It’s long been said that the best gifts are the ones in little packages; uh, or for the ladies out there, those little “Tiffany Blue” boxes (you know what I mean!). Well, Marvel has now joined the ranks of giving one of its biggest and best gifts in the smallest power-packed package ever – “Ant-Man”. The film may be smaller scale than what we’ve seen in recent years from Marvel/Disney with “The Avengers”, “Iron Man” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchises, but it has the biggest heart I’ve ever seen on screen. And a word I have never used to describe a Marvel film, but must do so now, is adorable. “Ant-Man” is simply adorable. A genial delight.
A previously untapped market for Marvel is that of the 4-7 year olds. But, those little moviegoers are no longer left out in cold with Marvel films thanks to “Ant-Man” and a story that soars with the love between a father and a daughter and how Daddy, no matter how he looks or what others may say or think, is always a hero to his daughter’s eyes. (Pulling out the tissues yet? You will when you see the film.)
Directed by Peyton Reed from script and story that began with Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish but then handed off to Paul Rudd and Adam McKay when Wright left the project as director and Peyton Reed came on board, “Ant-Man” taps into one of the “smaller” Stan Lee created comics, but by no means less important in the grand scheme of the Marvel Universe. Opening with a 1989 backstory setting prologue, we meet Dr. Hank Pym; a brilliant scientist whose particular research known as The Pym Particle took the form of shrinking technology and was designed by Pym as a U.S. military weapon. S.H.I.E.L.D. and others (HYDRA) wanted it, but Pym feared the technology would fall into the wrong hands so he and his particle suit disappeared. (Key to Marvel fans is that peppered throughout the story, we learn more about the Stark Family – aka Tony Stark – and the relationship between Pym and patriarch Howard Stark, thus interconnecting the franchises while both answering and positing questions.)
Fast forward to present day San Francisco area and we meet Scott Lang. A cat burglar who burgles on the side of good, albeit still illegal, has just been released from a three year stint in San Quentin. As we quickly learn, Scott is divorced but has an adorable 4 year old daughter Cassie whom he loves with all his heart and now on the outside, faces the trials and tribulations of supporting himself, paying child support and showing his ex Maggie and her current fiancé Paxton that he is a responsible parent who deserves to spend time with his daughter. And one look at Scott and Cassie is all it takes to know their love is deep and unquestioning. Unfortunately, Paxton is a cop which puts even more pressure and scrutiny on Scott.
Picked up by his old cellmate Luis who has been out for awhile, Luis offers a solution to Scott’s plight; an offer that seems more attractive after Scott gets fired from his new job as a Baskin Robbins counter boy. Luis and his pals Dave and Curt have a few petty heists they want Scott’s expertise for. Scott, however, is determined to go straight and stay straight.
After an unfortunate encounter with Maggie and Paxton, not to mention losing his BR job, Scott realizes he has no choice. He needs to take Luis up on his offer and so with assurances of “I gotta guy who has a guy who has a guy who told me. . .”, Scott soon finds himself in the basement of a house owned by Hank Pym, cracking open one of those uncrackable turn of the 20th century safes. But riches and cash are not to be found. What Scott finds is battered up old suit and in short order, Hank Pym.
The suit, thanks to the principles of atomic compression, has the properties to shrink someone to the size of an ant; in fact, it used to shrink Pym to that size back in the day before he disappeared. The suit also imbues the wearer with lightning speed and super-human strength when ant-sized. But now, as Pym’s company is in jeopardy thanks to his estranged daughter and a power-hungry Darren Cross (once a prize student mentored by Pym), Hank Pym needs someone to don that suit now, needs someone to become “Ant-Man”. And while Scott may have thought his heist was a legit “I gotta guy who has a guy who has a guy who told me. . .” job, he soon learns, the whole thing was set up by Hank Pym. Scott Lang was hand picked to become “Ant-Man”.
Seems that Pym’s daughter Hope isn’t too happy with what Darren Cross has planned for her family legacy and has reconnected with her father in an effort to stop him. She knows of the Pym Particle and “Ant-Man” and thought she should and would be the one to don the suit and thwart a takeover and replication of the Pym Particle Cross calls Yellowjacket, for sale to enemies by Cross. Needless to say, she’s not too thrilled when Dad picks Scott Lang for the job.
And so the action and adventure begin as we learn the inside-out of “Ant-Man” and the science behind not only the hero, but his control of ants serving as his Army. But the battle against Darren Cross is not without tension and terror – especially when Cross realizes it’s Lang as “Ant-Man” and he goes after that nearest and dearest to him – Scott’s daughter Cassie. With an army of ants, a winged sidekick named Ant-Tony and human accomplices Luis, Dave and Curt, can “Ant-Man” save Pym and Cassie? And what other secrets do we learn about Hank Pym and Avengers?
Paul Rudd puts the “A” in “Ant-Man”. Affable, likeable, down to earth; not as sharp edged with humor as fellow Marvel stars Chris Pratt, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth or Chris Evans, but that’s what makes “Ant-Man” even more appealing, especially for younger audiences. There is a softer heroic element to the story and film overall which is brought to life by the authentic Jimmy Stewart “aw shucks” persona of Rudd. This is particularly notable in the scenes between Rudd and Abby Fortson’s Cassie. Endearing almost to a fault, the dynamic of Cassie knowing who Dad is even when in super hero costume is an important distinction to make in that kids know the difference between reality and “fantasy” of super heroes but the exquisite metaphor of dads being heroes in the eyes of their children shines through. Wonderful familial elements are threaded throughout on so many levels – the Lang family dynamic – Scott-Cassie-Maggie-Paxton, the Pym family of Hank and Hope, and the Avengers family and connections. Extremely nuanced and resonant, but it all starts with Rudd at the core.
Michael Douglas is, of course, Michael Douglas. We know the style. We know his vocal inflections. And he plays them well to the advantage of Hank Pym. He is ideal with his wry wit and sage presence. You’ll do a double take thanks to movie magic when a 1989 Douglas appears in the prologue set-up. (Imagine my shock as I saw “Ant-Man” within two hours of seeing 1984 Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Terminator Genisys”.)
Corey Stoll plays the charismatic villain well, adding a level of laughable insecurity that kids will relate to. Evangeline Lilly captures both the confident and poised corporate Hope, as well as the bratty “I want it now” demanding daughter tones. And yes, she does make a nice romantic foil opposite Rudd with an undeniable and likeable chemistry between them.
All you Marvel fans will rejoice as John Slattery makes a brief re-appearance as Howard Stark with Martin Donovan also popping in opposite Slattery. And let’s not overlook Bobby Cannavale who is having a great year with everything from “Spy” to “Danny Collins”. He easily steps into the role of Paxton bringing a paternal protective element to the character while providing an antagonistic tone that serves to instigate Rudd’s Lang and move the story. Judy Greer is another actor who seems to be everywhere this year and again, she more than serves the role of Maggie.
But the scene-stealer is Michael Pena. Talk about funny! He is beyond hilarious. A younger Luis Guzman if ever there was. Charming, blustering, childlike, impeccable “aw shucks” (there’s a lot of that with these characters and performances and it’s fabulous) comedic timing. I can’t wait to see more of Pena
Story construct is well done giving us the Pym backstory while retaining the mystery of the Pym particle and the Hank-Hope dynamic, unfolding and peeling back like an onion a little bit at the time. Keeps interest going and is well paced to the point where we are allowed to grasp the connective fibers of the Marvel Universe with S.H.I.E.L.D., the Stark family, HYDRA, Peggy Carter, etc. and let it all sink in. Packed with Marvel lore and legacy, we learn, among others, that Hank Pym was a founding member of the Avengers along with Howard Stark (listen to the dialogue folks – quick but detailed) and that Pym was the very first “Ant-Man” while his wife Janet Van Dyne was his sidekick Wasp. While the story and first drafts of the screenplay are courtesy of Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, the cadence and syntax of the dialogue is very naturalistic and easy-going, much like Paul Rudd’s way of writing and speaking, making Rudd’s screenwriting contribution immense. It’s that natural style that embraces the heartfelt story elements.
The father-daughter bonds are explored not only via Scott-Cassie, but Hope and Hank, and truly celebrate and showcase the primal parental urges of a mother lion protecting her cubs no matter what. According to director Reed, “[I] was the thing that I hung the whole thing on. You can have a movie that has amazing effects, and this certainly has that, a lot of action and whatever. But whenever you see something you can connect to that’s emotionally resonant, it stays with you in a very different way. I think that’s the key to any movie and that’s what I thought about throughout this whole film. This is what the movie is about.” Hand in hand with that story construct is the production design, most notably with the Pym home where a large portion of the story takes place. You feel the warmth and the history and the love. Dark woods, heavy carpet on wooded floors, floor to ceiling bookcases, well worn tapestried furniture embrace the past and the longing of better days for Hank, Janet and Hope; a metaphoric sense of time having stopped. Similarly, in the Paxton home and Cassie’s room. Golden glows in the home with Cassie’s room done up in princess pinks with touches of tulle and jewels. A perfect little princess bedroom. Production designer Shepherd Frankel has done an outstanding job of embracing “family”. Countering that are striking visuals with the glittering steel and glass high tech look of Pym Technologies.
Fun is the “Ant-Man” training montage as Scott learns not only how to communicate with ants, but control them, while also undergoing his own physical super-hero training. The montage is fast and fun thanks to editors Dan Lebental and Colby Parker, Jr. Part and parcel to this montage are the special effects and, in particular, the shrinking. For director Reed, “I went back and watched all the shrinking movies. . .The drum I kept banging was that you can’t have a movie where you’re in the normal world that’s realistic and when you go down it feels like an animated movie. It had to feel photorealistic. Jay Morrison who is our effects supervisor, we spent a lot of time together and we talked about how we were going to achieve it and how we were going to shoot it, what lenses we used, what does the world look and sound like when you’re down there, when you see dust particles floating around – how does the light play. I’m really really happy with where we ended up because it with a movie like “Ant-Man”, it’s gotta look real. And that applied to the ants, too. That was really one of the challenges – ants that looked photoreal and also giving them some real character – especially in the case of Ant-Tony. The idea that we were going to create sort of a Roy Rogers/Trigger, Lone Ranger/Silver relationship in “Ant-Man” because in the comics, one of the iconic images was “Ant-Man” flying around on an ant. I wanted to embrace that. I was thrilled with what we did with digital effects.” One downfall with editing, however, are some of the “battle” sequences which get a bit convoluted and muddied. Outstanding are the SVFX/CGI sequences with the armies of ants! All are so well designed and, for lack of a better term, choreographed. Would love to see more of the collective gatherings. Standout are visuals that take us into the sub-atomic world. Eye-popping and jaw-dropping “wows”.
Interesting choice of Russell Carpenter as cinematographer given the amount of SVFX action, but his ability to use light and lens for the deeper levels of character storytelling, excel with the design of “Ant-Man”. Camera POV and dutching vacillates and in tandem with the SVFX, embraces the changes in scale of not only “Ant-Man” going from big to small and back, but other set pieces when exposed to the Pym Particle or Cross’ Yellowjacket replication. The result is a fun, wild, tongue-in-cheek visual ride.
And speaking of ants, how about the science itself. For Reed, the accuracy of the science of ants was crucial. With over 12,000 species of ants to select from as those aiding “Ant-Man”, Reed and the writers went to the seminal textbook on ants by Edward Wilson. “It talks about all the specific types of ants there are in the world; and there are thousands of them. And also, their specific skill sets. So one of the things that I loved about the movie is we introduce at least four of these specific types of ants. . .It was fun because it’s a heist movie at its core. And instead of sort of like the guys doing this and this and this, it’s here are the ants that are doing this, here are the ants that are doing that. I guarantee that that’s something you’ve never seen in a movie before. People talk about the shrinking when they talk about “Ant-Man”, but it’s the other power – being able to control ants – that’s the weirder power that I think is really going to surprise people in the movie. One of the things that I liked about doing the research was all the things that we have the ants do – for example, the fire ants. They’re architects. They can make little rafts and how do they do that in real life, the kid in me was like, ‘Aw, I can go on the internet and look at these ants and this is actually real!’ I think that’s a really cool aspect of the movie.”
Die hard Marvel fans won’t be disappointed with teases to Avengers tie-ins with an appearance by Falcon, who engages in an hilarious aerial battle with “Ant-Man”, not to mention two – yes, two – end credit teasers that will blow your mind. So stay through the credits; all of the credits.
To paraphrase a beloved children’s song, the ants go marching on and on with “Ant-Man”. Hurrah, Hurrah! Action-packed adorableness!
Directed by Peyton Reed
Written by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Paul Rudd, Adam McKay
Cast: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Michael Pena, Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale