Once upon a time in 2003 there was a cute throwback comedy called Down with Love in which Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger were paired together in a light, fluffy homage to the Rock Hudson/Doris Day sparring matches of cinematic yore. It had a man’s man taken down several pegs, a feminist who rejected romantic love yet came around to her own version of it by the end, a bouncy soundtrack, a zippy pace, winning supporting turns from Sarah Paulson and David Hyde Pierce, a musical number during the end credits, and an absurdly convoluted revenge speech delivered in a three-minute uninterrupted take. Anne and I were among the very few viewers who loved it in theaters and bought it on DVD. I made a point of remembering the director’s name, Peyton Reed, in hopes that someday we’d see more from this up-‘n’-comer.
Reed’s resumé includes other well-known works such as the original Bring It On and The Weird Al Show, but I’ve seen none of them. Regardless, Reed is back at long last with his latest comedy Ant-Man, which was shot on a much higher budget and made more in its first two days of release than Down with Love made in its entire three-month run worldwide. So maybe now Hollywood will take him seriously.
Short version for the unfamiliar: There’s a reason for all that money, of course: MARVEL MARVEL MARVEL MARVEL MARVEL. This label alone makes Ant-Man mandatory theatrical viewing for a wildly undiscerning number of us. In the late ’80s when comic collectors felt obligated to buy anything and everything with a Marvel label on it, they were derisively nicknamed “Marvel zombies”. Nearly two decades later the company opted to own the name and turn it into yet another profitable product line. Maybe that’s why no one’s used the “Marvel zombie” epithet against movie fans who feel they have to see every single Marvel film regardless of whether or not they have any vested interest in the characters or cast. But here we are anyway, seeing every one of them until the super-hero movie bubble bursts. Advantage: Marvel, for now.
In the meantime: Paul Rudd (Bobby Newport from Parks & Rec) plays Scott Lang, an engineer who went to prison for crimes against a big corporation and is therefore not such a bad guy by Hollywood definitions. Lang has served out his sentence and hopes to use his Masters degree to rejoin the rat race. Unfortunately he;s not yet on social media and has zero contacts in any of the right places, so he can only get a job as an underpaid product-placement shill. He’s also a divorced dad who wants to do right by his cute-as-a-dolly daughter and the ex-wife who’s bitter that he didn’t pay child support while he was locked up. If he really cared about family, he would’ve cranked out more license plates and/or swindled more inmates out of their drug money.
Just when Scott has given up and begun turning back to the Dark Side, he attracts the attention of formerly powerful Michael Douglas as the formerly powerful Dr. Henry Pym, a hyper-intelligent scientist who had a sideline career back in the day as a clandestine super-hero who used to fight the good fight but never made the papers like that showoff Captain America. Pym’s hero-tech and the company he started are now in the clutches of his former protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll from The Strain), who’s preparing to sell out Pym’s secrets to the highest military bidders. His experimental Yellowjacket armor, which has wings and lasers and CG lightshow bedazzles, could be used to create a veritable super-villain army if it falls into the wrong hands, by which we mean Hydra because there are no other villainous armies in the entire Marvel universe ever.
Pym needs Scott to inherit his old mantle, pull off one last heist, thwart the Yellowjacket plans, and, as everyone keeps putting it, “become the man your daughter already thinks you are.” The requisite training montage sees Scott learn how to shrink to the size of a Christmas ornament, punch at full-size strength, command ants to carry out complex tasks kind of like classic Aquaman used to command fish, and other heroic feats largely dependent on various ant species Pym has been farming for just such an occasion.
And lo, there shall come…an Ant-Man! That is, if Pym’s angry daughter Evangeline Lilly doesn’t summon up Tauriel’s strength, knock everyone’s teeth out, and suit up as the unbeatable Ant-Woman in Scott’s place. Not that she’s bitter about her crucial supporting role on the team or anything.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Judy Greer, the concerned mother from Jurassic World whose offspring were threatened by malevolent visual effects and who’s really mad at their father for unrelated reasons, plays the concerned mother whose offspring is eventually threatened by malevolent visual effects and who’s really mad at the father for unrelated reasons. Her new husband, a policeman with multiple reasons to dislike Scott, is Bobby Cannavale from The Station Agent. His partner is Wood Harris, a.k.a. Avon Barksdale from The Wire.
Scott’s goofy old partners in crime include a scene-stealing Michael Pena, fully recovered from the dourness of Gracepoint; rapper T.I.; and David Dastmalchian, one of the Joker’s memorable henchmen from The Dark Knight. Much darker is Martin Donovan, Al Pacino’s doomed partner from Insomnia, as a former associate of Pym’s who’s now a prominent weapons buyer.
Some of the later TV ads already ruined one of my favorite surprises: special guest star Anthony Mackie as the Falcon! Marvel fans will also recognize Hayley Atwell and Mad Men‘s John Slattery reprising their roles from previous appearances. Stan Lee is naturally in the mix and facing front, but you’ll have to wait till near the end for him. And points to my wife for spotting SNL old-schooler Garrett Morris in a fleeting moment as a cab driver in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Reforming can be a lot harder than staying evil, but it’s still better. Family is important. So are legacies. Adults need to let their adult children be adults when they’re obviously ready. Not all stepparents are evil, but differences of opinion should be expected. Getting along in front of the kids is strongly recommended.
Burgling corporations may be illegal, but it’s noble sometimes because corporations suck. Corporations suck even more if they make, buy, or sell weapons. And in an about-face from his previous films, Michael Douglas teaches us that greed is bad.
Nitpicking? Corporations whose products are practically second-billed costars are of course exempt from the aforementioned Morals of the Story.
While Corey Stoll has a few choice moments of sneering and some snazzy duds, Darren Cross sadly isn’t much more than a cross between Iron-Monger from the first Iron Man and Killian the Extremis guy from the third one — “Military science will make me rich and powerful!” meets “My tech idol didn’t love me!” Marvel’s back catalog contains plenty of villains who are not part of the military-industrial complex and a change of pace might be fascinating to behold.
Near the end there’s a giant explosion that, if Our Heroes’ plans hadn’t gone awry, could’ve murdered hundreds of innocent civilians in addition to eliminating the intended targets. I’m not convinced Pym thought that part through, nor would it have reflected well on Scott’s attempted redemption.
Speaking of which: Pym’s special offer to Scott reads in so many words disappointingly like so:
SCOTT: I desperately need money and a real job so I can be a better dad.
PYM: Here’s a better idea: wanna be a hero?
SCOTT: How much does it pay?
PYM: No comment.
SCOTT: Is this a full-time position with benefits?
PYM: No comment.
SCOTT: Will I be able to tell my daughter the truth about what I do for a living?
PYM: I didn’t say anything about a “living”.
SCOTT: Who does this benefit?
PYM: I get my inventions back! Also, some people who might’ve died in distant future wars maybe won’t now. Or if they do, at least it won’t be my fault.
SCOTT: What part of this solves my child support issues?
PYM: It’s about SUPER-HEROING! *strikes a pose*
SCOTT: …well, my crew are dummies, so okay.
…so that motivational disconnect bugged me for the rest of the running time, as most of Scott’s daily-living concerns are dropped and everyone agrees to pretend they were solved, including Mom and Stepdad-Cop.
I’m assuming the wilder scenes and ideas came from the original screenplay drafts by ex-director Edgar Wright and Attack the Block‘s Joe Cornish, but some rewriting was done by Rudd himself and by comedy movie specialist Adam McKay. Maybe the piecemeal nature of the movie’s genesis meant some aspects of the creative process received short shrift, but to me an awful lot of Ant-Man was more whimsical than funny.
So what’s to like? Not that whimsy has to be bad, mind you. Rudd is likeable even when his punchlines are too terse. Most of the cast seem to be enjoying themselves (except that bitter, bitter Lilly) and eventually most of the characters become friends and everyone’s happy and I’m surprised there wasn’t a big dance party at the end, though I’m sure someone suggested it.
The effects seem a tad wobbly here and there, but the set pieces are as dynamic as ever, on scales midsize and small. The Thomas the Tank Engine sequence is the major selling point in its best trailers, but other fight scenes and CG showcases occur in evil labs, inside various cramped quarters, and I’m fond of one that breaks out inside a bucking helicopter, because between this, San Andreas, and Terminator Genisys, live-action helicopter stunts seem to be a rising trend. If it means more work for real stuntmen, I’m cool with this.
Ant-Man sparks the expected smiles, gives us a high-speed tour through an unexplored corner of the Marvel universe, and provides a chance for the producers to try out a different level of super-hero tale where the stakes aren’t massive worldwide destruction. There’s nothing about the movie that really scans as “A Peyton Reed Film” as it settles into the same aesthetic track as its forebears, but given its popcorn-flick flaws I’d rank it on the high end of Marvel’s lower tier, somewhere well above Thor: the Dark World.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene during the Ant-Man end credits, along with a second scene at the very end after the end credits. For those who fled the theater prematurely and really want to know without seeing it a second time…
[insert space for courtesy mild spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…during the credits: Henry Pym escorts daughter Hope to a secret room where he rewards her with a very special token of affection: an experimental super-suit so she can become a super-hero just like her mom, the Wasp. Hope is all like, “FINALLY.”
After the end credits: in a different secret room far away, the Falcon compares notes with his pal Captain America (yay Chris Evans!), who’s managed to locate his old pal Bucky the Winter Soldier (yay Sebastian Stan!). Cap thinks they need more help with what they’ve got going on.
Falcon assures Cap it’s okay: “I know a guy.”
And there’s our first glimpse of Captain America: Civil War, coming to theaters in the near future along with 726 other super-hero films. I say let’s enjoy them while we can, before the trend passes and we can’t stand them anymore. Thanks, corporations!