Ant-Man: A (mildly spoilery) review!

From the moment it was announced, Ant-Man was viewed as a bit of a risky move by Marvel. Even for a comic book movie, a guy that gets really small and talks to ants seemed like a bit of a stretch. Could they make it work? Would this be the beginning of the end for Marvel?

Of course not. Marvel doesn’t seem capable of making a genuinely terrible movie, and Ant-Man was far, far away from terrible. Following up on epic adventures like Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron, Marvel gives us a small, fun, and funny heist movie that more than delivers.

The short version: 9/10, definite watch, and do so in 3-D if possible. One of my favorite MCU movies yet, largely because it’s something different from what we’ve gotten so far. For more details, keep reading.

Note: There will be very minor spoilers here for some elements of the movie; I will try not to give away anything major, but you may want to skip this one until you’ve seen it. If you’re willing to risk it, click on down:

Unlike their more recent movies, Ant-Man is a bit of a throw-back to the earlier installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in that it’s not a planet- or galaxy-spanning epic adventure that finds whole species at risk of extinction. Rather, the movie focuses on the personal lives of a handful of characters, over a few days, in one small area of San Francisco. The broader universe of the MCU is there, peeking it’s head in every so often, but the movie always stays true to it’s core: Scott Lang and his quest to do right by his daughter.

Marvel and DC have both shown signs of moving away from the origin story-style movie, with subsequent characters like Batman and Spider-Man being introduced fully-formed into the universe. This movie seems like a first step in that direction: it’s not Ant-Man’s origin story, but it is Scott Lang’s origin story. As you’ve probably already figured out from the trailers, the movie introduces us to Hank Pym at a point when he’s already been Ant-Man for a long time (though early leaks that he would be portrayed as a “founding member of the Avengers” didn’t seem to pan out), and is ready to pass the torch. We get to watch as he mentors Scott into taking his place, teaching him how to use the suit to its fullest.

One thing I noticed about this movie, after it was over, is that it seemed to be almost exactly the right length. There were a few editing choices that didn’t quite click with me, but overall, the pacing of the story worked well. We get enough of Hank and Hope’s backstories to set up what we need to know, but not enough to distract from the fact that this is Scott’s movie. The expected montage as Scott learns to use the suit isn’t thrown at us all at once, but woven into the story, so it genuinely feels like he put effort into his training. It’s not perfect — it felt like it was still too short, especially given the level of skill Scott shows off later on, but it definitely did not feel rushed. The sense of urgency also builds nicely: the movie doesn’t start out with the entire world on the brink of disaster, but rather, we get to see the situation well in hand before it suddenly spirals out of control.

We spend a lot of time watching the family dynamic between Scott, his daughter, and his ex-wife and her new husband, and as cliche as the whole setup is, it never comes off corny. New stepdad Paxton doesn’t like Scott — because Paxton’s a cop and Scott’s a felon, obviously — but he never goes over the top with it. It would have been easy to make Paxton, or Maggie, come across as bad people trying to ruin Scott’s chances of getting his life back, but they never do. Instead, they seem to genuinely think they’re doing what’s best for Cassie, even if we wish they would lighten up. And Scott, for his part, never plays the victim, either: he did something bad, paid the price, and is willing to work to make things right.

This plays out in contrast to the “family” dynamic between Hank, his daughter Hope, and Hank’s protege Darren Cross, which is about as dysfunctional as it gets. The movie version of Hank Pym is toned down a lot from the comics version (that one thing we all know about Hank Pym is never even remotely hinted at), but he’s still a total jerk. The loss of his wife, Janet, and Hank’s subsequent meltdown ruined his relationship with Hope, which could best be described as politely familiar. Darren also feels slighted and abandoned by Hank, and he’s partly right: Hank has become terrified of what his own research could do, and has been keeping it from Cross because he knows Cross is smart enough to replicate it. Of course, that obviously backfires, because Cross does exactly that, thus precipitating the need for this movie in the first place.

Though this isn’t really an action movie, it’s a Marvel movie, so of course there’s enough action in it to keep the movie exciting and moving along. Both of Scott’s extended fight scenes make excellent use of what might have been two really corny gimmicks: the shrinking suit and the ants. A very late reveal let us know that Falcon was in this movie, and for my money, the Ant-Man / Falcon match-up was even better than the inevitable Ant-Man / Yellow Jacket one. (Both were fun to watch, but the final confrontation got interrupted one too many times for sight gags for my liking.)  This movie also definitely benefited from 3-D: with Ant-Man bouncing around all over the place during most of the action sequences, having the depth to the scenes really made them come alive. I was rather disappointed with the 3-D in most of Marvel’s previous movies, but this time I’d highly recommend it.

But the action scenes were only one part of the movie, and not even the biggest part. Unlike some of Marvel’s bigger action-heavy movies, the rest of the movie wasn’t just filler between the fights. There was a lot of genuinely funny stuff going on, with Paul Rudd being funny without being hammy, and Evangeline Lilly and Michael Douglas playing off him quite nicely. And there was plenty of MCU crossover bits to keep the true MCU fan interested, including surprise cameos from Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter and John Slattery as Howard Stark, a pretty strong hint that Spider-Man is coming, a visit to the new Avengers HQ, and even a reference to the Microverse. (Plus, the post-credit scenes set up the eventual emergence of Wasp and the what I assume to be the start of Civil War.) None of that stuff is crucial to enjoying the film, and even when you get a glimpse of the larger world beyond the movie, you’re still reminded that Scott Lang’s personal drama is just as important as anything happening on the other side of the Galaxy.

There were a few elements of the movie that didn’t click for me, though at best they’re momentary distractions. My major complaint is how much time they spent with Scott’s “crew”. As a heist movie, they obviously needed to have a whole crew of criminals to pull it off. That crew consisted of a trio of stereotypes — the Russian hacker, the black get-away driver, and the Mexican one with lots of gang friends — that mostly do exactly what you expect. They’re played as comic relief in a film that was already funny enough without them; by adding in more humor, and mostly bad humor, it ruined the balance for me. I was quickly over seeing Michael Pena’s character, who gets some extended dialog sequences — and his own really annoying personality quirk! — for what is essentially a throw-away character. (That’s not a slight on Pena himself; I have to assume he skillfully played the role exactly as the director wanted.)  This wouldn’t have been so bad if there had been a lot less of it, but there were a few scenes that seemed to serve no purpose except to get those three on the screen. (There’s one scene with the trio, right in the middle of the dramatic climax, that’s only there to make one really obvious cliche joke, but goes on forever).

Darren Cross’s villain character was also a bit of a mess for me. The movie can’t seem to figure out exactly what kind of bad guy he is, so he initially comes off like one of those fridge magnets with the magnetic accessories. His core character is very flat: Hank Pym was his mentor, but somehow abandoned him in a vaguely unspecified way, so hurt and angry Cross retaliates by stealing the company and making weapons. But the movie keeps trying to bolt on something extra and none of them seem to stick: is he a greedy warmonger who wants to sell his technology for lots of money? a disgruntled employee out for revenge against his former mentor? a criminal mastermind who wants to get in bed with HYDRA? or a lunatic who’s experiments have driven him to murder baby sheep? I think we’re supposed to believe he’s all of the above, but his character instead seems to bounce from one to the other as the plot requires. Fortunately, by the end he settled nicely on one, just in time for his big confrontation with Ant-Man.

A lot of these characterization failures might be explained by the movie’s famous difficulty getting and keeping a director. Peyton Reed came on very late, about a year ago, and began rewriting the script. This late-stage “fixing up” might explain some of places where the film seems lost. Besides the occasionally flaky characterization, this inconstancy is particularly apparent with the Hank/Hope dynamic, which (compared to Scott Lang’s family drama) seems incomplete, or at least hastily pieced together. The film also can’t seem to figure out how bad of a person Scott Lang is. He’s in prison when the film starts, but the crime that got him arrested was a Robin Hood-style good deed that people routinely praise him for. But at the same time, he’s also a cat burglar with years of practice robbing homes and businesses. In other words: when Scott needs to break into something, he’s a career criminal, but when Scott needs to be sympathetic, he’s just a decent guy who made a mistake. Scott’s likable enough that you can mostly ignore the contradiction, but if you stop to think about it, you suddenly wonder why anyone trusts this guy to do anything?

Most of the time, the movie did a decent job with the science: rather than introducing the Kosmos dimension, Hank claims that Pym particles function by somehow “changing the space between molecules”, which bears enough of a passing resemblance to actual science that it didn’t even bother me. However, there was one point when they went off the rails, when trying to explain what I assume will turn out to be the Microverse. Hank warns Scott that if he tries to shrink too much, he will enter a “quantum world” which is described, and then shown on-screen, to be more like a bad acid trip than anything quantum physics related. In addition, the movie badly miscalculates how small molecules are: Scott shrinks down to fit “between the molecules” of a sheet of titanium (sketchy but close enough), but as he keeps shrinking, we start to see single-celled organisms — things much bigger than molecules. Fortunately, this scene doesn’t last very long, so you can just close your eyes and wait for it to go away.

Finally, the CGI overall wasn’t as consistently good as I’d come to expect from a Marvel Studios feature film. For one thing, there was an over-reliance on “small things getting big” CGI gags; a house-sized Thomas the Tank Engine is only funny the first time, sorry. And, though the suit sequences and shrunken-down CGI backgrounds were both pretty good, the CGI ants were much more hit-and-miss. The bright orange fire-ants looked like ants (though, as a Florida native, they didn’t really look like fire ants), but some of the others were just terrible. In fact, until Hope actually showed us the ant hills where they raised them, I was convinced that the ants were robots that Hank had manufactured and remotely controlled, because they genuinely look metallic half the time. Thankfully, as the movie progresses, we see less close-ups of individual ants, and more swarms (which looked better), so again, this only bothered me for a little while.

As far as the movie’s handling of Janet van Dyne, I’m going to reserve judgement on that until we see how it plays out in the future. A lot of people are annoyed with how Marvel has excised a huge chunk of Avengers history by not including Hank or Janet on the team; though Hank and Janet in the MCU clearly both worked for SHIELD as Ant-Man and Wasp, it was well before the Avengers started. And we see almost nothing about the personal relationship between the two, and probably for good reason: Hank Pym’s relationship with his wife in the comics is easily one of the most controversial things to ever appear in the Marvel mainstream universe, and Marvel Studios likely wants to stay as far away from that as possible. Just having Janet van Dyne still around when this movie starts would bring all of that up, so having her “dead” the whole time side-steps the issue. Unfortunately, that means a pretty big rewrite of Marvel history to make it fit, but that’s nothing new for the MCU, and that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. Plus, the way the movie ends, we not only get a setup for an excellent replacement Wasp, but you just know Janet herself is coming back at some point.

Overall, though the bad things weren’t that bad, and the good stuff was really good. The actors did an really good job with their characters — even the ones who’s characters were terrible to begin with. The story was good, most of the comedy dialogue worked, and there was only a few scenes of filler that I think the movie could have done without. If you are at all a fan of the previous Marvel movies, this is definitely one you don’t want to miss.


2 thoughts on “Ant-Man: A (mildly spoilery) review!

  1. I’m genuinely suprised that you didn’t like Michael Pena as Luis – he was the highlight of the film for me, frequently making me laugh loudly in the cinema, along with everyone else. I felt than Ant Man was easily the funniest of the Marvel films, with all of the humour landing perfectly. Only one minor quibble with your review – I’m fairly sure that Ant Man is set in San Francisco, not New York.

  2. I liked Luis (and I think Pena played him perfectly), but I think I would have liked him better with about 25% less of time. The other two “crewmembers” were a total waste. He had a few laugh-out-loud moments, but mostly in the first 1/2 of the movie.

    I thought it was New York when I first saw it because they kept name-dropping the Avengers; then I realized if it was in NYC they wouldn’t have needed to take a passenger jet to get to the new Avengers HQ. Unfortunately, it’s a total pain to edit these things after they’re posted :

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