In the week since seeing Ant-Man, I’ve been thinking more about Michael Douglas’s performance as Dr. Hank Pym than almost anything else in the film. Douglas’s performance strikes a remarkable balance between confidence and self-effacement by acknowledging the occasional silliness of the material without letting it undermine his ability to play a full-fledged character. He goes a long way toward establishing the movie’s tone, which might be described as “just serious enough.” Compared with other recent superhero movies, Ant-Man feels neither bathetic nor excessively glib—it’s a superhero movie played, for the most part, as light, character-driven comedy, with the characterization rooted in recognizable human behavior. Director Peyton Reed, with his background in film comedy (Bring It On, Down With Love), deserves some credit for the relatable vibe. The conversations have a pleasing flow, and the characters seem to be telling jokes to each other rather than the audience. Yet it’s the lead performances—Douglas’s in particular—that give the movie ballast.
Ant-Man is essentially an old-fashioned heist comedy with superhero trimmings, as retired crusader Pym trains a gifted burglar, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), to pull off some extraordinary capers at one-half-inch size. That he chooses a stranger as his protege rather than his grown daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly)—a skilled martial artist who already knows how to operate her father’s technology—inspires some resentment in the latter, even as she develops a crush on Lang. The film develops a dramatic triangle between Pym, his daughter, and the protege, whom both father and daughter perceive as desirable and vaguely threatening. For Hope, Lang represents a competitor for her father’s admiration, which she feels has been denied her since childhood; for Pym, Lang represents a competitor for her daughter’s affection, which he feels she’s long denied him. This tension doesn’t get in the way of Lang’s training, however—as in numerous Howard Hawks films (Only Angels Have Wings, The Thing, et cetera), the characters are bound by a mutual professionalism that precludes any infighting.
And yet Douglas makes you feel that the tension gnaws at him anyway. The 70-year-old actor has long excelled at seething onscreen, suggesting he’s just one step away from losing his cool, and here he uses that talent to convey Pym’s suppressed frustration with both his daughter and himself. It’s not a menacing performance a la Wall Street or Falling Down, but rather something more understated and inward-looking, closer to his work in Wonder Boys. The film reveals about halfway through that Pym blames himself for his wife’s premature death, which left his daughter motherless at an early age. Douglas makes the character’s guilt relatable, not larger-than-life—it’s clear he’s lived with these feelings for a long time and that they’ve become central to his personality. His chronic emotional pain comes through in his sarcastic repartee with Lang, another disgraced father who uses humor to mask his disappointments with life. Their comic dialogue occasionally stings, as both Douglas and Rudd are capable of sounding as though they aren’t quite joking when delivering their cynical one-liners.
I find these performances to be Ant-Man‘s best three-dimensional effects, far more absorbing than much of its 3-D imagery. As in too many recent 3-D releases, the format feels like a mere afterthought and not integral to the film’s overall design—in many of the dialogue-driven scenes, in fact, it’s simply distracting. This is especially disappointing when considering that the movie’s premise—a person reduced to the size of an insect—seems so well-suited for 3-D. One can easily picture the film as an old-school 3-D spectacle in the tradition of House of Wax (1953), with lots of giant objects appearing to jump out of the screen in shots that adopt Ant-Man’s perspective. I imagine it would be terrifying to be the size of an ant—there’d be so many threats coming from above at all times—and that the 3-D format would be ideal for conveying that terror cinematically. Alas, the film contains virtually no protruding effects shots. After the fashion of Avatar and Gravity, Ant-Man mainly uses 3-D to create the impression of gazing far off into the distance.
Some of those extreme depth-of-field shots are compelling—namely one that occurs during Lang’s first transformation, wherein the inside of a bathtub comes to seem like the size of a football field. Still, I hungered for more spook-house-style effects. Ant-Man often acknowledges its roots in an older generation of pulp storytelling, as when Corey Stoll’s Darren Cross refers to Pym’s shrinking technology as a “tale to astonish” (a reference to the 60s comic book series Tales to Astonish, in which the character of Ant-Man first appeared). Given its nature, I think the film could have benefitted from some more retrograde visual touches. I’m nitpicking, of course. The movie that Reed and company delivered is plenty entertaining and emotionally resonant, but the interplay between Douglas, Lilly, and Rudd feels so accomplished that the film’s lapses in ambition really stand out.