Ant-Man is a decent heist film full of exhilarating action sequences in a (literally) giant world. But while Scott Lang masters flipping from big to small in the blink of an eye, Ant-Man stumbles when it can't quite decide which of two movies to be.
As the first film in Marvel's interconnected universe to be based around a character who wasn't the first incarnation of the titular hero, Ant-Man makes some deviations from the source material. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) developed his Ant-Man technology while working with SHIELD in the 1980s, successfully and covertly using it to defuse the conflicts of the Cold War. At least, he did until his wife was lost in a mysteriously related tragedy, and he determined that Pym particles and the Ant-Man suit were too dangerous to be shared with the world. He pulled out of SHIELD, becoming a recluse, and was eventually even bought out of a controlling stake in his own company by his former protege, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), and his estranged daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly).
Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has just completed a prison sentence for using his considerable talents as a cat burglar to blow the corporate whistle on a company's illicit profits and return the money to its rightful owners. Despite committing a crime that nobody could possibly hate him for, the mother and stepfather of his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) refuse to allow him to even see her until he gets back on his feet.
When Hope realizes that Cross has dug up evidence of Pym particles and is unexpectedly close to recreating the technology himself, intending to sell it to the highest warmongering bidder, she reconnects with her father. Hank now needs someone to steal and destroy Cross' research and prototype, and he chooses Scott to become his successor as the new Ant-Man.
While it's got its laughs, Ant-Man is often not as funny as it needs to be or as serious as it needs to be
From there, things proceed as you expect: training montages, heist planning montages, family reconciliations, a small cast of humorous criminal allies and some big explosions to cap everything off.
But while it's got its laughs, Ant-Man is often not as funny as it needs to be or as serious as it needs to be, and would be better off committing to one or the other.
Take Darren Cross' corporate infomercial on the utility of the Yellowjacket suit for horrifyingly advanced and undetectable spy work and assassinations. It's doublespeak as only a private military contractor can throw together, but doesn't quite stretch the idea far enough to be a dark joke ... it's just sort of goofy. And as long as we're talking about Darren Cross, there are far more effective ways to establish that your villain is a bad person than to have him methodically slaughter screaming baby lambs on screen for science ... especially when, you know, rats are cheaper and pigs are more physically similar to humans. Played for more of a joke, the scene could have been a much bigger hit.
On the other hand, Ant-Man's attempts to wring the pathos it wants from its father-daughter duos also lack confidence. Hope and Hank's tearful reconciliation must be punctuated by awkward jokes. We can't simply accept that Scott wants to leave the burgling and whistleblowing life behind in order to be a better example for his daughter; instead, the stakes must be raised. Her mother and stepfather must scold him for visiting his daughter's birthday party, and tell him that he can't even see her until he's living in his own apartment and has a steady job.
The narrative sets up a superlatively capable female character only to pass her over for a less experienced male lead
More meta-textually, Ant-Man may be the worst movie in the Marvel Universe for gender roles. Of its three female characters, Scott's daughter exists to be as cute as possible so we know why he wants to be a good dad (complete with two missing front teeth), Cassie's mother exists to prevent Scott from seeing her (and to be dating a guy who prevents Scott from seeing her) and Hope van Dyne is a highly capable corporate executive who is also an expert in hand-to-hand combat, using Pym particles and speaking to ants.
The problem is that Hope, an original character, exists because the movie knew it had to have a female lead, and understands vaguely that female lead characters should be capable no-nonsense women, but didn't actually want her to do anything. And so it digs itself into a hole: It goes out of its way to establish that Hope is already a better candidate for leading the heist than Scott may ever be, and that it would make much more sense to let her retrieve Hank's secret technology rather than allow a complete stranger with a criminal past that includes whistleblowing to handle it. The only thing in her way is Hank Pym and his personal issues, which stem from the film's other looming problem with female characters: the removal of Janet van Dyne — the only female founding member of the comic book version of the Avengers — from the modern Marvel movie universe.
Janet's limited presence in Ant-Man is a classic example of fridging, the death or torture of a female character primarily so that a male character can emotionally react to it. This overused device would be annoying enough on its own, but is employed as an excuse to corral Hope's character within Trinity Syndrome, an increasingly common pattern in modern blockbusters where a narrative sets up a superlatively capable female character only to pass her over for a less experienced male lead. An end credit scene promising more for Hope later only raises the question, "Why not in this movie?"
Ant-Man's struggles with gender, and with being one thing or the other, are perhaps no better exemplified than in how the film wants to be smart enough to ground its ant facts in real science, but not to point out that Scott continually misgenders the sterile female ants (in most ant colonies, male ants are a small population whose role is simply to mate with the queen) with which he interacts.
If you're looking for where Ant-Man truly begins to transport the audience, wait for the third act. Classically, for a heist film, once the pieces are in place and the deed is going down, the action moves crisply with humor riding right along. The shrinking sequences are spectacular, and a particular bread crumb dropped earlier in the film pays off in a pretty fantastic way. To any viewer skeptical of the utility of "shrinking" and "talking to ants," the climactic heist of Ant-Man is the answer.
As an aside, I'm a self-described 3D skeptic, and was annoyed to find that the added depth of field in my screening made some of the movie's more mundane effects (digitally created sets, for example) look distractingly fake. However, those small annoyances were outweighed and then some by the, well, depth the effect added to the enlarged environments of the film's climax. I can genuinely recommend seeing the movie in 3D, if 3D is your jam.
Ant-Man isn't a complete bomb, as many feared would be the case after the departure of original director Edgar Wright, credited as co-writing the screenplay and story in the final roll. But Wright's deft hand with tone blending in films like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and the Cornetto Trilogy is missed. Ultimately, Ant-Man isn't the best of what the Marvel Cinematic Universe has to offer, but it's no train wreck either.