Ant-Man is, in almost every way, an oddity in the Marvel Studios canon. It's the most standalone film Marvel has made since 2011's first Captain America movie, not particularly concerned with how its characters fit into the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe (though it does tie in here and there).
Unfortunately, it's felled by almost all of the studio's usual problems — most notably a seeming aversion to conflicts more serious than those that can be resolved with a brief fistfight. The film's best moments contain real wit and wonder ... and then those qualities are subsumed by its more generic aspects.
In short, it's a very un-Marvel movie that only underlines how tired Marvel's formula is becoming. Say what you will about the studio's last film — the bulky, weird Avengers: Age of Ultron — but at least Ultron tried something different (and, in my opinion, half-brilliant). Ant-Man has its charms, but they're frequently lost beneath a story that feels like a patchwork job. It's a fun watch, but also a frustrating one.
Let's dig in, then, to the good (the acting!) and bad (the anemic roles for women!) of Ant-Man.
Good: The ending is one of Marvel's best action sequences to date
Ant-Man's story is essentially just an excuse for shrinky-dink shenanigans. Ex-con Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) gets out of jail (where he was sent for wholly altruistic crimes, the film assures us) only to find that his job prospects aren't what they once were. Soon, he reunites with some criminal pals he met in prison, so they can pull off one last impossible heist.
The series of coincidences that follows is somewhat improbable, but that's not really the point. It's engineered to bring Scott into contact with one Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a faded genius who invented a suit that allowed him to become insect-sized, while maintaining his raw human strength. (The resulting size differential between Hank and his foes theoretically gives him the ability to fly in from seemingly nowhere and knock someone out with a single punch.) And sure enough, Scott soon joins Hank's cause, becoming Ant-Man with the goal of infiltrating the company Hank once ran and preventing Hank's former protégé from selling his own version of the Ant-Man suit to the world's worst villains.
As a plot, it's little more than a platform for comic riffing — typical of Marvel — but it concludes in a dazzling action sequence that elevates the entire movie a point or two. With all of Ant-Man's powers in place, the movie can have some fun with scale, shrinking some objects and enlarging others with a gleeful, madcap velocity. One can sense the filmmakers challenging themselves to set an entire climactic action sequence in a little girl's bedroom — and being thrilled when they succeed.
Bad: The bad guy is such a bore
As Hank's former protégé and current rival, Darren Cross, Corey Stoll (best known for House of Cards and The Strain) has his moments — most notably when he's blowing up baby lambs in the name of science. (Yes, that happens.) And it's refreshing to see a Marvel movie where the endgame doesn't involve saving the world but, rather, preserving an old man's legacy and reuniting a younger man's family.
The problem is that Marvel doesn't really know how to write bad guys with credible motivations. Even its best villains — Robert Redford's character in Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Loki in the first Avengers film — have master plans that don't make much sense, and the studio is lousy at creating evil plots that mesh with its villains as established.
That's exactly what happens with Darren, whose motivations could not be murkier and whose grudges feel imported from a different movie we've never seen. The dry, expository style in which Marvel's movie baddies speak is probably an unfortunate leftover from comic-style storytelling, but it sometimes feels as if reciting loaded, threat-heavy dialogue is all Darren knows how to do. This leaves Stoll, a tremendously talented actor, stranded.
Good: Director Peyton Reed puts a personal stamp on the film
Before its release, Ant-Man was mostly defined by its troubled production history, in which original director Edgar Wright (he of such films as Scott Pilgrim and Hot Fuzz) quit the project just weeks before production was scheduled to begin, lending further credence to the idea that directors with strong personal visions have trouble fitting into the Marvel mold.
And yet Ant-Man brims with the signature motifs of Peyton Reed, the man who replaced Wright, even as the script itself (which still bears credit to Wright and his writing partner, Joe Cornish) very clearly reveals the structural underpinnings of whatever Wright's version might have looked like. Ultimately, Reed's quirky filmmaking style gets to shine through.
Reed's best films — Bring It On and the sadly ignored '60s rom-com throwback Down With Love — are candy-colored confections laced with acidic satire. Ant-Man skimps on the satirical edge, but it boasts plenty of sugary sweet stuff around the edges. When Scott gets a job at a Baskin-Robbins, Reed plays up the pinks, and when our hero shrinks for the first time ever, the director transforms his scuzzy apartment building into a wild romper room. Reed hasn't made a big-screen film since 2008's Yes Man (his weakest work), and Ant-Man will hopefully revive his career.
Bad: The big heist sequence is ambitious, but ultimately falls flat
Instead of following the customary Marvel structure of three big fights at the movie's beginning, middle, and end, Ant-Man mostly eschews that approach in favor of staging heist sequences in the film's first and second acts. It's a great idea, as many of Marvel's movies thrive when they try other, non-superhero genres on for size.
But where the heist in act one is an enjoyable improvisation, with Scott attempting to crack a safe without the tools he needs, the one in act two suffers in its efforts to blend superheroics with complicated thievery. There are some cool moments with Scott controlling his ant friends (don't ask), but neither the structure of the heist nor its stakes if Scott fails are entirely clear beyond the usual, "Bad things will happen, and the villains will win!"
Good: Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas are great fun
Rudd was seemingly born to play a reluctant superhero. The winningly charming actor has been the best thing about dozens upon dozens of comedies, but he's never quite hit as a star in his own right. As Scott Lang, however, he brings a real, bruised quality to his portrayal of a man who's seeking a way to keep his life together after very nearly throwing it all away. Ant-Man's emotional center lies in Scott's attempts to reunite with his young daughter and accept that his ex-wife has moved on with another man. While the script doesn't remotely earn any of these emotions, Rudd still plays the hell out of them, and sometimes that's enough.
Similarly, Michael Douglas possesses a faded lion quality as Hank, a man who really did lose almost everything and is trying to hold on to the one thing he has left — his own daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly). The scenes where Rudd, Douglas, and Lilly play off each other have a comedic zip to them that Marvel sometimes strains to achieve, but thanks to director Reed's facility with sarcastic quips, they skate right on by.
Bad: Marvel still doesn't know what to do with anyone who's not a white guy
Weirdly, to Ant-Man's credit, its entire subtext is about how little room there is for women or racial minorities in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (at least so far). For instance, Hope's entire character arc is about what happens when a woman wants to be a superhero but the most important people in her life won't let her. And Scott's ex-wife, Maggie, seems like such an obvious commentary on how poorly Marvel treats its women that she's played by Judy Greer, an actress who's literally famous for being ill-served by Hollywood.
The film's treatment of racial minorities is less adept, but at least it's hired excellent actors to play Scott's friends from the clink, in particular Michael Peña as the endlessly charismatic Luis. Yes, the scenes with Scott and Hank are a lot of fun — but Ant-Man so skillfully hints at how well its supporting characters might carry the movie that at times I was frustrated to have to spend so much time with the two whose story arcs are so similar to those of all of Marvel's other heroes.
Good: Occasionally, Ant-Man feels like Marvel's Pikmin: The Movie — even if it doesn't fully commit to its most interesting elements
Scott makes friends with four different kinds of ants that can help him complete certain tasks. Ant-Man doesn't make as much use of this as it could have, but in some of its most enjoyable moments, it invokes Pikmin, Nintendo's terrific video game about tiny spacefarers who take on giant bugs with the help of the titular flower people.
That everyday oddness strikes a new tone for Marvel, and the movie mostly succeeds in adopting it. But there's still a timidness throughout Ant-Man that holds it back. The good stuff is so, so good, and then the bad stuff is ... so Marvel.