There’s an old “Saturday Night Live” sketch from the 1970s about superheroes gathering at a cocktail party, and poor Ant-Man (played by Garrett Morris) just can’t get any respect from his peers.
“Check this guy out,” says The Flash (Dan Aykroyd). “He’s got the strength of a human.”
Several decades later, Ant-Man still can’t catch a break. Finally the star of his own big Marvel Cinematic Universe vehicle, he gets stuck with the exceedingly pedestrian Peyton Reed in the director’s chair, taking over for Edgar Wright. Reed’s “Down with Love” was a concept and some art direction in search of a movie, and his “Ant-Man” serves up jokes that don’t land and thrills that don’t thrill.
It’s always possible that the man behind “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and “Shaun of the Dead” might not have done any better, since the screenplay — credited to Wright and Joe Cornish (“Attack the Block”) and Adam McKay and star Paul Rudd — relies upon a collection of Intro Screenwriting tropes that are thoroughly shopworn. Familiar notions like “Doing This for My Daughter,” “I Was a Distant Parent, For My Child’s Own Good,” and “When Someone Says ‘Don’t Press That Button’ in Act One…” get trotted out in a most listless fashion.
Not that the other Marvel movies haven’t relied on familiar plot turns, but “Ant-Man” doesn’t provide enough dazzle camouflage to cover its tracks. The supposedly humorous sidekicks are grating, the love interest (Evangeline Lilly in a Louise Brooks bob and matching power pantsuits) generates zero sparks, and while the climactic battle spawns a memorable sight gag or two, the emotional stakes are never such that the eventual big showdown will have anyone gripping their armrests.
Even with four writers, the movie never acknowledges that our hero and the other good guys allow a helicopter to crash-land in a heavily populated area. Not that this is the sort of movie to pay much attention to detail.
We open in a flashback to 1989, where scientist Henry Pym (Michael Douglas, digitally rejuvenated far more effectively than Jeff Bridges in “Tron: Legacy” and less waxily than Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Terminator Genisys”) leaves SHIELD and takes his “Pym particle” with him after a nefarious executive (Martin Donovan) plans to weaponize it. Cut to the present, where Scott Lang (Rudd) is being released from San Quentin. He’s a cat burglar with a conscience — he broke into a credit card company’s computers to return money that had been gouged from its customers — but he’s still a convicted felon, making it difficult for him to keep a job and to have joint custody of his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson, “Transparent”).
Trying and failing to go straight, Scott agrees to break into a house with a safe, but when he cracks it, he finds only a strange costume and helmet. Trying it on at home, Scott presses a button in the glove and suddenly shrinks down to ant-size. Pym, you see, has set up the robbery to recruit Scott to break into Pym’s old company and to steal a prototype of the Yellowjacket, another shrinking weapons suit developed by Pym’s former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll).
Cue the learning-to-use-the-suit montage as Pym and his bristly daughter Hope (Lilly) put Scott through his paces, eventually adding Scott’s Three Stooge-ish friends (played by Michael Peña, rapper T.I. and David Dastmalchian) to pull off the caper. To its credit, “Ant-Man” isn’t yet another movie where the fate of the entire world rests upon the outcome, but the script could have used more personal stakes to counterbalance the relatively minor business of keeping the shrinky suits out of the hands of HYDRA.
There are individual pieces of the movie that work wonderfully, whether it’s Douglas’ performance (he’s both dryly witty and convincingly bitter) or the execution of the heist on Pym’s house (complete with 1970s wacka-chicka guitar riffs). There’s also a satisfying bit of “Avengers” crossover material that works on its own and not just as franchise-building. Unfortunately, this is also the kind of movie where talented actors do some of their least notable work, whether it’s Stoll’s Snidely Whiplash routine, Peña overplaying the wackiness or Rudd having all of the charm and charisma stomped out of him.
Everything funny and mischievous about Rudd has been tamped down and turned into processed cheese here, just like what “Jurassic World” did to Chris Pratt. (Speaking of which, “Ant-Man” is the second movie this summer that takes the vibrant, talented Judy Greer and wastes her as a fretting mom.)
The preview audience around me hooted and hollered throughout, particularly when there were any shout-outs to the other Marvel movie or TV properties, so no doubt fans of the “gotta-see-‘em-all” bent will eat this one right up. As someone who has liked a majority of these Marvel adaptations, I can only hope that “Ant-Man” represents a temporary dip that’s not the beginning of a slippery slope.