The Charms of ‘Ant-Man’ Are All But Smothered by the Marvel Machine

Earlier this month, when Ava DuVernay walked away from a chance to direct the big-screen adaptation of Marvel’s Black Panther, her explanation wasn’t terribly surprising. “I think I’ll just say we had different ideas about what the story would be,” DuVernay said. “Marvel has a certain way of doing things, and I think they’re fantastic and a lot of people love what they do… In the end, it comes down to story and we just didn’t see eye to eye. Better for me to realize that now than cite creative differences later.”

DuVernay’s exit came on the heels of Joss Whedon’s candid complaints about Marvel’s input on his Avengers sequel, and with the ouster of Edgar Wright from the studio’s Ant-Man serving as some sort of cautionary tale. And it’s not hard to catch DuVernay’s drift when confronted with the Frankenstein monster that is Ant-Man, which plays like bits of an Edgar Wright movie (he shares a screenplay credit), bits of a Peyton Reed movie (Wright’s replacement as director), and bits of a vintage Joe Dante movie. But it is, above all, a Marvel movie, with all the difficulties that label entails.

After a 1989-set prologue that ages down Michael Douglas with alarming skill and situates the movie within our old pal the Marvel Cinematic Universe — more on that later — we’re introduced to our hero, Scott Lang, played by Paul Rudd (and yes, it’s a joy to see him fronting a big franchise movie). The flabby slog of a first act intercuts the setup of his backstory (just out of prison for a bit of Robin Hood-style burglary, he’s trying to go straight and reestablish a relationship with his young daughter), with the exposition involving Douglas’ Hank Pym, his estranged daughter (Evangeline Lilly), his villainous former protégé (Corey Stoll), and the technology Pym invented that makes this whole thing go. There’s lots of demonstrations and explanations and chatter about atomic particles, though they could’ve just inserted Thomas Dolby bleating “SCIENCE!” and been done with it.

Michael Douglas and Paul Rudd in "Ant-Man"

After all that lead-footed setup, the energy and inventiveness of the picture’s first big heist scene is particularly welcome. Director Reed keys in on Scott’s on-the-fly inventiveness, and lets it dictate the breathless cuts and camera movements. But Ant-Man truly (and immediately) springs to life when Scott puts on the suit, presses the plunger, and shrinks down to ant size; suddenly, it shakes loose of its narrative and branding obligations and lets fly with its own carefree, manic spirit.

But such inventive interludes are too few and far between. For a film credited to four very funny writers and positioned as a wacky Marvel spin-off, Ant-Man spends an unfortunate portion of its running time wallowing in overwrought, soapy subplots (in a nutshell: Pym is the daddy figure, and all the other key players seek his approval) and teary-eyed confessions. But such tonal incongruities — the desire to be both quip-happily irreverent and end-of-the-world serious — have become an increasingly prevalent (and crippling) element of the Marvel house style, which is also manifested in the cutesy Avengers references, the surprise cameos that are executed with all the panache of Love Boat guest shots, and the doubled-up end-credit cookie scenes, which have become the studio’s equivalent of cheeseball TV “next time on…” teasers.

Paul Rudd in "Ant-Man"

And, of course, we have the obligatory Marvel third-act woes, seen here less in the substance of the climactic action beat — for once, we don’t have a giant battle sequence filling the sky, though the sight of two men in metal suits booming silly and bombastic taunts at each other is awfully Iron Man-y — than in its duration. Good God does this movie end a full dozen times, and keep on ending, zipping past a couple of totally acceptable buttons in the big Pym Industries climax, ignoring a perfect conclusion in a suburban backyard (I won’t dream of spoiling; you’ll know it when you see it), tacking on yet another action scene, and then another ten or 15 minutes of wrap-ups and “world-building.” It amounts to watching a really nifty 90-minute movie getting pummeled by a bloated, 117-minute one.

Is Ant-Man worth seeing? (As if my answer matters; like all Marvel movies, it’ll make a mint.) Sort of. Rudd is, as mentioned, a charming leading man, bringing the kind of quirky sideways charm that made Robert Downey Jr.’s inaugural turn as Iron Man refreshing. Michael Peña is so endlessly, effortlessly funny, you can almost ignore what an unfortunate stereotype he’s playing. When Reed can break away from the lumbering expositional dialogue, he’s an elegant visual storyteller; he uses the 3D as a tool and not just a gimmick, and there’s an extended training sequence that’s so trim and efficient, you wish the whole script had its brevity. And the friskiness of the action beats manages to underline the fact that, grand dialogue proclamations aside, the movie works best as a low-stakes throwaway. Near the end, our hero is incredulously asked, “Did you think you could stop the future with a heist?” He responds, “It was never just a heist.” Too bad; if it were, they might’ve really been on to something.

Ant-Man is out Friday.