It seems as if with each successive installment, Marvel Studios is facing another test. After passing their first major test – seeing if they could successfully jam all their heroes together in The Avengers – the studio headed by Kevin Feige continually passed its successive tests, the biggest being the massive success of the relatively unknown Guardians of the Galaxy. The moment Edgar Wright left Ant-Man, just before the film went into production, a new test for Marvel was born. Not exactly a popular character, and with a fairly comical name, people began to wonder if there was any point to making an Ant-Man movie without Wright. Luckily, Marvel passed the latest test, though not quite acing it like they did with Guardians. While the issues that preceded production will always hang over the legacy of Ant-Man, director Peyton Reed and company have crafted a lively piece of pop entertainment.
Paul Rudd stars as Scott Lang, an ex-con just out of prison for a Robin Hood-like heist upon his former employer. Living with his former cellmate Luis (Michael Peña) and his cohorts Kurt (David Dastmalchain) and Dave (T.I.), Scott is trying to make an honest living for the sake of his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), but faces resistance from his ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and her new policeman fiancé Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), who withhold regular visitation until Scott gets his life together. But Scott is having a hard time making an honest living – thanks for nothing, Baskin-Robbins! – and eventually agrees to take part in a heist. But riches aren’t within the safe Scott has just cracked, simply a mysterious suit and helmet. The whole heist was a set-up by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a disillusioned scientist removed from the board of the company he founded. Having discovered that his former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is near developing technology that he had buried, Pym needs Scott to pull off a heist to steal the Yellowjacket technology that Cross has developed. With some much-needed training assistance from Pym’s daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), Scott Lang must come up to size and become the Ant-Man.
Ant-Man works best when it isn’t concerning itself with the greater aspects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This, however, could be said of almost all of Marvel’s Phase 2 movies. There are a number of scenes, including one particular fight, that are only included to tease future films or make everything fit into the larger scheme. It’s unnecessary – leave the teases for the post-credit scenes, please – and negatively affects the flow of the movie.
Like Marvel’s recent crop of movies, Ant-Man places a great emphasis on humor. The film is the funniest Marvel has made since Guardians. Of course, Paul Rudd is mostly known for his comedic work and brings those sensibilities to Scott Lang. But Rudd isn’t even the funniest member of his own gang. The real MVP of Ant-Man is Michael Peña as Luis, this idiosyncratic criminal who loves art, wine, and waffles. Peyton Reed gives Peña a major assist through these vibrant sequences of Luis telling stories – there’s cinematic flair and gut-busting humor in these fantastic moments.
Aside from the humor, there’s one other area that Ant-Man excels – the action. The first time Scott Lang places the suit on, he’s in a bathtub. The camera pulls back about half the distance of the tub and presents the audience with an understandable sense of scale. It’s quite effective. From there, Lang travels down drains and vents in a trial of errors. His brief turn on a merry-go-round of a turntable is astoundingly effective. The climactic fight between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket is aided by the fact that the stakes are less than the typical Marvel movie. The fate of the world doesn’t hang in the balance. It’s a smaller, more personal finale that hopefully will be emulated in other Marvel films. And the film’s humor even sneaks into the action, especially the sequence involving a toy train set.
*POSSIBLE (MINOR) SPOILERS IN THIS FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH*
One aspect of Ant-Man that is built upon good intentions and falls short is with Hope Van Dyne. Evangeline Lilly’s character is strong, smart, and more than capable of being her own hero. She wants to put on the suit, but she’s held back by her concerned father. There is a brief flashback where we see her mother as The Wasp and a post-credit sequence where she’s presented with her own uniform. She proclaims, “It’s about damn time.” My only problem with this is that it was damn time during the movie. Moments of explicitly connecting Ant-Man to the larger MCU could’ve easily been excised in favor of making it “about damn time” a little sooner. It’s something that seems like a running commentary on the genre’s slow-moving approach to women heroes, then it falls into the same trap as its companions.
Fans will debate just how much of Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish’s original script made into the final script co-written by Adam McKay and Paul Rudd. There are moments within the action scenes that feel like Wright had a hand in during pre-vis, but much of the film feels distinctly like Peyton Reed’s style – which in many regards could be seen as a low-key Wright, but Reed isn’t aping anyone’s style (see Bring It On or Down With Love if you don’t believe me). The fact is, this is Peyton Reed’s film. Considering the circumstances that led to him taking the job and the confines of having to tease future installments, Peyton Reed did a hell of a job. Wondering what Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man would look like is nothing more than gazing the pages in an unpublished issue of What If…?.
I wouldn’t say Ant-Man is the home-run that Guardians of the Galaxy was, but they’re only comparable because they’re under the Marvel banner. With a lively pace, witty humor, and fantastic special effects, Ant-Man works because it’s fun. It’s not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination. I’d like to see Peyton Reed oversee a Marvel film from the beginning, one that gives him more room to further inject his personality. Even when Ant-Man becomes distracted and crams itself into the larger MCU, the film doesn’t fly off the rails. If not for the unnecessary obligation to wink and nod at the bigger pieces of the MCU, Ant-Man could’ve been one of those few Marvel films that can stand proudly on its own. Even though it’s just another member of the Marvel ant farm, Ant-Man stands tall with its sly personality and eye-popping action.