The Marvel cinematic universe is in a tricky spot. How can the comic book giant leverage its impressive cast of characters and continue to tell interesting stories without leading to franchise fatigue? It’s safe to say that Marvel’s A-Team has pretty much had its run of origin stories and sequels. But last year’s excellent Guardians of the Galaxy proved that even the lesser-known Marvel brands could hold their own, both as standalone films and as part of the extended Marvel universe.
Even by B-team standards, Ant Man would not be on the top of most fans’ lists. And yet, on both a visual and conceptual level, there are tons of things you could do with a hero that can not only communicate with ants, but can also turn himself into the size of one. While the idea is immensely silly, Peyton Reed’s Ant Man thankfully takes this concept and runs with it. It’s pretty much a total blast.
The always charming Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, a master thief just released from a prison sentence for stealing millions of dollars from a greedy corporation. His post-prison goal is to fly the straight-and-narrow, to be there for his young daughter despite his ex-wife’s reservations. But his longtime friend/bad influence Luis (a scene-stealing Michael Pena) keeps trying to pull him back into the burglar lifestyle.
Meanwhile, former SHIELD scientist and eccentric millionaire Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is in a bit of a pickle. His protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) has kicked him out of his own company after discovering his scientific secret to shrinking a living human. For years, Pym denied that he was the original Ant Man, wanting to keep his secret from falling into the wrong hands. But Cross discovers his secret, turning Pym’s estranged daughter Hope (Evangeline Lily) against him while plotting to build an army of super-strong shrinking humans and sell them to the highest bidder. Of course, that bidder happens to be the menacing HYDRA Corporation, bent on ruling the world. It isn’t long before Pym enlists Lang to become the Ant Man, and do what he does best: steal something important from an evil corporation. Except this time, Lang is doing it to save the world.
What makes Ant Man a success is its tone. This is perhaps Marvel’s funniest film to date, and that’s mostly because Reed and his team of co-writers (including the very funny Edgar Wright and Adam McKay), never take themselves too seriously. The film’s best moments are when the camera allows us to see the dichotomy between the scope of Scott Lang’s diminutive perspective and the world around him. In reality, two ant-sized duelers in silly looking suits isn’t all that epic. This contrast gets a ton of well-earned laughs, particularly during the film’s climax.
The film is also bolstered by strong performances. Rudd strikes the perfect balance between a father in search of redemption and an undeniable goofball. He’s the beating heart of the film, but Pena steals his handful of scenes with his over-the-top but memorable performance as Lang’s longtime partner-in-crime. And Michael Douglas proves that he is incapable of phoning in a performance; he manages to be funny but also tender, as his quest to reconnect with his daughter mirrors Lang’s. The two men see much in each other, which allows the actors to play off of those connections expertly.
I’m glad these elements of the film are so strong, because the simplistic plot is pretty tired. While it’s fun to see Marvel’s version of a heist film, I could have done without the training montage and some of the more telegraphed character moments. The middle section of the film suffers from some serious pacing issues, something that could have been avoided by rejecting some of the more obvious clichés. Marvel films have often struggled to provide truly compelling villains, but even by those standards, Darren Cross/Yellow jacket is weak. Essentially, he’s doing bad guy stuff because he is greedy and has daddy issues. Are those really the only two motivations our antagonists are allowed to have anymore?
Like other Marvel films before it, Ant Man features plenty of nods to the company’s larger film universe. While I’ve become increasingly annoyed by the shoehorning necessary to connect all of these movies, I really didn’t mind it here. Perhaps because the conflict is smaller scale, I was glad to see that there are still epic things brewing. An Avenger cameo feels a bit forced, but it also results in the movie’s best fight scene, so I’m willing to let it slide. The major exception is the ending, which is too abrupt and painfully obvious in its attempts to set up future films.
Some might consider the smaller scale and lighter tone of Ant Man a negative, but I think it’s refreshing to see Marvel so willing to play around with its characters. This sometimes feels more like a parody of a superhero movie, particularly because the concept is so strange to begin with. But the movie still delivers the action beats audiences hope for; there just aren’t any crumbling buildings or alien invasions this time around.
Ant Man is breezy, flashy and fun, but it also has an infectious sense of humor and genuine heart. It’s full of clichés and nonsensical silliness, but its expert tone, spectacular visual effects and great performances make it a unique and fresh addition to the Marvel canon.