There was a concern that Ant-Man would lack personality. Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) had spent ages developing the Ant-Man screenplay, but he left the project due to creative differences with Marvel Studios. Peyton Reed replaced Wright as director and the screenplay was retooled by Adam McKay (Anchorman) and star Paul Rudd. Ant-Man wrapped principle photography in December 2014 to meet its July 2015 release date.
Shockingly, Ant-Man is good in spite of the changing hands and the accelerated turnaround from production to release. In fact, the film is chock full of giddy creativity that’s lacking in other blockbusters. There’s solid action throughout, but there’s a healthy dose of self-effacement and self-deprecation, as if everyone involved acknowledges that you’re watching a movie about Ant-Man, of all people.
While there’s something to be said about my initial low expectations, Ant-Man succeeds primarily because it’s allowed to be its own little, lighthearted animal in the big, bloated Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Director: Peyton Reed
Release Date: July 17, 2015
Scott Lang (Rudd) is an ex-con who gets back into cat-burgling when he can’t make ends meet in civilian jobs. Thanks to his MacGyver-like cunning in a nicely crafted heist sequence, he steals a super suit that belongs to scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). The suit allowed Dr. Pym to shrink down to insect size and carry out covert military operations for the U.S. Government. Scott teams up with Pym and Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) in order to stop Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), a protege of Pym’s who wants to use similar shrinking technology to create an army of miniature soldiers for the highest bidder.
Even though Ant-Man is a origin story, it never feels bogged down in set-up like many other origin stories. Pym passes his heroic legacy on to Scott, which makes it feel like we’ve hopped into the middle of a larger story rather than the cold start of a new one. The brisk, comic pace conveys Scott’s transition from sarcastic doofus to unwitting-hero to reluctant-hero to superhero. A key training sequence mid-film is full of recurring gags and variations on recurring gags, each one offering a sense of character development and progression. Like a competent kung-fu film from the 1970s, we watch someone with talent but no discipline refine themselves under the tutelage of a master. There’s clunkiness in the way Ant-Man deals with father-daughter and surrogate-father-son relationships, however, which is the foundation for many of the character interactions. It’s serviceable and occasionally saccharine, though the father-child theme at least yields a few genuine moments of unexpected emotion.
When Scott learns what Cross could do with shrinking technology, he says that they should call The Avengers. Pym sneers that all the Avengers do is drop cities from the sky, which seems to define the contrast in Ant-Man‘s approach to action. The movie can’t possibly outdo The Avengers in terms of the scope, so Ant-Man instead relies on the humor of its small stature. They can’t drop cities from the sky, but they can blow up a scale model to simulate citywide destruction; ditto the derailment of a Thomas the Tank Engine train set. Seeing Scott grab the grooves of an EDM record on a turntable or run alongside a colony of ants recalls both The Incredible Shrinking Man and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, each of which found a kind of imaginative awe in the miniature world. It’s mostly unfamiliar territory for modern blockbusters, almost all of which every weekend depict the total destruction of major cities and the deaths of thousands. You see one metropolitan city get completely decimated, you’ve seen ’em all. Ant-Man is refreshing by comparison.
Rudd’s a charming scoundrel with a heart of gold, and he carries the lead role with some fine wisecracks and slacker charisma. Douglas gets to do the old-dude-deadpan routine, and also plays concerned father to Hope and disappointed father-figure to Cross. On the note of Hope, she’s saddled with the trope of the icy careerist, but there’s enough in the writing (apparently added during the rewrite phase) and in Lilly’s performance that makes her a bit more human. Scott’s supporting thieves add personality when on the screen, particularly Luis played by Michael Peña, whose comic timing and delivery propel some of my favorite non-action sequences in the film.
There’s something I’ve noticed as Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe draws to a close. The standouts for me have been the films that got away from straight-up superheroics. Even though Avengers: Age of Ultron did great at the box office, the movie was a generic rehash of the first Avengers. By contrast, Captain America: The Winter Soldier added the paranoia of political thrillers from the 1970s, and Guardians of the Galaxy was an ’80s misfit movie (i.e., The Goonies in space). Since the Marvel Cinematic Universe is driven by producers/Marvel Studios rather than by directors/screenwriters, mixing a different tone or genre into the superheroics seems like a form of creative triangulation. To put it another way, hybridty and genre cross-pollination is the best way for a Marvel film to develop its own identity given the way that they’re made.
In that regard, Ant-Man belongs in that standout class from Phase Two. The film sticks to its lighthearted tone and blends the madcap imagination of ’50s and ’60s sci-fi films with the meticulous, ticking-clock operations of a cinematic caper. Ant-Man‘s a movie with its own sense of character even though it isn’t driven by a directorial voice or vision. The filmmakers of Marvel’s Phase Three can learn something useful from the little guy.