Props to Jake Morrison, the visual effects producer on Marvel’s latest machination, Ant-Man. We’re in a Hollywood epoch where visual effects houses have over-stimulated audiences to the point where they’ve become blasé toward anything “fantastical” or “special.” A digital explosion here, a green screen “epic” battle there, every single time. But not in Ant-Man. Here, Morrison manages moments of imagery so striking that, well, it’s often actually cool to be watching Ant-Man.
Look at Paul Rudd warp to the size of an ant as he sneaks through the tiniest crevasses, traverses tubes, or tries to escape a turntable before the needle kills him. Rudd is Scott Lang, the new Ant-Man, and his skill is to turn his body into .01% of its normal size courtesy of a black and crimson leather suit with an atomic helmet and thumb buttons that de-and re-bigulate (the Frink term). Lang shrinks, but retains his human strength, and can even hop like a grasshopper. As a bonus, he has telepathic control over ants, so he commands an army of electrical ants, flying ants, and bite-y ants, too!
The way the film’s team of illustrators and animators paint Ant-Man’s tales actually astonishes. Rationale and plausibility go through the cracks when Ant-Man is able to ride on ants like surfboards in a drain, and we see his enthusiasm with carefully emulated macro-focus photography. It’s a digital sight, and one of the rare times when the 3D upcharge might just be worth it.
Ant-Man is a plucky and eye-catching comic adaptation. In Marvel’s billowing stable of stars and serpentine side narratives, Ant-Man joins the ranks at the right time, putting some ants in a super-studio’s pants. Born from a C-list character, Ant-Man does something surprising: It gets you to take its hero seriously and even wows you. Remember that Saturday Night Live bit where Dan Aykroyd’s Flash condescended to Garret Morris’ Ant-Man for having a lame power? Ant-Man ends up getting the last laugh.
On Ant-Man’s origins: Rudd’s Lang robbed a nefarious company pulling a Superman III hack and put stolen money back into the hands of investors. The stunt landed Lang in San Quentin, and now he just wants a shot at being a father to his daughter after robbing himself of the chance.
Enter Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, still a charismatic and assured star, even when he’s totally doing a studio gig for the money), a former S.H.I.E.L.D. higher-up who worked with the Avengers. He was the original Ant-Man, utilizing his shrinking powers as a wartime agent. As Pym grew older, he realized his secret formula for shrinking had too many commercial weapon capabilities. He watched his protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll in full business bro mode, talking about meditation and sipping facetiously on white wine), lust after the micro-tech, and Pym’s refusal to share the secret got him the corporate boot. Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) was on the board that kicked Hank out. But now Cross is dangerously close to replicating Pym’s particle formula, and Hope and Hank have to stop him.
Enter the “expendable” Lang. Hank sees promise in Scott (or the chance for easy emotional manipulation, it’s unclear) and trains him to be the Ant-Man. Together, Scott, Hank, and Hope plan to pull off a neat, even groovy heist complete with goofy sidekicks, an orgy of schematics talk, and last-minute plan changes. But it’s all good.
If this were a regular old Marvel film, there’d be talk of Scott’s destiny, rigidly constructed plot and line deliveries, and a sobering fear of the end of the world. Not here. Cue the music from Coffy and line up the neat effects for montages about learning Ant-Man skills! Whereas Tony Stark has grown glib, Lang feels like a fresh, blue-collar variation on genius, good intentions, and heroism. As it turns out, Rudd’s everyman smirk goes a long way. Hell, Hank Pym even ridicules the world-saving (and -crushing) theatrics of the Avengers.
Ant-Man’s stars, elastic tone, and visual vitality help it stand out in a crowded genre. A sub-atomic universe? We have no idea what that means, but Ant-Man commits to a digital construct, an invention that could only be described as Interstellar lite. Clearly drawn villains and heroes played by actors who look like they’re enjoying themselves? Ant-Man plays up the sense of true superhero discovery that we usually get in origin stories and riffs on it with the effects, comic relief, and general good mood everyone seems to have been in while filming. Perhaps it’s due to the nature of the hero on display, but the little things all add up here. From the bongo-heavy heist music, to the deft sight gags, to little details like the scratches Scott leaves while he’s tiny, there’s no shortage of great stuff to see and enjoy — no magnifying glass required. For yet another comic flick fighting to get noticed in an overcrowded marketplace, Ant-Man is a film worth looking at.
One final consumer report note: There is a mid-credit scene, and another post-credits. You really only need to stay for the former. But you’re totally going to stay for both.