dir: Peyton Reed
Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz) had been developing the Marvel superhero adaptation Ant-Man for eight or nine years before he walked away over creative differences. It seemed curious that this idiosyncratic British film-maker had teamed up with Marvel Studios, which is devoted to brand compatibility, cross-platform merchandising and all the other romantic notions that first inspired the Lumière brothers in the late 19th century. Even if David and Goliath become playmates, it won’t be the big fella who gets trampled in the excitement.
The result, directed by the less distinctive Peyton Reed (who made the Jim Carrey vehicle Yes Man), falls towards the upper end of expectations. Ant-Man is a salvage job but a good one. In common with Guardians of the Galaxy, it exhibits a B-movie nuttiness not permitted in the studio’s flagship films: your Iron Man, your Avengers. Vital to this is its star, Paul Rudd (who also helped revise the original script by Wright and Joe Cornish). With his sparkly, ingenuous eyes, he seems to be chuckling at a film that is already chuckling at itself.
Rudd plays Scott Lang, a safecracker singled out by an exiled scientist, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), for an unusual mission. In 1989, Hank developed a serum that can shrink a person to insect size. This does not seem terribly sensible. Had he bothered to see Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, released the same year, he might have gone back to the drawing board.
Not being a comic-book aficionado, I was sceptical about a superhero modelled on an ant. Would his powers extend to more than the ruin of a perfectly decent picnic? In fact, once Scott is miniaturised, wearing a retro costume that is all scuffed leathers and wire flex, his strength remains intact; it is simply concentrated into that tiny form. He also has at his beck and call thousands of militarised insects. The film has fun with the hero training montage, which includes the usual physical exercise as well as things Rocky never had to do, such as persuading an ant to nudge a sugar cube towards a cup of tea.
Developed to create armies of teeny-weeny soldiers, the serum has fallen into the hands of Hank’s former protégé Darren (Corey Stoll). Scott’s mission is to retrieve it. As plots go, you could write it on the back of an ant. But the film is crammed with colour. The rapport between Scott and his former cellmate Luis (Michael Peña) has an infectious screwball mania. The action sequences are affectionately detailed, especially the climax, which takes place in a child’s bedroom; a life-or-death battle unfolds in full view of Thomas the Tank Engine, his eyes spinning deliriously. The sequence is a metaphor for the comic-book world. From the outside, it looks like playtime. Up close, to those immersed in its dramas, it really matters.
Like Ant-Man himself, torn between worlds of conflicting scale, this is a film with an identity crisis. The screenplay is full of the calculated patterning routine in Hollywood. Hank wants to win back the love of his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), while Scott is trying to make amends with his. Cheesy slogans (“Be the hero she already thinks you are!”) are the order of the day. But the movie tries to be both hip and square. After some heartfelt reflection by Hank, Scott will pop up to say, “Darn, that was a good speech!” If the emotional effect is going to be mocked, it seems a waste of time to bother with it in the first place.
This mirrors the struggle at the heart of Ant-Man between the corporate and the eccentric. Since 2008’s Iron Man Marvel has been building the Marvel Cinematic Universe, striving for continuity between all its business interests – or “movies”, as they are sometimes known. Nick Fury might pop up to say “hello” in a Thor film; Iron Man could borrow a cup of sugar from the Hulk. One of the Avengers has a cameo in Ant-Man but it’s as crass as product placement. Any film-maker who signs up with Marvel is, to some extent, going into battle. Despite Wright’s departure, it is the little guys, the weirdos, who have the edge in Ant-Man. Just.