Ant-Man shouldn’t work. Just from a conceptual standpoint, a hero who can shrink and who hangs around with insects sounds a little goofy when compared to the exploits of the Avengers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This isn’t Asgard or SHIELD and there’s no army of alien invaders or HYDRA soldiers with which to contend, so how could it ever feel as important or impactful as other recent Marvel films? Add in the drama over the loss of the film’s original writer/director (and strongest advocate) Edgar Wright, and the resulting film could have been an inconsequential mess, throwing a goofy idea together with a handful of jokes and some cheesy action just to be another cog (about a straight, white male, of course) in the Marvel/Disney machine. That Ant-Man succeeds at all is a testament to the creativity of Marvel’s storytelling and the strength of its cast, but more than that it’s perhaps Marvel’s most flat-out fun film to date.
During the height of the cold war, Dr. Hank Pym, scientist, inventor, and SHIELD agent, discovered the Pym Particle, a sub-atomic substance that allowed him to alter the size and density of matter. He used it to build a suit that would allow him to shrink down to the size of an insect while still retaining the strength of a full-sized man, and he became the Ant-Man, a superhero fighting for SHIELD against a variety of threats. But upon learning that SHIELD was trying to duplicate his technology, Pym quits SHIELD, buries the Ant-Man suit deep in his vault, and retreats to run his tech company, grooming his eventual successor Darren Cross. In the present, Pym, now much older, has retired from the CEO life and Cross runs the company, obsessed with duplicating the Ant-Man technology which has existed as nothing but a rumor for decades. With Cross close to a breakthrough, Pym must find a way to sabotage his new suit, named Yellow Jacket, and research before Cross can sell the technology to the highest bidder resulting in armies of miniature assassins.
Enter Scott Lang, former electrical engineer turned Robin Hood-esque thief, just released from prison. Scott, now an ex-con, struggles to find a new place in the world while crashing on his former cell-mate’s couch, losing his job at Baskin Robbins when they find out about his criminal past, and crashing his daughter Cassie’s birthday party. His buddy hints at a “job” opportunity, but Scott isn’t interested in resuming his life of crime until his ex-wife forbids him from seeing Cassie again until he gets his life together and finally starts paying child support. Now desperate, he agrees to the job, which just so happens to be breaking into a save in some retired CEO’s home. The safe is empty except for some weird suit, which Lang takes anyway, completely unprepared for what’s in store once he puts it on.
Ant-Man is less a superhero movie and more a heist film, part Ocean’s 11 and part Mission Impossible. The crux of the film is Pym’s recruitment of Lang to become the new Ant-Man in order to break into Cross’s building and steal the Yellow Jacket suit and designs before they fall into the wrong hands. Along for the ride is Pym’s daughter Hope, who is vastly more capable than Lang, and who resents her father for the way he abandoned her following the death of her mother. It’s a story of fathers’ attempts to redeem themselves in the eyes of their daughters, of legacy and responsibility, and of the literal and metaphorical “little guy” making a difference. But while there is an emotional core to the film, Ant-Man is never slow, ponderous, or melodramatic, instead it’s a funny, exciting ride.
It’s unfortunate that we’ll never get to see the Ant-Man original envisioned by Edgar Wright (writer/director of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), who left the movie before filming began due to creative differences with Marvel, but there are still glimpses of his recognizable style and sense of humor throughout. Peyton Reed stepped into his shoes, and while this retooled version lacks the cohesion of something like Guardians of the Galaxy it’s still consistently funny and creative. It helps that Ant-Man is so different from anything else we’ve seen in the Marvel Universe before. The heist-movie aspect gives it a different energy, but the everyman feel of Scott Lang and his friends struggling to make ends meet is a far cry from billionaires, soldiers, gods, and aliens. There’s a human aspect to Ant-Man that grounds the film despite its seemingly outlandish concept, and it’s helped by a solid cast to help sell it.
Paul Rudd is charming and likable as Lang, a guy caught up in some bad situations who’s biggest concern is his daughter. It’s easy to see him as someone willing to step into being a hero, but perfectly happy to step aside if someone better suited is available. Michael Douglas brings some prestige to the film as Pym as well as a buried pain over the loss of his wife, but it’s his mischievous energy that helps drive the film. Evangeline Lilly’s Hope is full of ass-kicking attitude, more than a match for Lang, but most of the excitement she generates in the film comes from the promise of what future might hold for the character. And Michael Peña steals every scene he’s in as Lang’s overly-excited former cell-mate. Only villain Darren Cross falls flat, as Corey Stoll makes him little more than a megalomaniacal businessman/scientist gone bad, much in the vein of Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane in the first Iron Man.
Ant-Man is frequently very funny in unexpected ways. Its humor rarely comes from obvious jokes, but instead relies on characters and situations and the result flows much better and feels more natural. The intentionally small scale of the film, with major consequences should the heroes fail but no worlds directly hanging in the balance, gives the film a more intimate atmosphere than we’re used to from Marvel lately, and its slightly shorter running time and quick pace mean it never drags the way some of its peers do. The story is not without its problems, in particular the rather obvious resolution in the film’s finale that relies on vague and unexplained mysterious science that feels a bit like a cop-out, but those problems never bog the film down, especially not when Ant-Man is this visually interesting.
The idea of being shrunken to the size of an insect is certainly not a new one on film, but effects have progressed a long way since the classic Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. But Ant-Man does more than just show us the world from a tiny point of view, it delivers some of the most innovative action sequences we’ve seen in the modern superhero era. At his smallest, Ant-Man not only can explore places we never even see, but through the use of some Pym technology can communicate with and control ants, giving him an army of climbing, flying, building bugs at his command. But Ant-Man’s real strength comes not from his size, but from the creative way he alters his size to throw others off guard. The result is action that is constantly shifting in scale, with Ant-Man full sized one moment fighting security guards, and the next small enough to sprint through models and across desks as bullets tear apart the terrain around him like cannon fire. The climax of the film is a brilliantly creative action sequence set in a child’s model train set, and its ingenuity and uniqueness shows the strength of Ant-Man as different type of superhero film. We’ve seen countless heroes and villains pounding on each other as they fly smashing through buildings or firing missiles at armies of aliens and robots, so it’s refreshing to see an action sequence that looks and feels so different.
At the end of the day, Ant-Man might feel a little inconsequential. The last several Marvel movies have had universe-altering consequences whose reverberations will continue to be felt, while Ant-Man is smaller in comparison. It does, however, feel like a part of the same universe as the Avengers, thanks to one big, fun tie-in, as well as some clever references and cameos. There have to be some superheroes taking care of the small stuff, right? After several years of epic superhero movies from Marvel, it makes a nice change to get a movie about a little guy, without losing the sense that he’s a piece of a larger world. Ant-Man isn’t perfect, but its creativity, its sense of fun, and its unique perspective help it feel fresh, particularly in today’s overstuffed film landscape where bigger supposedly is always better. Sometimes a change of pace from the norm is exactly what we need.