While Marvel has been on a seemingly never-ending hot streak for years now thanks to the enormous success of their interconnected superhero films, many thought that Ant-Man would be the straw that broke the camel’s back. There was a large veil of uncertainty shrouding the project; first at the news of Paul Rudd’s casting and especially from the much-publicized falling out between Marvel and geek hero director Edgar Wright. As if that weren’t enough, the very concept of an Ant-Man movie sounded like one leap of faith too far, as even recent trailers, while entertaining, made it look like Marvel might finally have a dud on their hands. Yet somehow, despite all of the behind-the-scenes turmoil and the dicey concept, Ant-Man delivers. While it’s hard to not imagine how much better it could have been had Wright stayed on in the director’s chair, Ant-Man is not only a worthy addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s one of its best and could very well be this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
The most appealing thing about Ant-Man is how different it feels from Marvel’s other films — even Guardians of the Galaxy, of which it shares probably the most in common, at least from a tonal perspective. The main difference is Ant-Man is very much the “anti-Avengers” of Marvel films, which is a bit jarring considering it arrives on the heels of the most bombastic and epic film in the Avengers franchise yet. It’s a more intimate film than anything that’s come before. Sure, the film’s climax is still ostensibly about saving the world, but the stakes feel significantly smaller this time around.Setting aside the film’s superhero trappings, Ant-Man is really a film about family, specifically fathers and daughters. Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, a modern day Robin Hood of sorts who stole millions from his former employer, gave it to the company’s swindled employees, and served a three-year-jail term for his good deed. Although his young daughter Cassie still thinks of him as a hero, Scott’s ex-con status prevents him from holding down a job (a point that the film has a lot of fun with) and being able to provide for her and be in her life. Without giving too much away, Scott’s only real chance at redemption lies with Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a brilliant, but reclusive scientist who enlists Scott’s help for the ultimate heist job (a job with noble intentions, of course).
Ant-Man‘s cast absolutely shines. While the prospect of Paul Rudd as a superhero seemed like an absurd casting decision, his natural wit and charm make him the perfect fit for a role that pretty much demands he be in on the joke. It will be a treat to see Rudd trade quips with the other Marvel heroes in future films. While Rudd is an excellent lead, the real emotional heart of the film belongs to Douglas and Evangeline Lilly, who plays his prickly, but extremely capable daughter Hope. While Ant-Man is an uproariously funny movie, it occasionally slows down for some tender dramatic moments and the ones shared between Hank and Hope Pym bring some much-needed humanity to the proceedings. It’s refreshing to see one of these films forget about the fate of the universe for once and just tell a good human story.
That being said, Ant-Man is laser-focused on being as entertaining as possible and much of that stems from Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish’s excellent script (which Rudd and frequent collaborator Adam McKay also contributed to). While it’s difficult to gauge how much of Wright’s work was left in, his fingerprints are are all over Ant-Man. The very concept of Ant-Man — a superhero who can shrink to the size of an ant and commands armies of insects — is absurd and could have been disastrous in the wrong hands. Luckily, this is arguably Marvel’s most self-aware movie yet, going much deeper in its self-deprecation and a “we know this is ridiculous” attitude than even Guardians did. It would be a disservice to spoil any of the film’s litany of impressive gags and setpieces, but just know that you’ll probably have a new fondness for ants by the time the credits roll.
While Ant-Man gets a lot right — strong lead and supporting cast, irreverent humor, a third act that actually deviates from the Marvel norm — it is guilty of repeating some of the same mistakes as past films in the franchise. For whatever reason, Marvel seems largely incapable of creating villains that are anything other than two dimensional carbon copies of its heroes and Ant-Man is unfortunately guilty of the same sin. Corey Stoll’s Darren Cross is easily the film’s weakest component, an inexplicably sadistic corporate villain whose eventual alter-ego, the Yellowjacket, is just Ant-Man with lasers. And while Ant-Man doesn’t suffer from as much universe-building intrusions as Age of Ultron did (and actually contains some clever references to other heroes and storylines), it’s hard not to feel that the film’s story occasionally runs up against corporate-mandated references to other Marvel brands. As cool as it is to hear characters bring up the Avengers casually in conversation, at some point you kind of just wish one of these films would be allowed to stand on their own and not just feel like little more than the next entry in a never-ending franchise.
Despite the occasional stumble though, Ant-Man delivers on almost every front. There are so many little (pun unintended) moments of clever dialogue and humor (Scott’s team of heist buddies — Michael Peña, David Dastmalchian, and T.I. — almost steal the whole show with their antics), you almost forget how absurd the entire concept of this superhero really is. It’s actually impressive how well everything turned out, as director Peyton Reed surely faced quite the challenge in trying to crank this film out after Wright’s departure. Those waiting for Marvel to finally have a failure on their hands will have to wait a little bit longer, as Ant-Man easily defies expectation and is better than it has any right to be. It may not quite reach the heights of Marvel’s best offering, such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier or the first Avengers, but Ant-Man is proof that the studio can turn even the dumbest superhero into one of their finest solo outings. Now, bring on a Squirrel Girl movie.