Despite some production issues, Marvel Comics’ other bug-themed superhero found his way onto the big screen in “Ant-Man.” Making this film was a risk on Marvel Studios’ part, but does it pay off like last year’s “Guardians of the Galaxy”?
A reformed thief (Paul Rudd) is recruited by an old scientist (Michael Douglas) to use a shrinking super-suit to steal deadly weapon being developed by a nefarious businessman (Corey Stoll).
Like “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Ant-Man” is a film that, arguably, shouldn’t exist. The titular hero is a B-list—perhaps even C-list—character in Marvel’s pantheon. Edgar Wright, director of “Shaun of the Dead” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” spent years developing the film only to leave during pre-production due to creative differences with Marvel. Yet despite all this, production stayed on track.
Many fans said this would the film that decided whether or not Marvel could do no wrong. Like “Guardians of the Galaxy,” it starred a relatively unknown character with quirky abilities. Shrinking is one thing, but commanding ants to do his bidding? For audiences who already (unfairly) laugh at DC Comics’ Aquaman for “talking” to fish, it almost seems absurd to try to sell the concept. Yet like “Guardians,” “Ant-Man” strikes a masterful balance between comedy, action and pathos.
The film wisely offsets the stranger elements with familiar tropes. While the film focuses on Scott Lang, who was the second Ant-Man, Hank Pym serves as Lang’s mentor. Lang himself is a divorcee who loves his 8-year-old daughter and also a former convict who struggles to get a job. Things like these keep the film, even at its most absurd, grounded in reality and more accessible to non-fans of comics. Unfortunately, most of the self-aware meta-humor seen in the trailers—most notably jokes about how silly the name Ant-Man sounds—are absent. It seems those were created simply for promotional purposes. They were excellent selling points to anyone who thought the film would be dumb because it showed that even the film knew it was ridiculous.
Regardless, despite Wright’s departure, it remains a funny film and retains many of his fingerprints. This is seen most strongly with Lang’s merry band of thieves. One of them is Luis (Michael Peña), who’s fond of recounting longwinded “tip montages” that show the actual events but the characters speak with his cadence and words instead of their own. These scenes are silent except for Luis’ voiceover, making them even funnier.
But at its heart, “Ant-Man” is a heist film. Marvel has wisely entrenched their superhero movies in other genres in order to broaden their appeal. Captain America films are political thrillers; Thor films are fantasies; and Iron Man films are techno-thrillers. Think of “Ant-Man” as “Ocean’s 11” except with ants.
Marvel once again utilizes a villain who is essentially a “dark visage” of the hero (seriously, look back on MCU villains like Red Skull and Abomination). Corey Stoll plays Darren Cross, Hank Pym’s protégé who is obsessed with replicating Pym’s shrinking technology. With his shaved head, obsessive nature and slightly unstable personality, one would almost think he was channeling Kevin Spacey’s Lex Luthor and not an obscure Marvel character. (In fact, he may prove to be a better Luthor than Jesse Eisenberg in the upcoming “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”). He eventually becomes Yellowjacket, which is ironic since that name was never used by a villain. Regardless, it serves the story well. Stoll imbues Cross with a healthy dose of resentment toward Pym for abandoning him and never trusting him enough to share the Ant-Man technology. It makes him a more sympathetic villain, though not on the same level as Vincent D’Anofrio’s Kingpin or Tom Hiddleston’s Loki.
One of the film’s greatest achievements is making small things look epic. It’s amazing what a change of perspective—or in Ant-Man’s case, size—can do for everyday objects. Running water in a bathtub becomes a torrential flood. Lawns become jungles. Mice become monsters. Not since Disney’s “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” has this been done as effectively. The climax where Ant-Man battles Yellowjacket amidst a Thomas the Tank Engine train set crashes, looking like a full-fledged disaster to the miniaturized men but mere toy to everyone else.
Comic and MCU fans will be delighted by several surprises. Both Howard Stark (John Slattery, reprising the role from “Iron Man 2”) and Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell) make cameos in the opening. Flashbacks show Hank Pym as Ant-Man doing missions for S.H.I.E.L.D. in the 1980s, as well as his wife Janet as the Wasp. Lang breaks into an Avengers facility and has to fight past Falcon (Anthony Mackie). Finally, both Captain America (Chris Evans) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) make uncredited appearances in a post-credits scene that paves the way for next year’s “Captain America: Civil War.”
“Ant-Man” is surprisingly good, perhaps better than it deserves to be. While it doesn’t rise to the levels of the “Avengers” films or “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” it’s still a solid entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that proves to be just as surprising as “Guardians of the Galaxy.”