Ant-Man  (2015)

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They presented this as sort of an action-comedy, which was probably a wise choice, given how easy our hero is to laugh at. As a result, my biggest disappointment with the film was that it wasn’t funny very often. That’s a particular disappointment since one of the main writers is Edgar Wright, who has given us some true comedy classics, and Scott Pilgrim vs the World. He was originally going to direct the film, and then he had some sort of falling-out with Marvel and walked away. Apparently they had to make a lot of changes on a hurried schedule, to keep the movie rolling.

This is the story of Scott Lang, the second Ant-Man. They’re skipping briefly over the original Ant-Man, Hank Pym, by having him appear in the movie only as a white-haired mentor to Lang. This is probably also wise, because the only thing the average person has ever heard about the name Hank Pym is “wife beater”.

(And though wife-beating is not part of the history in this film, they do make a sort of covert nod to those aware of the story: Hank Pym punches a guy right after said wife is mentioned.)

Pym is played by Michael Douglas, who does pretty well by the part, with a harsh edge to the character which helps let you know why somebody else has to be the hero this time... he’s no longer as mentally stable as he used be. See, the shrinko particles can have side effects on the brain if your shielding isn’t perfect. (In the comics, this is why Pym ended up punching his wife). His daughter Hope is played by Evangeline Lilly, who gives by far the strongest performance in the film. (And it’s nice to see a leading lady whose look puts more emphasis on muscle definition than on youthful complexion, to a point that goes beyond what’s traditionally considered acceptably feminine.) She will presumably be the new “The Wasp” in a sequel.

Corey Stoll as Darren Cross* makes an entertaining and very lively villain — the kind of guy who truly enjoys and cherishes every minute of being his douchebaggy self.

But what about our hero? Compared to these crackling performances, Paul Rudd as Scott Lang is a wet blanket. He’s kind of written that way. (And Rudd was himself one of the writers, I note.) Although they try hard to make him relatable, and to give a strong emotional footing to his story (he has to redeem himself to earn back proper visitation rights with his young daughter), he’s just a quite bland personality. And a sad-sack, by movie hero standards... which isn’t helped by Rudd sometimes having difficulty alternating the jokey moments with the sad ones.

So why is he the hero? The film spends a lot of effort on that question, and never gets to an answer that holds up. This is a flaw at the very center of the story. It’s the fulcrum around which all of the film’s other shortcomings pivot.

See, in the comic book version, Lang didn’t inherit the Ant-Man shrinking technology, he stole it. He burgled Pym’s house. And they kept the basic outline of that here, but in such a convoluted way that all the meaning is lost. Lang is still “a thief”, but in name only, because the film can never allow him to take property from someone else to benefit himself. There’s always a bogus Robin Hood angle, or he was set up in some elaborate twisty way so he wasn’t doing what he thought he was, or some other damn excuse. At some points, the movie seems honestly unable to make up its mind whether Lang was a super skilled expert master of thievery, or an almost-innocent guy who just made a one-time moral error and then had to suffer way too much of a penalty for it. The story won’t admit either his guilt or his innocence — it refuses to eat its cake, but also wants to deny still having any.

I do give them props for confronting head-on the difficult issue of how an ex-con is supposed to re-enter society. We’ve created a system in which those who choose to go straight have almost no opportunity to actually do so. The script, and Rudd, do pretty well at conveying the desperation of someone whose good intentions are seemingly impossible to realize in practice, on even the humblest scale.

So the short way to sum up why he’s become the new Ant-Man is that it’s literally the only honest work he could get. But why is he the only one it’s offered to? We just have to accept it as due to some eccentricity of Pym’s.

And this brings up how he’s offered the job. This is where it turns out that he’s been maneuvered by a big tricky setup. Yeah, that’s a damn spoiler, sue me. It’s fairly early in the film, and it’s also the point where the movie lost my willingness to suspend disbelief.

I’ll put it plain: plots which reveal that all of a character’s careful choices and moment-to-moment improvisations were (surprise) actually orchestrated by a master manipulator, are products of bad writing. Unless you can show your work — illustrate how the schemer adapted and adjusted so the plan could avoid falling apart the first time anybody did anything unexpected — your story is full of shit. And this is a plot device that fascinates amateur or juvenile writers; one which professionals need to leave behind.

These people are professionals. But they went for this bozo plotting move because it allowed them to shield their protagonist from all moral culpability. “Makes it easy!”, as Allison Pregler likes to say.

That’s not the only improbable you’ve-been-played twist, either. Between those and the way some of the other plot conundra get put together, this movie’s story comes off as very very very contrived. And they probably could have gotten away with that if this were a genuine comedy, but it isn’t. This is the sort of plotting that lets you play a brisk round of Name That TVTrope.

There’s lots of derivativity too. Stoll’s Darren Cross is way too similar to Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor, the high-tech heist shenanigans don’t really pretend to be anything but movie-based, and Michael Peña’s funniest comic-relief schtick is stolen from the TV show Drunk History.

But there’s a good side to this movie. Mainly, when Ant-Man is being Ant-Man, it’s a ton o’ fun. Scott Lang may not be very cool, but Ant-Man is all kinds of cool. All Rudd has to do is flip down the helmet mask so I’m not seeing his face, and I’m suddenly totally okay with him. The suit itself is excellent — one of my favorite cinematic super outfits. The fights and other anty action bits are fast, fun, interesting, and imaginative. They think of plenty to do with the actual ants which Ant-Man recruits as helpers... though sometimes their behavior may be about as convincing as a talking cartoon dog. The misunderstanding with one of the Avengers is a hoot. And there’s a bit which gets trippy and psychedelic — something movies don’t do often enough anymore. Many of the jokes are funny, and Evangeline Lilly rules.

So even though the problems with this film are as bad as those of The Incredible Hulk or Iron Man 2, the other parts of the film were so enjoyable that I can’t rate the end result as low as those. And in the end, none of them are actually very bad — we used to put up with far worse from our summer blockbusters on a constant basis, before Singer and Raimi raised the tone.

* The name “Cross” has prompted certain persons to reach an unexpected conclusion about this movie. By itself it doesn’t mean much, but there’s a scene where Cross’s failed experiments are resulting in messy deaths of lab animals, and the critters he sacrifices are — wait for it — lambs. So yeah, some faint Biblical resonance... but where most movies would try to get Christ Cool to rub off on the hero, this one hangs a bit of it on the villain. And yep, that is sufficient grounds to prove that this movie is Satanist.

And here I thought they just named the bad guy “Cross” because in British it means angry and hostile.