The world’s smallest superhero makes a splash on the big screen in Marvel’s Ant-Man, a fast, funny, often flippant comic book outing that, refreshingly, dials things back a bit from recent studio outings that include sequels to The Avengers, Thor, and Captain America.
Here, finally, is a breezy superhero flick where the fate of the world is never overtly at stake, and the focus is clearly on the characters in the human world – and the microcosmos.
Ant-Man, portrayed by both Michael Douglas (as inventor Hank Pym, the original Cold War superhero) and Paul Rudd (as Scott Lang, the young thief Pym recruits to take his place) is outfitted with a special suit that can shrink him down to the size of an ant at will.
He can also communicate with ants, recruiting armies of insects to fight with him and riding into battle on the back of winged creatures.
Ant-Man goes into such great lengths to establish the superhero’s powers in the real world – with scientific mumbo-jumbo explanations and a lengthy training montage – that I had a little trouble buying it. I can accept all the alien stuff in Guardians of the Galaxy without question, but the more a film like this tries to explain its fantastic elements, the more I resist.
In an opening prologue set in 1989, Douglas’ Pym resists sharing his technology – which includes the Ant-Man suit and a gooey liquid that can “alter the distance between particles” at will – to Iron Man’s dad, Howard Stark (played by John Slattery) and a S.H.I.E.L.D corporate goon (Martin Donovan).
Pym leaves his own company in disgust – fearing his tech is too dangerous to be released into the open – but 25 years later, new CEO Darren Cross (Corey Stoll, getting a juicy villain role) has made breakthroughs in mimicking Pym’s work, and is about to sell his new Yellowjacket suit to politicos including Donovan’s character, who now works for Hydra.
Pym – and not-too-estranged daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who covertly works for Cross – needs to find a way to subvert plans for the Yellowjacket. That’s where ex-con Lang, struggling to find a job and make things right with his daughter and ex-wife, comes into the picture.
There’s a loose and sometimes irreverent feel for the main character here, and Rudd brings the same kind of witty attitude to the role that Robert Downey Jr. brought to Iron Man, or Chris Pratt to Star Lord (Rudd is a little blander here, however – as if, in his first big action blockbuster, he’s shy go all out.)
As formulaic as it may be, it helps that Lang is primarily dealing with personal stuff rather than saving the world – his relationship with his daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson), and dealings with ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her new husband (Bobby Cannavale) are a nice respite from the overblown action of the most recent Avengers movie.
About the (not infrequent) action here: I really, really dug the contrast of viewing a spectacular fight from Ant-Man’s miniscule point of view, and then seeing the same action unfold from a normal perspective (a climactic sequence involving Thomas the Tank Engine is a blast). That’s the kind of inventiveness that elevates Ant-Man from being pretty good to something special.
Utilized primarily for comic relief are Lang’s partners-in-crime, a trio of would-be crooks played by rapper T.I and David Dastmalchian, who don’t make much of an impression, and Michael Peña, who’s a riot as the fast-talking Luis.
Ant-Man was originally developed for Marvel by UK filmmakers Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, The World’s End) and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block), who both receive a screenwriting credit on this version; Wright left the project as director late into pre-production over creative differences.
Nothing in replacement director Peyton Reed’s previous work would suggest he’s right for this material – past films include Yes Man, The Break-Up, and Down with Love – but it’s undeniable that he’s scored a hit here. I’d love to have seen what Wright might have delivered, but Reed’s version doesn’t leave me wanting.
While the same-ness of some of Marvel’s more recent features have led to diminishing returns – Age of Ultron was one of MCU’s weakest efforts, sez me, it’s refreshing to see a different approach. Last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy might have been the studio’s best flick yet, and Ant-Man isn’t that far behind.
Note: as usual with the Marvel flicks, stick around during (and after) the credits for a pair of extra scenes.