Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Zaki's Review: Ant-Man

At the start of May, Marvel Studios' much-anticipated sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron hit theaters, and for the first time I started feeling what can be called "superhero fatigue." I liked the movie well enough, mind you. But somewhere in the middle of that interminable third act, right around the point where the titular heroes were laying waste to seemingly endless hordes of robotic drones, with laser beams and rubble and wreckage flying hither and thither, I realized I was having a real hard time staying interested in any of what was happening.

This is increasingly becoming a problem in our age of anything-goes effects. We've seen it with four Transformers movies, we saw it with Man of Steel two summers ago, and we saw it with Age of Ultron. There's just no ceiling to the kind of spectacles our gifted effects technicians can bid their magic computers to pump out, and so the only alternative is for these films to go bigger and wider until the scope is so panoramic that we've lost sight of the little people populating the CGI landscape. And so, as if to address this issue, here comes Peyton Reed's Ant-Man, a film that's pointedly all about the little people.

One little person in particular: Scott Lang (Paul Rudd). An ex-con with no job prospects, Lang is just trying to get by so he can be a part of his daughter's life, but ends up inadvertently becoming part of the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe when he robs the home of retired scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), inventor of a mysterious particle that can alter the distance between atoms (it can shrink or enlarge things and people). Soon enough, Pym, who served as a mysterious government operative called "Ant-Man" during the 1980s, has recruited Lang to don his former super-suit, shrink down, and assist him in a high-tech heist to retrieve stolen technology from a former associate (Corey Stoll) who intends to sell it to the highest bidder.

Ant-Man spent almost ten years in the pipeline, and was originally meant to be part of the first batch of Marvel Studios offerings, right alongside Iron Man and Thor and Captain America. But then the development process stretched on as the producers waited for original writer/director Edgar Wright's availability to open up. In the interim, the interconnected Marvel mega-franchise as we know it fell into place, and Wright dropped out after the dreaded "creative difference" reared their head. Suddenly, we had the first potential pothole in Marvel Cinematic Universe. And though director Reed quickly stepped in to fill the void, the question remained: Would Ant-Man be damaged goods?

Thankfully, the answer is no. With its many scenes of the shrunk-down Lang learning the ropes while sprinting through enormous, oversized backdrops, this could very easily have become a bad (worse?) version of the 1960s TV series Land of the Giants. But instead, we get ceaselessly inventive visions of the microscopic world our hero occupies, and the many creatures within it. By now the "superhero origin" has become its own particular subset nestled within the superhero genre, and while Ant-Man doesn't actually reinvent the wheel, neither does it feel repetitive and rote (a la 2011's Green Lantern). There's a playfulness to the proceedings that perfectly fits the subject matter, even while the seriousness of what's at stake is never subsumed.

And ultimately "stakes" is what it all comes down to. Even with a teeny-tiny hero, the reason Ant-Man works is that it has a set-up you can get your arms around. It's not about a digital James Spader raining Deep Impact on humanity. Instead, it's a smaller (sorry) story about heroes and legacies and fathers and daughters. While this is still very much part of the interconnected Avengers edifice that producer Kevin Feige and Co. have been building since 2008 (as indicated by a 1989-set prologue that uses computer technology to de-age Douglas to an astonishing degree, also offering glimpses of Hayley Atwell's Peggy Carter and John Slattery's Howard Stark), the film itself is a sidelight rather than an attempt to compete on the same scale.

In fact, the actual mechanics of the plot are actually quite similar to that first Iron Man. A genius inventor comes up with something revolutionary, which is in danger of being appropriated by a colleague with less-than-benevolent designs. As such, just like with Iron Man, much of Ant-Man's appeal comes down to the cast. It's easy to forget now given his ubiquity in the part, but there was a time when Robert Downey Jr. playing a superhero was unconventional at best. Well, the selection of Rudd for the title character here is no less so given that he's known primarily for his comedic chops, but given that this is the same studio that turned Parks & Rec's Andy Dwyer into our latest action hero du jour, the fact that Rudd shines here isn't too much of a surprise.

It's not just Rudd that makes Ant-Man work, though. Douglas brings exactly the level of gravitas you'd expect (after that prologue, I'd love to see the alternate universe Ant-Man movie series the actor starred in during the 1980s). Evangeline Lilly, playing Pym's daughter Hope, is as welcome here as she always is, and I've been a fan of Corey Stoll since he starred on the short-lived Law & Order: Los Angeles five years ago, so it's great to see him get a showcase as the villainous Darren Cross, Pym's damaged student-turned-competitor. We also get strong supporting turns from Bobby Cannavale, the ever-reliable Judy Greer, and Michael Peña, who's a particular highlight as Lang's former cellmate.

While the Edgar Wright-directed Ant-Man will likely remain one of the great "what ifs" in cinema history, that shouldn't in any way be taken as a ding on the version we got. Backed by a solid cast and script (by Wright & Cornish, along with Rudd & Adam McKay), not to mention the quality-assurance that comes with the Marvel Studios label itself, Peyton Reed makes Ant-Man his own. It has fun characters, relatable stakes, and lots of laughs. And given that our next visit to this universe will be next May's Captain America: Civil War (which we can be assured will feature a visit by Scott Lang in some capacity), it's the perfect chaser to cleanse the palette from the last superhero jam while getting us queued for the next one. B+

For more superhero talk, including my take on the new trailers for Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad, check out the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below:

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