This dull Marvel miscalculation is missing the Wright stuff
FILM by Paul Constant
Paul Rudd is the perfect lead for a superhero movie. He’s handsome but approachable, with a sharp sense of humour and an ever-present air of self-deprecation. It’s a shame that nobody figured this out in time for him to play the lead in a late-’90s Spider-Man movie, but on paper Ant-Man seems like a good enough fit. In fact, Rudd is a great choice to play Scott Lang, an ex-con with a heart of gold who stumbles into the Ant-Man legacy. He bulked up for the role, he’s game to do the obligatory shirtless scene, and he’s got a good can-you-believe-this-shit vibe that could help sell the cheesy special effects to a CGI-jaded audience.
It’s too bad that Ant-Man isn’t a good movie. Rudd has no fun dialogue to play with. His relationship with eccentric inventor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, not nearly as lively as he was in his last superhero role as Liberace in Behind the Candelabra) is all talk and no emotion. He’s got very little chemistry with Evangeline Lilly, who plays Pym’s daughter. And his comedic gifts are pretty much squandered.
In fact, let’s cut to the heart of it: for its first hour and a half, Ant-Man is painfully dull. A few of the long expository passages will leave you yearning for a fast-forward button. It’s not really that funny, though it aspires to comedy on many occasions. Tack these criticisms on to the traditional Marvel Studios problems, all of which are true here — a lackluster score, an unimpressive villain, a creeping feeling of déjà vu when watching an “unlikely” hero chasing a MacGuffin for a couple hours — and you’ve got the makings of a disaster. (Additionally, the 3-D is awful and the IMAX print actively makes the movie look worse. It’s well past time for Hollywood to stop gilding dreck with these add-ons that detract from the moviegoing experience.)
And Ant-Man suffers from a greater existential threat. As part of the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe, it has to be considered not as a single film, but as a single episode in an accumulated story. Regarded in this way, Ant-Man is even more intolerable. How many origin stories have we sat through? How many more must we watch between now and the next Avengers movie, and all the other Avengers-related movies between now and 2020? Why does it take more than a half hour to get Rudd into the costume and out doing incredible things?
These movies takes place in the middle of an ongoing story! Why do we have to start all the way back at the beginning again?
As an audience, we’ve seen this scenario play out too many times before and we’re fluent in this cinematic language. Superheroes are no longer the underdogs in their own movies, and they can’t earn our attention just by following the same formula they’ve followed before. Another snarky white guy who gets beaten up a little bit before he must save the world by being awesome? Yawn. Filmmakers have to cast the story in a different light if they want the audience to care.
Ironically, Ant-Man is supposed to have a different formula than the other Marvel superhero movies. It’s supposed to be a heist movie disguised as a superhero movie. Unfortunately, director Peyton Reed lacks the visual vocabulary to sell Ant-Man as a heist film. A good heist is established for the audience in advance, with a series of ever-more-impossible tasks that have to be accomplished before the final payoff. A great heist movie tells the audience what it’s going to do, and then it does exactly what it promised, with enough style and confidence to impress the audience. The heists in Ant-Man are airy and amorphous, drunk on bad exposition and incidental to whatever’s happening on screen. Ocean’s Eleven in superhero form sounds like a great pitch. This movie doesn’t resemble that pitch at all.
Only a few happy accidents save Ant-Man from being totally unwatchable. First and foremost, the cast is exceptional, though the characters they play are as dull as a line at the post office. Judy Greer takes a generic character — Scott Lang’s ex-wife — and grants her interiority and dignity. Michael Peña saves a comic relief role that could have been a nightmare in the hands of a lesser actor. Hal Hartley’s old muse, Martin Donovan, creeps around the movie being awesome in a thankless bit part. House of Cards’s Corey Stoll can’t salvage much from the awful role of Darren Cross, the mewling egomaniac who powers Ant-Man’s plot, but he clings to his dignity for about half the film, which, given what he had to work with, is no small feat.
At least the last half-hour of Ant-Man springs to life for a climactic set piece that finally—finally— delivers visual inventiveness worthy of the character. (The sequence is so good in comparison to the rest of the film that audiences in on the gossip surrounding Ant-Man have to wonder how much of the climax is thanks to the movie’s original writer and director, Edgar Wright, who worked on the project for the better part of a decade before jumping ship just before filming was to begin. Some of these CGI sequences have been in production for a very long time, after all, so Wright’s fingerprints are likely to be on them.) No spoilers here, but Ant-Man’s climactic battle is one of the best superhero action sequences of all the Marvel films, and audiences will surely leave the theater still aglow from it. Will they be so giddy from the last half hour of the film to forget all the bad moviemaking that came before? That’s the question that ought to be keeping Marvel executives up at night.