Friday, July 17, 2015

Ant-Man: A huge disappointment

Ant-Man (2015) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for action violence and some rather nasty peril

By Derrick Bang

Well, it was inevitable: Mighty Marvel finally stumbled.

This film’s problems are numerous, but the largest issue is one of tone; director Peyton Reed, apparently adopting 1989’s Honey, I Shrunk the Kids as his template, has emphasized slapstick sight gags and comic relief supporting characters to a point that pretty well destroys any of this story’s potential drama.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, center) listens attentively as Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) explains
the many hazards likely to be encountered during a clandestine assault on his own
company's research labs. For these reasons and many others, Hank's daughter, Hope
(Evangeline Lilly), believes Scott wholly wrong for the task.
The nadir is a climactic duel to the death between miniscule characters, which takes place within a child’s tabletop train set: a sequence that absolutely, positively doesn’t work on any level. And then, just to make a bad idea even worse, Reed punctuates this clash with an unexpectedly gigantic Thomas the Tank Engine, its enormous plastic eyes bouncing back and forth in dismay.

Just as mine were doing.

Reed’s sledge-hammer efforts at comedy are bothersome, but — in fairness — he can’t be blamed for trying to make the best of a bad situation. Ant-Man has been a troubled production for years, during a lengthy gestation in the hands of British writer/director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End, among others), whose sly, subversive brand of humor certainly would have been better than what we wound up with here.

But the project was ripped from his hands at the last moment, the script subsequently re-written by Adam McKay and star Paul Rudd. McKay is responsible for numerous Will Ferrell projects, notably Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and its sequel, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and this year’s Get Hard. I submit that Ferrell’s favorite scripter can’t, by definition, be right for anything taking place in Marvel’s ambitious film universe.

So: What were Marvel and Disney thinking?

Rudd’s meddlesome hand is equally evident. The star clearly shaped the script to fit the insufferable smugness that has become his go-to screen persona, rather than — as always should be the case — modulating his performance to suit the character’s needs. But the latter undoubtedly would require a level of acting beyond Rudd’s capabilities, and thus we’re stuck with his usual lackadaisical swanning from one scene to the next.

Rudd simply doesn’t seem to care about this character, or indeed the entire film. Ergo, why should we?

The core story follows the broad strokes established during several decades in the Marvel comic book universe, with genius scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) having perfected a process that allows him to shrink to ant-size, while maintaining his molecular density in order to (among other things) deliver full-strength punches. Along the way, he also developed the means to communicate with ants, and thus can command massive insect armies to help take out nefarious villains in his guise as Ant-Man.

But all that was years ago. Wary of the military applications contemplated by Howard Stark (John Slattery) and his weasel corporate associate Mitchell Carson (Martin Donovan, suitably smarmy), Pym retreats into seclusion. And since Ant-Man’s brief “career” remained under the public radar, the very notion of such a superhero has become little more than an urban myth.

Flash-forward to the present day. Pym’s company has been taken over by Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), a former protégé who has become obsessed by the promise of that earlier research. Trouble is, every living thing Cross tries to shrink turns into a little puddle of gelatinous bio-glop. Carson is still very much in evidence, and his partnership with the clearly unstable Cross signals Bad News.

Desperate to sabotage Cross’ efforts beyond recovery, Pym seeks a new acolyte to wear the power-controlling Ant-Man suit (no longer able to use it himself, for reasons never explained to any satisfying degree). He somehow lands on skilled cat burglar and cyber criminal Scott Lang (Rudd), recently released from prison.

Lang isn’t really a bad sort; the act that landed him behind bars was justified revenge against corporate malfeasance. Finally a free man, Lang just wants to get a “normal” job and put his life back together, in order to re-connect with beloved young daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), who lives with his ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and her new paramour, Paxton (Bobby Cannavale).

Paxton, bad luck, happens to be a cop. And isn’t inclined to cut Lang any slack.

But Pym believes in second chances, and makes Lang the offer of a lifetime: to become a superhero just long enough to take down Cross. The subsequent training process apparently takes weeks (months?), and is supervised by Pym and his somewhat estranged daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly).

Her unresolved issues with Daddy notwithstanding, Hope also is her father’s clandestine eyes and ears at Pym Technologies, where Cross believes her to be on his side. She’s thus able to report on Cross’ progress ... and it seems only a matter of time before he cracks the problem and replicates Pym's original breakthrough.

All of this is more than enough back-story on which to hang a potentially suspenseful action saga, but Reed — and the jokey script — undercut the drama at every opportunity. Lang’s “apprenticeship” is played entirely for laughs, particularly as he tries to overcome his squeamishness at the thought of working alongside armies of ants. Rudd never misses an opportunity to crack wise, always with that deadpan half-smile that has been his signature for years. No surprise, then, that Hope is disgusted with him; he deserves her contempt. And ours.

Granted, this is a venerable narrative cliché: the washed-up guy who doesn’t take anything seriously, but eventually, finally, has an epiphany and rises to the occasion. Trouble is, we never get a sense of Lang’s emotional growth; Rudd plays him at the same indifferent level throughout the entire film. He simply doesn’t have the acting chops to do otherwise.

Matters are made even worse by the involvement of Lang’s former prison cell mate, Luis (Michael Peña), and his two ex-con associates, Dave (Tip “T.I.” Harris) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian). All three mug shamelessly, which isn’t a big deal during the first act, when they’re merely sidebar characters while Lang tries to get his life back together. But they eventually get sucked into the final assault on Cross and Pym Technologies, at which point we may as well be watching the Three Stooges.

Seriously? All of Pym’s careful planning, and he blithely accepts Lang’s impulsive suggestion that they now work with these clowns?

By this point, Reed and the writers aren’t even trying to respect their audience.

Another issue also crops up, and one common to superhero films: the random applications of power and vulnerability. In one scene, the more-or-less trained Lang, now Ant-Man, holds his own during a nifty skirmish with Captain American’s sidekick Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who is guarding an Avengers facility that stores a bit of tech Pym needs for his master scheme.

Then, a few scenes later, Lang can’t out-maneuver two average, gun-toting security guards, who inexplicably have no trouble tracking and shooting at this miniscule invader, from across a large room. What, did they eat lots of carrots as children?

And let’s face it: Being able to control literally millions of ants, including a species that delivers a particularly painful bite, is an incredible weapon all by itself. That should be Game Over before Cross ever gets a chance to employ the laser-equipped shrinking suit that he eventually perfects.

On a happier note, the script includes the by-now essential glimpses into the greater Marvel film universe. Aside from the aforementioned Falcon, we also spend a few welcome moments with Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter, and of course Howard Stark is Tony (Iron Man) Stark’s equally arrogant father.

And, yes, you’ll want to hang around during the concluding credits for not just one, but two hint-laden epilogues. But don’t waste your money on 3D screenings; once again, this is post-production 3D, and thoroughly useless.

It’s absolutely true that all these Marvel films have employed various degrees of tongue in cheek since the “first wave” began with 2008’s Iron Man, and Robert Downey Jr.’s facetiously snide attitude. As serious as the world-threatening events got in 2012’s The Avengers, we still laughed when Hulk beat the crap out of Loki. Then too, last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy veered dangerously close to parody, but deftly maintained the satisfying, all-essential balance of action and comedy.

Ant-Man doesn’t merely cross that line; Reed blatantly ignores it. The result is deeply disappointing, and a thoroughly substandard launch into the Marvel film series’ “third wave,” which continues next spring with Captain America: Civil War and eventually — after several more films — concludes with the two-part Avengers: Infinity War in 2018 and ’19.

Plenty of time during which to right the ship. Fingers crossed.

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