STORY WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For Digital First Media
“Avengers,” its sequel, “Age of Ultron,” and many of the films with their individual component protagonists have done huge numbers at the box office. So, it was inevitable that some of the less prominent characters from the Marvel Comics universe would also merit their own vehicles.
Hence, we have the advent of “Ant-Man” as part of a projected three-film entity. They come replete with Paul Rudd in the lead role and Michael Douglas as his mentor.
In the comics, Ant-Man was originally the alter-ego of Dr. Hank Pym, a brilliant biophysicist and security expert. He invented so-called Pym Particles, which allowed him to shrink in size, even as he increased in strength. Dr. Pym and his girlfriend, Janet van Dyne aka the Wasp, became a crime-fighting duo and charter members of the Avengers.
Later, Scott Lang, a petty thief stole the Ant-Man costume. His daughter, Cassie, suffered from a cardiac condition. He had an epiphany and reformed. With the blessing of Dr. Pym, Lang assumed the Ant-Man identity and became a member of the Avengers.
Set in 1989, the initial portion of the cinematic “Ant-Man” provides a perfunctory origin story. In it, look for a digitally restored version of Michael Douglas as Dr. Pym. Now on the cusp of turning 71, Douglas has decades shaved off of his appearance. Courtesy of modern technology, you have a handsome, 40ish version of Douglas, back when he starred in such fare as “Basic Instinct.”
In the film’s early going, Dr. Pym has discovered that some of his cohorts are trying to determine the formula for his revolutionary Pym Particles. Once they do, the schemers plan to use it for nefarious purposes. Indignant, he insists, “As long as I am alive, nobody is ever going to get that formula!” Could he be persuaded to change his mind? Just to dramatize the intractability of his position, Dr. Pym punches one of them in the nose. Ouch!
“Ant-Man” then segues to the present. Lang (Rudd) is shown being released from San Quentin Prison and being picked up by his erstwhile cellmate, Luis (Michael Pena). Lang is ennobled with a back story that evokes a modern-day Robin Hood. Using his computer skills, he had liberated funds from a corrupt corporation. He restored them to individual investors, who have been ripped off by the company. That led to years in the slammer.
Lang spurns Luis’ entreaties to join him and his sidekicks ((Tip “T.I.” Harris. David Dastmalchian) and engage in criminal machinations. Lang is intent upon going straight.
Although uninvited, Lang shows up at the birthday party of his young daughter, Cassie (a very appealing Abby Ryder Fortson). His ex-wife, Maggie (Judy Greer), and her cop boyfriend, Paxton (Bobby Canavale) make it clear that Lang is unwelcome. They ban him from any contact with Cassie until he gets a job and starts paying child support.
Encumbered with a felony record, Lang is reduced to working at a Baskin-Robbins, doling out ice cream. How’s that for product placement? As soon as his boss learns of Lang’s background as a jailbird, he gets fired. A desperate Lang decides to accept Luis’ overtures to pull off a sting.
Meanwhile, Dr. Pym is aggrieved by the fact that his former protégé, Ian Cross (Corey Stoller), has pushed him aside from heading the company that he had founded. Cross is planning to sell company assets to warmongers, much to Dr. Pym’s chagrin.
Dr. Pym’s daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), feigns a romance with Cross. However, she is actually serving as an undercover agent for her dad.
Luis is planning to burglarize the safe in Dr. Pym’s Victorian mansion. It turns out that Dr. Pym has set up the burglary, just to test Lang’s skills. When Lang passes the challenge with flying colors, Dr. Pym chooses him to receive the Ant-Man costume and assume his role as a crime-fighter. He will serve as Dr. Pym’s proxy in battling his nemesis, Ian Cross, who has an alter-ego as Yellowjacket.
The film has a troubled production history. The original screenplay was co-written by Edgar Wright (director of “Shaun of the Dead,” “Scott Pilgrim Versus the World”), who was scheduled to direct the film. He was working on the project for eight years. As the shooting was begin to start, Wright left the project over proverbial creative differences with the studio.
With Wright’s departure, Paul Rudd and Peyton Reed cranked out a revised screenplay. The latter, who had previously helmed “Yes Man” and “Bring It On,” took on directorial duties.
The casting of the lead role is problematic. Ordinarily, comic book stalwarts are brawny. Even distaff characters, like Wonder Woman, have impressive bodies. By contrast, Paul Rudd has a decidedly unmuscular physique. Even with the benefit of the Ant-Man costume, Rudd as an action figure, strains credulity. His intermittent comedic quips merge poorly with the serious tone of the action sequences.
“Ant-Man” boasts some impressive technology. The transformation of Michael Douglas is an impressive feat. However, narratively it proves to be a disconcerting gimmick. Likewise, the film’s C.G.I. sequences, while visually arresting, are difficult to follow. The jump cut editing exacerbates the situation.
The psychodynamics of the film are also unsatisfying. Rather than being driven by malevolence, Cross is apparently motivated by the fact that Dr. Pym doesn’t love him like a son. Boo hoo — isn’t that ever so tragic? Give me a super-villain with a sense of sheer unfettered megalomania. Dr. Pym’s daughter, Hope, is supposedly estranged from her father. However, she is implausibly working as his undercover agent to ascertain the agenda of her putative beau.
“Ant-Man” features a mini-hero. Alas, this mediocre film has only mini-merit.
**1/2 PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence) 117 minutes. Walt Disney Films
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at email@example.com.