Ant-Man isn’t the best Marvel Studios movie, or even among the best. But it is the right Marvel movie at the right time — a fun and effervescent palette cleanser that’s really the perfect film to follow Age of Ultron’s overindulgent bombast. Think Guardians of the Galaxy and you’re on the right track. Ant-Man isn’t nearly as good as that one, but it does share a similar good-time vibe.
Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, a talented cat burglar trying to stay on the straight and narrow for the good of his daughter, who lives with Lang’s ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her cop fiance (Bobby Cannavale). Things aren’t easy for an ex-crook though, and before long he finds himself doing a job for his friend and ex-cellmate Luis (Michael Pena). Their crew breaks into an old mansion to rob the giant safe in the basement only to discover a strange suit that gives its wearer the power the shrink down to ant-size while retaining incredible strength.
Turns out, the mansion is owned by one Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), an aging scientist who used to work for S.H.I.E.L.D. before quitting to launch his own research company. (The film actually opens with cameos from a few familiar MCU faces.) Pym is since retired, having lost the reins of his company to ex-protegee Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who is maybe probably almost definitely crazy. Pym has a secret though: in the 1960s he invented the Ant-Man technology and used it to battle Russians and a host of other bad guys around the world. His heroics were kept a secret (which explains why we haven’t heard about Ant-Man in any of the other Marvel movies), but Cross has heard whispers of the truth and is busy trying to replicate the technology. Pym put his suit in storage because he knew it would be dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands. But now that Cross is close to discovering his secret, Pym needs a new Ant-Man to break into his ex-company’s labs and destroy all of Cross’s research (as well as his nifty Yellowjacket suit that you just know is going to be trouble if he can get it work). Scott Lang might be just the guy …
So that sounds like a lot of plot. And I haven’t even mentioned Hank’s estranged daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who would prefer to don the Ant-Man suit herself, or Hank’s presumed dead wife who was irreversibly shrunk to sub-atomic levels while on a mission with her husband. But director Peyton Reed refuses to allow the movie to get too hung up on heavy exposition and keeps everything moving at a brisk and enjoyable pace. A lot of this information is conveyed through humor in scenes that don’t take themselves too seriously and prove to be a joy to watch. The movie gets serious at times, but it never turns too dark or brooding.
Ant-Man had a much-chronicled troubled path to the big screen. Announced not long after the success of the original Iron Man, the film was originally supposed to be written and directed by Shaun of the Dead’s Edgar Wright, but development merely inched forward over the years as Wright worked on other projects and he and Marvel battled over the Ant-Man script. Then when it looked like the movie was finally a go (and after Rudd and others had already been cast), Wright abruptly left the project. Reed stepped in at the last moment (with an assist from screenwriter and Anchorman director Adam McKay) to get the film made. The end result bears everyone’s names: Wright, his partner Joe Cornish, McKay and Rudd all are given given on-screen credit for the script.
This kind of thing often ends up being a disaster, but amazingly Ant-Man doesn’t feel like movie that underwent a tumultuous development process or suffered from having too many cooks. There are a few cracks in the story that hint that Marvel maybe never got the script in as good as shape as they wanted. For example, the Cross character is kind of a mess. The movie can never quite decide if he just feels let down by his old mentor, suffers from mental issues or is downright mustache-twirling evil. At one point, there’s a bit of dialogue that hints the shrinking formula he’s been working on has negatively effected his brain, even though he was never testing the stuff on himself. And then later on, some guys show up to buy his Yellowjacket technology who are revealed to be representatives from Hydra, although I honestly think that line might have been hastily added in post just so it’s clear that Cross is up to no good.
It’s easy to overlook this kind of thing though when a movie is so well cast. Rudd is his usual winning, charming, dreamboat self. Douglas appears to be having a ball. Pena gets a couple of laugh-out-loud moments as Lang’s motor-mouthed sort-of sidekick. There were times I actually wished the movie had relied even more on its comedic elements. (You know those funny scenes from the trailers where Rudd mocks the “Ant-Man” moniker? Bizarrely, none of them actually appear in the film.) But the movie is amusing enough to distinguish itself from Marvel’s more serious fare. In addition to the shrinking, Hank teaches Scott how to communicate with ants, giving him a never-ending stream of allies that the movie uses in inventive ways. There are really only two superhero “fights” in the film — a playful one between Scott and a certain Avenger and much more serious one between Scott and a Yellowjacketed-up Cross. Both are small and focused … and, honestly, a breath of fresh air after Age of Ultron’s multi-character chaos.
Ultimately, Ant-Man might go down as a footnote in the MCU. (Box office seems to be bearing that out so far.) But I think it’s the type of movie Marvel needs to be putting out occasionally. And these characters work well enough that I hope Rudd and Lilly go on to appear in, if not an Ant-Man sequel, many more MCU films down the road. (Rudd is thankfully already slated to appear in next year’s Captain America: Civil War.) Not every superhero film needs to stuff itself with cataclysmic, world-altering events. Ant-Man proves that sometimes thinking small is the way to go.