The folks at Marvel Studios have pulled off something fairly amazing. They haven't just created a successful, sustainable superhero franchise... they've created the definitive template for a successful, sustainable big-budget franchise of any sort. There are legitimate reasons to object to what they've done on an artistic level – they haven't produced anything truly great yet (and probably won't as long as they keep their most talented directors on a tight leash), and they're better at selling anticipation than delivering satisfactory payoffs. Still, they've maintained a more consistent measure of quality control than most franchises, and that promise of fun-but-forgettable entertainment keeps generating results at the box office. They've figured out the business side of things, but there's a relatively new problem that Marvel now has to deal with: finding a way to stave off the sense of fatigue that is slowly but surely creeping into their movies.
Marvel's films have always been formulaic, but the formula is usually presented with a great deal of enthusiasm and wit. However, there's an unmistakable feeling of exhaustion present in their recent work. Joss Whedon's The Avengers: Age of Ultron had some bright and vibrant character beats, but the action scenes were so flat and lifeless that they nearly deflated the whole film. Peyton Reed's Ant-Man has the same problem in reverse: the action scenes are creative and fun, but much of the rest of the film is routine origin story boilerplate delivered with all the enthusiasm of an attorney reading a 100-page legal document aloud.
Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, This is 40) is a professional thief who has just been released from prison. He's technically only committed one crime, and the burglary that got him thrown in jail was a relatively noble, Robin Hood-esque one, but the context of a felony doesn't matter much when you're trying to find a new job. After failing to hold down a position at Baskin-Robbins (hey there, shameless product placement!), Lang teams up with a trio of disreputable old pals (Michael Pena, Observe & Report, Tip “T.I.” Harris, ATL and David Dastmalchian, Prisoners) and returns to a life of crime. His first job involves breaking into the safe of a wealthy man's home – but disappointingly, the only thing inside the safe is an odd-looking suit.
It turns out that the wealthy man was a retired scientist named Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, Wall Street), that the heist was a subtly-orchestrated training mission and that the suit gives the wearer the ability to shrink down to the size of an ant. Pym used to wear the suit himself, but health concerns have forced him to ease up on superheroics. The time has come for a new Ant-Man, and Pym thinks Lang is just the guy to take on the job – a notion that greatly displeases Hank's daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly, Lost), who feels that she's the one who deserves to be wearing the suit. For now, they must put their differences aside and focus on a bigger (well, smaller) threat: greedy CEO Darren Cross (Corey Stoll, The Strain), who's working on an incredibly powerful, weaponized version of the suit.
Paul Rudd is a reliably charming screen presence, but Ant-Man requires him to dim his usual charisma a few notches. Rudd seems to be attempting to strike a balance between square-jawed heroism, scruffy loneliness and giddy buoyancy, and the result is a performance that feels curiously undefined. Scott is driven by his desire to reunite with his young daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson, Playing it Cool), but that's not quite enough to prevent him from feeling less fleshed-out than most of Marvel's other heroes. He's... a regular dude with an okay sense of humor, I guess? Scott Lang is a likable guy, but not a particularly distinctive one.
If Scott is poorly defined, the other characters are defined in dull, conventional ways and get rather uninspired performances to match. You've got a weary-looking Michael Douglas as the old mentor who delivers the inspirational speeches and lengthy explanations, a flavorless Evangeline Lilly as the humorless woman who spends most of her screen time asserting that she can kick just as much butt as the guys, Judy Greer (Arrested Development) as the exasperated ex who scolds Scott for his shortcomings, Bobby Cannavale (Boardwalk Empire) as the cop who spends most of the movie trying to arrest Scott (inconveniently, he's also Cassie's new stepdad) and Corey Stoll as the generic rich businessman/arms dealer/mad scientist who provides problems for the heroes to solve while trying to sort out his daddy issues. There are brief moments when you're reminded of how talented these folks are (Stoll in particular has a couple of amusingly weird scenes), but for the most part, their talent is effectively masked by the tiresome roles they're playing.
Thankfully, things improve when Scott gets small. The scenes in which he learns to work alongside the ants may initially invite comparisons to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, but the scale-shifting action scenes that follow give Reed a chance to deliver some of Marvel's most inventively choreographed setpieces. There's one delightful dust-up with a member of The Avengers, and the climactic showdown between the hero and the villain (which is often the low point of blockbusters in general and Marvel flicks in particular) is terrifically entertaining thanks to a series of inspired visual gags. When the film hits its stride, you see the sort of gloriously absurd delight it could have been. Perhaps it would have gotten there under the guidance of original writer/director Edgar Wright (who retains a co-writing credit, but whose influence is only felt strongly in a clever running gag featuring elaborate stories being told by an infectiously enthusiastic Pena), but Reed only seems to find inspiration when he's dealing with the ant/man parts of Ant-Man.
It must be said that Ant-Man at least tries to do something a little different, even if it tries rather clumsily. This is a (pardon the pun) smaller-scale project than most of Marvel's work; a film that tries to downplay its “save the world from destruction!” elements in favor of emphasizing personal conflicts. A tragedy in Hank's past has a ripple effect on everything else in the movie – his strained relationship with his daughter, the decision to give Scott the Ant-Man suit, even the career choices the villain makes. This might have given the film a beautifully melancholy, complex center, but the film's occasional heartstring-tugging – to borrow a phrase once used to describe Loki – lacks conviction. The film has enough surface-level charm and visual wit to keep you from disliking it, but not enough depth to actually make you care about.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 117 minutes
Release Year: 2015