For everyone who keeps waiting for Marvel Studios to produce a clunker, I’ve got bad news for you: Ant-Man isn’t it. When Guardians of the Galaxy failed to disappoint, the critics and those who cry “over saturation!” turned to the next lesser known title on the film slate. There was decent reason for trepidation. The film was long talked about as a vehicle for Edgar Wright and his quirky vision. When he bowed out shortly after the film was finally greenlit and given a release date I was among the many who worried about a legitimate stinker, given the compressed timeframe for retooling, as well as worries that creative differences meant a lesser product.
It didn’t help that Ant-Man was the Marvel movie that most successfully kept its plot and tone quiet. Was it a more comedic action film, or a more straight sci-fi origin movie?
The final product is something a little more in the middle. With the comedic background of the new screenwriters (including star Paul Rudd) and director Peyton Reed it feels irreverent without ever falling heavy into irony or undermining the emotional arc of the characters in the film.
Iron Man is probably the closest parallel in terms of scope and tone. While Ant-Man has a bit more straight up comedy to it, the size and scale are much more personal and self contained than much of the world and galaxy saving journeys of recent Marvel flicks. While there are global stakes at play, Ant-Man keeps its focus on the personal drama among its characters and it benefits greatly from that decision. Scott Lang and Hank Pym’s relationships with their daughters is much more interesting, relatable, and satisfying than another chase-the-Maguffin plot. Watching Scott’s journey of redemption from thief, to struggling fast food worker to hero is a far cry from the Golden Halls of Asgard or the towering Triskelion and Helicarriers of the Winter Soldier and Avengers movies.
There’s a lot of sentiment in the air about Ant-Man being by the numbers or unoriginal in some way, which baffles me a little bit. It’s a superhero origin story, yes, but it is far different from the last few Marvel studios flicks. Even in comparison to the original Iron Man, which I said is the closest parallel in the MCU canon, its journey is much different. Tony Stark is a character already on top of the world, who has to learn to be humble. Ant-Man is the story of a good guy who got himself into bad situations for good reasons, trying to redeem himself in the eyes of the law, but more importantly his daughter, who already sees him as a hero.
Paul Rudd offers an affable and likable main character, and his trademark effortless charm and humor imprints Scott Lang with equal amounts heart and snark. Rudd imbues even his most heartless or cynical characters with a wide-eyed sense of optimism which leaves the viewers feeling like, ultimately, they are a character with a heart. Scott does not begin as unlikable or heartless. His station in life is made pretty clear, and even his crime is more of a Robin Hood situation than anything purely malevolent. (He’s a burglar, not a robber. Robbery implies the threat of violence.) Though we are more told than shown that Lang’s heart is in the right place and that despite his failures (many from a desire to take the easy way out) he’s really a good guy at the core, we believe it because of Rudd’s charisma. It’s another unexpectedly brilliant piece of casting from Marvel, because much of the story’s forward momentum is due to Rudd’s comedic timing and charismatic persona.
Lang’s genuineness and paternal instincts are especially apparent in his relationships with the ants he controls and the bond he forms with them. A film that made me actually care about an ant as a beloved pet is doing something right. This nurturing and kind aspect of his character is especially juxtaposed against Hank Pym, who is a taciturn and curmudgeonly scientist who has made a hermit out of himself because of his past failures and the burden of his scientific inventions. The cold relationship with his daughter Hope Van Dyne in comparison to Rudd’s estranged but loving relationship with his own is stark. Michael Douglas gives Pym, the original Ant-Man in both the comics and the film, both great dramatic weight and authority. Like the character in the comics, Pym is bogged down by the weight of his own genius, which interferes with his personal life. When the Pym Particles, the creation behind Ant-Man’s shrinking abilities, are stolen, Pym enlists Scott. Scott is the least likely option, but he is a skilled burglar and “expendable.” Evangeline Lily as Hope is the obvious correct choice for the mission, but Pym has already lost someone he loves and does not want to risk that again.
Evangeline Lily’s character is an original, but familiar one to comic readers, and her origin and the fate of her mother was a welcome surprise. The mid-credits tease offers a glimpse into her future, and I hope we see more of her. The character’s no-nonsense attitude and ability to handle herself in heavy situations plays well off Lang’s more laid back sensibilities, as well as the quippiness of most of the other Avengers. Her role was a bit lacking, but there’s a promise of more in the future, and the MCU certainly needs more heroines. While we are talking shortcomings in character use, while villain Darren Cross is a decent enough adversary, the Marvel movies still lack in the villain department. Behold: another white guy in suit.
As far as humor goes, a huge asset is Scott Lang’s burglary team, headlined by Michael Peña, who offers some of the biggest laughs of the movie. Despite his role as comic relief, the comedy never compromises his character or his abilities, something that can be said for the movie as a whole.
The film, in its concerns of a more personal nature, feels much more removed from the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe and there’s only one scene that really connects it to the rest of the Avengers verse. While that scene is strangely intrusive, it feels more like the creators being indulgent than any kind of mandate. Despite its suddenness, it’s still great fun. While a weakness in many Marvel movies of late has been their concern with cramming in future connections and Easter eggs, Ant-Man is gloriously free of that handicap and spends most of its time on the characters having a good time and the fantastically original action set pieces that are unlike anything that I’ve really seen before.
Talking about Ant-Man requires talking about shrinking. The movie benefits from this novel power, drawing on familiar imagery of movies like Honey I Shrunk the Kids, but using old Hollywood tropes in new ways. The use of scale and differing vantage points allows for lots of moments of visual humor as well as threats from unsuspecting places. I, for one, will never look at Thomas the Tank Engine the same way.
The action of the piece is a welcome change from the large scale destruction and toppling buildings. Action films have become exhaustingly similar in their third-act destruction, and Ant-Man humorously defies expectations by going small instead of trying to top last summer’s city-leveling swath of explosions. The limited scope of the battleground, a little girl’s bedroom, helps to heighten the emotional stakes at play as Scott fights to save his daughter first, the world second. The inventiveness and uniqueness of the visuals are such a huge asset to the movie that makes it stand out against every other super hero film out there. Ant-Man is smart to keep things small both physically and emotionally, because it makes it so much easier to care about what’s going on than nameless swaths of people, and it’s not the same CGI we’ve seen in movie after movie. It’s gotten a little same-same the last few Marvel flicks, and hopefully this movie provides some lessons going forward.
Ant-Man also takes an unexpected leap into 2001:A Space Odyssey sci-fi visuals, which left my theater completely silent. Scott’s shrinking journey into the “Quantum Realm,” offers what I imagine is a preview for some of the more bizarre spectacle viewers are likely to see in Doctor Strange and perhaps even the future Infinity War films.
With Ant-Man out there, we’ve got the promise of two original Avengers finally coming into the fold, which is hugely exciting for this comics fan. But for the general population of the world, Ant-Man is a fun summer movie with genuine emotion offering something different from every other super hero movie out there. The rest of the MCU could take a page from Ant-Man and focus on going small, because the stakes feel much bigger when they’re shrunk down to meet their characters. I can safely say the movie took me by surprise in its quality, and if you’ve been hesitant, make sure you go check it out. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.