I went into last night’s Ant-Man screening with an attitude, but it surprised the hell out of me. It’s basically a dry, highly disciplined, emotionally grounded, bang-on comedy. It doesn’t try to sell or invest in the usual Marvel fantasy fizz — it fucks with it, turns the whole thing into a joke. It’s so much better than I expected that you could call me flabbergasted. Surprising as this may sound (especially to me), Ant-Man is my favorite Marvel film yet. The Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy said yesterday it’s not quite as engaging as Guardians of the Galaxy; I think it’s a little bit better.
I know — I lack the authority to judge Marvel films because I’m too much of a comic-book-movie hater, right? What I really am is an Avengers and Iron Man-sequel hater, an enemy of glum superhero angst, and definitely a Robert Downey loather. All I know is that I didn’t frown or moan once last night. I grinned, chuckled, felt more or less delighted. I loved the visual roller-coastery, sudden-size-shift stuff…the swooping down from life-size to micro-size and back up again — a game that basically unfurls an entirely new micro-realm. No mood pockets, no prickly detours…pretty much all pleasure.
Yes, Ant-Man is “silly” but it embraces that. It’s sharp and fast and disciplined as a Marine. It takes itself seriously in terms of its own efficiency and (I’m serious) its own emotional undercurrents. So call me turned around and converted.
Take no notice of the piss-heads who are saying “if only original director Edgar Wright hadn’t bolted!” These guys are coming from an obsessive geek-wanker place and are not to be trusted. They’re just standing behind Edgar and against Marvel/Disney for loyalty’s sake. I realize that Wright bailed due to Marvel intransigence or Disney-level meddling. And I’ll allow that Shaun of the Dead showed that he has a flourishy attitude and a certain auteurist panache, but, unlike a few geek-influenced critics I could name, I don’t think he’s God’s gift because Scott Pilgrim vs. the World made me want to jump off a 15-story building.
The pissies are also saying “it’s too much like the first Iron Man.” Okay, yeah, it is somewhat. And? Yes, there’s a lot of backstory, set-up and preparation before the climatic action finally kicks in during the last half-hour or so. To me adequate preparation and payoff are a mark of good filmmaking craft. The nay-saying geeks just want the third-act highs.
Ant-Man director Peyton Reed may have been working from Wright’s notes, but he’s done a superb job of making it all hum and flow. The script was written by Wright, Joe Cornish, Rudd and Adam McKay (director of Anchorman) — really superb work, guys.
Paul Rudd (as Scott Lang, the burglar and once-irresponsible dad who becomes the hero) is obviously in on the joke but doesn’t wink once — he’s delivering an earnest, planted, bare-bones performance that may be his best ever (obviously including This Is 40).
Corey Stoll‘s Darren Cross is less fiendish and more emotionally driven than your typical Marvel villain, but I was okay with this. Bobby Cannavale plays another lunk-head (approximately the same guy he played in Danny Collins) but Michael Pena is a laid-back hoot as Rudd/Lang’s former cellmate. And another hat-tip to Tip “T.I.” Harris and Wood Harris as the other guys in the crew. Judy Greer is fine as Rudd’s ex but this is basically a paycheck role.
My Marvel animus aside, I was down with the self-aware foolery of Guardians of the Galaxy and, before that, the two Captain America films, which, apart from their well-honed dazzle, were slyly humorous at times. Boiled down, the more a Marvel film raises its eyebrows at the absurdity, the more I’ll like it. And yet, like almost everyone else, I was nursing derisive attitudes about Ant-Man from the get-go. Stupid, lame, get outta here. And then I saw it. Re-think, re-position, re-formulate.
To me the funniest moments happen when Ant-Man (Rudd) slugs it out in the home of his ex-wife with a Stoll’s micro-sized Yellowjacket mode. As things get crazy/silly as various objects shrink and enlarge at the drop of a hat (don’t ask me for explanations), the film is basically saying “are you getting how the toy-world reality is a kind of metaphor for the adolescent Marvel empire”? And yet by saying this Ant-Man at once feels cool and liberated, like one of the hippest slapstick films you’ve ever seen.
The one thing that bothered me was a tendency on the part of Michael Douglas‘s Hank Pym to slug guys he’s enraged at. Slugging is decisive but uninteresting, especially when you’re gray-haired and not tall and wearing a suit. I was also expecting a payoff to Pym’s wife having descended decades ago into a sub-atomic realm; I was presuming that when the film ventures into this sphere near the end that she would somehow be discovered and rescued and returned…something like that.
I love this portion of Bryan Bishop’s review on The Verge:
“Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy are proofs of concept, in a strange way — existing far enough away from the main cinematic storyline that they could easily be abandoned as one-offs if they failed. But in their offbeat success, they’re showing Marvel a new way forward, one in which they lean into the ridiculous and embrace the fun.
“It’s an idea that’s coming just in time. Warner Bros. and DC seem intent on going the other way by creating the most depressing movies of all time. Ant-Man may be proof that we’ve finally outgrown the era in which directors default to the gritty superhero trope. Comic book movies that are fun. Who’d have thought?”
Except Ant-Man is a lot more than just fun. It’s incredibly focused, rigorous, tightly wound and as structurally knife-edged as anything I’ve ever seen in the Marvel universe.