Published Jul 16, 2015Peyton Reed's Ant-Man offers perhaps the most self-consciously introspective evaluation of the Marvel brand yet, and the film works well as a breather after May's over-stuffed Age of Ultron. It feels more of a part with the best Phase One entries, less focused on transnarrative storytelling and interdimensional nonsense and more on the simple charms of formula done right.
Much like those first entries, there's little in the way of action in the first 45 minutes, coupled with irreverent interplay between characters that builds to some last-act fireworks and a quick tease of what's to come in the next instalment. That ergonomic Marvel house style has become recognizable to the point of self-parody, a short-hand formula that defines the brand no matter who is behind the wheel from one film to another, and that can be a risky proposal for any filmmaker entering such a system. While there's nothing wrong with the rigid familiarity of the Marvel properties, it means the successes or failures of these films come down to a matter of degrees. At best, you get Iron Man 3 or Guardians of the Galaxy. At worst, you get Thor: The Dark World. With that being said, Ant-Man falls in the middle of the pack while being just entertaining enough to get an enthusiastic pass.
While Ant-Man calls to attention the familiarity of the Marvel formula, it also falls victim to the franchise fatigue that has beleaguered the MCU for the last year or so. There's only so much you can do within their rigidly enforced compositions, and the film has an awkward identity that veers between the loose improv styling of screenwriters Adam McKay and Paul Rudd, and the intricate Lubitsch-esque visual inventiveness of fellow screenwriters Joe Cornish and Edgar Wright (who quit as the film's director this time last year just before cameras rolled).
While McKay and Rudd's brand of comedy thrives on a plainly composed stage-y environment to better sell whatever comes through their head on the spot, Wright's intricate montage requires a completely different set of skills, both voices occasionally leaving director Peyton Reed with too many balls to juggle. That inherent awkwardness is a part of the film's charms, though, and Reed displays an efficient navigation of those voices within the Marvel house style, while bringing along some of the biting genre subversion he established with his work on Mr. Show and Can't Buy Me Love.
Ant-Man is certainly entertaining, especially in its (too few) visually inventive action sequences that command brilliant use of transforming space, a far cry from the commonplace action sequences of last year's Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. The action is simply dazzling in a way few superhero films are today, and the film soars when Paul Rudd's Scott Lang shrinks and grows in size as his environment transforms around him. Equally strong are Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly as the previous Ant-Man, Hank Pym, and his daughter Hope, who fares much better than Marvel's previous women in terms of establishing a character with a set of independent goals.
Reed has a killer supporting cast, with Michael Pena continuing to steal the show, no matter what movie he's in. Strong comedic players Bobby Cannavale and Judy Greer go wasted though, and the film definitely shows the signs of re-shoots (hello awkwardly placed Avenger cameo) and studio mandated cuts. It feels like there's a two-and-a-half-hour cut of the film out there somewhere, and maybe that version retained a little more of the comedic material.
Ant-Man works best as a sort of Edgar Wright-lite palette cleanser before next year's MCU continuity-heavy Civil War, an interesting collaboration between some strong voices that doesn't quite gel. No matter the film's small failures, it's still a very fun exploration of the Marvel brand so far, a necessary pause to take stock of what's working and what needs improvement, self-reflexively writ large rather than remaining behind the scenes. Fans who have been calling for a female-led franchise will cheer at one particular moment, and the film sets up a number of new threads for the upcoming Phase Three string of films that suggest life beyond the previous Joss Whedon-led era.