Marvel may look as if it runs like a well-oiled machine, but on occasion an army of ants have spoiled the picnic. Marvel’s Ant-Man has been developing around the offices since before 2008’s Iron Man, with fan-favorite director Edgar Wright having spent the most time working on the diminutive Avenger’s story. But the Marvel Universe grew in that time into a Hollywood-dominating behemoth, and Wright’s quirky, standalone vision no longer fit. In came Peyton Reed as director, followed by universe-connecting rewrites from Adam McKay and star Paul Rudd. It may sound like a messy situation and possibly Marvel’s first dud, but Ant-Man turns out to be a funny and offbeat heist film that stands up well to last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
Who knows where Wrights’ story ends and McKay/Rudd’s begins, but chances are the weirdness belongs to the former while the jokey Avengers cameos (which won’t be spoiled here) to the latter. It makes for an interesting hybrid of styles, bringing a little bit of Mission: Impossible to the Marvel Universe for the first time. Rudd plays Scott Lang, a petty thief with an ex-wife (Judy Greer) who has moved on to another man (Bobby Cannavale), taking Lang’s daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) with her. Freshly released from prison and ready to keep clean, Lang discovers that nobody wants to hire an ex-con. Not even Baskin-Robbins. So he hooks up with a trio of fellow crooks (Michael Pena, T.I., David Dastmalchian) for an easy job busting into some old rich guy’s safe. What he finds inside isn’t what he expected…it’s some kind of suit.
Basically there are two major narratives at play in Ant-Man, and both have to do with fathers redeeming themselves in the eyes of their daughters. The suit belongs to inventor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who created a formula called “Pym Particles” that allowed him to shrink in size while packing a superhuman punch. SHIELD wanted the formula for themselves, but fearing it would be used for nefarious purposes, Pym hid the formula and quietly retired, leaving his company in the dubious hands of former protégée Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) who has created a version of Pym Particles for himself. Fearing the worst, Pym teams up with his estranged daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) to recruit Lang for a not-so-simple job: use the Ant-Man suit to bust into Cross’ lab and ruin his plans.
Ant-Man fits neatly into the overall Marvel formula, even though it follows the beats of a traditional heist movie, only with superpowers, six-legged bugs, and Rudd’s natural charm. The film is undeniably goofy, perhaps the silliest Marvel movie yet, and for that reason one never feels like the stakes are too high. But it fits the overall tone which is bouncy and geared toward kids who will probably love his insect sidekicks. They’ll also get a kick out of the final battle, a visually inventive throwdown in which Reed skillfully plays with perspective. When the camera pulls back from the tiny fight to show how it looks to normal eyes, the result is often hilarious, especially in one sequence involving a Thomas the Tank Engine toy. While modest compared to some of the larger-budgeted Marvel films, there are still a number of striking images. A mind-warping trek into the Microverse is especially impressive, and it’s undeniably cool whenever Lang is flying alongside his insect pals. Reed, who directed comedies like Bring It On and Down with Love, has a good handle on the unorthodox tone.
As a character, Lang is perhaps the least interesting lead Marvel hero. It has nothing to do with Rudd, who adapts to the film’s strangeness like a champ and nails the earnest, emotional bits just as well. It has to do with Lang not being especially developed as a hero, and that he’s somewhat muted compared to the characters around him. He’s already got three bumbling buddies, a stern female love interest and one anguished mentor vying for screen time. Lang’s dominant personality trait is that he’s well-meaning, which isn’t particularly engrossing. Douglas brings his veteran heft to the role of Pym, and he scores some strong heart-tugging scenes with both Rudd and Lilly. Stoll unfortunately was saddled with one of those forgettable tech-baddie characters, the kind we’ll never see again like Jeff Bridges and Sam Rockwell in Iron Mans 1 & 2. Remember them? If there’s a standout it’s Pena as Lang’s over-eager, excitable cohort. Somebody get that guy a super powered suit, STAT. Maybe he can be Ant Machine?
Despite a forced attempt by Marvel to fit Ant-Man into the larger Avengers universe, the film still feels like a somewhat disconnected piece of the puzzle. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as it allows a certain degree of creative freedom. While hardly the most astonishing of tales, Ant-Man is a gratifying story that has stolen a unique spot in the Marvel Universe.