In issue #34 of Showcase magazine in 1961, a new comic-book super-hero was introduced—a brilliant scientist who had found a way to shrink himself down to the size of an ant, while still retaining the strength and power of a full-grown man. The publisher was DC comics and the superhero was called “The Atom.” As the alter-ego of scientist Ray Palmer, the Atom was a huge success, soon getting his own magazine and becoming a member of the famed Justice League of America. The following year, in the September 1962 issue of Tales to Astonish, Marvel comics introduced a new super-hero who could also miniaturize himself, the secret identity of the brilliant scientist Hank Pym. In those days, riding on the popularity of Superman and Batman, DC was the 400 pound gorilla in the comic book universe, and Marvel was just beginning to make its mark with quirky but more psychologically complex characters like Spiderman. Why shouldn’t they take a little bit of creative license and tweak DC’s new hero into something similar in a Marvel vein—and call him “Ant-Man”?
In the newest movie set in the now dominant Marvel universe, however, director Peyton Reed (Bring it On, The Breakup) chooses to adapt the story of the second person to wear the Ant-Man uniform, Scott Lang. In the comics, the character of Lang, introduced in The Avengers magazine in 1979, was an electronics expert who turned to burglary when he was unable to support his family. After doing time in prison, he was hired by Stark International, but when his daughter Cassie fell ill with a heart condition, Lang returned to his criminal life, broke into Hank Pym’s house and stole the Ant-Man costume, and broke into Cross Enterprises. There he found that the villainous Darren Cross was holding Dr. Erica Sondheim prisoner. Lang was able to free Sondheim, the only person capable of saving Cassie’s life, and once Cassie was cured, Lang sought to return the Ant-Man suit to Dr. Pym, but Pym decided to allow Lang to keep the suit, on the promise that he would only use it in a good cause.
The film’s script only follows the broad strokes of the original story. Here, Lang (played with likeable self-deprecation by Paul Rudd) has an MA degree in electrical engineering, but was sent to prison for hacking a giant corporation’s files and taking money from them to put into the accounts of people they had cheated. He’s released early for good behavior, but can’t find a decent job, and is unable to send money to his ex-wife Maggie for Cassie’s support. At his daughter’s birthday party, where Maggie’s new cop-boyfriend Paxton (Bobby Cannavale) makes it clear he is not welcome, Maggie (Judy Geer) tells him he needs to get a job and start stepping up or she’s canceling his visitation rights.
Enter Lang’s old buddy and fellow burglar Luis (Michael Peña), who in ludicrous detail tells Lang about a job he wants to do. Turns out the job is breaking into a safe in Dr. Pym’s house where the only thing Lang finds is what he thinks is an old biker’s suit—but what turns out to be the Ant-Man uniform. It soon becomes clear that Pym (Michael Douglas) set Lang up to steal the suit, and wants him to become Ant-Man in order to stop his former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) from duplicating Pym’s own technology for Ant-Man and selling it as a weapon of war, the lethal Yellowjacket. The plot to stop Cross also involves Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly of TV’s Lost), who works for Cross and has some issues with her father, mainly regarding the death of her mother years before.
The film has a very light touch for a Marvell superhero movie—think a little more Guardians of the Galaxy than Captain America, though the scenes with Pym and his daughter tend to be more serious than those with Lang and Peña. Still it does comment on father-daughter relationships, and gives us an interesting parallel between the Lang/Cassie and the Pym/Hope relationships. There’s also a bit of an Oedipal conflict between Cross and Pym, so that Cross’s villainy seem largely fed by father-figure Pym’s rejection of him, leaving him with a desire to destroy the father. But these things are only very lightly touched upon.
The movie does have its flaws. My wife, never much enamored of giant insects and not much impressed by action scenes, called the movie “gross and boring.” There is something to be said for that point of view. The bugs are kind of disgusting, but mainly I didn’t find them particularly interesting as visual effects. Which reminds me—don’t waste your money by seeing this in 3-D. There’s nothing here that needs that enhancement, and no effects worth remarking on from my point of view. As for the action scenes, yes, they tend to be as dull and redundant as the action scenes of summer blockbuster movies usually are, full of quick cuts that make it difficult to figure out just what is happening; but fortunately there aren’t that many of them, and often the unusual point of view of the Ant-Man character gives such scenes a comic twist, as in the scene where the toy train threatens to run over Yellowjacket.
There are moments when the script seems to be confused—perhaps the inevitable result of four different hands working on it, including Rudd himself and the original director Edgar Wright (of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, who left the production because of “artistic differences”—his intent, apparently, was to make the movie an all-out spoof). But when Pym has to explain to Lang (who has a master’s in electrical engineering) what the quantum universe is, it doesn’t quite ring true. And the movie as a whole is schizophrenic. Overall, it’s a little hard to tell whether the movie wants to be that serious one that Pym and Hope want to play in, or that comic one of Rudd and Peña’s.
Who knows? Maybe it would have given Lang a more believable motive for becoming Ant-Man if they had kept the original comic book plot of his having to rescue the doctor that could save his daughter’s life, rather than trying to prevent Cross’s using the technology for evil, which is really Pym’s big concern, not Lang’s. The movie could also have been more entertaining in itself without the necessity that the producers seemed to feel of connecting Ant-Man’s story with the rest of the Marvel universe (the scene in which Lang visits a Stark Enterprises warehouse seems completely unnecessary as far as this particular film’s plot goes).
But some of these things are quibbles. The movie is fun and entertaining. Rudd is charming, likeable, and funny as he always is, and his light touch is perfect for a movie about a very light super hero. Peña is hilarious as the sidekick. Douglas is appropriately respectable and virtuous, and gets to be a little more than one-sided because of his complex grief over his wife; Stoll’s could also be pretty much of a one-note performance if not for that Oedipal thing he’s got going on. Greer, unfortunately, is given almost nothing to do, which makes her character forgettable, as opposed to her boyfriend Cannavale, who has a lot more to play with in his relationship with Cassie and with Lang. Abby Ryder Fortson is fine as Cassie—at least she’s not cloying and annoying as child actors are often wont to be—and she is believable as a child forced to divide her loyalties. Much better fleshed out (character-wise) is Lilly, and there is a nice chemistry between her and Rudd.
On the whole, the film is worth seeing. You’ll probably have a better time at it than some of the bigger action movies of the summer that are taking themselves much more seriously. I’ll give it two Jacqueline Susanns and half a Tennyson.