I enjoy most Marvel movies but many of them suffer from the same problem: they take themselves too seriously. It’s one thing to make a straight-faced film about a muscular Norse god who wields a hammer, can fly and has wind-blown locks. It’s another to make such a film–Kenneth Branagh’s Thor–as a Shakespearean update with lots of swirling CGI.
You have to admire the ambition, faithfulness to the source material and production values of these movies. Yet, I also like to see whether the people on film appear to be having fun. No question that filmmaking is hard work but the joy of the performance should be on the faces of these actors, especially if they’re playing superheroes.
The previous Avengers sequel shared the set-back I’m referring to, making everything too self-important and the whole thing feeling top-heavy and smug. The easy-going feel of Guardians of the Galaxy is a welcome rarity among these movies but Ant-Man is another unusual entry in the overstuffed comic book movie genre. It’s light on its feet, thoroughly appealing and mostly free of the self-importance that makes other comic book movies a drag.
Paul Rudd stars as Scott Lang, a burglar and ex-convict, recently released from San Quentin. Lang is struggling to prove himself to his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and his daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson), who isn’t fully aware why her father has been away for so long. Lang agrees to partake in a strange heist, in which he steals a clunky but heavily guarded suit. Once he tries it on, Lang discovers he has the ability to shrink to the size of an ant. Dr. Hank Pym, the creator of the suit (played by Michael Douglas), reveals that he arranged the heist as a test for Lang, who has been selected to become The Ant-Man.
Despite reports of a troubled production–Edgar Wright, the original director, was fired and his vision altered–the end result shows no signs of tinkering or lack of confidence. This succeeds as a character and special effects-driven comedy. Rudd isn’t an obvious choice for the role and hard to buy as someone who could survive San Quentin, but he’s endearing. Douglas brings depth and fire to his role, a reminder that he’s a compelling actor. Evangeline Lily, playing Pym’s daughter, finally has a role that provides a showcase for more than just her good looks; she and Douglas share the most dramatic moments and she brings so much more to her scenes with Rudd than merely the “love interest.”
Corey Stoll, an intimidating and reliable presence elsewhere, is the weak link among the actors. Playing the heavy, Stoll’s performance is curiously out of tune with the rest of the movie. Michael Pena, one of the best actors working today, manages to elevate his role beyond its stereotypical qualities (no easy feat), while Greer, Bobby Cannavale and Martin Donovan work hard to justify their supporting roles in an overcrowded ensemble. Thankfully, the three leads have enough chemistry to keep the human element grounded.
The scenes of Rudd as the tiny, costumed Ant-Man, riding ants and battling villains, are wondrous. Though never mustering the manic energy and anything-goes brilliance of Innerspace, it tries hard (hence the surreal appearance of Thomas The Train Engine during the goofy climax).
The action sequences are unique and generate excitement for how different they are from most other summer movie spectacles. This is one of the best Marvel movies–it seamlessly blends humor, heart and thrills. Most importantly, it makes you care.