There will be lite plot spoilers in this review.
Ant-Man is an enjoyable movie that’s never quite as good as it could be. The shrinking effects look cool, but aren’t always used to their full potential. The decision to focus on character and straight-forward plot after the extreme spectacle of Age of Ultron is a welcome palette-cleanser, but the characters are a bit dull. Paul Rudd is affable as the titular Ant-Man, but also a bit insubstantial and hit-and-miss with his line readings during the entirely CGI action scenes which reduce him to voice acting. Michael Douglas admirably commits to being Mr. Exposition, but doesn’t always connect emotionally. Evangeline Lilly makes for a fantastic “angry pretty lady,” but is often just an “angry pretty lady” with daddy issues. The jokes are plentiful and charming, but rarely laugh-out-loud funny. The emotional throughline of Douglas and Rudd repairing their relationships with their respective daughters is a beautiful idea that occasionally works, but other times it feels oddly perfunctory. The weird marriage of a superhero origin story and a heist movie makes this feel familiar but new, yet it far too often feels overly familiar, especially if you remember the first Iron Man. The end result is that while I went into Ant-Man wanting to love it I came out merely liking it.
What I do love about Ant-Man, though, is the idea of Ant-Man. I like Marvel getting really goofy – a hero who can control ants? – and surprisingly weird in the third act. I like Marvel again layering a superhero story over a new genre for them, in this case a Mission Impossible-heist movie meets Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. I like making a superhero movie about two guys who’ve been crappy dads but clearly love their daughters. I like Marvel making a smaller scale story about an everyman (Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang) recruited to pull off a heist. The galaxy is not being threatened by Thanos. Ultron’s not dropping makeshift asteroids. Instead, the grand plan is to simply stop an arms deal.
Years ago, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) worked for SHIELD on covert operations as Ant-Man, using a suit powered by something he created called Pym Particles to shrink teensy tiny. When SHIELD wanted to militarize it, he walked and spent the rest of his goods years running Pym Tech, eventually taking on a protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll).
In the present, Hank is a retiree, and Darren is dangerously close to recreating the Pym Particles and using them to sell a line of miniaturized soldiers to the military. So, Hank recruits Scott Lang, a ex-con with a daughter to support, to don the Ant-Man suit and help him steal Darren’s technology. Hank’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who sits on the board of Pym Tech and is Darren’s right-hand woman, is also in on the heist.
To put it another way, “We meet a guy with special talents, he gets a cool suit, we see him learn to master it, and then he has to battle a battle a bad guy with a very similar suit.” In that way, the plot plays a bit like the first Iron Man, even right down to the moment the villain goes insane for the flimsiest of reasons.
Speaking of Iron Man, let’s jump back to 2006. At that point, Ant-Man was among the first properties Marvel Studios put into development alongside Iron Man, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and “Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD.” Every single one of the projects had at least one screenwriter attached, but only Ant-Man and Iron Man also had directors, Edgar Wright for the former and Jon Favreau for the latter. In the years since, Iron Man has been in three solo films, two Avengers team-ups. He even made an Incredible Hulk cameo. Ant-Man’s clearly a little late to the party.
There are a variety of well-documented reasons why Ant-Man has lagged so far behind, and why its “Directed By” credit now identifies Peyton Reed (Bring It On, Yes Man) instead of Edgar Wright. Essentially, Ant-Man has always been the ugly stepchild Marvel Studios kept around in development because Kevin Feige really liked Edgar Wright. Once that relationship fell apart in May 2014 and Wright walked, they already had a firm release date and were too far into pre-production to simply cancel the movie.
By Comic-Con in July, Reed had only been on the job for a month, and they hadn’t even let Evangeline Lilly read the script yet. Once they started filming in mid-August, they had less than a year to complete principal photography and post-production. As a point of comparison, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Mad Max: Fury Road, Tomorrowland, Jurassic World and Terminator: Genisys were already in post-production before Ant-Man ever rolled its cast down to Atlanta, Georgia to finally go in front of the camera.
Because of the delay in switching from Wright to Reed, Ant-Man lost 10 weeks off its planned post-production. One of the film’s editors, Dan Lebental, told THR, “It made for some very long days. … It was hard on editorial but it was very hard on visual effects and sound and 3D. We were doing final mixing while hundreds of visual effects shots hadn’t come in yet. That unfortunately has become a norm in the business, but this was an extreme case.”
That put them in a tough spot because more so than any other studio Marvel finds all of their movies in post and through re-shoots, under the watchful eye of Victoria Alonso, the executive vice president of visual effects and post-production. As Corey Stoll told io9, “Even in the different edits, my character’s motivations changed around. Marvel’s really known for getting a lot of coverage and doing a lot of takes. Sometimes when you’re shooting it, you’re like ‘We got this scene. What are we doing?’ And then you realize they’re going back and they’re really making the movie in post.” Another tell-tale sign of Ant-Man’s “find it in post” approach is the surprisingly high number of scenes/lines which differ in the finished film from the versions featured in trailers and TV spots.
The miracle is the visual effects don’t look particularly rushed, even if the ants look a bit dodgy in a couple of shots. The editing is efficient, although a bit abrupt with certain scene transitions. The story never really drags, and the sub-2 hour running time gives it a “get in and get out, clean and easy” feel.
You do sense, however, they didn’t have quite enough time to make the good movie they filmed into a great one. Certain character motivations might have been improved with some tweaking. For example, there could have been a longer version of a mid-movie scene with Scott and his daughter Cassie to re-inforce his motivation and more firmly establish Cassie as an actual character instead of a prop. Elsewhere, in one sequence when Darren is in Hank’s den, it would have been great to add in a moment of Darren noticing and reacting to an old picture of himself and Hank when they were younger and far more like father and son (instead, he reacts to what looks like a picture of a young Hope). As is, there is no before for Darren. He is unstable from the moment we meet him, and a visual reminder of a time when he was more innocent and purely motivated to please his surrogate father figure would have helped. Moreover, the idea that his exposure to the Pym Particles is changing the chemicals in his brain could have been shown to us rather than simply explained once early on and then mentioned again in the third act.
Scene transitions could have also been improved. At one point during the third act, Bobby Cannavale, as a cop and the new fiancé of Scott’s ex-wife (Judy Greer), quite improbably shows up somewhere he logically shouldn’t have been able to get to so fast. Someone near me in the theater actually blurted out a disbelieving, “Yeah right!” A cutaway shot to Cannavale and his partner in a cop car driving in pursuit, both comically looking up at the odd sight unfolding in the air above them and exchanging a Joss Whedon-like one-liner, would have bridged the gap.
It’s little things like that which could have been tightened up without greatly expanding the running time. Those are just a couple of examples off the top of my head. They seem minor, but when an entire film is missing little gracenotes like that it adds up.
There are certain script deficiencies, though, that may not have been salvageable. Scott Lang is doing it all for his little girl (he needs money to pay child support), and we are repeatedly told that in the past when things got tough he took the easy way out, turning to a life of crime, and will continue to do so if Hank doesn’t step in to offer him a second chance. Becoming Ant-Man is his opportunity to set things right. However, because Scott’s signature (if only) crime was a Robin Hood act against a heartless corporation cheating its own clients there’s no real redemption storyline. He’s a criminal, sure, but a remarkably noble one who has simply been punished for doing the right thing. “Doing it for my little girl” is universal enough to make us care, but that doesn’t mean Scott Lang is actually all that interesting. By comparison, he sometimes disappears into the background opposite Hank and Hope, the latter of whom consistently and convincingly reminds us that they’d be better off with her in the Ant-Man suit.
That being said, this is meant to be a heist movie. As far as that goes, it plays things fairly by-the-numbers. The plan is stated, enacted, and then they overcome unexpected obstacles. However, once Scott recruits his fellow ex-cons, led by Michael Pena’s scene-stealing Luis, to inevitably join the heist the film gets an extra jolt of energy which never lets up from that point forward, leading to a remarkably enjoyable third act.
When Ant-Man does fight, going back and forth from being tiny to being normal sized, it is a delight, certainly ticking the “never seen that before” box. At times, though, it’s also ever so slightly difficult to follow because in one section of the story Reed tracks Ant-Man’s actions so that we know where he is at all times, regardless of his size. In other areas, Reed pulls back to simply show us someone who’s basically pretending to kick their own ass, ala Jim Carrey in Liar Liar, the punches being thrown by an un-seen Ant-Man. It’s often pure slapstick hilarity, but could have been even more inventive. It feels like they’re just starting to get the hang of it. I can’t wait to see what the Russo Brothers do with it in Captain America: Civil War.
Ultimately, Ant-Man could have been better, but given the peculiar circumstances of its production history it also could have been a lot worse. It feels oddly like a throwback to 2008 and Iron Man, yet it’s also weirder and far more concerned with smaller stakes than any of Marvel’s other origin story movies. Frustratingly, it doesn’t reach the full potential for what can be done with an ant-sized hero until the very end, at which point Reed finally appears to be having the most fun with his premise. If you stick around for both of the crucially important post-credits scenes, you’ll be greeted with big white text reading, “Ant-Man Will Return.” I hope so because there is plenty to like here; I just think there’s a better Ant-Man movie to be made now. If they opt against a sequel and simply fold him into the Avengers sequels he’ll probably make for a more enjoyable everyman than Hawkeye.
BirthMoviesDeath | “It’s fun, funny, and here to humbly entertain you.”
Colllider | “Although there are moments throughout where Peyton Reed’s movie shines with offbeat humor and delving into the alien terrain of the micro-verse, the movie’s good intentions can’t overcome its dull characters and stale plot beats.”
DenOfGeek | “There is a certain predictability to the narrative’s foundations and rhythms, but Ant-Man is also funny, effortlessly charming, often genuinely weird, and possessed of a few strikingly original and/or emotional moments”
SoIPondered | “Ant-Man accomplished what it set out to do and it should not be penalized for that. It was a good fun movie and it’s definitely one that I would recommend people to go watch.”
Wired | “For a movie that looked as though it might get squashed before it ever got out of the larvae stage, Ant-Man has turned out to be a quirky and almost brilliant addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.”