In weaving its massive entertainment web of integrated storylines with sequels and parallel adventures plotted far into the next decade, the Marvel monolith is a brilliantly organized business plan. It's based on the proposition that film, plus digital effects, equals the ability to depict all those comic book visuals that fifteen years ago were more or less impossible. Yes, it's a case of, 'put enough graphics, animation, 3-D and compositing talent to work on several continents, and they will eventually come up with the graphic novel equivalent of War and Peace.' But considering the way these movies are embraced and internalized by the mass audience around the world, the accomplishment is nothing to be sniffed at. It's definitely more fun than the James Bond franchise, which dropped almost all series continuity after the first three installments, way back in the 1960s. The directors for Marvel must work well with actors, plus pre-plan every iota of what must be the hairiest storyboarded animation movies ever made.
Superhero fight scenes, like most fight scenes in most movies, don't do much for me any more. But when they add interesting personalities with a sense of humor, as with Robert Downey Jr., the shows can be delightful. And when the effects are particularly imaginative, the enjoyment quotient goes way up as well. This year's Ant-Man strays from the Marvel norm in some respects. It earns an 'A' for originality, terrific visual concepts, and a likeable hero.
Released from prison for burglary, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) finds that his conviction makes him unemployable. To obtain enough money so that he'll be able to see his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) again, Scott falls in with his old confederate Luis (Michael Peña) to break into the house of a rich man. It turns out that the house is owned by zillionaire Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and the burglary is a test to see if Scott is smart enough for Pym's incredible plans. Pym was pushed out of his own corporation by his estranged protégè, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who has gone forward with miniaturization technology that Pym felt was too dangerous to be developed. Cross is perfecting the secret of miniaturizing human flesh, and when he succeeds he'll be able to make himself the most powerful man on Earth, with government contracts, etc.. Scott trains to use Pym's one amazing miniaturization suit. He can shrink to the size of an ant, and mentally control hordes of insects, including some that carry him through the air. When Scott is ant-sized, his strength isn't diminished, so he can propel himself almost as hard as a bullet. His job -- infiltrate Pym's old company headquarters to purloin Cross's technological capability before the calculating government 'suits' can take possession. One complication is that Pym's grown daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) is caught between working at Pym industries, and helping her father put Cross out of business. She's furious because Pym won't let her be the Ant-Man, because her mother died as a result of their experiments. The second complication is that Cross knows all about Pym's sabotage plan, and suspects that Hope is involved as well. And when he learns of Scott's involvement, he targets Cassie and Scott's ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer).
Ant-Man got positive reactions this year and did well enough without becoming a box office phenomenon. It was touted as taking the series in a different direction, away from wall-to-wall super-duper slugfests and threats to (yawn) destroy the world. The writers of this show downplay the mayhem in favor of more appealing elements. The engaging Paul Rudd is Scott Lang, the Incredible Shrinking Ex-con. The sentimental factor is a little sticky, yet still basically works. Amusing characters minimize the script's setup in which all the Anglo characters are brilliant and stylish, and all the unassimilated foreign types are 'colorful' comic relief -- to wit, somewhat stupid except when it comes to being clever criminals. The talented Michael Peña has played his share of serious roles, but here he's another finely realized stereotype, a Sancho Panza with practiced thug skills, who puts his faith in Scott's assertion that now 'we're the good guys.'
Where the movie takes off is with the miniaturization concept, which is the next logical step beyond Honey, I Shrunk the Kids! and a riff on The Incredible Shrinking Man minus the poetry and spirituality. Stan Lee and Co. adapted some of the concepts, and technically go Incredible a step further by penetrating the sub-atomic realm for one sequence. That the show is pure comic book escapism and not Science fiction is the observation that there are no consequences in this benign universe -- instead of disappearing into a cosmic-religious infinity like Robert Scott Carey, Scott Lang's one-way trip to the atomic dimension comes with a Get Out of Jail card. We're perfectly happy with that development, as Marvel stories just aren't suited to profundities. I'm also glad that Scott didn't end up rescuing Pym's lost spouse during his sojourn in atomic-land... if that happened, the concept would start sounding like The Phantom Zone, the place from which Zod and his fellow Kryptonian villains escaped in Superman II.
Ant-Man has a few weaknesses endemic to the Marvel form. The bad guy is an ordinary greedy CEO, who dons his own super-shrinko suit to become a monster called Yellow Jacket. As Marvel heroes chew up and spit out generic bad guys like this, the interest factor takes a dive. There's also the expected emphasis on martial arts; trouble in a Marvel story must by definition be resolved with violent aggression. We now have generations of kids that believe that ass-kicking prowess is the mark of a good guy. The martial artist here is Evangeline Lilly's buff daughter, who carries the arrogant body-pride thing; she reminds me a lot of actress Lee Grant. Paul Rudd is a more humane thief-turned-bruiser-for-a-good-cause. The shrinko-enlarge-o gimmicks enliven the chopsocky fighting, which is great. At the insistence of the Marvel front office, Anthony Mackie's Falcon character does cameo duty to remind everyone that Ant-Man will soon be part of the Avengers line-up. The sequence is wholly disposable... I consider it a good thing that enjoying Ant-Man doesn't require being current with the latest developments in the Avengers integrated narrative timeline.
The shrinking effects are superb. The designs, action, and animation are enhanced by excellent depictions of Scott's ability to shrink and enlarge instantaneously, over and over again, especially in the middle of complex, dynamic fight scenes. We must put our brains on speed dial to keep up, and the nimble editing rewards close attention. When in his tiny-tiny state, Scott explores plumbing, falls through cracks in floors, encounters a vacuum cleaner and does battle with the villain aboard a toy railroad train. The film's biggest laugh is when a catastrophic train wreck cuts from the chaos inside a passenger car to the outside -- where two or three plastic train pieces klunk harmlessly off the rails.
Some of the online criticism of Ant-Man is that the story is too small-scale. But it's especially nice that the show takes the time to introduce the shrinking concept with 'ordinary' situations similar to those in the old Incredible Shrinking Man, as when Scott is trapped in a bathtub being filled with water. Like a modern time travel movie that assumes a familiarity with the basic clichés, Ant-Man races into its shrinking scenes, making us work to keep up with the wrinkles in the concept. The silly-science that enables the shrinking effects is fun, and fairly consistent. Some things we can see coming, like the clever foreshadowing of Dr. Pym's keychain fob. Now, stop me before I run amuck, but according to Pym's explanation, wouldn't a shrunken object be just as heavy as the full sized original? We're told that that is what makes the miniature Scott super-strong and ultra-impervious. So how could Pym carry four tons of steel in his pocket? [ Because it's a comic book movie, dolt. ] These are things that non-physics majors think of only after the film is over.
Paul Rudd is charming, Evangeline Lilly attractive in a waspish way (no pun) and Michael Peña steals most of his scenes because he's given all the good jokes. Michael Douglas is acceptable with a role that requires him to put across all the technical exposition -- the writers do a fine job explaining the complicated concepts. Of special note is Bobby Cannavale, the new man in the life of Scott's ex-wife. He starts as a jerk but is allowed to morph into a good guy, which is a classy move for Ant-Man. An average picture would maximize the sympathy for Scott by making his competition into a bigger jerk. Kids from unsecure home situations might actually find some comfort in the film's concluding images of family harmony. Little Cassie is going to be okay. I mean, what could be cooler than having one's own pet giant ant? "Sit, Them!" "Fetch, Them!"
Uncomplicated conflicts make for clearer storytelling, and the character relationships in Marvel stories are almost as simplified as those in an old movie serial. Here the father-offspring dynamics are a little overstated. Scott is motivated to the Nth degree to reconnect with his daughter, who (sob!) needs him so much. Hope is not a malign, cold person, but a heartbroken daughter longing to reconnect with her father, who she thinks murdered her mom and abandoned her, boo hoo. And poor misunderstood Darren Cross might not have become a cut-rate Lex Luthor, if his substitute father had just understood him better, and supported his efforts to prove his worthiness -- by weaponizing highly revolutionary technology. That's a lot of thwarted generational relationships in one movie. Ant-Man resolves these conflicts well enough, but the characters aren't really the kind that non-Marvel fans take seriously.
I'll admit that the narrative became a little fast at the end, and I stopped trying to grok every detail of the shrinko-enlargo scheme before the final wrinkles played out. That just means I'll have fun watching the movie again. For me, Ant-Man was the most entertaining Marvel adventure since the first Iron Man movie. Well done!
Walt Disney Studios / Marvel's 3-D Blu-ray + Digital HD of Ant-Man surprises nobody by being a picture perfect encoding of this technically wondrous CGI blitz of a movie. Accounting for the blizzard of extra names in the long end credit call are a battalion of 'depth illusion' experts, who have given the show a great look in 3-D. Home video 3-D is easier on the eyes than ever. This movie uses the depth effects to enhance the illusion of scale, whether between big and small or near and far. It seems obvious that managing a 3-D environment can't be easy, even for practiced experts,.
The show has the customary Marvel director and star commentary, and a second Blu-ray disc with the standard 2-D encoding and the extras. It's the usual lineup of polished, interview-driven promo featurettes, that focus on the filming of the movie, and the conceptualization / visualization of the shrinking effects. (see below for a list.) Another Marvel-universe oriented feature uses a news-bulletin format, and we're also given some deleted and extended scenes. Again, this one's well worth seeing in 3-D.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Ant-Man 3-D Blu-ray + Digital HD
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.