This is actually getting sort of ridiculous. Maybe it shouldn't have been such a shock, after all, that Iron Man, drawing largely on the star-wattage and charisma of Robert Downey Jr., would be pretty entertaining. Ditto Captain America, a more or less timeless character played with perfect solemn squareness by Chris Evans. And if you bought into those two, and their subsequent sequels, The Avengers was a mortal lock to be fun. But now, in successive years, Marvel Studios has churned out wildly amusing and thrilling fare based on far lesser-known characters, despite all the doubters heading into the films' release.
I speak, of course, about last year's runaway hit Guardians of the Galaxy, a film that had virtually no readership base to pull from initially, and now with the much-beleaguered Ant-Man. For those of you not up on your fanboy gossip, the brief summary of the film's origins goes something like this (deep breath): Fanboy fave Edgar Wright (he of the Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy) initially penned a treatment of the character for a film he was planning more than a decade ago, one which Marvel initially signed off upon. But after several years of development and script rewrites, Wright abruptly left the project last year, right before principal photography to move on to greener pastures (though word was this had been one of his dream projects, so one can imagine there might have been a tear of bitterness or two in the process), leaving the whole project in development limbo. Shortly thereafter, a new production team was announced to the breathless Marvel devotees, and let us just say, they weren't terribly moved by the director of The Yes Man and Bring It On taking over a project upon which one of their creative heroes had been jettisoned. Nor were they thrilled when it was announced funnyman Paul Rudd, who had never even remotely portrayed an action hero before, would be playing the lead role.
88 Cast: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, Abby Ryder Fortson, Michael Pena, Hayley Atwell, John Slattery
Director: Peyton Reed
Rating: PG-13, for science-fiction action violence
Running time: 117 minutes
Rumors of rewrites, and reshoots, and set problems plagued the project, causing many to assume this would be one of Marvel's rare misfires (mind you, I was no fan of either Thor film, but they certainly made their money). And so, lo and behold, imagine everyone's surprise when they finally get to take a look at this thing ... and discover that it's actually a hell of a lot of fun.
If Marvel has a single element to their largely winning formula, it is this: They get the idea that superheroes and costumes and supervillains and superpowers are inherently sort of silly, so they don't bother covering up that goofiness with the dark solemnity and mirthless dank of the Christopher Nolan Bat-films. They have fun with their characters even as they serve up the high-powered action sequences, which yields films that don't take themselves so deathly seriously. DC-based comic films seem intent to have their mythic heroes playing out the conscience of their considerable legacies as if interpreting the theater of Euripides; Marvel just wants to have fun.
Rudd plays Scott Lang, a former cat burglar, just released from San Quentin and back into regular society, where he desperately wants to reconnect with his young daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). With a prison record, he can't get any kind of real job, so in desperation he hooks up with some fellow ex-cons -- played by Michael Pena, T.I. and David Dastmalchian -- to burgle the house of a retired scientist by the name of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), an aging warhorse, whose greatest discovery enabled him to shrink to microscopic levels wearing a special suit and communicate with ants.
Pym, whose company got hijacked by his former protege, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), and has been planning, along with his comely daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), to overthrow Cross and destroy his plans to militarize his shrinking technology, enlists Lang's aid to help them. Thus ensues a sort of Mission: Impossible-style heist picture, only with a guy who can reduce himself to the size of a flea.
What is truly remarkable about the film -- especially given its difficult production -- is the way it still flows organically from one scene to the next, maintaining its lighthearted tone more or less on an even keel. While it's absolutely true the film fails the villain test -- a real weakness across the board in Marvel films, and an arena in which it must be said DC absolutely thrashes them -- with yet another scientist driven mad by his discoveries and needing to be stopped from destroying the planet, director Peyton Reed smartly de-emphasizes that entire element of the story, reducing it to more or less a side dish. In one climactic battle scene with Lang and Cross, duking it out in dual microscopic battle suits, Ant-Man suddenly goes back to regular size and literally swats the threatening Yellowjacket out of the sky with a pingpong paddle, sending him careening into an electric insect zapper.
In keeping this sort of loose, insouciant tone, Rudd turns out to be a canny choice in the lead role. His comic chops may come more easily than his karate, but what he lacks in physicality (and to be clear, he's clearly buffed up considerably for the role) he more than makes up for in charm. But it's not just him: With as many as nine credited writers (including our boy Mr. Wright, who at least still earns that much for his efforts), it's hard to gauge what inspired nonsense came from which version of the script, but there are several laugh-out-loud moments (one of which involves a cataclysmic battle inside a falling briefcase), and a sense that the filmmakers were happily open to sticking a pin into their creation whenever the mood struck them. This kind of spirited energy powers the film through its murkier plot points admirably and carries it all the way through to its confusing post-credit sequences (something involving Captain America and the Falcon that apparently is significant to regular Marvel readers).
This isn't to say Marvel Studios can do no wrong -- The Avengers: Age of Ultron proved a good deal more bogged down and unsatisfying than the original, to pick but a most recent example -- but, in the end, we do have to grant them that the formula they've devised, much as in the comics of the original Marvel Golden Age of the early '60s, can successfully create whooping good times out of ideas that sound pretty terminal, no matter the degree of difficulty. Crikey, they can even take the lowly ant and turn them into a hilarious, six-legged hero. Howard the Duck might remain their ancient Waterloo, but it's clear they've learned enormously from their past transgressions. There remain a staggering number of productions in Marvel's coming "phase 3" slate of films (at last count, there were at least 10 confirmed features spread out through 2019), but with Guardians and now Ant-Man, there's at least a basis for hope that the majority of them, like this one, will turn out to be pretty watchable.
MovieStyle on 07/17/2015
Print Headline: Gig-ANT-ic hero