If any movie was going to stop the mighty Marvel machine in its unrelentingly successful tracks, it was destined to be Ant-Man. A long, torturous development process (it was originally announced back when Marvel Studios itself was created in 2006), a very public parting of ways between the studio and original director Edgar Wright just before production was about to start, script overhauls, and the seemingly impossible task of selling what on the surface seems like a ridiculous concept all potentially spelled bad news on a large scale.
But if Marvel has shown us anything, it’s that the studio which previously brought us Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy can take what seems to be an unworkable concept and turn it into satisfying and sometimes great entertainment. Ant-Man falls precisely into that category; after the overstuffed and frankly unwieldy hugeness of Avengers: Age of Ultron earlier this season, Ant-Man appropriately scales things down, telling a direct and mostly uncluttered origin story that is character-driven, seasoned with some terrific humor and is delivered by a fine, eclectic, and surprising cast.
For the uninitiated, what we’re getting here is not the origin story of Ant-Man as first created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby for Marvel Comics. The original Ant-Man, Hank Pym, and his wife, Janet Van Dyne a.k.a. the Wasp, were founding members of the Avengers thanks to Pym’s discovery of what he called Pym Particles, which allowed him and Janet to shrink to the size of insects, control ants themselves and fight evildoers from that perspective. Pym’s long history includes domestic violence, manic depression and the creation of Ultron, but none of that is on hand for this film, which focuses instead on the second Ant-Man, a thief named Scott Lang (Paul Rudd).
The movie re-imagines Pym (played by Michael Douglas) as a longtime operative for what eventually became S.H.I.E.L.D., a scientist turned reluctant spy whose taste for adventure was curtailed by a tragic incident involving Janet (seen in flashbacks). He has all but retired, leaving his tech company in the hands of protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) and Pym’s daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), with whom Pym has, at best, a chilly relationship. But when Cross decides he is going to use the Pym Particles to create a new kind of miniaturized soldier, Pym decides he must intervene – and that is where Scott Lang comes in.
Lang is an electronics expert who has fallen on hard times and resorted to petty crime, leading to stints in jail, a divorce from his wife (Judy Greer) and estrangement from his own little daughter Cassie, who he loves deeply. When Lang breaks into Pym’s house on a tip and discovers an old Ant-Man suit, not only does he get the surprise of his life when he puts it on, but Pym sees him as perhaps the one person he can train in the suit and use to break into Pym Tech and steal the Ant-Man technology before Cross can perfect it and sell it to the highest bidder.
Although Pym is a towering presence in Ant-Man, due in part to the character’s back story and Michael Douglas’ impeccable performance, the movie is Lang’s story as it follows his evolution from good-for-nothing to superhero. And yes, while it does follow the standard origin story template to some degree – echoing the first and still one of the best of the Marvel Studios movies, 2008’s Iron Man – there are far more intricate relationships than usual at work here. The Pym/Cross and Pym/Lang mentor-student parallels are smoothly handled, while the equally similar storylines involving Lang and Pym’s relationships with their daughters carry a lot more emotional weight than one might expect. We’re not talking great drama but the end result is that you care and root for Lang and Pym to do more than just beat the bad guy.
Stepping in for Wright – who came up with the basic story and many of the initial concepts both narratively and visually – director Peyton Reed demonstrates a clear love for the characters as well and stays out of the way of his excellent cast. Rudd is terrific as Lang, bringing just enough self-awareness and his always precise comic timing to a role that could easily fall into parody or sentimentality. Lilly is a solid foil to both Rudd and Douglas, while Stoll – who is quickly becoming one of the best actors to emerge on both the small and big screen in the past few years – gives Cross much more complexity than such a part might otherwise entail. And effortlessly stealing the movie is Michael Pena as Luis, the leader of Lang’s criminal crew: he provides some of the film’s best jokes as well as two extended montages that are among its most clever moments.
Reed and the Marvel team have also done a wonderful job on the visual effects, creating a sense of scale and weight that could make Ant-Man the gold standard for all “shrinking people” movies to come (admittedly a small niche, but still). Lang’s first trip inside the suit is dizzying and chaotic, turning the real world into a frightening cascade of one disaster after another (a bathtub becomes a tsunami), while the climactic battle atop a child’s train set between Lang and Cross – who becomes the insane Yellowjacket and has a super-cool costume – is played effectively for both laughs and thrills; Reed quickly pulls back from a massive, hero-threatening derailment to give us a laugh-out-loud viewpoint that takes the piss out of similar apocalyptic moments in other superhero slugfests. There’s also a tremendously effective and eerily beautiful sequence late in the film that opens up a whole new and important realm in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
As for the film’s connections to the greater MCU – reportedly the source of friction between Wright and Marvel leading up to his exit – they are much more organically woven into the structure of the story than the more ham-fisted callbacks in Age of Ultron. Most of Pym’s history is explained in two relatively brief scenes (one of which shows a younger version of Douglas in perhaps the best onscreen de-aging we’ve ever seen), while an extended sequence halfway through the film features a surprise cameo that you’ve probably heard about by now. It’s fun even if it goes on a bit too long. Make sure you stay for both bonus scenes too – mid-credits and post-credits – as they’re both great and the first since Captain America: The Winter Soldier to actually have some significance.
Where does Ant-Man – Marvel’s 12th released motion picture -- fall in the great ranking of the MCU? Easily somewhere toward the upper end of the middle tier. Compared to behemoths like both Avengers movies and The Winter Soldier, it’s a smaller (ha ha) story. It doesn’t have the utter giddiness of Guardians of the Galaxy. And as mentioned earlier, there is a certain predictability to the narrative’s foundations and rhythms. But Ant-Man is also funny, effortlessly charming, often genuinely weird, and possessed of a few strikingly original and/or emotional moments. It works. If this tiny superhero hits half as well with the public as last year’s talking raccoon and walking tree, then his success only looms larger for the Marvel movies to come.
Ant-Man is out in theaters July 17.