It is impossible to talk about Ant-Man, the newest installment of Marvel Studios’ cinematic juggernaut, without the subject turning to Edgar Wright, the brilliant action comedy director of the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End) and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Wright had been developing an Ant-Man film for years and years, predating even Iron Man, only to be summarily dropped from the film early last year mid-production due to the infamous Creative Differences that seem to show up with disconcerting regularity (see also: Whedon, Joss and Jenkins, Patty). The word around town involved the studio pressuring Wright to integrate the film more heavily into the fabric of their shared universe and he walked. Enter Peyton Reed, the director of comedies like Bring it On and Yes Man, working off an alternate version of Wright and Joe Cornish’s script with tweaks from Adam McKay and Paul Rudd. Reed is a capable director, surely, but he is replacing a singular directorial talent, and those are formidable shoes to fill.
Rudd is Scott Lang, a burglar with a heart of gold who has spent time in jail after stealing money from a company embezzling on its employers’ pensions. Trying to keep straight to get back in the good graces with his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her new man (Bobby Cannavale), who have custody of his daughter. Spurred on to return to a life of crime due to the diminishing job prospects of an ex con and the encouragement of his ex-con friends (Michael Pena, David Dastmalchian and T.I.), Lang burgles the house of disgraced inventor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). Pym managed to invent a powerful and dangerous technology that can cause people to shrink at will. Pym is hiding the tech from his successor, the ambitious but more than a little unstable Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who looks to perfect the technology and sell it to the highest bidder.
Ant-Man continues the recent tradition of Marvel taking genre pictures and molding them into the established Marvel Studios formula. Guardians of the Galaxy was a space adventure, Captain America: The Winter Soldier a 70’s style paranoid spy thriller. Ant-Man angles itself as a heist film, unfurling a series of set pieces following Lang as he infiltrates various well guarded assets. It is also unsurprisingly a comedy, considering the presence of Rudd and McKay and Reed and (formerly) Wright. Rudd acclimates himself well to both aspects of the film, keeping his trademark breezy charm intact while showing his abs and throwing punches. He is not the funniest member of the cast, though, thanks to the effusive charm of Michael Pena. Pena is absolutely the highlight of the film, spitting overly complex tales about how he found out about their next job. Pena is a breath of fresh air, a burst of energy who grows to be more appreciated as the rest of the film trudges along, mired in the familiar.
And this, truly, is what is so frustrating about Ant-Man. There has never before been a Marvel Studios movie that has felt as rote as this does. There have been other uninspiring films in the Marvel canon (Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World and so on), but this is the first of these films that feels like it is aimlessly jumping from point A to B to C to D, following the exact same origin/redemption storyline that has been seen a billion times before. The training montage comes exactly when expected, and plays out without any surprise. The late second act scene to awkwardly shove it into the continuity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe comes exactly when expected (and it easily the most egregious since Hawkeye showed up in Thor; one can see how Edgar Wright would be displeased by the directive). It is all astonishingly listless and straightforward.
Formula can have its place (the three act structure of stories has stood the test of time for a reason), but in order for it to truly work, the accoutrement that lies over the structure must engage in order to distract from the same-iness of the exercise. And while the acting is generally quite good, these actors have so little to dig into that it is thoroughly difficult to find that spark. Ant-Man features a cavalcade of nothing characters, broadly sketched archetypes with little to hold onto that it cannot help but be a bore. There is nothing about Scott Lang that makes him stand out from the crowd other than the fact that he’s the main character of the movie. There is nothing about Darren Cross that makes him any different from the dozens of terrible Marvel movie villains with their vague megalomania and their powers that mimic the hero. Corey Stoll tries to breathe some life into his role, but it is dead on the table before their big climactic battle.
There are some good gags during that final battle, as the change of scale allows for them to poke fun at the wanton destruction of other superhero movies. The action is crisp and because of it, Ant-Man ends on a higher note than where it begins. It would be nice if this could have meant more, but the characters at the center of the conflict are so staggeringly immaterial that the exhilaration is merely fleeting. There has to be more to a film like this if it is expected to compete in an increasingly crowded field of infinite blockbusters. There will come a time when the Marvel name is no longer enough. Hopefully that time will come sooner rather than later, as it is a distinct possibility that a flop is exactly the sort of thing that could force Marvel Studios to strive for something a little more than tidy vessels of corporate synergy, pushing ever forward to the future without taking the time to focus on the present.