I just watched Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, in which a film is painstakingly developed — with love — by a director, only to have it snatched from his grasp and churned out as a piece of disastrous pabulum. It is this film, and A.I. — a Stanley Kubrick project that was eventually made by Steven Spielberg — that Ant-Man brings to mind.
Judging Marvel Studio’s latest on its own merits leaves me with nothing nice to say. I’ve disliked a few of these superhero extravaganzas before, but none as completely as Ant-Man, a film that makes paint-by-numbers appear the height of creative inspiration. From start to finish, it is devoid of spark. Scenes get churned out with the innovation of a cement mixer. The cast members bring their roles to life with all the sparkle of a toner cartridge disaster. The dialogue — when it isn’t a character literally describing what’s currently happening on-screen to no one — sounds as fresh as a picnic in the Holland Tunnel.
This is all the more painful for what the film almost was. For years, one of today’s most talented filmmakers — Edgar Wright — was developing Ant-Man for Marvel, with screenwriting partner Joe Cornish. Wright speaks the language of cinema. He’s proved that time and again, from his early days on the show Spaced to his collaborations with Nick Frost and Simon Pegg. Wright approaches each scene as an opportunity, weaving humor and drama around characters and dialogue, using both what he shows and what he does not to build intelligence.
But Marvel thought Edgar Wright’s version of Ant-Man would be too un-Marvel. So they brought in Peyton Reed — whom you all know and love from Bring it On and Yes Man — plus a flurry of new screenwriters (including Adam McKay, of Anchorman infamy) to beat the project into submission. That’s exactly how the end results feel: like there was something novel and strange that had all its beautiful detail shaved off with a dull machete. Then they just filled in any holes with deadbeat jokes scooped out of a bulk tub from Costco.
Not only are these jokes not funny, but Paul Rudd — who plays Ant-Man / Scott Lang — lands each delivery with the grace of a whale dropped from space. He’s been funny before, but here he’s poison. The moment of silence director Reed leaves following each gag doesn’t get filled with laughter; it’s filled with wretched awkwardness. I plain lost track of what was happening in other scenes, and not even only during action sequences. Basic human interactions became so muddled as to leave me wondering how things were accomplished or why.
And the characters, you inquire? They’re so one note I thought I was listening to a George Thorogood record. Lang just wants to see his daughter. Evangeline Lilly’s Hope van Dyne just wants to reconnect with her father. Corey Stoll’s villain just wants everything. Michael Douglas only wants to get paid and go home to Catherine Zeta-Jones.
There’s a secret formula. The bad guys re-invent it. Ant-Man must destroy it before the mini-Hitlers get their hands on it. This is accomplished via a plan that might have sounded good to Sony Pictures’ I.T. security team last year. If you, however, had access to a liquid that could shrink anything to practically nothing, you could think up a better plan in the time it took me to write this sentence.
This is a film in which Ant-Man narrates his every action to ants. It is a film in which the training montage seemingly lasts months and also a couple of hours. In Ant-Man, no one notices a labrador-sized ant at the dinner table or thinks to just shrink Corey Stoll’s douche-bag Darren Cross character and be done with him. Lang’s compatriots-in-crime are all recent emigres from the land of movie characters (even the normally good Michael Peña, here playing Joe Pesci from Lethal Weapon 2) and everyone thinks the best way to kill an insect-sized attacker is with a bullet.
How about a fucking fly swatter? A can of Raid, maybe? Or would that require spending more than a nano-second trying to think up a joke?
Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man will never be. Neither will Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau or Stanley Kubrick’s A.I. Instead we’re left with what we’ve got. In this case, it’s a film that leaves me with little hope. Except that maybe we’re nearing the end of the superhero decade.