When Marvel’s Ant-man came to theaters last Friday, I wondered whether filmgoers who weren’t huge comic book fans would want to watch a movie about Ant-man. After all, what can a hero, whose only “superpower” is a shrinking suit, add to a genre saturated with the flashy pyrotechnics of demi-gods, billionaire-geniuses, superhumans and deadly assassins?
Turns out, Ant-man does add something new and much needed to the superhero cine-verse: an endearing sense of self-deprecation. The fact that an Ant-man movie is hard to take seriously becomes this movie’s biggest strength – its refusal to take itself seriously.
Plot-wise, Ant-man is part origin story, part heist movie. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a cat burglar fresh out of prison and trying to prove to his ex-wife (Judy Greer) that he can be a father to their daughter Cassie. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), genius scientist and former Ant-man, is trying to prevent his protégé-turned-nemesis Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) from turning his shrinking “Pym particle” into a deadly military weapon. Hank and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) recruit a fish-out-of-water Scott to step into Hank’s old Ant-man suit and retrieve the particle from Cross. Aided by an army of ants and a trio of hilarious sidekicks (Tip “T.I.” Harris, David Dastmalchian and a show-stealing Michael Pena), Lang embarks on the most high-stakes heist of his life.
The scene that best exemplifies Ant-man’s tone is the movie’s much talked-about face off between The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and a newly minted Ant-man. It is a textbook instance of fanservice: wholly contrived, gloriously gratuitous, existing only to give the fans of the genre the orgasmic pleasures of intertextuality. But the humour in having the n00b Ant-man go against an Avenger isn’t lost on the film. Ant-man apologizes fervently throughout the exchange, proclaiming, “I’m a big fan”. At one point, he declares with a poor attempt at bravado: “I’m Ant-man”. The absence of the swelling music or grand spectacle that usually accompany such pronouncements is pointed, as is the lack of awe in the Falcon’s reaction. “I know, it’s not my idea”, says Ant-man, sheepishly acknowledging the absurdity of his name.
Ant-man is full of such instances of shameless cheesiness punctuated by dry, self-aware asides: Dr. Pym giving Scott the inspirational “you can save the world” spiel is followed by Paul Rudd remarking, unmoved, “Great speech!” and suggesting they call the Avengers. It helps that Paul Rudd has exactly the kind of straight man persona these punch lines need. His unassuming Everyguy is the perfect foil to the histrionics of the film’s superhero tropes.
Stylistically, the film has an Edgar Wright zippiness (not surprising, since Wright co-wrote and was slated to direct the movie before his split from Marvel), which leverages the Kuleshovian potential of editing to excellent comic ends. For instance, a running gag relies on smash cuts from ant-size action set pieces to shots of what they really look like to the naked eye. An explosive sequence in which Ant-man evades an incoming train is, in the next shot, a toy train chugging along harmlessly on a toy track. It could be a sly jab at the genre’s extravagant action set pieces: get some perspective, and it’s hard not to laugh at their bombastic frivolity.
The film’s enthusiastic self-flagellation mitigates the tropes that clutter the plot, but all said and done, thrills and laughs doth not a movie make; good writing does. Ant-man is often exasperating in that regard, falling into many of the common pitfalls of superhero movies. A little deus ex machina (at the end of the movie, Scott solves in seconds a problem Hank spends a decade trying to crack) might be excusable, but sexism is not. It is extremely frustrating to see Hank’s badass daughter Hope, clearly the better contender to save the world, relegated to the sidelines while Lang bumbles about doing the saving. When Hank Pym justifies his decision to keep his suit from her, it’s almost as if the film is trying to lazily mansplain away the lack of superheroines in Hollywood: the men of the world just don’t want to see their daughters and wives get hurt! The movie tries to redeem itself somewhat in a post-credits scene, in which (spoiler alert) Hank unveils a Wasp suit prototype for Hope, but Hank finally granting her “permission” to don the suit reeks of patriarchal condescension as well – it is too little, too late.
What adds insult to Hope’s injury is that Scott Lang often seems almost too ordinary to deserve to be a superhero. For the less self-serious parts of the film, the irony of the unlikely superhero is the point, and it is milked to great comic advantage. However, it is not enough to sustain the more earnest parts of the film. Unlike Iron Man – or even Hank Pym, the original Ant-man – Lang doesn’t have any inherent extraordinary attributes like genius or super-strength. And unlike, say, Spiderman, Lang isn’t a regular guy thrust into superhero status by a freak accident; he is chosen to be a superhero, and it is a choice the movie never fully justifies. As a result, Lang’s victories feel unearned and his too-bland character, forgettable.
Fortunately, the supporting characters that surround him are anything but forgettable. Evangeline Lilly as the cool, charismatic Hope, and Michael Pena’s impeccable comic timing as Luis, Lang’s sidekick, left me wanting more. Along with the film’s smart satire and visual quirkiness (there’s a scene involving an enlarged Thomas the Tank Engine that you might never be able to un-see), they make Ant-Man a welcome, and even necessary, addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Considering the prolific excess that rolls out of the Marvel factory each year, that’s saying something.