All movie studios are product factories, to some extent, but perhaps never before has a superhero movie felt so much like it came from an assembly line. Not that good, not that bad, just the result of a highly efficient, highly mechanized process. Which makes it that much stranger that it keeps trying to do comedy. Aw, look, the widget has jokes!
I like to imagine estranged Ant-Man director Edgar Wright as Lucy in that episode of I Love Lucy where she and Ethel work at the chocolate factory, trying to stuff larger universe tie-ins and pointless cameos into his shirt when he couldn’t keep up with Marvel’s conveyor belt, until he eventually got fired and replaced with Yes Man director Peyton Reed, who I have to imagine could package product faster and didn’t try to eat the chocolates.
Ant-Man is much better than Iron Man 2, and that’s what’s so scary about it. That Disney has figured out how to make the same teaser-disguised-as-movie in a much less overt, more inoffensive way. To have Paul Rudd wink at the camera to distract you between SHIELD name drops, a cute puppy to pet while they ready the drill. You imagine Disney’s ultimate goal is a theater full of orderly, ticket-buying youths and families, who come for the brand above all, then leave the theater thinking they’re happy, but with a lobotomized stare and a vague sense of disquiet. DID YOU CLAP AT THE STAN LEE CAMEO? WE CAN’T LEAVE UNLESS YOU CLAP AT THE STAN LEE CAMEO. Serializeit Macht Frei.
Ant-Man manages to feel joyless and rote, despite theoretically having lots of jokes. The lighthearted moments are so inorganic that they all but start with a character saying, “Shall we have a lighthearted comedic moment now?” And I believe Michael Peña’s character is actually named “Comic Relief.” There’s a quiet desperation in its laughs, as Tyler Durden might say.
Ant-Man feels like something Marvel has to get through rather than something they’re having fun with. There’s no interesting villain. No one approaching Dr. Octopus in Spider-Man 2, Ultron, or even Loki (“mewling quims” saved that characer). Instead, Ant-Man has Marvel’s now standard Interchangeable Evil White Dudes In Suits, plus Michael Douglas’s bald ex-protege with vague daddy issues (who is also an evil white dude in a suit, incidentally). Corey Stoll is wasted playing a character who’s evil, sort of, but never interesting, whose heel turn is so abrupt Freckles from Lost has to talk us through it. “This isn’t you, Darren! These particles are altering your brain chemistry!”
Yeah, that happened.
Our sympathy for Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang isn’t quite as poorly manufactured, but it’s close. Ant-Man opens in the prison yard, just before Paul Rudd’s release. He wants to go straight, but as his pal Michael Peña tells him as they drive away from the prison, “it’s hard to get hired as an ex-con.”
Cut to Rudd at Baskin-Robbins, where he eventually gets fired when his boss finds out who he is, a scene that gives the boss a good excuse to read out Scott Lang’s backstory for us. Turns out, Scott Lang is some kind of consumer-protection Robin Hood, stealing from corporations that screw over their customers, and giving the money back to the wronged. “You’re like my hero,” Lang’s boss says. Adding, “I mean, I still have to fire you,” in a scene that’s funny-ish. Or at least has the basic structure of something comedic.
Yet Scott being the Comcast avenger (much better superhero premise than an Ant Man, btw) doesn’t help him when he’s trying to attend his adorable daughter’s birthday party. He’s barred by his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her husband (Bobby Cannavale — Ant-Man seems to have raided all of HBO’s best actors, which was probably easy when they thought they’d be working with Edgar Wright), who tell Scott he has to leave the party on account of he’s a criminal.
I get it, he’s an ex-con, he can’t get a job, but he’s a good guy and he loves his adorable daughter, and he’ll do anything to see her again! That’s all part of Ant-Man‘s elevator pitch. But you have to wonder, if Scott’s boss at Baskin-Robbins can find out that Scott’s a hero just from Googling him, wouldn’t his seemingly-pretty-reasonable ex-wife and her husband give him the benefit of the doubt? Wouldn’t they notice he’s a good guy when everyone else does? Ant-Man‘s little details don’t add up to its outline, and instead of altering the outline in ways that wouldn’t even change the spirit of the project, Ant-Man is rigid. OBEY THE FORMULA. JUST KEEP BOXING UP THOSE CHOCOLATES, DON’T ASK WHAT’S IN THEM.
And so the movie is essentially about a guy who’s good because they say so vs. a guy who’s evil because they say so, and neither is particularly interesting. No orphans raised by ninjas? No deranged circus clowns? Just two bland strivers with daddy issues? Zzzzzzzzz….
The one cool trick Ant-Man has up its sleeve is being able to change the size and perspective of its action set pieces based on Ant-Man‘s shrinking and enlarging (though it spoiled the best one in the trailer, naturally). Toy trains become massive locomotives, and a paper model of a city becomes a full-sized cityscape in a literal realization of Zoolander‘s “a center for ants?” joke.
It makes for cool visuals, and has a sense of play that’s missing from a lot of thumpy, super-serious action sequences. If Furious 7 taught us anything, it’s that we’re not really invested in the stakes of action pieces anymore, only the spectacle. Ant-Man has some solid spectacle, though not enough to save the movie, and it probably would have compensated a lot better if they hadn’t loaded all the good action sequences into the last third of the movie. After it had already bored us to death with contradictory backstory, Hank Pym’s family drama, and tedious montages where Scott Lang learns to believe in himself in order to communicate with ants (he’s apparently Peter Pan as well as Robin Hood).
There’s also a lengthy Avengers tie-in starring Anthony Mackie as Falcon. The entire movie is essentially an extended Avengers featurette, and yet the only Avenger who actually shows up is Falcon. Now, even if you’re not as against tie-ins as I am, if you’re going to do one, couldn’t you at least get one of the characters who’s actually on the poster? Don’t name-drop “the cast of Friends” when you’ve only got Gunther the barista.
The overwhelming sense you get from Ant-Man is that Disney’s plans for the Marvel Universe are far too big to slow down and fix all the little issues with Ant-Man, which is mostly just a cutesy, innocuous diversion (see also: dull). It seems they have the “superhero movie” down to such a science that there isn’t much room for art, or human moments.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.