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Josh Reviews Ant Man!

Marvel’s Ant Man seems to have had the most tumultuous development process of any of the Marvel Studios films so far.  Or, at least, its behind-the-scenes dirty laundry has been the most public.  Edgar Wright spent years developing the film for Marvel, but then when the project was finally, officially put on Marvel’s Phase Two slate, he walked away from the film.  Many wondered if the film was still worth making without Edgar Wright at the helm.

Well, I am pleased to report that director Peyton Reed, working from a screenplay credited to Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish (who were involved with Ant Man’s first iteration) as well as Paul Rudd and Adam McKay (who got involved once Mr. Wright left and Mr. Reed took over), has succeeded in crafting a wonderful addition to the Marvel cinematic universe.  It’s a far smaller-scale film than any of the other Phase Two films, but it works.  There’s some lovely character work and a nice dollop of humor, some cool concepts and fun visual effects, and a lot of clever nods to the wider Marvel cinematic universe.  This is a film that feels very much of a piece with the solo films that kicked off Marvel’s Phase One, films like Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor.  Just like with those films, I was originally dubious that those very comic-booky characters could succeed as movies, but once again Marvel Studios has proven me wrong.

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The greatest strength of the Marvel movies so far, and the secret to their success, has been the films’ impeccable casting, and Ant Man continues that trend.  I love the concept that this film features two characters who have been in costume as the hero Ant Man from the comics — Hank Pym and Scott Lang — with the hook here that Hank Pym was Ant Man many years ago, but has long-since retired.  Michael Douglas is perfect as the now-elderly Hank Pym, a man far past his physical prime but someone whose mind is still sharp.  He brings wonderful gravitas to the character, and to the film as a whole.  His sincerity gives the sometimes-wacky shenanigans of the film an important grounding in reality.  Mr. Douglas is tasked with carrying a lot of the film’s exposition, but Mr. Douglas makes those verbose speeches sing the way few others could.  And he absolutely nails one of the most important scenes in the film, the flashback that he narrates in which he finally reveals the secret of what happened to Janet van Dyne (an important character from the comics who is missing/presumed dead in the film).

Paul Rudd, meanwhile, is also terrific as the new young hero of the film, Scott Lang.  Lang is a down-on-his-luck convict with a heart of gold, someone trying to make good for the sake of his daughter, Cassie, who is now being raised by his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her new cop boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale).  Lang’s character is a little two-dimensional for my taste (I wish they’d given his character a few more shades of grey, rather than being someone so unceasingly noble), but Mr. Rudd is such fun it’s hard to complain too much.  He brings a fun and lightness to the adventure that is very reminiscent of Robert Downey Jr. in the original Iron Man.  I can’t wait to see those two characters meet, hopefully some-time very soon!  It’s fun seeing Paul Rudd, who has starred in so many great comedies, anchoring a super-hero film.  He fits right in.

Evangeline Lilly plays Hope van Dyne, Hank Pym’s estranged daughter.  I was pleased by how central this new-for-the-film character was to the story, and Ms. Lilly is a lot of fun in the role.  I like how tough and smart and self-sufficient Hope is, and I like that the film never makes her the damsel in distress.  I also like that the film doesn’t try to be some big love story between Scott and Hope.  There is a flirtation there, but it’s mostly kept on a low burn.  That’s the right move for the tone of the film.  As with Scott, I can’t say that Hope has such a rich character, but Ms. Lilly is strong enough in the role that she makes the character work, and work well.

The rest of the ensemble is great.  Corey Stoll is a great villain, an ego-centric nutball out to recreate Hank’s fantastic “Pym particles.”  (I love that Pym Particles — such a comic-booky thing going back so many decades now!! — have made it into a movie!!)  Michael Pena is the film’s secret weapon, a hilariously cheerful, waffle-loving former cell-mate of Scott’s who acts as a key hook-up for Scott’s getting back into low-level crime.  Mr. Pena kills every scene he’s in.  I love the idea that Arrested Development’s Judy Greer is in a Marvel movie, though I wish she had more to do in the film.  Same goes for Bobby Cannavale, a terrific actor who doesn’t have much to do except be mildly antagonistic toward Scott.  I was delighted to see Avon Barksdale himself, actor Wood Harris, playing on the right side of the law this time as the cop partner of Bobby Cannavale’s character.

As I commented above, Ant Man is a far smaller-scale film than any of the other Marvel Phase Two films.  There aren’t end-of-the-world stakes, it’s mostly a family struggle involving super-powers.  This works for the film.  This movie didn’t need an Age of Ultron-scale third act, that wouldn’t have felt right.  For the most part, the film is able to balance humor and drama so that while the stakes don’t involve the fate of all mankind, they are high enough to feel that there is sufficient jeopardy for the characters and forward narrative momentum for the story.

I was pleasantly surprised by how firmly this story was anchored in the over-all Marvel universe.  There are several direct references to the Avengers (I love that Scott’s first reaction when Hank tells him what’s going on is to suggest that they call in the Avengers!) and specifically to the events of the climax of Age of Ultron.  I was quite surprised by the significant appearance of an Avengers character in a fun fight sequence about halfway through the film.  (I am glad that wasn’t spoiled for me, so I won’t spoil it for you!)

One of the best moments in the whole film is the terrific pre-opening-titles prologue, in which we see a young Hank Pym resign from S.H.I.E.L.D. in anger at a possible mis-use of his Pym Particles.  I love how directly this film connects to S.H.I.E.L.D. and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s eventual undermining-from-within by Hydra (a key plot point from Captain America: The Winter Soldier).  I loved seeing a CGI-magically-de-aged Michael Douglas, looking thirty years younger.  And I loved loved loved the cameos from two key characters from other Marvel films, seen as apparently the chief decision-makers within S.H.I.E.L.D. back in the eighties.  That was a lot of fun.

Speaking of connections to the larger Marvel universe, don’t forget to stay until the very end of the credits to see two great stingers!

If Ant Man has a main weakness, it’s the general two-dimensionality of many of its characters (that I have already mentioned).  Additionally, the film has some structural problems, perhaps leftover results of all the tinkering that went on with the film’s script.  (There will be some slight spoilers from here on in, gang.  Nothing too major, but if you haven’t yet seen the film and want to go in pure, you might want to stop here.)  The film tries to set up a ticking-clock for our heroes, as Hank and Hope race to train Scott in the use of the Ant Man suit before Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) can successfully replicate Hank’s shrinking-and-growing Pym Particle.  But we see Darren succeed in that about half-way through the film, at which point he drops out of the film for a while, as we follow more silliness with Scott’s developing training.  Those training sequences are a hoot, but at that point in the film I wanted to feel more pressure on our heroes that they’d run out of time to dither around.

There are also some problems with Darren Cross’ character.  There’s a suggestion that using Pym Particles to shrink/grow without the protective Ant Man gear could cause one to go mad, and so perhaps that’s why Cross turns to villainy.  Except 1) we never see Darren use Pym Particles himself until he dons the Yellowjacket suit late in the film, so I don’t see why we should believe that is what has happened to Cross, and 2) suggesting that Cross has been driven crazy by an external force weakens the character.  It’d be better to have a more human character arc for him, that here was someone turned bitter because his beloved mentor (Hank Pym) lied to him and pushed him away for years (trying to bury his Ant Man research because of what had happened to Janet van Dyne).

There’s also a very weird scene, very early in the film, in which we see Cross murder someone in the bathroom of his office.  It’s a great, creepy scene.  (Seeing the guy zapped into a tiny puddle of pink goo is quite a shock.)  But it makes no sense in the context of the story.  (Wouldn’t someone notice this guy had vanished?  Why would Cross risk that??)  And it tips Cross over into crazy-evil way too early in the film.  I feel like they wanted to keep Cross as a somewhat human villain with an understandable point of view, but once we see him so callously murder someone in cold blood, it’s hard to see him as anything other than a complete monster.

Other thoughts on Ant Man:

I love the look of the Yellowjacket suit.  It’s a really menacing design.  Awesome.

I loved the playfulness of the planning-the-heist sequences, as well as the terrifically fun sequences in which Luis (Michael Pena) tells Scott a story that involves multiple people passing along information, one to the next.  The film comes alive with a wonderful comedic energy in those moments.

Stan Lee has a great cameo.

But forget Stan Lee for a moment, and forget Samuel L. Jackson — can we just please have Hayley Atwell appear in every future Marvel movie from now on?  Because that would be great.

I was hugely surprised by the reprisal of a character from Iron Man 2, a movie I sort of thought Marvel wanted us to forget.  That was awesome.

I loved that they included Scott Lang’s daughter Cassie, as that relationship has long been an important aspect of the character in the comics.

Interesting that they avoid ever showing us Janet van Dyne’s face.  I assume they’re planning on casting her with a big-name actress if we ever see the character reprised in a future film.

I’m intrigued by the second post-credits stinger, which I assume is a piece of an actual scene from the upcoming Captain America: Civil War.  I loved the return of the Winter Soldier (a character who I don’t want to see get brushed aside by all the other plot in Civil War), and I loved that this brief scene shows us that the schism between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark (central to the plot of the Civil War comic book series) has happened in the film.  I love the idea that perhaps the Winter Soldier proves to be a key reason for the break.  (Remember, they hinted in Captain America: The Winter Soldier that the Winter Soldier killed Howard Stark, Tony’s father!)

Ant Man might not be in the highest tier of Marvel Movies, but I found it to be a fun, clever little adventure story, one I am eager to revisit.  Its characters are a little too two-dimensional for my preference, but the actors are all so much fun that they make the story work well.  This is a fine epilogue to Phase Two of the Marvel Civil Universe.  Now, bring on Phase Three, the longest of the Marvel “Phases” so far, which kicks off next year with Captain America: Civil War.  I can’t wait.

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