Earlier this year after seeing “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” I started getting this sinking feeling about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You know: the feeling you get when you’re watching your television show or reading your favorite series of books, only to realize the best is squarely in the rearview mirror. This is the kind of reaction usually reserved for serialized entertainment and only becomes clear in hindsight after you realize the creative peaks are making way for the valleys of mediocrity. Like when “Lost” peaked, Jack was on the bridge and screamed, “We have to go back!” You didn’t realize the apex happened until the following seasons left you swimming in muddy runoff.
“Ant-Man” is the second Marvel film in a row that has made me question whether or not there’s any creative fuel left in the tank for these all-too-frequent comic-book adaptations. It’s a painfully average, ridiculously formulaic movie and feels like a copy of a copy. Director Peyton Reed (“Bring it On”) and star Paul Rudd (“Anchorman”) bring a lot of earnest energy to the proceedings. Still, make no mistake: It’s a painfully average affair chockful of questionable choices.
Scott Lang (Rudd) is a down-on-his-luck ex-con that only exists in movies—the kind who only burgled a multi-billion-dollar corporation because they were stealing from the poor. This high-tech Robin Hood loses everything after being sent to prison. He can’t get a job, pay child support or see his daughter, which is his only real link to the world. Scott gets a chance at redemption when a mad scientist named Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) recruits him to help pull off a superhuman con job using a high-tech suit that allows him to shrink and talk to ants.
“Ant-Man” is Marvel’s attempt at a heist film, albeit an incredibly idiotic one. While the idea of a superhero “Oceans 11” is interesting, the movie never embraces the idea. Instead, it plays heavily on the concept of estranged fathers and daughters and embraces every superhero movie cliché. There’s a familiar training montage, a plot-point involving militarizing mad science for mayhem and profit (which also happened in “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2”). There also is a protegé who has a falling out with his mentor and tries to surpass him in a failed attempt to impress. The villain is basically a dark, twisted version of the hero (every “Iron Man,” “Captain America: Winter Soldier,” “Thor” movie, etc.). It’s yet another superhero with a giant company named after him, only to be usurped by the board of directors (“Dark Knight Rises”). Basically, “Ant-Man” has been done before—and better.
The fun of “Ant-Man” involves Rudd and his ragtag group of thieves. Michael Pena practically steals the movie as a chatty, well-intentioned criminal who contributes 90 percent of the redeeming moments of this disappointment. The movie is dumb, and that’s what is most irritating. Scott Lang is recruited for his high-tech thieving skills but employs none of them while pulling off his microscopic heist. The villain, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), is as one-dimensional as a razor-thin slice of onion skin, flattened by a 10-ton train. I was aghast at how poorly conceived the character is. For someone who’s supposed to be a smart guy, everything he does is unintelligent.
The main crux of his terrible arc involves recreating the work of his lifelong mentor, Hank Pym. Pym created a particle that allows people to shrink and grow. His experiments aren’t as successful. For instance, he’s able to create a ray that shrinks inorganic matter, as well as reduces organic matter to a small penny-sized smudge. In spite of this amazing technological advancement, he’s still hellbent on making tiny, insect-sized soldiers. It seems industrial applications of a shrink ray, even on inorganic matter, would have lots of multi-billion dollar applications. Maybe the shipping industry could benefit from reducing thousands of tons of goods into the palm of your hand. I’d think a lot of foreign powers and military industrial companies would be interested in a ray gun that shrinks people to death in a matter of milliseconds. But, no, Darren Cross doesn’t go that route.
There’s one point where he articulates the similarities between the two lead characters and the problems they have with estranged daughters—as if the movie had been too subtle in hammering the point home. Lack of nuance is actually one of my biggest problems with “Ant-Man.” There are moments that could have been fun, but it becomes restrained by the formulaic structure of comic-book adaptations. In almost every conceivable way, “Ant-Man” comes up short.