Ant-Man, the latest addition to Marvel’s unstoppable comic book film series, may not look like a trickier cinematic proposition than last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy (which introduced five new main characters at once), but I think, in the end, it has proven to be just that.
In this film – originally slated to be directed by long-term Ant-Man fan Edgar Wright (who retains script and story credits), but now in the hands of Peyton Reed – Marvel has given the cinematic treatment to one of its most obscure heroes: thanks to the power of a suit developed in the 60s by scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), former burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) can shrink down to the size of an ant (at which size he has super strength) and communicate with other ants.
It’s a heist film, essentially, albeit a super-powered one, in which Lang must infiltrate the hi-tech facility where Pym’s former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is about to put the finishing touches to his own shrinking formula, and weaponise it for the highest bidder. This, for obvious reasons, is bad.
Ant-Man is a valiant but only partially successful attempt to dramatise a fundamentally difficult and, it has to be said, faintly ludicrous character. The fact that it works at all is a compliment. The film is jovial enough that the sillier elements don’t rankle as they might have done, and the central concept – a tiny superhero attacking a science lab with an army of ants – is, remarkably, fairly convincing. It’s actually in the human relationships that the script wavers most frequently. There is good stuff in here between Pym and his daughter, played by Evangeline Lily, but there are times when the emotional content feels forced, and the script is far too on the nose. One particularly platitudinous line, which is unfortunately used twice in quick succession near the beginning, whiffs of by-the-numbers writing.
The need for Scott to have a ‘crew’ to help him infiltrate the building is a staple of the heist genre, but the film presents his associates as clichéd and uninteresting stereotypes which, barring Michael Peña’s amusing sidekick, add nothing to the film. Thankfully Paul Rudd, graduating from the primarily comedic roles of his past to comic book hero, is a likeable lead, grounding the film even when the material he’s working with isn’t the strongest.
There are moments of real wit in the script, (many of which come from action scenes taking place in ordinarily uninteresting or impossible locations, such as inside a briefcase, or a child’s bedroom), but these are too fleeting for the film to really make an impression. The film also suffers from the fact that, like so many comic book films, it boils down to two characters with almost identical powers brawling until one is victorious. Yes, it injects some wit and invention into proceedings, but it’s still an overly familiar final act. It doesn’t help that the villain is pretty underwhelming, and is actually more interesting before he dons a suit of his own.
So Ant-Man is an admirable but flawed attempt to expand the Marvel canon. The script is far from Marvel’s best and, considering the film aims to be light hearted, lacks the laughs that bolster so many of these films. Whether it would’ve been different with Wright at the helm is academic now. Scott Lang will return to the Marvel universe, we know that much already; here’s hoping the scriptwriters find new ways to approach the character. Note: As an aside, what is The Wire’s Wood Harris, who plays a policeman here, doing in a such a tiny role with almost no dialogue?