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Many people were concerned about how Ant-Man, Marvel Studios’s latest endeavor, would turn out. And rightfully so. In addition to seeming like a strange concept to those not familiar with the comics — “A man who can shrink down and control ants?” — the film was plagued with troubles through its development, including the loss of fan-favorite director Edgar Wright at the last minute. But rest assured, the movie we got is not only good, it’s one of Marvel’s freshest and most clever films to date.
The movie tells the story of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), an ex-convict trying to reforge a relationship with his young daughter who is being protectively kept at a distance from him by his ex-wife (Judy Greer, in her fourth time being underutilized in a summer blockbuster this year) and her police officer fiancé (Bobby Cannavale). Scott is actually the second person to don the suit and moniker of the Ant-Man. He is recruited by the original hero, legendary scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his estranged daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). Together, despite Hope’s protestations, they train Scott so he can use the shrinking technology to break into Hank’s old company, which has been taken over by his former mentee Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) who has discovered the secret of the Ant-Man technology, and plans to sell it to the highest bidder.
Ant-Man is a fun romp that has no problem throwing itself wholehearted into its silly-sounding concept. And that concept is really what lets it play around in such interesting ways. Until now, Marvel’s movies have focused on characters whose powers boil down to being generally superhuman with some window dressing for flavor. So we have seen the Hulk punch things, Captain America hit them with his shield and Thor hit them with his hammer. While Ant-Man certainly does his share of hitting people, it’s done within the framework of his interesting set of super powers. He zips around the scene, growing, shrinking, vanishing in the blink of an eye, performing an intricate dance. There’s a moment that really showcases the cleverness of the choreography, where Ant-Man appears in front of a guard, with a glass door between them, only to coax him to shoot through the door, leaving a hole for him to dive through, unleashing a flurry of tiny fists on the other side. That choreography, combined with inventive set pieces that are perfectly geared to take advantage of it and really make the film pop.
These clever action scenes are interspaced with a cast of compelling characters. Paul Rudd is of course great as Scott Lang, his style of humor blending perfectly with Marvel’s, and he brings some fantastic pathos to his relationship with his daughter, which serves as the heart of the film. They were not just joking in the marketing when they talked about the movie going small. Scott trying to protect his daughter and salvage his relationship with her serves as a much more compelling drive than just trying to stop a villain. Scott’s story with his daughter is paralleled by the one between Hank and Hope. The two had a rift driven between them when Hope’s mother died under mysterious circumstances, and Hope eventually played an integral part in helping Cross wrest the company from Hank. And while their shared desire to keep the technology from getting into the wrong hands brings them back together, their relationship is far from repaired.
Michael Douglas does as well as you would expect, bringing both weariness and determination to the role. But it’s Evangeline Lilly’s performance that comes as a surprise. The Lost star has not been up to much since the show ended, but her performance in Ant-Man shows that she may have what it takes to stick around. Hope Van Dyne has a rich internal narrative going on, and Lilly tackles it with aplomb. Bringing up the rear is a supporting cast that really rounds out the film, especially Scott’s team of wacky cohorts (Michael Peña, David Dastmalchian and T.I.), who are just a ton of fun. Particularly Peña, who threatens to steal the movie.
That does lead to a problem with the movie, but it is one that’s symptomatic of almost all first entries into superhero movies: there just is not enough of the good stuff. Most of the runtime is spent introducing the characters, the powers, the world, or in this case, this corner of the world, so that by the time things really get rolling, the movie is almost over. Fortunately, the time leading up to that is still filled with engaging characters and quippy dialogue that keeps things enjoyable when there is not any ant-manning going on. Sure, the climax has a few underwhelming moments, it’s a bit inconsistent with its rules regarding how the shrinking works and we get another bland Marvel villain, he is basically lifted straight out of the first Iron Man, with the addition of something regarding science-induced madness that reeks of a cut b-plot. But these faults are pretty minor, and do not really detract from the film in the moment.
Ant-Man leaves you wanting more, what more can you ask for?