Film: Ant-Man

Marvel used to have a title called What If?, a series of one-off issues telling stories from alternate Marvel universes. Of course, these days the entire Marvel canon is basically one sprawling, chaotic multiverse, so the title’s concept is probably outdated, but I couldn’t help playing the What If? game when I saw Ant-Man (2015). As in, what if this had been the Edgar Wright film it started out to be? And what if it had been allowed to be the small, self-contained MCU side movie it feels like it should have been, rather than an aspirational blockbuster shoehorned into the metastacizing sprawl of the Avengers sequence? And, perhaps most glaringly, what if Marvel had invested this time, money, and energy on an established superstar showcase for Black Widow, rather than weirdly bringing the comparably obscure Ant-Man to life? (And a secondary, hand-me-down Ant-Man, to boot!)

But we should probably review the movie for what it is, not what it isn’t, right? Ant-Man stars Paul Rudd as down-and-out ex-convict Scott Lang: failed engineer, failed husband, failed father, resourceful cat burglar. When Scott is released from prison, he’s determined to go straight. But when the going gets tough, he lets his criminal friends talk him into one last score: a safe-cracking job. Scott pulls it off, but the only loot is an odd suit that gives him the power to shrink to the size of an ant while retaining his human strength. Soon he’s on the radar of brilliant, cranky scientist Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, playing Gandalf to Rudd’s Bilbo), who, along with his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), enlists him to save the world from Pym’s deranged protégé , Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Cross’s misguided application of the atom-bending Pym Particles is being turned into a dangerous weapon, and Pym needs Scott to break into Cross’s facility to put a stop to it.

Broad strokes: Ant-Man is fun, a low-key comedy-adventure with a middling but breezy heist at its core. Rudd is peculiar casting for the MCU, but he makes the most of a script that doesn’t always realize his comedic talent. The diminutive, unlikely Ant-Man turns out to be a surprisingly cinematic superhero, his size-changing abilities—and the reality-warping effects of the Pym Particles—lending plenty of humorous eyeball kicks to the proceedings. Corey Stoll provides an effective, appropriate nemesis, his unhinged role as Cross an interesting lore-warp that probably underutilizes him. Michael Peña, meanwhile, makes a hilarious impression as Scott’s garrulous criminal buddy Luis.

But but but. There are problems. Some aren’t too horrible, like the fact that the film can’t seem to decide whether it’s a quirky, low-profile sideshow or a standard Marvel world-shaking spectacle. My guess is that it started as the former, got developed into the latter, and landed somewhere in the middle. Which is unfortunate, because I suspect a smaller, quirkier film would have been more interesting and more successful, artistically. Instead, it feels like it’s swinging for the fences in a bigger ballpark, and missing.

Then, alas, there is the comics industry’s Achilles’ heel: poorly handled female characters. Is there an actress in Hollywood more snake-bitten by raw deals than Evangeline Lilly? Her relatively high-profile roles continually cast her as a cheerless second-fiddle, generally in scripts that seem to be written by men who have never met any women. She brings spark to her role when conditions allow, but the story bends over backwards to keep her out of the spotlight, even though her character is clearly more capable than Scott, who requires a whole Kung Fu Panda training montage to get up to speed. It even tries to disguise this sexism as Hank’s protectiveness. “At least there’s a story justification!” the script desperately cries. But no, this is another sad case in the genre’s chronic sexism epidemic. (At least the post-credits coda throws her a bone, but I really don’t trust Marvel to follow through on it beyond allowing her to stick around as a solo-franchise sidekick.) Oh, and by the way, the film also unceremoniously kills off an integral founding member of the Avengers in a man-pain flashback. Wow, great job, dudes.

So, sigh. Ant-Man is a flashy, entertaining diversion, and I can’t say I’m unhappy to see Rudd join the party moving forward. But it leaves an increasingly familiar, sour sociopolitical taste in the mouth. It’s clever, but inessential. On the other hand, it could be important: it’s doing very well at the box office, more proof perhaps that Marvel can make bank even when it goes way off the board with a project. Its list of excuses for not doing so, especially with female superheroes, is steadily shrinking. (See what I did there? Ant-Man? Shrinking? Oh, never mind.)

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