There is a marked tendency in superhero films to go big or go home. It’s understandable. Part of the thrill of these films is seeing people with extraordinary abilities face and defeat overwhelming challenges. An alien invasion or a killer robot army is much more exciting than seeing, say, Captain America casually walking down the street to do his grocery shopping. But what happens when you condense a story with global implications into one set in a single town with a cast comprised of ordinary people? You get Ant-Man, a pleasantly microcosmic superhero story.
Admittedly, wrapping a whole film around Ant-Man is a bit of a challenge in and of itself. Despite the first Ant-Man, Hank Pym, being the founder of the comic book iteration of the Avengers, he has little name recognition. For the uninitiated, Pym is a brilliant, yet emotionally unstable, scientist known for constantly changing his hero identity and also for hitting his wife, fellow superhero the Wasp. The film gets around this by focusing on the second person to use the name Ant-Man, ex-con Scott Lang, here played by Paul Rudd. Michael Douglas plays the aged Hank Pym, and there’s no wife to speak of (she disappeared before the events of the movie).
Pym recruits Lang to help him thwart the plans of Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), the man in charge of Pym’s company after Pym himself was ousted partially thanks to Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), Pym’s bitter daughter and senior board member of Pym Technologies. Cross is attempting to perfect a technology Pym worked on but kept hidden: a suit that shrinks the wearer to the size of an ant but increases their strength. Cross wants to weaponize the technology, which of course he does because this is a comic book movie and Cross is bald.
That sounds dismissive, but it really isn’t. Ant-Man is a film that not only traffics in superhero cliches, it thrives on them. The film was originally to be directed by Edgar Wright, a man who never found a genre he couldn’t freshen up. Wright never got around to directing, but most of his and Joe Cornish’s screenplay is still here (with additions by Rudd and Adam McKay). Wright was replaced by Peyton Reed, the man behind Bring It On and Down With Love, neither of which suggest big-budget summer blockbuster.
Reed is surprisingly up to the task, however. To be clear, he’s no Joss Whedon, but he definitely knows what he’s doing. He never does anything truly spectacular nor does he do anything truly off-key. Reed has the unenviable task of making audiences excited about a character whose main power is shrinking. It doesn’t sound flashy or dramatic, but Reed manages to make it not only visually arresting but even thrilling. Through a combination of macrophotography and CGI, Reed manages to create a brand new landscape for heroic adventures that’s as intriguing as Asgard.
The whole film, in fact, seems like a small story made large. Most of the film takes place in the same city, with only a handful of actual locations and focusing mostly on the four main characters. Compared to the massive casts and interplanetary backdrops of the previous films in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, it’s a change of pace that’s not only welcome but refreshing. It feels grounded and realistic in a way that the other Marvel films never were (not that that was a bad thing). Right from the opening logo crawl, the film separates itself from those that came before it. Instead of a symphonic drone opening on a foreboding villain’s lair, we get salsa music opening on a prison fight.
There’s a decidedly retro charm to the film that’s mostly apparent in the first act, with the exposition and character personalities established in sure, steady beats that are consciously, surprisingly earthy. Wright’s script knows it’s a comic book film and proceeds appropriately without ever pretending its anything else and without satirizing its target. That works both for and against the film, but mostly for. While it means that the film is unpretentious and flows well, it also makes it rather predictable. Chekov’s Law is in full effect, and there’s an overlong training montage that slows the film down midway through.
What elevates everything, though, is not the CGI or the stunts but the cast. The main characters have remarkable chemistry, and everyone is comfortable in their roles. Douglas shows hints of the anger and instability Pym is known for, but he doesn’t let it control his performance. His relationship with Lilly’s Hope feels real and palpable, which makes the rather unsubtle parent/child themes go down easier than they otherwise would. Rudd, with his unassuming and easygoing charisma, may have just usurped Chris Pratt as Marvel’s official charming rogue. Rudd doesn’t paint Lang with bold colors, but he’s very good with the palette he does use.
Ant-Man seems like an odd way for Marvel to close out Phase Two of its film cycle, sandwiched in-between the world-shaking superopera of Age Of Ultron and the sure-to-be-grim Captain America: Civil War, but it fits well enough in the Cinematic Universe while standing well enough on it’s own. It has more in common with a heist film than a superhero drama, and it features a character who spends half the film standing one inch tall. However, It’s deceptively exciting, genuinely funny, and has a nostalgic aura about it that harkens back to the campy/serious Jack Kirby days of Marvel Comics. In other words, it’s a lot bigger than it seems.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+