REVIEW: “Ant-Man”

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Marvel’s cinematic universe has become a powerful presense at the box office. This has allowed Marvel Studios (and owner Disney) to branch out into what could be more obscure territories for moviegoers other than comic book fans. We saw it first in the insanely successful “Guardians of the Galaxy” – a film about a fringe group of characters within Marvel’s comic book mythology. “Guardians” was a decent film that struck a major chord with audiences grossing over $750 million. “Ant-Man” falls into a similar category – a Marvel character lesser known to the masses brought to the big screen on the backs of the other films and their successes.

One of my big questions going in was whether or not this character and story was worthy of the big screen solo treatment or is this simply Marvel showing off their powerful box office muscles? That is a tough question to answer especially considering Marvel took an insane amount of liberties with the source material. The story we end up with only features snippets of content and characters from the comics. Taking liberties and telling a unique story isn’t a bad thing. But with “Ant-Man” I left the theater thinking that the better story was the one left behind in the comics – the one Marvel chose not to tell.

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“Ant-Man” had its share of development problems mainly in the form of writer and director Edgar Wright’s departure. A number of other directors turned down offers to helm the film until Peyton Reed eventually took the reins. Perhaps this contributes to the film’s shaky foundation and overall lack of identity. There are times when “Ant-Man” feels fresh and a bit experimental within its genre, but it never sees these things through. Instead it embraces some of the same cliches and story contraptions that we have seen numerous times.

Funny man Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, a smart man with a good heart who sometimes makes dumb decisions. We first meet him as he is being released from prison after serving a sentence for a non-violent burglary. His incarceration has driven a deeper wedge between him and his ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer). She refuses to allow him to see their daughter Cassie until he gets his life together. This is tough pill for Scott to swallow especially considering how Cassie idolizes her father.

Now enter Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) who the movie has as a physicist who lost control of his company to an ambitious former protĂ©gĂ© Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Since gaining control of Pym Industries, Cross has been trying to replicate Pym’s shrinking technology. But knowing the dangers of the formula in the wrong hands, Pym refuses to give it up causing all sorts of animosity between him and Cross. After Cross’ nefarious intent is revealed, Pym and his estranged daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) recruit Scott to help them stop Cross before he can unleash his evil plans.

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“Ant-Man” is definitely a mixed bag but its strong points are obvious. First, the story plays out on a much smaller scale which is something I appreciated. Yes, there are serious worldwide implications, but this is a superhero story which fits nicely within its smaller group of characters. There is no impending global doom or ominous cataclysmic event. In fact portions of the film play out like a corporate thriller while other portions play out like a heist film. I liked these elements and I was surprised by them. I was also surprised by how well Rudd fit into the character. The writing doesn’t always help him out, but overall he is good. I particularly liked Corey Stoll who managed to make a pretty one-dimensional character entertaining.

I also enjoyed the special effects which bounce back and forth between action-packed and playfully silly. In fact, some of the film’s best humor can be found in some of the visual effects sequences. It’s also worth noting that while the film is loaded with CGI, it’s not your standard big explosions and massive devastation. We get some of that but overall the effects serve different purposes which was refreshing. There is also a cool cameo and several other neat references which ground the film in Marvel’s greater cinematic universe.

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Unfortunately the movie’s strong points can’t overcome its problems. With all of the things the story does differently early on, ultimately it devolves into your standard, clichĂ©-ridden fare. The redemption angle and typical origin story felt way too familiar and predictable. I also wasn’t blown away by its hit-or-miss humor. There were times when the movie is funny (Michael Pena is cast for no other purpose but to be a constant joke). Other times the humor fell flat and didn’t feel the slightest bit original. And perhaps my biggest issue was with the villain. On several occasions Marvel has struggled to give us an intense, engaging villain. Just look at “Guardians” for a glaring example. Darren Cross is pretty terrible. Now matter how good Corey Stoll is, his character’s actions simply don’t match his motivations. He is so poorly developed and we are basically given a few small lines of dialogue that are supposed to explain his reasoning. It just doesn’t work.

“Ant-Man” is an easy movie to digest. It dabbles in promising areas and has its share of fun scenes and cool visual effects. But it also squanders a lot of its potential by traveling down well-worn and overused paths. In the end this isn’t a Marvel film that I’ll find myself visiting again and it makes me skeptical of how they will use these characters in the future. I guess this is a case where I simply can’t shake the comic book fanboy within me. I still feel an Ant-Man film focused on a young Hank Pym and his wife Janet would be much better and more interesting than what we get here. But I guess we will never know.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars