Ant-Man’s scale-warping premise offers a rare chance for Marvel Studios to break out of the visual homogeny of its features, which regularly suppress authorial identity in favor of a bland house style. That style dominates the Peyton Reed film’s first half, in which muted colors and functional shot/reverse-shot patterns put all focus onto a stretch of exposition so interminable it almost becomes funny. Characters are introduced via spectacles of pain, from Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) mourning the fresh wound of his wife’s death in a 1989-set cold open to newly released burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) dealing with the hardship of reintegrating into society and attempting to see his young daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson) over the objections of his ex (Judy Greer). Factor in the lugubrious explanations of corporate intrigue and the danger of emergent technology and it’s easy to forget this is the story of a man shrinking down to ant size.
Compounding the leaden pace are the shoehorned references that connect the film to the continuity of the Marvel universe, marking a new low for a studio more concerned with setting out half-hidden Easter eggs than visual or thematic individualism. Half-assed mentions of the Avengers, as well as a few cameo appearances sprinkled both within the feature and in its credits stingers, exude less shame than a crowd-pandering politico. Worse still is how a screenplay credited to Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and Rudd can be so unfunny. The usual Marvel smarm infuses every scene, but the film’s most pervasive joke is a moldy bit about someone declaring, definitively and uncompromisingly, that they will not accept something, at which point a smash cut shows that thing having come to pass. This is the “take my wife, please” of sight gags, and it’s used so often in the film that it seems to mark every other transition.
Most egregious of all is the complete and utter lack of purpose the film finds for women. Hank’s wife appears on screen just long enough in a flashback to die, while in the present, Hank refuses to let his manifestly more qualified daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), prevent the abuse of her father’s company by its new boss, Darren (Corey Stoll), instead backing an expendable stranger who shares some of his family failures. Lilly plays a stock character, there to provide resistance and, ultimately, support to a man she must train to do a job she can already do. The limitations of her role are further evidenced by the exploratory freedom granted the other actors, especially Douglas. Marvel tends to cast based on whether or not an actor looks the part, but Douglas suggests gulfs of unsaid backstory merely by his presence. The actor doesn’t play to his type as the oily, sleazy manipulator, but he lets it hang over Hank’s dejected weariness, tacitly orienting the man as a known lout trying too late to live up to his potential and atone for emotionally abandoning his daughter.
It’s hard not to pine for the version Wright might have made without interference, but he clearly left the production with concrete ideas for the choreography and visual schema, as Reed crafts not one, but several impressive set pieces that enliven the second and third acts. Scott’s ability to shrink and grow at will finds its greatest expression in deftly executed fights in which he disappears, throws a punch that sends a bewildered henchman flying, then reappears full-size to grab onto a person with better leverage. Visual jokes abound, like Ant-Man’s sprinting up a gun barrel or summoning armies of ants to perform microscopic tasks, all filmed on an epic scale.
Marvel films tend to peter out as they build to their overstuffed climaxes, but Ant-Man subverts this structure, positioning a raid on a secure military industrial facility as the precursor to the true showdown between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket, which occurs in a child’s bedroom made gargantuan when the two fighters shrink down and battle on a Thomas the Tank Engine train set. The constant vacillations between their vicious fight and a macro view of their destruction, of child toys lightly clattering to the ground, foreground the absurdity of this and any other comic-book movie, owning the ridiculousness not as an impediment to the genre’s legitimization, but a crucial aspect of its appeal. This sequence and others like it are by far the most clever, visually adventurous, belligerently fun moments to ever happen in a Marvel movie, and if the rest of the film gave into their energy instead of the usual origin-story tedium, Marvel Studios might have had its first truly great film.