By Preston Wilder
With great power comes great responsibility. When adapting the great, iconic superheroes – the Batmans and the Supermans – studios have a duty to treat them with a (sometimes stifling) seriousness, hence the humourless likes of The Dark Knight and Man of Steel. When it comes to smaller figures, however, one can be more irreverent and less responsible – and they don’t come much smaller than Ant-Man (though the actual comics are popular enough), a hero who can shrink to the size of an insect.
The result is Ant-Man, a zany comedy with an actual comedian, Paul Rudd, in the title role – a refreshing change for those of us who aren’t card-carrying comic-book geeks, though in truth it isn’t much of a change. The market has spoken, repeatedly: by far the biggest superhero franchises are the Avengers, who bicker like dysfunctional siblings, and Iron Man, based around Robert Downey Jr’s smart-aleck patter. People like their superheroes played for laughs, and Marvel Studios (now owned by Disney) are happy to oblige – which may be why the film had a slightly rocky genesis, with ace director Edgar Wright (of Shaun of the Dead fame), who’d wanted to make it since 2003, bowing out of the project last year citing ‘creative differences’.
Did Wright want to go a bit darker? Did he object to the knockabout tone adopted by Rudd and Co? (The actor also has a screenplay credit, with Adam McKay who made Anchorman.) No idea – but I still appreciated details like Scott Lang (Rudd) and his mentor Dr Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) arguing over the identity of one particular ant (was he No. 247 or No. 248? these ants look so similar!), or non-superhero tangents like Scott’s posse of over-excitable mates. Chief among them is motormouth Michael Pena, who keeps getting sidetracked but doesn’t let life get him down. Yeah, my girlfriend left me, he tells Scott, having turned up in his new van to welcome his friend out of jail. And my momma died. And my dad got deported. But I got this van, so it’s all good! Rudd’s shaky little smile in response is priceless.
Scott, as it happens, was in jail for burglary – but a nice, Robin Hood kind of burglary, breaking into corporate offices to liberate (and return) millions of dollars stolen from investors. This brings him to the attention of Dr Pym, inventor of the so-called ‘Pym particle’ which decreases the distance between atoms and allows a human being to reduce down to ant size in a matter of seconds. Scott puts on the Ant-Man suit before he knows what it does – and we get a sly, two-minute précis of all those sci-fi movies about shrinking people, our bewildered (and tiny) hero pummelled from one dangerous place to another: he dodges stiletto heels in a nightclub, holds on tight to avoid getting sucked into a vacuum cleaner, comes face-to-face with a Brobdingnagian rat, etc. Then he becomes a superhero, and none of those things are ever mentioned again.
That kind of ironic semi-parody recalls Edgar Wright (much of his work remains in the final script), as does the finest bit in the whole movie, a subversive take on the usual blockbuster climax. Ant-Man goes up against supervillain Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) who’s transformed himself into ‘Yellowjacket’, and they have a super-showdown – except that they’re both insect-sized, and the showdown takes place on a child’s train set. Our hero parries an oncoming train with his bare hands – but a wider shot reveals that the train is in fact a plastic toy, and the Dolbyfied thump of Ant-Man’s fists is in fact a harmless pop. It’s a very ballsy joke, suggesting what must never be suggested: that all this big-budget grandiosity (Ant-Man cost $130 million) is really just a way of pumping up small, childish stories.
Alas, the blockbuster climax can’t be avoided. The last half-hour is action-packed, and a bit too relentless. Most of Ant-Man is funny, though, indeed the whole notion of ants is funny (I keep getting flashbacks to Ben Stiller in Zoolander: “What is this? A centre for ANTS?!”), and of course Marvel geeks will be happy because the film is a kind of adjunct to The Avengers, one of whom even features in the story; if we must have (even) more superhero movies, this is probably the most painless way to go about it. It’s like that famous anecdote from Them!, the 1950s sci-fi about giant ants terrorising New Mexico: “I asked the editor ‘How does it look?’ and he said ‘Fine’,” recalled that film’s director, Gordon Douglas. “I said ‘Does it look honest?’, he said ‘As honest as 12-foot ants can look’.” Is Ant-Man a smart entertainment? As smart as a film about an ant-sized superhero can be.
DIRECTED BY Peyton Reed
STARRING Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly
US 2015 117 mins