Plagued by years in development hell, the departure of original director Edgar Wright, and a general lack of faith in the concept by fans, Marvel Studios’ Ant-Man finally opened last week. Did the movie’s abrupt change in directors and significant rewrites harm the finished product? Are the film’s studio-mandated ties to the larger Marvel Cinematic too overbearing? Really, was it going to be any good?
The answer is that, while you can definitely tell this went through multiple hands,
Edgar Wright Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man is an absolute blast, and one of Marvel’s best efforts to date. Spoilers below after the GIF of cool ants.
The Redbox synopsis: Aging former cold war superhero/scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, evidently having a really good time here) and his estranged daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) bring in ex-con thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) to commit pint-sized industrial espionage against deranged industrialist Darren Cross (drunk House of Cards senator Corey Stoll) to prevent him from weaponizing Pym’s shrink tech into a suit of his own. It’s Iron Man plus Ocean’s 11 heist coolness with a generous heaping of Honey, I Shrunk The Kids-style good natured homeyness.
The keys to Ant-Man‘s success are simple when you compare them to the Marvel movies that have preceded it. First and foremost, this movie is just fun. Marvel has handled high-stakes, world-ending comic opera dramatics extremely well (Winter Soldier) and very poorly (Age of Ultron). Ant-Man is just flat-out a movie uninterested in that kind of pathos, going for literally smaller scale superheroics. It’s also legitimately funny in a way that a Marvel movie hasn’t been before.
Which isn’t to say the movie doesn’t have some great conflicts! Scott Lang’s love for his daughter Cassie and his desire to get his life together (and the real life cost of that) is the anchor of the film. While Lang’s ex-wife Maggie (summer movie mom Judy Greer) and her new cop husband Paxton (Bobby Cannavale) are wary of Lang’s re-entry into Cassie’s life, the way the film depicts the three adults individually as loving parents rather than a cartoonish “bad guy” is really important and thoughtful. (That said, Greer’s lack of screentime compared to Cannavale’s is borderline unforgivable.) Ant-Man‘s unsubtle major through line is the often difficult relationship between parent and child. While Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor examine this from the perspective of their man-child protagonists, Ant-Man tackles the burden of parenthood through Pym and Lang as fuck-up fathers.
At another angle, Ant-Man‘s choice in focuses make it a distinctly “Marvel” Marvel movie. Even beyond Pym’s direct ties to the early days of S.H.I.E.L.D. and a pretty throwaway but super-amusing series of cameos by The Falcon, the film continues the mega-franchise’s philosophy of “might vs. right” or the responsible application of power. More than any of his technical prowess or burglary skills, it’s Lang’s inherent schlubby guy nobility that saves the day. He’s hesitant to hurt people and apologetic when he has to. When his favored flying ant “Ant-thony” dies, he’s upset about it. Rudd’s Lang gives a shit. And the movie extends this surprising level of humanity to the movie’s secondary heroes as well, whether it’s Hope Van Dyne showing genuine compassion towards a clearly unwell, gun-toting Cross, or Michael Peña’s show stealing sidekick Luis remembering to rescue a guard he knocked out before a building explodes. It’s not hard to read Hank Pym’s bitter dismissal of Tony Stark and Iron Man “dropping cities” as the movie consciously differentiating itself from the more disaster porn-heavy superhero flicks.
It’s worth commending the really clever special effects in Ant-Man. Our heroes’ ant helpers make for great gags and visuals. Lang’s first time out in the suit is a briskly paced funhouse, reimagining a tenement as a terrifying Rube Goldberg machine of death with raving teenagers and a giant rat. The movie’s third act action sequences, featuring a shrunken tank escape and a super-sized Thomas The Tank Engine exploding out of a child’s room, use the movie’s size-changing conceit to its full potential.
“Ant-Man’s relationship with women and minorities is complicated” is not a sentence I ever really expected to type, but here we are in 2015. Marvel really eats their cake and has it too here. Evangeline Lilly has the unenviable task of scowling for most of the film and petulantly arguing with the film’s male leads. Despite a cool hair cut, she’s a pretty stock character, but thankfully she gets a little more dimension as the film goes on. The post-credit “hey sorry but she’ll be The Wasp next time!” scene feels a little self-congratulatory, but suggests that at least Marvel is aware of their own issues. Peña and rapper T.I. break up the eggshell whiteness of Ant-Man a bit even in comic relief roles. Peña’s Luis isn’t a stereotype though, and the laughs come from the fact that he’s an affable weirdo who doesn’t know how to tell a quick story. It’s of note that Luis’ hilarious narration sequences probably feature more Latino characters than the last decade of Marvel movies put together, for better or worse.
Marvel Studios has a pretty tight formula for their superhero outings, and an individual film lives and dies on how it can cope with that and maintain a voice. Ant-Man does a commendable job of feeling fresh thanks to Rudd’s natural nice guy charisma, inspired set pieces, and a premise that simultaneously acknowledges and embraces its oddball weirdness. Let’s hear it for the little guy (brought to you by the biggest media conglomerate on the planet).
Ant-Man is in theaters now.