a turnip. He builds a loyal army of fire ants that can swarm into bridges, winged ants he can ride like Pegasuses, “crazy ants” that conduct electricity (this sounds insane but is kind of real).

As always with Marvel movies, deduct a star if you're not up for merrily bounding over some plot holes and unlikely contrivances. This is intentionally silly stuff. A blatant McGuffin leads Lang to an Avengers facility just so he can fight the Falcon, last seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But the lighthearted fight scene is a blast in a movie without many of them. The moment never arrives when we have to wait 45 minutes for all the principals to stop punching each other. Instead, a brisk, miniaturized final battle in Lang’s daughter’s room—a battleground with a Thomas the Tank Engine train set—sets up a tidy conclusion.

Ant-Man was directed by Raleigh native Peyton Reed, who took over from Edgar Wright in a swirl of mystery. You can read about it all over the place, but basically, it seems like Reed added the MCU metaphysics and lore—the quantum realm, the Avengers cameo—that Wright didn't want in his down-to-earth story. But nothing murky or leaden came from the hand-off. Ant-Man is an exuberant and creative breath-catcher after Avengers: Age of Ultron, before the big guns and high stakes return next year in Captain America: Civil War.

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