It’s been a decent fortnight for genre film-making. Last week, Bajrangi Bhaijaan pushed every emotional button it could get its hands on, and managed to sell its far-fetched premise. Ant-Man, which released this week, has a premise that’s even more far-fetched, and ends up being just as entertaining. But it is no more an anarchic masterpiece—which is what some fanboys will want you to believe—than the Salman-starrer.
When someone does something slightly different with a genre as codified and hidebound as the superhero film, it’s tempting to overrate the achievement. It’s easy to emerge from Ant-Man feeling like you’ve watched an elaborate spoof. Yet, the truth is there have already been a number of superhero movies that have mocked the idea of, well, superheroes. Ant-Man builds on the pop smarts of The Avengers and the I’m-no-hero shtick of Guardians Of The Galaxy, just like these films built on the wisecracking Iron Man films.
Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, an ex-con (jailed for burglary, not robbery, as he clarifies), fresh out of jail, divorced, and separated from his daughter, whom he loves dearly. In order to scramble together money to pay child support, he takes on what seems like a straightforward safe-cracking assignment. It turns out to be a set-up; the house belongs to a scientist named Hank Pym, who’s rumoured to have developed some sort of shrinking mechanism, and who’s had an eye on Scott for a while. Scott finds a suit when he breaks into the safe; once home, he puts it on. Suddenly, he shrinks to a few inches tall.
The rest you can probably guess. Scott seeks Hank out; Hank tells him the story of how he developed the suit and used it for secret superhero missions, and how his former protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), is developing similar technology but plans to weaponize it. Hank offers Scott a shot at redemption (he literally says, “I believe everyone deserves a shot at redemption”). Hank accepts and starts training to be Ant-Man (who shrinks to the size of an ant while retaining the strength of a full-size human). The second half of the movie is more a heist film than anything else, with Scott and his friends, both human and insect, breaking into Cross’ facility to destroy his technology.
Whatever you feel about Ant-Man, know that it could have been a lot better. For a long time, it looked like Edgar Wright would be the one to write and direct the film. The thought of the director of Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim Vs The World directing everydude Paul Rudd was very appealing—it was almost as if the cool kids had hijacked a studio for their own fun party. But then Wright backed out, ominously citing creative differences. His and Joe Cornish’s script remained, though it was further reworked by Adam McKay and Rudd. Directorial responsibilities were assumed by Peyton Reed (Down With Love, The Break-Up).
Reed displays a fair amount of imagination in the action scenes, with Rudd shrunk to bite-size and commanding an army of ants (he’s taught to control them by Hank and his daughter, Hope, played by Evangeline Lilly). There’s an extended sequence at the end which is reminiscent of, and as beautiful as, the psychedelic lights passage at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Where Wright is missed, I think, is in the handling of obligatory superhero moments—the backstory, the big speech, the saving of a child. Just like the best old Hollywood directors managed to find their way around the Hays Code (which spelt out what could and couldn’t be shown on screen), so we look to modern-day film-makers to be able to subvert such tropes. Ant-Man does this to a degree, but doesn’t go far enough.
The one thing Ant-Man gets exactly right is its casting. Rudd is a great choice as a superhero no one can honestly take seriously, mainly because he rarely seems like he’s ever taking anything seriously himself. Michael Peña is wonderful comic relief as Scott’s roommate; Stoll tries on a number of different smirks as the ant-agonist (you have to allow me one of those); Lilly brings some much-needed sex appeal to the Marvel Cinematic Universe; while David Dastmalchian, rapper Tip “T.I.” Harris and Bobby Cannavale do entertaining work on the sidelines. If there must be a sequel—and there’s plenty of room left open for one—it would be nice to have the whole gang back.
This review appeared in Mint.