Ant-Man is a heist movie AND a father-daughter relationship movie, so it’s alright in my book.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
OK, that’s exaggerating a little, but it gets at the precarious little platform that I am currently stood on. Unlike most people (that I hang around with), I am still all aboard the Marvel Studios train. I have liked or loved every film they’ve put out to various degrees, except Iron Man 3 which is just garbage save for The Mandarin twist, and I will continue to like them until they start putting out multiple bad movies in a row. That said, I am nearing the verge of burnout and plain old cynicism about superhero movies as a whole. The Marvel movies are formula, I know and understand that, which will one day soon wear out its welcome, whilst everybody else seems to be on a mission to drain every last strain of fun out of the genre with an even stricter adherence to rote formula, deathly seriousness, and blatant franchising during the initial birth stages.
It’s a recent occurrence, but it’s not one that I’m particularly happy with. Even though I don’t read comic books, I love me some good superhero movies! But most of them nowadays aren’t good, and the sheer number of them on the horizon is now, for the first time, genuinely daunting to me. I love this genre, but it needs to try new things or it risks losing me. Of next year’s load of superhero flicks to come, Deadpool is the one I’m actually looking forward to most because, even though the trailer isn’t particularly funny by most metrics, it looks different instead of more of the same, or needlessly and endlessly miserable.
Which, with that context out of the way, brings us onto Ant-Man, a heist movie wearing the clothes of a superhero movie. In stark contrast to most every other movie released during Marvel’s Phase Two, and this includes Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man is a very small-scale film that focuses in on a tight cast of characters, withholds basically all of its action until the last 30 or so minutes, and has stakes that only really affect our immediate cast more than anything else. In fact, there’s something that rings false whenever anybody tries to insist that the central technology that everyone is fighting over would cause untold chaos if released into the public, like saying so is just a reflex that everyone involved can’t kick. The truth is that the stakes are small, the pacing is deliberate, and the focus is on the characters more than the plot.
Said plot, and the characters that populate it, follows Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a recently freed convict who was arrested for robbing from a powerful company and handing out its funds to their employees. He wants to do right by his young daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), but is drawn back to crime when his attempts at finding a job go as well as you’d expect for an ex-con. Fortunately, this time he’s being secretly swept into the world of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) who is trying to recruit Scott to pull off a daring heist. Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), the head of Pym Technologies and Hank’s ex-protégé, has managed to crack the formula and technology required to shrink human beings down to insect size – the same technology that allowed Pym to become the first Ant-Man back during the Cold War – and Hank is very worried about the effects that selling the tech would cause. So, rejecting the help of his more-than-capable daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), Hank tasks Scott with using his old Ant-Man suit to break into Pym Technologies and destroy Cross’ research and prototypes, with both Hank and Scott possibly earning their shots at redemption as a result.
So, immediately, Ant-Man is pressing two of my major weakness buttons: heist movies, and films about father-daughter relationships. The latter ends up being the emotional and thematic backbone of the movie, as Hank and Hope try to reconcile things after a life of Hank not being there for Hope, whilst Scott tries to become “the hero [his daughter] already sees [him] as”. Hank and Hope’s strand has issues that I’ll come back to shortly, but Scott and Cassie’s relationship works gangbusters primarily because the film doesn’t belabour the point. Their on-screen interactions are minimal, but they, coupled with the genuine remorse that Scott shows throughout the movie, already clue the viewer into just how much they both mean to each other. Plus, in a rare turn-up for the books, her new soon-to-be-step-father, Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), is not painted as a douchey hateful nuisance we’re supposed to despise. The film understands that he’s a good guy just trying to do his job and never treats him as some kind of villain to wish death upon, a nice change of pace compared to usual.
Meanwhile, the heist side encompasses all of the traits that you expect from a good heist film: extended training montages, detailed step-by-step plans that are slowly put together (often in montage), the smaller heist to build up to the real heist, the moment where certain failure is just avoided, the moment where everyone has to improvise, the bit where everything goes to hell in a handbasket. I’m a sucker for heist movies, basically, and the standard heist mechanics get a nice shot in the arm from the fact that we’re watching this take place in a superhero movie, allowing for more inventive ways of executing acts like frying circuitry or making an escape from a hairy situation. What’s most impressive is the way that the two elements balance so smoothly, although there are times when the superhero part of things takes over, as the addition of the Ant-Man suit and the power to control ants shifts sequences like desperately trying to hide plans or briefing new last-minute team members in slightly different yet distinctive ways.
On the note of “new team members”, Ant-Man spends a lot of its time developing its cast, either through character arcs or just letting them hang out. I bring this up not to mention that Scott Lang is wonderfully charming, or that I really like Hope despite most everything attached to her character, or that Darren is a surprisingly menacing and sadistic villain who is one of the few genuinely good MCU villains that have come along so far. No, I bring this up to make reference to Scott’s friends, headed up by his ex-cellmate Luis (Michael Peña). They are, to be blunt, racial stereotypes whose ethnicities are played up at every opportunity, yet they still feel like three-dimensional characters because their actors (which also include Tip “T.I.” Harris as Dave and David Dastmalchian as Kurt) commit totally to them and the film cares enough for them to give off the impression that they actually do have real lives outside of the times where Luis gets all motor-mouthed or Dave plays up his blackness to try and get out of trouble with the police. It’s a very fine and tough line to walk, but the film, in my opinion for whatever that’s worth, just manages to pull it off.
Again, that smaller-scale is what helps here. Characters like Luis would usually be lost in the shuffle in a giant world-ending stakes movie, like most Marvel movies are, but because the film commits to that smaller scale, to building its stakes out of personal legacies and character relationships, it allows for a deeper emotional connection than most typical Marvel films. Sure, there are multiple characters that just get shunted to the sidelines – which is the kind way of saying that Judy Greer is in this movie and we are all currently part of 2015: The Summer of Completely Wasting Judy Greer – but the central relationships get time to properly develop and blossom. Plus, the film finds time to invest in some more idiosyncratic relationships: Scott ends up taking a fancy to one particular ant, whom he dubs Anthony, in a way that’s pretty funny but gains genuine resonance because the film is always completely sincere about how much Scott likes it.
It would also be remiss of me to not mention the film’s final third, the point where one would expect the film to expand its scale for those big action setpieces that all superhero movies apparently must close with by law. Instead, once again, Ant-Man remains committed to keeping those stakes small and personal, with the main conflict coming from Darren’s inferiority complex towards his former mentor, his rapidly deteriorating mental state, and his desire to punish Scott for being everything he wanted Hank to see him as. That also extends to the final setpiece, one of only three times in which the film really lets loose with the suit, which utilises the size-changing mechanics to allow for a big pyrotechnic battle to take place in a little girl’s bedroom. It’s a load of fun and more inventive than any other Marvel setpiece I’ve yet seen, where the fusion of the superhero and comedy aspects works to brilliant effect.
As much as I do really like Ant-Man, though – and that’s not even mentioning Peyton Reed’s stylish direction or the across-the-board-excellent performances – it does have several notable flaws. For one, although this is one of the most stand-alone Marvel movies yet, there are moments where the broader universe intrudes itself on the rest of the film. Now, I am not opposed to this concept, when pulled off right it can excellently give off the feeling of this universe existing outside of each hero’s individual movies, but it’s very hit-and-miss here. Scott immediately asking aloud why Hank doesn’t just contact The Avengers is an example of it working, since it’s an acknowledgment that these films don’t exist in a bubble and provides justification as to why they wouldn’t work on this kind of story. An extended setpiece about midway through the film with a surprise cameo (that I won’t spoil) is one that doesn’t. Oh, sure, it is pretty fun, but it still feels a little clunky, like it was forced in there either because somebody panicked and feared that holding off on proper action until the last third would bore the audience, or somebody just thought it was a really cool idea and threw it in there regardless of whether it fit the film or not.
More of a problem is Hope van Dyne. Now, I like Hope – a combination of Evangeline Lily’s winning charm offensive and my natural love for women who can get sh*t done made sure of that – but her existence in this movie is part of a meta-text that I am not really comfortable with Marvel making. See, Hope is clearly the one best suited to donning the Ant-Man suit and undertaking the heist – she’s tougher than Scott, a fair bit smarter than Scott, more accustomed to the labs and technology – but Hank keeps refusing to let her for personal, ultimately unfair reasons. It’s played as this meta-commentary on how Marvel seem similarly resistant to making a female superhero movie, instead constantly trading on white guys cos if one fails, in the words of Scott in this very film, “[they’re] expendable”. It’s a nice acknowledgement of a genuine problem, and builds to a promising payoff, but that doesn’t change the fact that Marvel still aren’t actually doing anything to fix the problem and ultimately just made me even more annoyed that we still won’t get a fix to this problem until November 2018.
(For more on this, keep an eye on the site over the next few days, I have an article about this in the ideas oven as I type these words.)
That said, I do still really like Ant-Man. For every moment it adheres to the standard Marvel formula, there are many more where it tries something completely different or twists the familiar into something that’s atypical for these kinds of films. It’s still recognisably a Marvel Movie, but its commitment to keeping things small and personal provides a shot-in-the-arm and a nice change of pace for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s not massively different, so those completely averse to Marvel/superhero movies are unlikely to get much from this one, but it is a positive step in the right direction. As stated up top, I do still like these kinds of movies, but I need them to be trying something different if I’m going to stay a fan of this stuff. Ant-Man is a good start.
Callum Petch feels like he’s living at the edge of the world. Listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio (site link) and follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!