There has been a lot of talk this year about “superhero fatigue” – the idea being that we’re tired of all the films and television shows about caped crusaders. Having devoted much of my childhood to reading superhero comics, I assumed that I was inoculated against this condition, but it hit me halfway through the latest shiny Marvel Studios production, “Ant-Man”. Everything about it is exhaustingly familiar. The film’s director, Peyton Reed, has called it a “palate cleanser”, something light and easily digestible to give us a refreshing break from Marvel’s usual saving-the-universe blockbusters. But it’s more like third or fourth helpings of the same soggy trifle.
The affable Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, a burglar who has just served a three-year sentence in San Quentin. But, wait – is he an inveterate criminal, or is he a Robin Hood who struck back against his thieving former employers? The film can’t seem to decide, which could be a sign of its troubled development. Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”) was due to direct “Ant-Man”, and had co-written a screenplay with Joe Cornish (“Attack the Block”), but he and Marvel parted ways just before production started last year. We’ll never know how Wright’s film would have turned out, of course, but Reed’s is certainly muddled. How, for instance, can someone become so titchy that they slip between molecules, while still being big enough to cut wires and smash circuit boards?
Never mind. When Lang gets home to San Francisco, he is recruited by Dr Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a retired boffin who once invented a super-suit which shrinks its wearer to microscopic size. He also invented an earpiece for controlling ants telepathically, although that seems to me to be so far removed from his miniaturisation technology that I can’t believe one man could have come up with both. Again, never mind. The key thing is that the suit has been in mothballs for years, but Pym’s evil former protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), has been nosing around in Pym’s research notes, and is well on the way to creating his own shrink-atronic device. It’s up to Lang to don the Ant-Man costume and stop him. And it’s up to the viewers to twiddle their thumbs until the inevitable, time-honoured punch-up between a superhero and an almost-identical supervillain.
Speaking of things which are almost identical, “Ant-Man” is essentially a sillier remake of “Iron Man”, the film that got the Marvel movie bandwagon rolling in 2008. It has the tycoon scientist, the high-tech combat armour, the bald ex-colleague who has his own, scarier version of the same armour, and the long, plotless central interlude in which the hero fine-tunes his weaponry. But even if you’ve never seen “Iron Man”, there’s a lot in “Ant-Man” that has been recycled from other Marvel films, from the computer-generated destruction to the customary winking references to SHIELD and Tony Stark. More importantly, it offers yet another white, male superhero to go with Thor, Captain America, Spider-Man and the rest. Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) spends the film grumbling that she should be wearing the Ant-Man (or Ant-Woman) suit rather than some ex-con her father has just met, and however much Pym argues that that’s impossible, she definitely has a point. If nothing else, the helmet would have covered up her bizarrely unflattering haircut.
All that’s distinctive about “Ant-Man” is that it’s lighter and funnier than most superhero movies – at least for its first half – and there are times when it makes amusing, child-friendly use of its scale-shifting gimmickry. Its best sequence comes when the newly tiny Lang clings onto the grooves of a spinning vinyl record, shortly before being sucked up by a vacuum cleaner. But for every inspired set piece like that one, there are five more which would induce superhero fatigue in anyone. “Ant-Man” is just like Marvel’s other films, only smaller.
Ant-Man Released in Britain and America on July 17th