Review: Marvel’s ‘Ant-Man’ Proves CGI-Driven Superhero Films Can Still Be Nimble And Fun

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We’ve reached a point of being resigned to the shitness of blockbuster superhero cinema. As the expanded comic-book universes keep expanding, studios have meticulously planned out years and years of movies in sausage-factory fashion, leaving us to decide dispiritedly if each one is ‘really shit’ or ‘not as shit’.

In May, Sady Doyle raged that Marvel is killing the popcorn movie as its films rely on spectacle and franchise entropy rather than standing alone on story or character: “Everyone is expected to share power fantasies with nine-year-olds now, and worse than that, to take them seriously; to make them into a lifestyle,” Doyle writes. “The aim is not one or two bad movies a year, it’s a total lifestyle regimen of bad pop culture.”

But Ant-Man surprised me by not being shit. It has the kind of joie de vivre that’s instantly sucked from the air when you say ‘gritty dark reboot’. Yes, it can’t escape its place in Marvel’s pantheon, and yes, its original director Edgar Wright famously bailed on eight years of pre-production after seeing the writing on the studio wall.

But it’d be unfair to call his replacement – Bring It On’s Peyton Reed – a Marvel stooge, or to suggest that the things that make Ant-Man enjoyable are Wright-era vestiges. After all, star Paul Rudd and Anchorman’s Adam McKay are also credited as screenwriters.

Perhaps I responded generously to Ant-Man because, like last year’s similarly refreshing Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s new to the big screen. But I was also struck by how nimbly it handles that other contemporary blockbuster bogeyman: CGI special effects.

It Plays With The Idea That Bigger Is Better

Ant-Man is best described as a teeny little super guy. Using technology invented by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), he can instantaneously shrink to the size of an ant, communicate telepathically with ants, exert super-strength while tiny and, by attaching Frisbee-like devices to other objects, can make them grow and shrink.

Pym himself donned the Ant-Man suit and helmet back in the Cold War, but refused to share his invention after realising how catastrophic it could be in the wrong hands (evil organisation Hydra) or even the right ones (good organisation S.H.I.E.L.D.). But Pym’s protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is now dangerously close to recreating the shrinking tech, aided by Pym’s estranged daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly).

So wily old Pym decides to steal Cross’s tech, and grooms convicted cat burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) as his insectile thief. Scott needs the work. He’s desperate to see his adoring, gap-toothed daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) but must get a stable job to appease his ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer, squandered again) and her cop boyfriend Paxton (Bobby Cannavale). Returning to burglary alongside his former cellmate Luis (Michael Peña) is a tempting option.

Already we can see the stakes of this film are… small. It’s a heist movie about dads and their daughters. It’s about triumphing through dexterity, cooperation and on-the-fly problem solving, not brute force. We’re not destroying entire cities here, or dropping them from the stratosphere – and the film knows it, because it contains some great piss-takes at the expense of previous Marvel mayhem.

Instead, the film opts for goofy heist-team banter between Scott, Luis and their fellow crims Kurt (David Dastmalchian) and Dave (rapper T.I). Rather than Joss Whedon’s brand of smarmy quips, it’s more like something you’d find in a Fast and Furious movie. One running joke is Luis’s penchant for telling digressive stories, which are delightfully lip-synched onscreen to Peña’s garrulous delivery. (I’ve loved Peña’s comic chops ever since Observe and Report.)

Ant-Man also indulges in the pleasures of the training montage, as Scott gradually learns to hone his ant-abilities, and even tames a flying ant as his personal steed, Antony. Sure, it’s corny. But the pleasure of these familiar rhythms is undeniable, and Rudd lends the proceedings a wholesome, human scale. Unlike the grandiose Cross – who yearns to be a world-conquering comic-book supervillain – Scott really is okay with being the little guy. When he encounters one of the Avengers, he’s mainly just chuffed he can match skills with them.

For Once, The Visual Effects Serve The Story

It’s a truism that modern blockbuster CGI is out of control, and has actually got worse. Because of its extensive use of camera-captured stunts, Mad Max: Fury Road has become a yardstick for best-practice effects, while Jurassic World and Terminator Genisys were panned for their over-reliance on CGI – especially compared to their famous prequels. Meanwhile, the new Star Wars film is being sold on its “real sets” and “practical effects”.

This is because effects have come unmoored from a film’s unique narrative or tone. Remember when the Coens used digital colour grading to make O Brother Where Art Thou? look like a sepia photo, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet turned Amélie’s Montmartre into a fanciful dreamscape? Now most films are orange and teal, no matter their genre.

Creative teams once had to think strategically about how sets, lighting, makeup, stunts, miniatures, puppetry and matte paintings would interact with actors in camera. Today’s contemporary blockbusters, by contrast, stuff the frame in post-production with so many hyperrealistic digital details that they can only create visual impact through hyperbole – wholesale destruction, flagrant breaks in the laws of physics, and absurdly kinetic camera shots like roller coaster rides. As a result, the film’s entire world looks unreal, and we intuit that our heroes are never in true peril.

Ant-Man, however, actually uses the disorienting weirdness of digital effects to advance its story. From Scott Lang’s shrunken perspective, we see the ordinary world become the world of disaster or monster movies. Shower water is now a tsunami, rats and ants become ravening beasts, and a dance floor is a city where skyscrapers are constantly threatening to fall on you.

Cinematically, this isn’t new – miniaturisation has been done in Alice in Wonderland, Innerspace, Honey I Shrunk The Kids, A Bug’s Life and more. But here, CGI’s uncanny qualities are harnessed to the familiar iconography of hyper-close-up to create something dynamic rather than confusing and distancing.

Ant-Man also uses exhilarating camera swoops not just for flair, but to express the disorienting rapidity of Scott’s transformations from regular-sized to tiny and back again, and the thrill-ride experience of moving through a huge environment as a tiny agent. It’s a very subjective cinematic technique, which we glimpse in one of the film’s funniest scenes.

In Ant-Man’s finale, Scott is battling Cross – now wearing his own super-suit, as the villainous Yellowjacket – on a Thomas the Tank Engine train set belonging to his daughter Cassie. From the perspective of the two combatants, it’s thrilling – like a train chase scene from a classic western – but then Reed cuts to a regular-scale view, and we see the engine derail desultorily.

Ant-Man is entertaining because it uses big-movie tricks without big-movie hyperbole. It understands that superhero movies can borrow other cinematic conventions, rather than only ever making sense in relation to each other. And it knows when – and at what – to laugh, and when to be serious. It’s much more than a little entertaining.

Ant-Man is in cinemas now.

Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She blogs on style, history and culture at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at@incrediblemelk