RECAP: Ant-Man

Ant-Man (2015): Peyton Reed

Before sneaking into theaters between and Avengers flick and a Civil War flick, Marvel’s Ant-Man was troubled. Its first director backed out. Then another, but he left his work on the script. Finally, the movie endured a phase shift, when Marvel moved it from Phase Three to Phase Two, which has got to be the most 21st century thing anyone has written about a movie.

Ant-Man was always going to be Marvel’s weak link in the phases. Turns out that the movie made a less-than-ant-sized box office, banking $180 million in the US. That puts it near the bottom of the list for Marvel, ahead of the debut of Captain America and practically tied with Thor’s. Those guys are mainline Avengers.

Ant-Man draws on Marvel’s expanded universe you’ve heard much about by now, leaning on other characters seen and unseen far more than any other character introduction movie yet seen.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A reformed thief returns to crime for one last gig, and his most important, in a shrinking suit. 

Hero (8/10)

Americans love giving folks a second chance. So goes conventional wisdom, and it’s the primary reason that Ant-Man stood a chance of success.

Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, a guy fresh out of prison and eager to make a new start. He landed in the joint for robbery. Scratch that–thievery. “Robbery implies threat,” Lang tells his buddies, or rather he tells his buddy’s buddies, right after he springs free.

Lang is a world-class thief, but he’s sworn off crime to make amends with his ex-wife, Maggie (Judy Greer, being criminally underused as she too often is), and daughter, Cassie. He shows up at her birthday party bearing a hideous gift but no invitation.

Maggie gives Scott a version of the “clean up or get lost” speech and sends him away. Lang is determined to go straight, but the money just won’t work, because he can’t keep a job at Baskin Robbins with a stint at San Quentin on his resume.

A desperate Lang uses his thieving skills to bust into an old man’s house and steal a suit. It’s the Ant-Man suit, but Lang doesnt know that. He tries it on uses it long enough for it to shrink and terrify him into putting the suit back from where it came.

Rudd is an actor so charming and effortlessly handsome that, were he less funny, would seem to be a Disney creation. He can play the unabashed douche bag (Wet Hot American Summer), the self-loathing loaf (Role Models), or the lovable oaf (his cameos in Parks & Recreation).

In Ant-Man, Rudd has to mix all three aspects to pull off Lang. He’s not a conman on the level of Clooney or Pitt in the Ocean’s movies; Lang never craves the spotlight. Instead he flits through the cracks and leaves you with a smile.

“My days of breaking into places and stealing shit are over,” Lang tells Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), when the former agrees to join the latter’s quest. “Good,” Pym says, “I want you to break into a place and steal some shit.” That exchange explains Ant-Man‘s style better than any other.

Lang eventually warms to the task. Turns out he’s a fast learner. The movie’s best scene showed Lang stealing the suit. He has twenty minutes to crack TWO safes he’s never seen before. But, a student of the trade, he knows how to crack them.

To breach the first safe he improvises a fingerprint mold. To crack the second he, well, literally cracks it, using ice to break the steel. The stunt required quick thinking, patience, and chemical engineering. I don’t think MacGyver could have passed that safety system.

To say that Lang combines all his skills and reluctantly commits the largest crime of his life, all to see his daughter again, well, that would be the kind of character development we expect from a Hero, and it’s just what we get.

Villain (6/10)

Corey Stoll has the wan smile of a guy who beat up nerds during his high school days playing middle linebacker or left tackle. He’s slimmed down, but that rage never left. Stoll brings that feeling to his role as Darren Cross, replacement CEO of Pym Tech.

Cross was Hank Pym’s protege back in the day, a fact alluded to often, but not explained until later. We only learn that Pym rejected Cross because, as Pym says, “I saw too much of myself,” in Cross. Cross has carried the rejection for decades.

Later we understand why. Cross has finally mimicked the Pym Particle, a particle that can shrink anything instantly and bring it back to normal size. The particle shortens the distance within atoms. To Pym, that’s old hat; he’s done it for years as the original Ant-Man. But for Cross it’s a breakthrough.

Wearing the Ant-Man and Cross’s Yellowjacket suits affects brain chemistry. Pym drafts a new Ant-Man because, as the old Ant-Man, the suit affected him too much in the 1980s. (Yeah, successful businessman of the 1980s, it was the suit messing with your brain.)

Cross appears unbothered by it. Pym’s daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly) mentions to this affectation late in the film, but we never saw Cross any different. As far as we know, he’s always had a chip on his shoulder and has spent years planning to ruin Pym.

Near the end, Cross dons the Yellowjacket suit to fight Ant-Man. We assume, from his ease in its use, that he’s used it before, but no one ever said so and we never saw him do it.

Cross spent much of the film trying to shrink organic tissue and failing. With all the trouble Lang had learning the tricks of Ant-Man, how did Cross reach the same level of martial skill instantly?

So if the suit affects the brain, we can’t be sure how villainous Cross was before it. That makes him a more interesting villain. Also, the characters seem to know him well enough to inform the audience that he’s only recently become a bad dude, a very bad dude.

Stoll, with his perfect suits and bald head, lends himself to classic villainy. His smiles exude the tiniest flair of insanity behind them, the perfect trait for the role.

Reed’s camera captures the Yellowjacket suit expertly. When Yellowjacket arrives at Cassie’s house, he stands in he bedroom stock still, staring down the girl. The camera films the suit from the feet up, so we can take in its metallic brutishness, much as Cassie would. Those laser stingers really menace.

I have too many questions about Cross to score him highly. His actual, normal level of villainy remains unknown. That troubles me. I need to know more.

Action/Effects (6/10)

Marvel needed Ant-Man to flesh out its Avengers lineup. Marvel needed Ant-Man as an antithesis to its world-bearing Avengers. In an age with one or two Marvel films per year, Ant-Man snuck in to sting like a bee, leaving an impression with you like a stinger left behind.

Sorry, insect metaphors come easily. Ant-Man‘s action sequences stand out against larger, more explosive moments of Marvel’s tentpole characters. Instead of lasers, mind beams, or explosive arrows, Ant-Man fights primarily with his fists and colonies of ants.

One part of Pym’s master plan calls for Ant-Man to infiltrate an old Stark Industries facility in upstate New York. Ant-Man and a team of ants board a plane and land near the warehouse that, uh oh, has become the new base for the Avengers, post-Ultron.

Pym orders an abort, but Lang, America’s most skillful infiltrator, ignores Pym. When he lands on the roof he’s exposed immediately by Falcon. Lang re-big-ulates and greets Falcon. “Hi, I’m Scott,” he says, exactly the kind of thing you want to say to an Avenger as you break into his facility.

Falcon tries to apprehend Ant-Man. Ant-Man shrinks, but Falcon has some glasses that can see him. I don’t recall these glasses from the second Captain America installment. As the kids say these days: Deus Ex Machina.

Falcon tries to stomp Ant-Man, use his jet pack to grind Ant-Man, punch Ant-Man. Lang, using all his training, is Falcon’s martial equal, but he can’t get the upper hand.

Until he realizes that all he need do is shut down Falcon’s suit. He shrinks and leaps onto his back, delving into the metallic circuitry, disabling the jet pack. That’s enough to allow Lang to ride a flying ant into the Avengers facility and steal the thing he needed. Yay!

Terrific work from the effects team. They had to figure out how to use Ant-Man’s shrinking abilities so the audience could notice without making us vomit.

They succeeded. Through a nifty sound effect resembling a powerful vacuum and a visual of continuously shrinking white outlines, viewers could track, if barely, the resizing of its suited figures.

Especially imaginative were the levels of subatomic land. Bacteriophages, viruses, neutrons, neutrinos, up quarks, and smaller pieces of ephemera not yet known–Ant-Man shrank through all of these with the sounds of Pym’s warnings and Cassie’s peals in his mind, or what remained of it.

But Lang had enough sense to use an embiggening weapon on his regulator to zap back to exactly the right size. Lang’s shrink scene evoked 2001. Any time you can mimic Kubrick, you do it.

Sidekicks (4/8)

Michael Douglas brought class and bravado to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Hank Pym, the world’s best (he thinks) scientist.

Pym invented the Pym Particle, a method for shortening distance at an atomic level. He refused to gift or sell that technology to anyone, hoarding it to create the Ant-Man suit.

And to use the Ant-Man suit. Pym helped save the world for years, alongside his beloved wife, until one day, when a Soviet ICBM, launched by some separatists, streaked toward the United States.

Pym’s wife sacrificed herself, damaging her regulator, the device that mitigates the effects of the Pym Particle, to shrink between the molecules bonding the missile’s panels. The rocket fell to the sea, while she fell into the smallest infinities of space-time.

Such a memory is enough to discourage anyone from wearing the suit again. Pym feels driven to destroy all rival types of his technology. He believes himself noble, as do his friends and family. Maybe he’s a megalomaniac. The film never considers that.

Evangeline Lilly plays a feisty young lass named Hope. She’s Pym’s daughter, formerly estranged, but now they’re back together again.

Hope never believed her father loved her. He pushed her away and lied about her mother’s death. Even telling him she knows he lies won’t change Dad’s ways.

Hope agrees to aid Dad because she believes Cross is an evil guy, or at least his Yellowjacket chemicals made him so. She wants to wear the ant suit, but father Pym refuses, saying that she has Cross’s trust and can help more in that way.

Lang explains a more accurate idea. “I’m expendable,” he says. As important as the fight against Cross is, Pym would rather lose it than lose Hope. Yeah, she can fight like a demon, and her glares cut like one. But she still can’t go.

Such is the Pym family, one that will probably love the mission more than the person. Or the person more than the mission. In either case, they seem to make the wrong choice for each other.

Henchmen (1/8)

Cross bears his burden mostly alone. Unwittingly, Lang’s rival Paxton aids Cross by hindering Lang. Bobby Cannavale, dashing young man and likely heir to the Gotti family, is a San Francisco cop. He gets mad at Lang, in exactly the way all stepdads get mad at deadbeats.

Paxton arrests Lang, twice. He arrests Lang’s friends. He loses his car. He harasses Pym. He helps Cross without knowing it.

Hydra makes a brief, wordless appearance. Hydra making a brief appearance is enough to set off a lot of fireworks.

Stunts (4/6)

Ant-Man is not a guy to come in guns blazin’. He mentions that he doesn’t like conflict. So to see him fighting, hand-to-mandible, surprises.

Scott Lang learns how to fight from Hope. Through an extended montage, Hope trains Lang to fight. He can barely throw a punch to start, and can’t take any. Hope trounces him with ease.

She’s got a spark to her, and she’s opposed to Lang’s blasé attitude anyway, so she takes it out on him violently. She wraps her legs around his neck at one point to take him down. These scenes recall Buffy sparring with, well, anyone inside Giles’s magic shop on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Lang has to fight in the real world. We don’t see much of it on a large scale. He prefers to let his small stature do the dirty work. And that’s a smart idea, because that shrink suit is about the most advanced technology this side of Ultron.

Climax (4/6)

After an interminable time planning and training for the infiltration, Ant-Man and his ant cronies use a water main to infiltrate Cross, I mean Pym, Technologies.

The builder ants form themselves into a raft for Ant-Man to ride on. He spots an ant rope descending from a pipe and signals the raft ants to pyramid themselves so Ant-Man can reach the ant rope. Lots of insect adjectives in that sentence. I think you get the idea: the ants were integral to Ant-Man’s success.

Anyway, just about everyone against Cross has infiltrated his big reveal party. You got Michael Peña‘s character, Hope, the cops searching for Lang, and the guys in the van aiding Lang and Pym. Speaking of those guys, they have one job–to disable the laser guarding the Yellowjacket suit–and they nearly failed.

Before his arrest, the Russian guy on the heist team deactivates the laser as Ant-Man falls into the holding cell. But look who’s waiting for him…Cross! He’s assembled his buyers (a guy Pym beat up in the ’80s), that guy’s buyers, and some suited chowderheads armed with side pieces. And Pym. And Hope.

Cross wanted the whole thing just as it is, because Ant-Man is now caught in the glass case of emotion and glass. He sees the suit bouncing around the enclosure and practically says “Ah HA! I caught you Hank Pym. I KNEW you had a suit like mine.” This was the moment when the villain veered dangerously close to Dark Helmet gloating over Lone Star’s weak Schwartz game in Spaceballs. (I see your Schwartz is bigger than mine.)

Pym punches Cross, which Cross tooootally saw coming, but harder than he figured. Cross then loses his cool. All the guys with guns draw them. Hope begs for Cross to fight the chemicals influencing his brain, which sounds a lot like asking someone to stop being drunk for a sec.

Turns out that the guy that Pym smacked up in the ’80s wants to buy the Yellowjacket suit for Hydra, the anti-Avengers unit born from the Nazi science division.

Cross grabs a gun and appears to fight the brain chemistry. He still shoots Pym in the thorax, takes the tiny Yellowjacket suit, and flees to an awaiting helicopter.

Now the good guys are trapped in the chamber. Pym, who carries a tank key chain, tells Hope that it’s not really a key chain. Next we know, there’s a human-scale tank bursting through the concrete walls.

Now comes Ant-Man‘s most poignant moment. Never thought “Ant-Man” and “poignant” could land in the same sentence? First for me, too. Lang and an army of flying ants buzz toward the chopper.

Cross gets mad, because he’s figured out that the ants are controlled by Ant-Man. He starts shooting at the ants. That’s when you know you’ve lost it–when you shoot at ants.

Somehow, mythically, he scores a hit, on Lang’s best friend and training partner–Anthony, his flying steed. One iridescent wing floats to the ground, all that remains of Anthony.

Is it good or bad that Ant-Man‘s most poignant moment occurs when an insect dies?

I let you decide. It made Lang mad.

Jokes (4/4)

Peyton Reed cut his directing chops on old sketch comedy shows such as Mr. Show and Upright Citizens Brigade. That makes him a good choice for taking the helm of Marvel’s (so far) funniest movie.

Casting Paul Rudd helps. Rudd has crafted his career on funny Everyman characters that make you swoon. His next-door-neighbor good looks help audiences like him, and that’s a feature you need to get with a thief.

My favorite recurring technique employed an excited Michael Peña recounting his Telephone-like methods for learning of proverbial Big Scores. He told his stories, which involved several people relaying key bits of information, as the movie cut to show the characters speaking dialogue supplied by Peña’s character.

A girl at a party, a guy at a softball game, a chick in a bar, a dude ordering a drink, Stan Lee–all these people spoke the lines Peña invented, his sound superimposed over their images. Heist movies often employ a series of quick cuts to explain just how the heist will be perpetrated. Ant-Man twisted that trope, using the quick cuts to explain how the heist was discovered.

Perhaps the most impressive feat was making a comic book movie that’s pretty funny without making Michael Douglas feel like a misplacement. Giving him a line like, “Not those three wombats,” was a nice touch, which he delivered with aplomb.

Even during the climactic fight between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket is room for comedy. As Thomas the Tank Engine bears down on Yellowjacket in Cassie’s room, the toy train is full of sound and fury. The scenes cuts to Cassie’s view as the train collides with Yellowjacket and falls off the rails. We see the tiny toys plop on the train set table. No harm done.

Finally, any time a movie (or TV show, or book, or any single event in daily life) reminds me of The Simpsons, I smile. All of Ant-Man‘s talk of shrinking and enlarging recalled Professor Frink’s De-big-ulator.

Setting (1/4)

If you marveled at the enormous Duplo, the huge Cheerio, or the jagged grass blade of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, has Marvel got the movie for you!

Much of Ant-Man‘s charm lies in its use of tiny spaces. Watch Ant-Man weave between carpet fibers, watch him fly amongst server circuits, watch him hop along dancing human feet.

These miniature scenes were the movie’s strongest asset, a well repeatedly dipped into. Ant-Man sloshes around a filling bathtub. He deploys an army of electro-ants on circuit boards with dime batteries and 6-volters.

The human-scale worlds were less than. Was this movie set in San Francisco? I can’t recall. Hmm. Maybe San Francisco is devoid of famous landmarks like prisons, pyramid buildings, steep streets, or bridges. No worries, Ant-Man, we’ll wait for the next one.

Commentary (1/2)

Hank Pym’s reason for withholding his fabled Particle is that it will fall into the wrong hands. He hoards his tech like a greedy child with the newest game console.

It’s easy to get swept up in the heist hijinks, but Ant-Man agrees to perhaps the most damaging act of industrial subterfuge in history. They blew up the compound, erased every single server, and a lot of people got covered in glass.

Thanks to Peña rescuing the guard he knocked out we can safely assume that no one died. No one good. I suppose. Let’s run with that.

In the end, Ant-Man destroys the technology and Cross’s years of research. So there’s only one shrink suit left. Is that good? Who should decide if that’s good? Pym believes that he’s good enough to control the tech.

Pym is basically Tony Stark in 30 years. Stark refuses to donate his technology to the US government in Iron Man 2. Pym essentially does the same thing in Ant-Man.

Time and again, Marvel teaches that authority figures are to be distrusted. Unless they’re scientists.

Offensiveness (0/-2)

Ant-Man avoids stereotyping its cast. There’s even –GASP–some Hispanic people. Reed’s film is by far the most down-to-Earth of Marvel’s flicks. (Being a down-to-Earth movie is a struggle for Marvel. Several of its movies barely even take place on Earth.)

Others

  • “Baskin Robbins always finds out.”
  • Hope gives the thieves “half a Xanax” to sleep.
  • (1) Great sound. Ant-level scenes sound like war zones. The flying ants buzz like Spitfires. Lang, running through a model of the future Cross Tech, dodges bullets that sound like howitzer shells.
  • Would a parent of a Thomas fan find anything for terrifying than a life-size Thomas in their front yard?

Summary (40/68): 59%

Ant-Man is funny and small-scaled. That’s why it was a success in story and at the box office. Paul Rudd is one of Hollywood’s most likable leads. Early troubles in pre-production failed to derail the film. Leave it to good actors, good script, and good producers to keep the project focused on delivering an Ant-Man that will endure in the Marvel Universe.