The good news: I give a thumbs-up to Ant-Man, the latest installment of the Marvel cinematic universe.
The bad news: the kid behind the ticket counter automatically gave me a senior discount without my asking. (Seriously. I walked into the theater wondering, “Why did this only cost six bucks?” Then I looked down at the ticket stub. Oh...)
When I first heard of Marvel’s plans to make Ant-Man, I was skeptical. Sure, in the comic-book universe, Ant-Man was a founding member of the Avengers (with his wife, Janet Van Dyne, alias The Wasp), and it made sense that Marvel would want to extend its franchise. But having grown up in an era of cheesy horror films with ants (like Them! and Empire of the Ants) and even cheesier tiny-person science-fiction fare (Irwin Allen’s Land of the Giants comes to mind), I wasn’t sure they could make it work. Marvel’s trademark blend of action and self-deprecating humor, however, are on fine display, bolstered by CG effects that nicely serve the story. Ant-Man works.
Scientist Hank Pym (Douglas) was the original Ant-Man, having invented the means to shrink people and objects. A personal tragedy (revealed partway through the film) temporarily alienates him from his daughter Hope (Lilly). That tragic event, plus concerns over his technology becoming weaponized, cause Pym to retire the high-tech suit, keeping it secret.
His protegé and successor, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), however, suspects the existence of the technology. Feeling spurned by Pym, he eventually creates his own miniaturization suit, the Yellowjacket, and promotes it as the means to create the ultimate army, to be sold to the highest bidder. Over Hope’s strenuous objections, Pym recruits Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a recently released ex-con, to be the next Ant-Man and stop Cross. Lang is tasked with breaking into the heavily fortified Pym Technologies complex to steal the Yellowjacket.
But he can’t do it alone. From Pym he must learn how to use the suit; from Hope he must learn how to fight. Even his former partner in crime, Luis (Michael Pena) gets involved as an inside man, adding a comic dimension. Above all, however, Lang must learn to communicate with the armies of ants who will be his battle troops. With their pet-like obedience and affection, they’re almost cute.
Well, almost. It helps that they sort of purr.
Brief appearances by the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Hydra help tie the script to past and future Marvel films (stay all the way through the credits for two bonus scenes), though some fans may balk at the way the cinematic universe rewrites the comic book one. Cross/Yellowjacket is a relatively one-dimensional character, less interesting, say, than Ultron from Avengers 2 (and by the way, in the comics, Hank Pym, not Tony Stark was the inventor of Ultron). Rudd, however, does a decent job as Lang, a man trying to redeem himself by becoming the hero his little daughter would want him to be. The venerable Douglas (given the somewhat creepy CG youth treatment for the flashback opening) is given much more than a cameo, and is still eminently watchable; you can imagine that once upon a time, this guy was the Ant-Man. Lilly continues to develop her chops as an action hero (sans the pointy elf ears), with more to come (again, stay through the credits).
But the charm of Ant-Man is, in some ways, in its scale of action. The two Avengers films pitted a whole menagerie of superheroes against rampaging hordes of space aliens or maniacal robots. In contrast, Ant-Man comes down to two tiny guys in super-suits (and a bunch of ants) battling it out atop… Thomas the Tank Engine. Don’t take any of this too seriously, the script reminds us; just enjoy the ride.
I did. And I enjoyed it even more with my senior discount.
For parents: Ant-Man comes by its PG-13 rating more for its language than violence; the expressions are gratuitous but not excessive, and the violence is far, far below the level of mayhem in either Avengers movie. (After all, some of the fighting involves people getting knocked down by a punch from a guy the size of an ant. Go ahead, visualize it.) If anything, I’d be more concerned for children who have an aversion to insects (maybe from being forced to watch Empire of the Ants with their parents). The themes of personal redemption and family loyalty, if a bit obvious, are strong, providing the emotional undercurrent for the action.