It doesn’t re-invent the superhero movie or reach heights of Marvel’s top movies to date, but Ant-Man deserves its due: It’s more fun than a movie about a guy who shrinks and communicates with insects theoretically should be.
That’s not intended as a backhanded compliment. Marvel’s capstone for its so-called Phase Two slate of films is well-timed, goofy fun whose strengths come from a strong cast, a willingness to play with the genre, and a shift towards a more intimate, smaller-scale story (please forgive the pun).
Michael Douglas anchors the story as Dr. Hank Pym, a disillusioned super-scientist of the comic book mold who has spent the latter half of his life trying to keep his greatest discovery, a particle that shrinks objects and people, out of the hands of those who would abuse it — which would be pretty much everybody, apparently.
When his discovery is finally replicated and militarized by his estranged apprentice Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), Dr. Pym and his equally estranged daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly) are compelled to perform a little corporate espionage to prevent a (ahem) small arms proliferation. Pym subtly maneuvers down-and-out thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) into donning his old Ant-Man supersuit and being the point man for their heist, which does not sit well with Hope, who’d prefer to do the job herself. (Pym has his reasons for sidelining her, which won’t be spoiled here.)
The result is a caper comedy masquerading as a superhero flick, one that has the sense to not take itself the least bit seriously, though it does treat the material with respect. It’s the same approach that made Guardians of the Galaxy an unexpected and pleasant surprise; Ant-Man doesn’t quite hit the insane heights of GotG, but it’s still refreshingly absurd and smartly tongue-in-cheek.
There’s a definite passing resemblance to the basic plot of the first Iron Man movie, but Ant-Man is a bit more accessible; Rudd is Robert Downey Jr. without the tiresome smarminess, and while Tony Stark may be the billionaire playboy superhero philanthropist whom we fantasize about being, Scott Lang is the scruffy underdog we can all identify with. His awkward triangle with Hope and Dr. Pym lends some gravitas tot he story, as does the theme of strained family ties in the form of Pym’s relationships with Hope and Cross, and Lang’s with his ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson).
The main focus is on action, of course, and while much hay has been made about Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish’s departure from the film during pre-production and what might have been had they stayed, the fact is director Peyton Reed holds his own here, and he and the effects crew have crafted some impressive, breathtaking sequences that make shrinking look cool for the first time ever. (A fight inside a free-falling briefcase, a battle in a child’s bedroom, and sequence set on the sub-atomic level are particular stand-outs.)
On the downside, it’s another case of comic book movies being largely a man-child’s club, and Lilly and Greer aren’t given a lot to do (especially the latter). Stoll veers dangerously close to scenery chewing, most likely in an attempt to flesh out Cross’s generic villainy. However, Bobby Cannavale fares well in the straight-man role of Maggie’s cop husband, and Michael Peña steals several scenes as Lang’s partner in crime.
Ant-Man acknowledges its Marvel Cinematic Universe connections in a way that, with the possible exception of a brief subplot featuring an Avenger cameo, feels subtle and organic, and the relatively lower stakes of the plot are a nice shift away from the umpteenth world-in-jeopardy plot. It’s a nice palate cleanser after the overstuffed and overwrought Avengers: Age of Ultron, as well as a chance for audiences to catch their collective breath before next summer’s superheroes-battle-superheroes double whammy of Captain America: Civil War and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.