Ant-Man proves that less is more

Ant-Man is the best Marvel film in years. That of course doesn’t necessarily suggest that it’s a great film, in fact it’s just as bound to rigid contemporary blockbuster formula as any of the illustrious comic book company’s previous films. But what makes Ant-Man work is its defiance of the prison of the canon, and the way it feels mostly self-contained despite a desperate attempt to shoehorn it into the world of The Avengers. Naturally, Ant-Man will become a part of that cinematic multiverse, but for the time being this odd little comic book movie has the chance to stand on its own six legs, acting as a slight breath of fresh air into the increasingly stale Marvel stable.

Much of why Ant-Man succeeds is in its willingness to loosen the straps of seriousness and revel in the joy and self-effacing humour that is part and parcel of comic books in general. Sure, the overall premise is poised for humour, but it’s also worth noting that choices behind the camera steer it in a more comical, breezy direction. Originally written by Joe Cornish and Edgar Wright (to be directed by Wright) and starring the most charismatic man in Hollywood Paul Rudd, creative differences led to Wright leaving the project as director and being replaced by Peyton Reed, a potentially worrisome prospect that doesn’t turn out as bad as one might think.

Luckily, Wright and Cornish’s screenplay remained (with a slight rewrite by Rudd and Adam McKay), allowing Ant-Man to retain some of Wright and Cornish’s geeky, manic charm. Ant-Man centres on Scott Lang (Rudd), a cat burglar recently released from prison attempting to attain visitation rights for his daughter, by abandoning his criminal tendencies for a “normal” life. When he eventually caves to his friend Luis’ (Michael Peña) ridiculously concocted heist in an effort to make some quick cash, Lang finds himself having robbed Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a reclusive entomologist and physicist who abandoned his corporation in the late 1980s when he concluded that his new technology, a suit that can shrink its wearer to the size of – you guessed it – an ant, might be troublesome for international relations.

In the present day, one of Pym’s protégés, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), has developed a similar technology, much to Pym’s dismay, and is trying to sell it to corporate and military interests with the help of Pym’s somewhat estranged daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly). What’s a crusty old corporate executive to do? Well, inadvertently create Ant-Man is the answer afforded to us, as Pym and Lang team up to prevent Cross from distributing the dangerous technology across the globe.

Framing the film and central character’s journey through the blueprint of a heist film is partly Ant-Man’s saving grace, as it’s not only fool-proof way of experiencing the pleasure of Hollywood synchronisation, but it also significantly lowers the stakes of Ant-Man to realistic and thus sympathetic proportions. One of the major problems with most Marvel films is that the stakes are so dramatically high that buildings, cities and sometimes solar systems have to be demolished in order for the grand spectacle to play out, which reduces any altruistic compulsion in the audience to null.

Ant-Man, while being far from a complex and moving drama, is at least involving, most of which has to do with its boots-on-the-ground attitude and its relative tangible experience. When Lang and his crew originally break into Pym’s house, part of the fun is watching the particular and precise action of his burglary skills, as he figures out how to circumvent a fingerprint scanner and a century old safe door. It’s not realistic by any stretch (not that it has to be), but it’s certainly grounded in a kind of physical reality. Lock picking carries more inherent tension than planet smashing ever will, a technique Ant-Man employs earnestly, as it wins over its audience’s affectations on a micro battlefield.

This is especially true during the moments in which Lang actually shrinks himself and becomes immersed in miniature worlds that are simultaneously breathtaking and humorously constructed. There is surely a comparison to be made between the awe and wonder experienced from a vista or landscape and that of a miniature or microscopic space. In the same way that contemporary CGI-based cinema has opened the human mind to previously unforseen worlds in a vast sense, Ant-Man opens up its audience’s phenomenological experience to that of smallness, which in and of itself is no small feat.

It’s a reversal of the trend with the same results in a sense, resulting in an experience that is no less affecting or dramatic. When Lang first adopts the suit and shrinks himself he topples through various familiar spaces that are now imbued with a new and wondrous pleasure. From his stained bathtub, down through the floorboards, into a teenage rave party and up a vacuum cleaner, the audience is thrust into familiar spaces that are now seen anew.

Much of this has to do with the attention to detail of texture and the mapping of space, and while it is repeated numerous times in the film, it is never not thrilling. There’s even a moment towards the end where Lang enters the endless psychedelic void of the quantum realm, where design overtakes reality in the most spectacular of ways. I wanted it to go on forever.

And yet, with all of the rewards of Ant-Man, it’s still a Marvel film and thus it comes with Marvel baggage, although thankfully it isn’t too overwhelming or cloying. Corey Stoll’s one-dimensional villain has no stakes in the proceedings, nor does the relationship between Pym and his daughter, and thus for the most part the dramatic through-line of the film has little to no agency. There is over-exposition at every corner and the action sequences, while novel in their design, are predictably one-note, consistently relying on brawn rather than brains.

Fortunately, there’s a lot to like about Ant-Man, much of which revolves around the charming personas of Paul Rudd and Michael Peña, supported by a screenplay that sometimes affords them snappy dialogue in between its chunks of story plotting. It’s a good time at the movies, something that can be rarely said of the usually laborious and hefty Marvel franchise, and proves that most of the time less is certainly more.

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