Little Hero, Big Problems, by Tyler Smith
Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man can certainly be commended for being different. As the other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe get larger in their scope, Ant-Man appropriately scales things down to a much more manageable size. We don’t get galaxies hanging in the balance. Instead, it’s just a basic story of corporate greed and recklessness and a few plucky heroes out to stop it.
What’s unfortunate is that, in an attempt to tell a smaller story, the filmmaker adopts a tone so intent on humor and relatability that the stakes are often lost and the characters seem to be little more than collections of one-liners and simplistic motivations. The final film is so light and airy that it is virtually weightless. This is hardly a crime, and is in fact often a welcome reprieve from the increasingly dour cinematic superhero landscape. Sadly, unlike James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which always maintained a sense of urgency and importance in the midst of humorous banter, Ant-Man lacks any real shape. Eventually, the story starts to dissolve completely, and we are left with a handful of mildly memorable scenes and a couple of jokes.
Probably the most notable thing about the film is the action. There’s a nice fluidity and originality to the action that is often invigorating. As Ant-Man constantly changes his size to better his chances in a fight, the scale of the world is in constant flux. It is at once disorienting and invigorating. It keeps us interested, because, while we assume that Ant-Man will probably emerge victorious, we can’t predict exactly how it will happen, or what it will look like.
The appeal of an Ant-Man movie is following an off-beat, unlikely hero and the ingenuity he employs to beat the bad guy. This is never more apparent than in the action sequences, when we see a character genuinely beat the odds and outfox the villains.
What is surprising is that this cleverness and energy mostly disappears in non-action scenes. In the better entries of the MCU, we have characters that are just as interesting talking as they are when fighting, maybe even a bit more so. This is not the case in Ant-Man, in which exchanges between characters are so awkward and forced that it is uncomfortable to watch, whether in dramatic or funnier moments.
The worst offender here is Ant-Man himself. While we have a strong sense of his motivation, and the character is regularly funny, we don’t really get an idea of exactly who this guy is. Tony Stark made jokes, as did Peter Quill, but the humor was consistent and seemed to generate from who they were as people. With Ant-Man, whose real name is Scott Lang, the writers attempt to make him funny in every possible way. Witty repartee one moment, social awkwardness the next. He’ll go crashing into a door moments after firing off a snarky insult. Scott is a non-character; he is simply a humor machine, throwing every kind of joke at the wall to see what sticks. The result is a wildly inconsistent character that we neither know nor care about. And actor Paul Rudd, usually so dependable in comedic performances, is absolutely lost here. While a very strong actor with reliable instincts, here he is unable to take the disparate aspects of the character and bring them all together to flesh out a real person.
Ant-Man was always going to be a film that people would look at suspiciously. In a cinematic universe filled with super soldiers and demigods, why are we watching a movie about a man that can shrink to the size of an ant? What good can he do?
The film wisely goes about trying to answer these questions, and attempts to bring a self-deprecating approach to that answer, hanging a lantern on our concerns. Unfortunately, this level of self consciousness makes for a film that is unsure of itself, and never quite comes together into one cohesive package.
It’s as though the film is so eager to let you know that it is aware of your concerns that it forgets to put in the effort to fully dispel them. As a result, I was unsatisfied and unengaged. And at the end of the film, when we are told that Ant-Man will return, I mostly reacted with indifference, paired with the mild hope that perhaps next time I’ll actually care.