Three years ago, when Marvel first announced that Ant-Man would be getting his own movie, I tweeted, “I don’t care how much money Avengers makes. The world does not need an Ant-Man movie.” Ant-Man, I felt, was too minor a hero, too obscure and inconsequential — in a word, too small — to warrant the big-screen Marvel movie treatment.
How times change.
Words like “minor,” “inconsequential” and, above all, “small,” which once struck me as faintly damning, have come to seem like a breath of fresh air. That tweet came before Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and, above all, Avengers: Age of Ultron — movies in which the sheer global scale of the stakes has become, frankly, exhausting.
In the parlance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, my tweet was a “Phase 1” sentiment, and here, at the eve of the MCU’s “Phase 2,” just before the dawn of “Phase 3” in 2016, with the portentously titled Captain America: Civil War, I’m grateful for a superhero movie in which the action scenes start in a bathtub and wind up in a young girl’s bedroom.
Indeed, if anything, I find myself wishing Ant-Man were less consequential — certainly with respect to the rest of the MCU. This, I now realize, was one of the great reliefs of Guardians of the Galaxy: You can watch pretty much the whole movie and never once, except for the “Infinity Stone” connection, think of any other Marvel movie.
Other than Guardians, that’s not allowed. Everything is another slice of Marvel product; everything must be an advertisement for everything else. Ant-Man’s opening sequence features Howard Stark and Agent Carter; the Avengers are invoked jointly and in some cases severally; there’s at least an allusion to Spider-Man’s upcoming MCU incarnation; and two Avengers put in appearances, one of them in a post-credit cameo, the other more substantially, in an action scene halfway through the film. Then there’s Hydra, the evil organization that corrupted SHIELD in the last Captain America movie.
The faithful, I am sure, find all of this thrilling; I find it limiting. I understand that when things start to go south, it may not be possible to avoid the question “Why not call the Avengers?” Yet the upshot of all the continuity is that there is a certain “middle movie” vibe to every Marvel movie. That’s fine for the small screen (or for old half-hour movie serials), where the next chapter is only a week away, but with a two-hour movie, I adhere to the old-fashioned idea that, generally speaking, there ought to be a beginning, middle and end.
With Ant-Man, the middle-movie feeling is particularly distinct because the story the filmmakers have chosen is the origin story of the second Ant-Man, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), with the entire career of the original Ant-Man, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), as back story. Perhaps they did this because Pym’s origin story — a brilliant scientist whose breakthrough discovery or invention turns him into a superhero — has become over-familiar, and the story of an ex-con who winds up stumbling into superhero work is fresher. (It doesn’t help that details of Pym’s story — spoiler alert — so closely follow Iron Man: The tech company Pym founded is subverted by a bald former colleague with whom Pym had a father-son relationship, who wants to sell Pym’s breakthrough as an ultimate weapon to the highest bidder and uses it himself to become the bigger, badder version of superhero Pym.)
Well, Lang’s story is fresher, particularly with a reliably funny Michael Peña leading Lang’s heist support crew. Not that Lang, fresh from prison, has any intention of returning to crime. He wants to go straight and be there for his little girl, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), whose mother Maggie (Judy Greer), now divorced from Lang, has gotten remarried to a police officer (Bobby Cannavale). But he discovers it’s hard on the outside for a convicted cat burglar, even one who is also an electrical engineer. Wait, what?
I enjoyed Ant-Man most as small-scale spectacle, a high-tech update on Honey, I Shrunk the Kids cinema. In that film, when one of the kids fell into a bowl of Cheerios, the illusion was punctured by the swimming pool-sized splash; in this film, when Lang is in a bathtub and someone turns on the water, the effect is seamless.
There’s a great kinetic zero-gravity action sequence that works on the same principle as NASA’s “vomit comet” aircraft, except the free-falling vessel in which the combatants are battling is, um, considerably smaller. The climactic action sequence takes place atop an iconic moving vehicle that shifts humorously between close-ups and long shots — a riff on a Disney/Pixar gag in which a large-scale disturbance is followed by a very long shot of a tiny effect (like the shock wave of an explosion tipping over a distant paper cup in Bolt).
The plot, it must be said, rewards not thinking about it. The business of the Ant-Man baton passing from Pym to Lang involves at least three choices I don’t buy in terms of character motivation. The image of Ant-Man flying on a winged ant — among many other things — requires you to forget that the miniaturization process (which relies on something called Pym particles) is said to involve reducing the space between atoms, which means that Ant-Man should always weigh the same, no matter how tall he is or isn’t. Conversely, if he can ride an ant, then he shouldn’t have the mass and inertia to punch around a full-size human being. The inter-atomic space explanation also makes a hash of the idea of going subatomic into the quantum world, which we are warned may be a one-way trip.
Before Avengers: Age of Ultron revealed that Hawkeye had a wife and kids, no big-screen Marvel superhero had a spouse or children, and only Thor had any living family ties at all. Ant-Man gives us two Ant-Men with past marriages — Pym has lost his wife, Janet, known to comic-book fans as the Wasp — and present daughters. Pym’s daughter Hope is played by Evangeline Lilly (the Hobbit movies’ Tauriel), who plays her more interestingly than she is written. It’s a little depressing that the filmmakers have contrived to give us a movie with two Ant-Men that is somehow between Wasps, in deference to Marvel’s unwillingness so far to allow super-types of the female persuasion to be more than one-fifth of a super-ensemble.
Caveat Spectator: Stylized action violence, including a couple of icky sci-fi deaths; menace to a child; sympathetic depiction of criminals; some crude language and swearing; a mildly crass sexual reference. Teens and up.