It goes without saying that comic book stories are, by their very nature, preposterous conceits created purely for entertainment. But there’s a fine line between escapist fun and goofy fecklessness, and when crossed, not only is it not entertaining, suspension of disbelief is simply not possible. Ant-Man most definitely crosses that line; with its awful dialogue, its overplayed sense of humor, its predictable character development, and a plot that might have held muster sixty years ago in an Atomic Age movie, it officially surpasses Guardians of the Galaxy as the worst entry to date in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. To watch it is not to see a story unfold, but rather to be assaulted with unrelenting silliness. The fact that it’s hopelessly intertwined with several other Marvel films doesn’t do it any favors – this Universe is expanding to such an extent that keeping track of specific details, characters, and events is becoming impossible.
Even its take on being a superhero is ridiculous. Of all the superpowers one could dream of having, how likely is shrinking to the size of an insect and having mind control over ants going to be one of them? This sounds more like something that would be done by a power-hungry villain in a particularly bad Saturday matinee serial. Maybe there was nowhere left to go, since all the good abilities like flying and turning invisible have already been used. Having said all this, maybe I could have suspended disbelief had the filmmakers been even halfway willing to make an effort, tonally speaking; while I certainly wasn’t hoping for a deadly serious melodrama, like Man of Steel or any entry in the Dark Knight trilogy, I also wasn’t hoping for a nonstop laughfest, as if it were a buddy comedy without the crude sexual references. It’s all about balance. I submit as evidence last summer’s underrated The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
A very buff Paul Rudd, who doubles as one of the screenwriters, stars as the title character – a.k.a. Scott Lang, an engineer and a petty burglar from San Francisco. After finishing a three-year prison sentence, he discovers to his dismay that, despite his prestigious college degrees and superior technical skills, no one is willing to hire an ex-con. The best he can manage is scooping ice cream at Baskin Robbins, and not even that goes as planned. Despite his financial hardships, which are preventing him from having a relationship with his beloved young daughter, he’s determined to put his life of crime behind him and go legit. But as would be expected, he becomes desperate, and in due time, he’s presented with an opportunity that’s too good to resist. What he doesn’t realize is that his new job (breaking into a house, cracking a safe, and stealing its contents) has in fact been staged as a way to test his skills.
Here enters Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a physicist who years ago discovered a convoluted and nonsensical way to manipulate subatomic particles and apply it to a technology capable of shrinking living subjects while simultaneously increasing their strength. You have to see it to believe it – a very miniature man with the ability to knock full-sized sized men off their feet with tiny blows of his fists. But I’m getting ahead of the story. Pym was forcefully pushed out of his own biotech company by his former protege, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who, of course, wants to militarize the shrinking technology for his own evil purposes. If he’s to be stopped, Pym and his able-to-throw-a-punch daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), need Lang to don a leather suit and helmet and become Ant-Man. With the press of a button in his hand, Lang can shrink to insect size, and with a special ear implant, he can manipulate everyday ants to do his bidding. Let’s face it: When you think of creature capable of infiltrating an ultra high-tech building, disabling an entire computer system, and essentially saving the world, you immediately think of ants.
It’s bad enough that certain subplots, like the emotional wall between Pym and his daughter over a family tragedy or the conflict between Lang, his ex-wife (Judy Greer), and her new husband (Bobby Cannavale), are developed on nothing but tired narrative conventions. It gets worse with Lang’s trio of henchmen, each of whom are paradoxically politically correct and culturally insensitive. We have the thickly-accented Russian computer specialist (Wood Harris) and the jive-talking black getaway driver (Tip “T.I.” Harris), but the worst offender is Lang’s former cellmate, Luis, played by Michael Peña as a goofy, motormouthed Latino stereotype. Consider one of his earliest lines of dialogue: “My girl left me. And my mom died. And my dad got deported. But I got the van!” Peña can be funny without sacrificing his dignity, as evidenced by his performance in Brett Ratner’s Tower Heist. Here, it’s as if he’s willing to degrade himself just for the sake of generating cheap laughs for comic-book fanboys. It’s not funny. It’s just plain sad.
For a genre that depends on technological advancements in order to appear believable – and yes, this does include the IMAX 3D process, which is always used to great effect – I’m amazed that Ant-Man at times regresses to the level of a Godzilla film in its handling of the title character’s shrunken size; in certain shots, he appears to be about an inch tall and is clearly visible standing on someone’s shoulder, while in others, he only slightly bigger than an ordinary ant, and can even ride them as if they were horses. And how seriously can I take the climactic final battle, which wages on a play table in the room of Lang’s daughter? Both he and Cross are shrunken in size, obviously, and a running Thomas the Tank Engine train suddenly looks like a monstrous locomotive. The filmmakers don’t want us to cheer the good guys or boo the bad guys; they just want us to laugh at everything. Here’s a film made me wish I had a can of Raid.