Less Is Less In Mirthful But Minor "Ant-Man"

Last year, audiences rightfully went bananas for the freak flag raising ceremony known as Marvel’s “Guardians Of The Galaxy.” It was the perfect tonic for the studio’s steady stream of apocalyptic superhero fare, a splash of cool water in the face of fiery mayhem.

British auteur Edgar Wright’s “Ant-Man” promised to be something similar, until the “Hot Fuzz” writer-director departed the project just months before cameras were to roll. This left Marvel president Kevin Feige in the untenable position of replacing a beloved filmmaker with someone not just competent, but willing to hitch on to a fast-moving train.

That hired gun turned out to be the not-exactly-beloved Peyton Reed, arguably best known for cheerleader comedy “Bring It On.” And, in an apparent attempt to mollify star Paul Rudd, his “Anchorman” director Adam McKay was brought on to help overhaul Wright’s screenplay.

Despite the aforementioned turmoil, the end product is handsomely made. Considering Marvel’s newfound talent for quality control, this should surprise no one. “Ant-Man” is light and fun and easily accessible, parceling out its charms at a good clip.

But it’s often too slick for its own good – and about as edgy as a beach ball. Unlike the personality-packed “Guardians,” “Ant-Man” smells of product, without a distinctive voice and seemingly afraid to embrace its inherent silliness. By its climax, there are hints of the bizarro sideshow Wright had likely intended it to be, but the rest of the film is tissue-soft family movie fare.

We begin with a stiff pre-title scene set in 1989. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), head of Pym Technologies, is at odds with S.H.I.E.L.D. over ownership of his secretive shrinking tech. Pym resigns from the agency in a huff and we jump forward 25 years. He’s been pushed out of his company by his own daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), and the exaggeratedly evil Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), a former protégé.

With Cross determined to uncover Pym’s shrinking tech and sell it to the highest bidder, Pym sets his sights on stealing it back.

Enter Scott Lang, thief. For all of his effortless, timeless charm, Paul Rudd is spectacularly unbelievable as a hardened ex-con. The screenplay bends over backwards to explain that Lang is only a non-violent cat burglar, presumably because it knows its star is anything but physically intimidating. But it’s really hard to buy, especially considering that it’s one of Rudd’s sweetest performances to date.

Freshly-turned new leaves be damned, Lang is quickly lured back into the game by Pym. With his crew of friends-slash-theives in tow (Michael Pena, Tip “T.I.” Harris, David Dastmalchian), Lang is tricked into stealing Pym’s old Ant-Man suit, one with powers of shrinking and super strength.

If this sounds like a lot of exposition for a willfully small-scale story, that’s because it is. And all of it’s told via generic comic book tropes, making the first hour a hike. It’s not until the first shrinking scene that the pic really opens up, serving up some incredible macro photography and eye-popping special effects. The visuals are the star of the show, the only element of “Ant-Man” we haven’t seen before.

Audiences used to seeing Paul Rudd be really funny will be thrown off by him being just kind of funny here, with Michael Pena getting the lion’s share of laughs. But for a movie featuring ant telepathy and a wonderfully weird Thomas The Tank Engine gag (not the one shown in the trailers), most of the comedy is painfully paint-by-numbers. And the story is unusually suspense-free.

It wouldn’t be wrong to blame Corey Stoll’s disastrously broad turn as Darren Cross or Peyton Reed’s middling direction or the high-stakes-but-not-really storyline – Pym’s technology is constantly revered as game-changing – but it’s really all of these things, all pointing to the project’s troubled past.

It’s no secret that Wright and co-writer Joe Cornish (“Attack The Block”) left “Ant-Man” over the studio’s insistence that the film tie in to its ballyhooed Marvel Cinematic Universe. Accordingly, the finished product is doused in “Avengers” references and is Marvel’s most nakedly world-building entry since the first “Captain America” film.

Thusly, the Frankenstein’s monster of a screenplay – credited to Wright, Cornish, Rudd, and McKay – is without an identity, its placement in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as shaky as it is contrived.

In a series that’s gone all-out weird before – even “Iron Man 3” was delightfully offbeat – “Ant-Man” is far too restrained to stand out amongst its peers, too careful to leave a lasting mark of its own. Its pleasures are real, but nearly as small as its hero.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (OK)

Release Date: July 17, 2015
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures, Marvel Studios
Director: Peyton Reed
Screenwriter: Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish, Paul Rudd & Adam McKay
Starring: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Michael Pena, Tip “T.I.” Harris, David Dastmalchian, Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, Martin Donovan
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence)