A common discussion among moviegoers is over when the mighty Marvel Studios will release that apparently inevitable misfire that will signal their downward spiral. Whether you subscribe to that belief or not, Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man is not that misfire.
Ant-Man has had a difficult development. It’s been sitting on a shelf since before the first Iron Man movie and ran into significant issues just before production started when Edgar Wright unexpectedly left the project. What that film would have been and how much of it remains in this version will probably never be truly known but it’s not to be focused on. What I find important is the film we have now and how does that measure up.
All in all, pretty damn good. By now we must be used to Marvel movies being pretty large scale since The Avengers shattered all sorts of records. Certainly their second phase has been full of apocalyptic scale epics that culminate in massive action sequences. Even relative underdog Guardians of the Galaxy had those sorts of stakes and that was the one noted as an experiment. Ant-Man is another film saddled with that label. Marvel again showcases the ability to take a lesser known property and confidently adapts it for the big screen by letting the material speak for itself
The scale of this film is definitely a refreshing change. I love the Marvel movies more than most but I have been itching for a more down to Earth superhero movie to stand apart from the perpetual scale of one-upmanship between the competing studios.
Everything about this film is smaller -there could be a lot of these puns- than what we’re currently used to and it is definitely all the better for it. The stakes are more self contained with a lack of a direct world in peril plot driving the narrative, the story focuses more on character than spectacle and proves itself to be no less important as a result.
The story involves the induction of honourable thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) into the superhero world as the second man to bear the name Ant-Man. Lang is brought into this world at the behest of genius inventor Henry -Hank- Pym (Michael Douglas) who discovered a particle that could shrink a human being way back in the 60s and now fears that his tech is about to wind up in the wrong hands.
Rudd absolutely nails it as Scott Lang, injecting plenty of humanity and pathos into the character as well as having perfect comic timing to bring the right humourous note to a scene when required. It could be said that his setup is a pretty standard one. He’s a guy that broke the law for seemingly the right reasons and paid the price by being sent to prison for his crimes. Upon his release he’s itching for a chance at redemption and really wants to be a positive role model to his young daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson). He gets his chance at redemption when Pym enlists him to break into a secure facility and steal the secrets to his discovery.
Despite how predictable it gets from a character development standpoint the cast are all on point with their performances and the writing is genuine without seeming overly sentimental so it all comes together pretty well. The mentor/mentee relationship between Pym and Lang is a lot of fun to watch largely due to the natural chemistry between Rudd and Douglas who bounce off each other excellently.
It doesn’t really need to be said that Michael Douglas is excellent but I’m saying it anyway. He plays Pym with a tragic wisdom that hides just the right amount of mystery to make him compelling without being annoyingly secretive. He also has a sardonic edge that blends perfectly into the more light hearted tone on display here.
Tonally this film is a blend between comedy and drama and manages to combine the two nicely. I never felt like the jokes were forced or out of place aside from a couple of examples. None of the humour impacted the story in a negative way like it did for me in Guardians of the Galaxy. Most of the comic relief is handled by Lang’s partner in crime Luis (Michael Peña) who leads a couple of wacky montages that didn’t quite work for me but will probably be a hoot for others who watch it. I never found these scenes or his character in any way offensive and wasn’t lifted out of the story at any point so I’d say it was nicely toned down. Beyond that, many of the serious emotional moments are perfectly diffused with an expertly timed joke that takes advantage of the stellar cast involved.
Visually the film is absolutely stunning. The shrinking effect is a solid gimmick that is taken full advantage of. A running bath becomes a tsunami, rats become towering monsters and being trampled underfoot is a constant risk. It’s really cool to see everyday objects from a much smaller perspective and it lends itself to some really creative comedic moments not to mention some of the most inventive action sequences I’ve seen in a long time. I love how the film used scale to give some hilarious visual gags as well as remind the viewer how small scale the destruction really is.
Using the concept of a heist to showcase the potential of these abilities makes for some great viewing. It’s a simple mission and is really creatively executed. There’s the standard montage of learning and planning with the whole thing falling apart during the actual attempt but it’s a lot of fun and showcases the unique abilities to a full extent.
The seamless transition from normal size to ant size continually impresses and never gets old. Having the final confrontation taking place in a little girl’s bedroom with citywide destruction being substituted for the destruction of children’s toys is an inspired choice and sticks out in the mind.
In particular this final action sequence could be seen as a send-up of the city destroying summer tentpoles we so often see by taking it to the most ridiculous extreme. It’s genuinely astonishing that this all works despite the constant risk of descending into the realm of the ridiculous.
With this being a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe you’d expect a few references to what we’ve seen before thrown in there for good measure. There’s a sequence in the second act that you may have heard of already -but I won’t spoil it for those of you who haven’t- that cements this film within the wider context as well as a notable cameo infused Easter Egg at the beginning of the film. Watch out for a very subtle reference to a certain webhead as well. Some of the references work and others feel a little too ham fisted but I always have fun with these winks and nods.
The film isn’t flawless though. Hank Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lily) is given comparatively little to do outside of some nicely done emotional moments. There’s a meta-gag running underneath the main narrative where she is clearly the best person to put in the suit and perform the heist but given Marvel’s baffling reluctance to introduce a female led superhero movie before now it’s a joke that only really reminds the viewer that they haven’t actually done that yeah. She will be back though and hopefully get more character development when she returns.
As with most of the Marvel films the villain fails to rise to any memorable heights. Corey Stoll’s Darren Cross/Yellowjacket has all the potential to become one of the better villains in any of these films but never quite gets there. His status as Pym’s former protégé sets up an interesting conflict as Cross feels somewhat abandoned by a father figure who was terrified at how much of himself he saw. He acts as something of a dark mirror for Lang who signifies what can happen when Pym picks the right person to share his secrets with. It’s a shame that it never really goes anywhere as Corey Stoll is charismatic and nicely sinister in the role. His descent into all out villainy is far from believable despite the inevitability of it all.
Lang’s ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and daughter Cassie are less characters in the story and more of a prize for him to achieve. It’s never bad and they are a necessary addition to the narrative to give him something to inspire him but they only tend to appear when the story really needs them to and as such feel more like devices.
Ant-Man is definitely a welcome addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It stands out as being a small scale character driven origin story and is their best example of this since the original Iron Man. Absolutely worth seeing and this gets my full recommendation. As with all Marvel movies there are post credit stingers to stick around for. There’s one in the middle and another at the end so don’t go anywhere when those credits roll.