It’s fitting that Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) works at a Baskin-Robbins in an early scene in Ant-Man, because the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe before too much longer will have 31 flavors of its own. For those keeping score at home, Ant-Man is the twelfth entry to the MCU canon and sixth — and last — of the MCU’s Phase Two. Coming on the heels of the mega-budget extravaganza Avengers: Age of Ultron (also released in 2015), Ant-Man tries a decidedly different tack. Whereas many superhero films post-Batman Begins (2005) — including many in the MCU — have tended to take themselves too seriously and weigh themselves down with angst and a life-or-death grimness that isn’t exactly earned, Ant-Man is light and airy and places a lot more emphasis on humor. It more or less pretends Batman Begins and every superhero film it influenced never happened, instead opting to continue along the trajectory of Spider-Man (2002) and Spider-Man 2 (2004).
Of course, on a more superficial level this is also fitting, since spiders and ants are both bugs. To be honest, though, there isn’t a ton of overlap when it comes to the powers Spider-Man and Ant-Man each possess — Spider-Man can’t shrink to microscopic size and Ant-Man can’t swing from skyscraper to skyscraper. Incidentally, at the time of Ant-Man‘s release in the summer of 2015, Spider-Man on the big screen was in something of a transition period: 2014‘s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 greatly underperformed at the worldwide box office, grossing “only” $708 million globally. (When you’re a studio, you rely on Spider-Man movies to cover for all of the films that don’t do well — it’s what’s known as a “tent-pole system,” where just a few major hits essentially prop up the entire organization and effectively eliminate risk. So yeah, a $70 million net profit is really not a lot when looking at it from that perspective.)
In 2016, Spider-Man would return to the big screen in Captain America: Civil War in a surprise appearance — the start of an unexpected but nonetheless fruitful partnership between Sony and Disney to include Spider-Man in the MCU — but audiences obviously had no idea that was on the horizon when watching Ant-Man. Spider-Man was, like Batman or Superman or Iron Man, at least always presented and pitched to audiences as a top-drawer, A-list superhero. In other words, in 2015, audiences always had the expectation when walking into a theater to see a movie headlined by one of those aforementioned superheroes that they would be getting the varsity treatment. Based on name recognition (or lack there of) and presentation alone, Ant-Man is very much a JV effort or even a step below that — are frosh/soph teams still a thing? — by MCU standards.
Not that Ant-Man is a bad movie or is made in a less than professional manner — quite the opposite — but it really can’t be denied that the stakes are pretty damn low and the film’s ambitions are very small and almost entirely self-contained. Apart from a brief (and unintentional) visit to the Avengers headquarters — where our hero runs into Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and fights it out with him for a few minutes — Ant-Man basically takes place in a parallel universe. And that’s actually OK by me. It would be pretty disingenuous to pretend as if stakes are sky-high when they are self-evidently not — especially when audiences just saw some of the most ludicrously over the top and expensive sequences ever in the preceding MCU film, Age of Ultron. For me, I feel a sense of relief when watching Ant-Man, but it’s also hard to deny that much of this movie is extraneous.
Of course, as I have mentioned in other MCU movie reviews, many would argue the entire MCU is pretty extraneous due to its escapist nature, but that’s neither here nor there. As you can tell by the scores I have handed out thus far, I’m not exactly the world’s biggest Marvel fan — or even really a die-hard one — but these movies, like the Star Wars and Bond films, will exist forever as part of a larger canon that moviegoers will continue to sift through for generations to come. It’s in that spirit that I approach all of these MCU movies, and as with Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World and Guardians of the Galaxy, this run through the MCU canon marks my first viewing of Ant-Man… ever. And to be perfectly honest, I didn’t just ignore Ant-Man when it was theatrically released, I didn’t even know it was in theaters (at least that I can recall).
My take, almost five years after the fact, is that Ant-Man starts off reasonably strong but falters in the third act, playing out almost exactly like how these movies all play out. What makes Ant-Man charmingly different — chiefly, its light tone — basically disappears toward the end, resulting in a final act that’s flat, formulaic and fairly predictable. As soon as the film flips the switch and goes into “expensive climactic finale mode,” the movie actually gets less interesting. Some of this is due to character dynamics: Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) doesn’t even really try to hide that he’s a villain to his old mentor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) throughout the film. Basically, he’ll get there with the shrinking technology he demonstrates early on eventually, it’s just a question of when. So when he does “get there” and has gotten all of the glitches to disappear, the film transitions to the third act, but does so by just getting louder and noisier instead of more compelling.
More problematic is that it isn’t Cross and Pym that face off, since in theory, Ant-Man isn’t Pym’s movie, though it might as well be. It’s their rivalry; it’s Pym’s shrinking technology — the Pym Particles — that Cross is attempting to replicate. And it’s Pym’s company that Cross has rebranded in his own image. I get that Michael Douglas is getting pretty old and isn’t exactly in fighting form anymore, but he kind of steals the show throughout Ant-Man and we can’t help but wish he weren’t so over the hill. During the third act, Lang steps in for Pym and fights Cross, but it still doesn’t feel like it’s really his war to fight. On top of this, Pym’s supposedly estranged but pretty much omnipresent daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) is constantly itching to put on the Ant-Man suit instead of Lang. This isn’t an uninteresting dynamic by any means, but it adds to the effect of making Lang not seem as central to the story as he should be.
Anyway, as the movie hurtles into “expensive climactic finale mode,” Yellowjacket (as Cross becomes) and Ant-Man fight inside a helicopter, then in someone’s backyard and then in Lang’s daughter’s bedroom. The latter location is a fairly weak and contrived attempt to shoehorn in Scott Lang’s personal life to the Pym vs. Cross narrative, as Cross goes after Lang’s family to hit him where it hurts most (and provide Lang the opportunity to save the day in front of his family and earn visitation rights to his daughter that, as an ex-con, he doesn’t currently have). There are some funny sight gags during the finale, such as the re-sizing of a small Thomas the Tank Engine toy to a life-sized train engine, but mostly we’re treated to a long, drawn-out CGI fuckfest between Yellowjacket and Ant-Man that goes on forever and honestly really isn’t that engaging. And that’s kind of a shame, since the movie works pretty well up until then.
The key element of the plot that will have consequences later on in Avengers: Endgame is Scott’s ability to come back from going subatomic. Basically, in order to take down Cross, Scott shrinks to subatomic size to penetrate the Yellowjacket suit and cause Cross to shrink infinitely. Though Hank Pym lost his wife when she shrunk to subatomic size decades ago and earlier we see him warn Scott there is no coming back from the quantum realm, Scott manages to apply one of the same fancy re-sizing discs on himself that we saw him use on the Thomas the Tank Engine toy minutes earlier, and he snaps back to the land of the living. It’s actually a pretty cool little sequence that rescues an otherwise pretty flat third act. And it’s kind of a shame that the third act isn’t all that great, since the first two acts are actually pretty solidly entertaining. It’s a different story and a nice change of pace from the previous MCU films, and the San Francisco backdrop is also neat.
As Scott Lang, Paul Rudd (who is also credited as a co-writer) plays the character to perfection and does a nice job of playing up the “reluctant protégé” angle. As Hope van Dyne, Evangeline Lilly does what she can with the role, but there’s not really enough for her to do — though as the mid-credits scene teases, she will be back as Wasp in Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018). As I mentioned earlier, Michael Douglas is terrific as Hank Pym and carries the narrative on his shoulders — it could be argued that he has too much to do, frankly. It’s really not a stretch to argue that this is Pym’s movie. It’s his quest to recruit Scott Lang — fresh off a stint in San Quentin for “corporate burglary” — for the role of Ant-Man and to spend the middle portion of movie putting him through the requisite training exercises to prepare him for the upcoming showdown with Cross.
If you have seen the film, you may remember that the initial demonstration Cross gives of the shrinking technology is to alert investors — there’s no escaping Corporate America, is there? — that Cross Technologies has almost completed the research and development and will soon be going to market with it. Pym, who founded the company as Pym Technologies but was forced out years ago by the board à la Steve Jobs at Apple, is horrified that Cross, his former protégé, has come so close to replicating the “Pym Particles” shrinking technology he intentionally buried after the death of his wife. This is what sets Pym on his quest to recruit Lang to be Ant-Man and eventually break in to Cross Technologies to steal the Yellowjacket suit. Things don’t quite go according to plan, of course. Cross captures Hope and Pym and traps Lang inside a vial/beaker thing in the lab.
Cross’s plan, it turns out, is to sell the Yellowjacket and Ant-Man suits and technology to Hydra. Lang breaks free and all hell breaks loose, with Pym getting shot in the process. With Pym out of the picture for the entire climax, the movie just doesn’t feel as interesting, since much of the film has been seen through his eyes until that point. Apart from this flaw, the movie really is pretty good though, I must say. It doesn’t take itself particularly seriously, and Rudd’s experience as a comedic actor pays dividends. The entire Baskin-Robbins sequence early on is pretty skillfully executed from a comedic standpoint, and the “Baskin-Robbins always finds out!” line is absolutely classic. The Ant-Man vs. Falcon fight later on is also pretty funny and entertaining as well in its own right, in addition to providing a more direct connection to the Avengers. Visually, there are a lot of fun shots when Scott shrinks down to ant size, such as the first time it happens in the bathtub. Overall, it’s a nice movie. It just could have been more.
If you are interested in reading how Ant-Man looks and sounds in 4K, I would recommend checking out Blu-ray.com’s review of the recent Ant-Man 4K Blu-ray release. My personal take is that the movie looks very good in 4K. It’s not the best the format has to offer by any means, but it’s a nice jump up from regular HD, especially considering the transfer is just an upscale. Per IMDb, Ant-Man was shot digitally in 2.8K or 3.4K resolution, depending on the scene, and then finished on a 2K digital intermediate (or DI). So a “true” 4K version of Ant-Man will never exist since not only was the movie completed at 2K, but it never was even shot at 4K resolution to begin with. Still, as I mentioned, Disney did a really nice job of upscaling Ant-Man to 4K resolution and you should see an appreciable bump in detail and dimension (in addition to a nice boost in color due to the application of HDR).