An Ant-Man movie was always going to be an uphill battle. Even with Marvel making household names out of second-string characters like Iron Man and Thor (think back a decade and recall their relative obscurity to the public at large), Ant-Man was weirder and more idiosyncratic than anything that had come before, with the possible of exception of Guardians of The Galaxy. But could lightning strike twice?
With the hiring of geek favourite Edgar Wright (the beloved Cornetto Trilogy) there was hope that Ant-Man could be a fun synthesis of comedy and action. Yet when Wright suddenly left the project with only weeks before principal photography was set to begin, the project was left in limbo. Many fans already made up their minds – without Wright’s signature visual sense as a driving force Ant-Man would be a pale shadow of what could’ve been. So how does the final product stack up?
Though it’s nice to see some familiar faces (John Slattery as Howard Stark! Haley Atwell as Peggy Carter!) in the flashback cold open, what follows is a little shaky as the groundwork is laid for Ant-Man‘s origins. Paul Rudd is Scott Lang, a freshly paroled burglar who’s eager to reform his ways and re-establish a relationship with his young daughter. At the same time, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is trying to wrest control of his company back from his power-hungry protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) in order to keep his secretive shrinking technology from being used as an instrument of war.
These early scenes take a while to find their tone, as Scott’s story is overly goofy with some jokes that don’t land (though Michael Peña steals the show as Scott’s friend Luis), while Hank’s scenes are super-comic book-y (Stoll as Cross is clearly evil from the get-go, though Douglas wryly underplays his character). Eventually the movie begins to coalesce when Scott steals Hank’s Ant-Man suit and takes it for a spin. The shrinking effects are astounding and give a real sense of scale (or lack thereof), as Scott shrinks down and is thrown around like a bug, riding around on a turntable, falling through grates, and avoiding giant-sized stomping feet.
Scott soon realizes he needs Hank’s expertise just as much as Hank needs Scott’s criminal skills and the two are forced into an unlikely alliance that drives the plot. Hank’s backstory is doled out over the movie, and we come to learn that he was a former spy of sorts, operating as Ant-Man for decades at great personal and physical cost. There’s some rollicking training sequences as Scott learns how to control his ant army and they begin staging an elaborate heist. Along for the ride are Hank’s estranged daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) who holds key insider information, and Scott’s motley crew of criminal buddies (the aforementioned Peña along with hacker David Dastmalchian and wheelman T.I.).
Rudd is nearly a straight man here, leaving many of the film’s best punchlines for Peña but still getting in some good quips of his own (often undercutting the tension). Despite his past, Scott Lang’s a less morally burdened hero than usual and the movie surrounding him is appropriately light (though not without stakes). It’s refreshing that his motivation is simply to see his daughter again, and that intimate scale extends to the movie itself. After the world-shaking events of Avengers: Age of Ultron (which are directly referenced here), the Marvel Cinematic Universe (aka the MCU) needed a breather and Ant-Man came along at a perfect time.
That’s not to say that it’s totally devoid of its larger franchise obligations, as an existing Avenger gets a lengthy fight scene with Scott’s Ant-Man, there’s an offhand reference to Spider-Man, and the two post-credits stingers both set up how Ant-Man will slot into the larger MCU in 2016’s sure-to-be-massive Captain America: Civil War. Like in Age of Ultron, these elements can feel shoe-horned in, but thankfully don’t detract too much from the main narrative. In fact, some late-film revelations about Hank Pym’s wife and her legacy thrillingly lay the seeds for a much requested aspect of the existing MCU.
Ant-Man aims for Guardian‘s fleet mix of comedy and action and mostly succeeds on the strengths of its characters. The typical 3rd-act endless action has importance and consequences, never losing sight of each player’s motivations and ably juggling an Ocean’s Eleven-type heist with more traditional (but still weird) Marvel action centering on shrinking men in bug suits. A largely telegraphed death doesn’t actually occur, robbing Scott of some possible anguished motivation but leaving a pivotal character in play for future installments.
In one of the film’s many grace notes, part of Scott’s climactic battle is scored to a great pop song as he rattles around a briefcase with his equally tiny foe. This kind of fun absurdity is welcome and frequent, and the strongest indicator that Ant-Man is blazing its own path (despite some initial stumbles). There’s also some cosmic weirdness involving quantum physics that should nicely set the stage for the magic of the upcoming Doctor Strange, further expanding the MCU.
It’s tempting to consider what Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man may have looked like, but it’s likely that much of that DNA remains intact here. The end result isn’t a movie at war with itself, but instead a crowd-pleasing superhero tale that goes through the motions of an origin story, undercutting much of the familiarity with abundant humour. If anything Ant-Man proves that Marvel is continually willing to get bolder, going small here with results that aren’t noticeably diminished. It’s a (comparatively) tiny film with big heart.
Director: Peyton Reed
Runtime: 117 minutes