Infectiously playful, but let down by a lack of formal innovation
I usually try to avoid imagining the behind-the-scenes workings of any film I write about, but it’s pretty much impossible to watch Ant-Man without constantly being reminded of its famously troubled production history. Edgar Wright reportedly worked on the concept for nearly a decade and was set to direct before dropping out at the last minute due to disagreements with the studio, and his fingerprints are all over the finished product (he still has a co-writer and an executive producer credit), but the helm was taken over by Peyton Reed. As was to be expected, it’s more than a shade more eccentric than the average Summer Blockbuster, but too conventional to distinguish itself that much. In other words, it’s written like an Edgar Wright movie, but shot and edited like a Peyton Reed movie. If nothing else, it features the most left-of-field multiplex cast this side of Jurassic Park. Aside from Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas being nobody’s idea of a conventional action movie double team, the first 10 minutes alone feature cult figures Martin Donovan, Gregg Turkington and Bobby Cannavale. Yet these over-determined gestures towards campiness are betrayed by an overall lack of formal and thematic daringness.
A typical Marvel origin story greatly spiced up by Wright’s linguistic compactness and sense of pacing, the film focuses on Scott Lang, a petty thief who’s released from jail into a hostile job market. Unable to make ends meet and restricted from seeing his daughter Cassie until he can pay child support, he joins his former, inept crew to pull of one final heist, a plan to break into the private safe of renowned scientist Hank Pym based on a shady tip-off. What they find inside, however, isn’t money but a suit that can shrink its wearer to microscopic size. When Scott goes to return the suit, he’s taken in by Pym and his daughter Hope, who need him to infiltrate the company he used to work for, in order to steal the ground breaking shrinkage research he pioneered as it is now at risk of falling into the hands of Darren Cross, one of those Faustian evil villain scientists you usually find in superhero movies.
Like Neveldine/Taylor’s similarly compromised (though not to this extent) Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Ant-Man is less interesting in its overall design than in the odd glimpses of an auteur’s singular vision it exhibits: metaphors suddenly becoming literalized, complex verbal repetitions, the comic intermingling of the mundane and the grandiose, generic emotional beats played half-straight. Rudd’s the only actor who really nails the tone – in line with his typical on-screen persona, Rudd’s Scott is both shruggy yet self-conscious, too high-strung to be a simple slacker but too apathetic to be a success, ironically detached in a way that mostly registers as endearingly affable, though sometimes veers towards self-involvement. The action sequences are marked by an unexpected sense of playfulness and the occasional spark of visual ingenuity, with Scott’s ability to change size offering the opportunity for the camera to constantly shift in scale, or for the mundane settings to be transformed into hostile landscapes and everyday objects into intimidating elements of potential danger.
The writing seems tailored for oddball direction, so is let down by Reed’s generally pedestrian filmmaking instincts. His inexpressive style, built on flatly-lit master shots followed by medium reverse-shots, is focused mainly on capturing everything as clearly as possible, and hence tends to make everything – plot points, emotional beats – feel perfunctory.
Ant-Man (2015), directed by Peyton Reed, is distributed in the UK by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Certificate 12a.