Not every second-, third-, or in the case of Marvel’s 12th feature-length film in eight years, Ant-Man, fourth-tier superhero character deserves or merits their own standalone/solo film, an origin story at that, but here we are, more or less at the mid-point of summer (if further along summer movie wise) with Marvel’s slightest, most marginal, most disposable entry — including both Thor entries — in the ever-expanding MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe). (One day in the very near future, the MCU’s expansion will subsume, overwhelm, and otherwise replace our “real” one.) A one-time, long-time filmmaking project for the since departed Edgar Wright (The World’s End, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead), Ant-Man’s cinematic prospects seemed dubious at best, if not commercially (Marvel’s marketing team remains a world-dominating juggernaut), then artistically (arguably a tertiary concern for Marvel’s Powers-That-Be), but without an auteur of Wright’s caliber at the helm — unsurprising given Marvel’s increasingly formulaic, convention-embracing approach to costumed superheroes — the bland, dull, ultimately disappointing result should have been anything but unexpected.
Ant-Man opens not with Marvel’s now obligatory big bang, but with a whimper of a scene, heavy on talk and exposition between and among characters of relatively minor significance with the exception, of course, of Hank Pym (a de-aged Michael Douglas), genius inventor, millionaire (it’s 1989, the billions come later), and occasional super-secret agent for S.H.I.E.LD., doing his part to keep the world safe from the occasional nuclear disaster. By the time we meet Pym, he’s left all of that behind for early retirement, the result of a mission that went sideways on him. He also vows to never let anyone, including S.H.I.E.LD. get ahold of his super-secret barbecue sauce (actually his amazing shrinking technology, courtesy of something aptly named a “Pym particle” discovered and/or invented by Pym). Pym’s refusal leads to all kinds of ramifications, including almost thirty years without the reappearance of the titular character. Not that Ant-Man was missed during the interim. He never gets a mention in any of Marvel’s 11 previous films.
Well, he (“he” being “Ant-Man”) is here now and we, as audience members, have to deal with it. In the present, Pym has lost access to de-aging technology, leaving him a cantankerous, grey-haired semi-recluse with an awkward, shambling gait. His onetime protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll, wasted in yet another underwritten villain role), has made it his life’s mission to duplicate and/or replicate Pym’s Ant-Man technology. He’s close, but he’s not quite there yet. He can shrink non-organic matter (e.g., his fully armored Yellowjacket exo-suit), but not living tissue (the latter leading to one or two messy experiments involving formerly live animals). Through Pym’s estranged daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), Pym has learned about Cross’ plan, forcing Pym to go to extreme measures, specifically the stealthy recruitment of ex-felon Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), to first steal the Ant-Man suit from Pym’s home and once he succeeds, to steal Cross’ experimental suit (a much harder proposition all around).
Pym’s recruitment of Lang, a master thief with a social conscience (or so we’re told) makes little sense even in Marvel’s coincidence-laden, logic-challenged universe. Hope knows not just the ins and outs of operating the Ant-Man suit, including the control of the multiple ant species that give the suit its name, but she knows her way around Cross’ lab (she’s his right-hand woman). Instead Pym, an old-school patriarch if there ever was one, refuses to let Hope risk her life to stop Cross. He has zero problem with Lang risking his, even as he pitches Lang on the whole redemption thing. If Lang succeeds, he not only helps Pym, he saves the world from Cross’ megalomania and Yellowjacket tech (unconvincing given the presence of Iron Man and the Avengers in the same universe), but more importantly, he gets face time with his young daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). Lang’s ex-wife, Maggie (Judy Greer, in another thankless “mom” role), holds Lang’s ex-felon status against him, this despite Lang’s supposedly good intentions when he committed a series of Robin Hood-inspired felonies.
Moviegoers, of course, aren’t expected to over-think Ant-Man. In fact, they shouldn’t think at all. The rapid-fire humor, including one too many jokes at the expense of Lang’s friend, ex-bunkmate, and current partner in crime, Luis (Michael Peña), a walking, talking Mexican-American stereotype, works primarily as a deflecting mechanism, deflecting or distracting moviegoers long enough to get to the next exposition-filled scene or semi-inventive set piece. Admittedly, the miniaturized set pieces unsurprisingly function as Ant-Man’s biggest positives. There’s plenty of visual humor and sight gags to be found, presumably left over from Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish’s discarded screenplay, but the over-familiar plot, often shamelessly borrowed from the Iron Man series, often gets in the way of enjoying Ant-Man on anything except the most superficial level. But maybe that’s exactly what Marvel wants. At this point, every film in the MCU doesn’t (and can’t) stand on its own. It has to both connect to the larger MCU and set-up or seed future entries in the MCU. Less of that and more of what made the better MCU entries like Iron Man and the Captain America series are what Marvel should do. Until proven otherwise at the box-office, Marvel will continue to do otherwise.