The Ant-Man franchise comes on the heels of the ridiculously successful Avengers: Age of Ultron and last year's Guardians of the Galaxy. While an original member of the team in the comic series, this was perhaps seen as a riskier franchise than Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, or Captain America, the far more recognizable members of Marvel’s premier superhero group. Previous efforts to bring Ant-Man to the screen suffered a variety of pre-production setbacks, never quite reaching the screen. But now Ant-Man is here, and Marvel seems intent on grabbing audiences’ love for snarky, roguish heroes. Whether or not this is really faithful to the Ant-Man franchise, you’d have to ask a comic book reader far better versed with the character than I, but it works for this movie, for the most part. Ant-Man combines a superhero movie with a heist movie, adds in a legion of arthropod sidekicks, and entrusts the comedic talents of Paul Rudd to steer the thing, which he does admirably.
The casting for the film was well done, at least in most of the principle roles. Ant-Man’s titular protagonist, Scott Lang, seems like the perfect vehicle for Paul Rudd in a vein similar to how the awkward geekiness of Spiderman’s Peter Parker worked with Tobey Maguire, and in the way Iron Man harnessed Robert Downey Jr.’s inherent roguish charm to make the perfect Tony Stark. Michael Douglas also seems to be enjoying himself in the fairly fluffy role he’s being asked to play, though much of his dialog fails to carry the weight or depth it probably should. The movie succeeds far more when the script is focused on the humorous aspects of the story. There’s never really much drama to a story where the seeming consequences for failure is as drastic as Ant-Man and the audience are told it’s supposed to. Michael Pena shines as Scott Lang’s prison-buddy turned accomplice, even if the character seems a bit too scarily incompetent, again, for the gravity of the task at hand. Evangeline Lily, likely to be a key member of the franchise should it continue, is fairly flat, though it may be because most of her dialog is serious instead of comedic, and again, that’s where the movie is at its weakest.
Along with the dramatic dialog, the story really struggles at times. Paul Rudd fits in perfectly as the wisecracking ex-con, though there’s not really enough attention paid to his background as an apparently Robin Hood-esque crusader who burgled from a rich man to give back to the poor people he stole from. It’s a few throwaway lines, included to explain why Hank Pym would have gone to all the effort to recruit him specifically. Though perhaps it’s best left unexplored, since in the process of recruiting him, Pym forces Lang to exhibit several kinds of tendencies you probably wouldn’t want to have in somebody who you’re bequeathing such a powerful piece of technology too. Like many superhero films, this is probably one of the questions you just best leave unanswered and accept that he’s not going to do anything bad because he’s the good guy. It’s not a character study, it’s an action film. Similarly, the movie’s villain Darren Cross, played with plenty of sneers and a generous helping of unexplained angst by Corey Stoll, never really resonates either. His motivations seem suspect, and pointlessly vindictive. One would think his very scientific success would be victory enough, and the monetary value of the product he creates high enough that selling it in a manner that both dooms the world and would almost certainly lead to criminal prosecution seems self-defeating. After all, it’s hard to spend your billions if the world is in chaos. Right. I said to not ask the silly questions, and we’d be here a while if I asked them all. Moving on.
Another place it struggles as a film is that there’s a lot of Ant-us Ex Machina, sometimes even literally in the machines, so to speak. The film uses the ants as plot devices to fill in pretty much all of the gaps where there would be conflict or challenge that might slow the film’s pace. Ant-Man’s insect minions can do pretty much anything he can’t, using their ant expertise to remove many of the obstacles that a regular heist movie would force the would-be burglars to devise a clever way to overcome. Including fly up through a helicopter’s rotor wash, which a five milligram flying carpenter ant just isn’t going to be able to do, no matter how convincing you are when you tell it to.
Ultimately though, despite its many flaws, Ant-Man is an entertaining film that should delight audiences even if it won’t delight all the critics. It’s certainly less cumbersome than Age of Ultron, and leagues better than the muddled and miserable Thor: The Dark World. It will probably fit in comfortably with the first two installments in the original Spiderman and X-men franchises in terms of quality. The film’s fun dialog, wry self-awareness, occasional fan service, and likable protagonists serve to buoy any of the story’s deficiencies. Devotees of the Ant-Man franchise staying through the ending credits (as if at this point audiences don’t know they need to) will certainly enjoy the little bit of fan-service, though you can see that first scene coming from about a mile away, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Let’s give this one three out of four stars.