Superhero comic books are a spandexed smorgasbord of different tones, themes and art directions, so it only makes sense that superhero comic book movies should follow suit. Except that they really haven’t though. Despite telling stories ranging from snarky techno-thrillers to pulpy WWII adventures to kooky space operas, Marvel Studios has developed a bit of a reputation for producing homogenous fare (Just count how many movies boast a third act with a portal in the sky while a giant ship/vehicle descends on a city). Luckily, they’ve also now made Ant-Man.
A huge – but tiny – breath of creative fresh air in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ant-Man proves that heroes don’t need gigantic world-ending stakes to stand tall. There are no Infinity Stones, no purple skinned cosmic despots mentioned here. Sometimes your “tales to astonish” can just be about breaking into a place and stealing some stuff.
Which is exactly what erstwhile scientist/ex-secret hero Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) requests of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a down-on-his-luck ex-con who just needs a break in life so that he can take care of his daughter. What Pym needs the gifted thief to steal is the Yellowjacket, a dangerous new piece of technology developed by Pym’s unstable genius former-protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), and based on designs that Pym intentionally hid from the world years ago as a precautionary measure. And to enable Lang to pull off his crazy heist, Pym gives him his secret weapon: the Ant-Man suit.
Infused with Pym Particles, the Ant-Man suit allows the wearer to contract the spaces between their atoms, i.e. shrink to a tiny size. The wearer’s mass still stays the same though, but with all the kinetic energy compressed down to a fraction of normal, it gives the wearer super-strength when shrunk down. In other words, get ready for a really teeny tiny guy tossing around and knocking out normal sized men like the world’s most pumped-up insect (“Can you even lift up to 50 times your own body weight, bro?”). Ant-Man also definitively answers the question of “Him and what army?” by being able to control different types of ants for different tasks through a tiny device he wears behind his ear.
As silly as all that may sound though, it looks incredible on-screen and makes for some really creative heist sequences and action beats. Director Peyton Reed (Bring It On, Down With Love) also makes wonderful use of macro-photography and other clever visual tricks to really play up the ginormous size discrepancies between Ant-Man and the rest of the world to amazing effect. Combined with some dazzling 3D effects (which should look great on IMAX), Reed makes Ant-Man a mini visual marvel.
And while I usually try my damndest to keep my reviews hermetically sealed from Hollywood politics, it’s almost impossible to talk about Ant-Man without having its topsy-turvy production tainting the conversation. You see, in a way, Ant-Man was technically supposed to be the start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Developed by fan-favourite auteur Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs the World) since before Marvel would even begin working on 2008’s Iron Man, Ant-Man had originally been envisioned as a standalone superhero feature, skewed with Wright’s trademark creative wackiness and zest.
Once the MCU was established though, Wright’s Ant-Man was pulled into the shared-universe fold, and kneaded into a shape that fit in better with Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige’s grand design over the next decade or so. When Wright exited the production though at the 11th hour last year – apparently over just one too many kneadings – it left Marvel in a tailspin, until they got Adam McKay (Anchorman, The Other Guys) on board as a replacement. Except he then turned down the director’s chair to rather co-script with lead Paul Rudd, leaving the seat open for self-confessed comic book fanboy Reed to eventually claim it.
I mention all of this, because you can clearly see the different creative fingerprints of each of these men on Ant-Man‘s final product, and it’s a testament to their individual talents that it all works so incredibly well, instead of being the discordant mess you may expect from varied creative visions being smooshed together.
The film’s snappy editing, offbeat musical cues and hilarious dialogue exchanges are vintage Wright; Rudd and McKay inject their trademark dry and wry flavour into the humour, a departure from the rapid-fire snark we’ve become used to in the MCU; and Reed holds it all together with copious amounts of palpable heart and emotion. Most of the latter being engineered from the film’s elegantly touching theme of paternity, which seems to permeate through out its framework – the strained relationship between Pym and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), the volatile air between Pym and his failed prodigal “son” Cross, and the unbound love of Lang for his daughter Cassie that motivates all his actions – irrespective of which side of the law they fall on.
And all of this drama is sold by emotionally resonant performances, with Lilly and Douglas especially clawing deep to handle the bulk of the “feels”. Rudd doesn’t need to do as much emotionally, but nails the leading everyman role, despite his sudden acquisition of a heroic six-pack. The usually reliable Corey Stoll does occasionally get a bit hammy with his jilted child soliloquies though, but luckily never enough to distract fully. But out of the entire great cast, it’s Michael Pena as Lang’s former cellmate Luiz that is the breakout here. With immaculate comic timing and gut-busting delivery of some of the film’s biggest laugh-out-loud moments – helped by some of the best use of the voiceover that I’ve seen in ages – Pena proves himself once again to be as adept at stealing scenes as Scott Lang is at stealing superpowered shrinking suits.
But to return to Ant-Man‘s production woes, if there’s one place where I would have preferred to see what Wright brought to the table instead of Reed, it would be in some of the film’s action choreography. While a number of the film’s action beats are great conceptually, they do occasionally develop that modern filmmaking problem of becoming digital white noise, just lacking that eye-popping madcap inventiveness that Wright so often uses to punctuate his sequences. While what Reed does is certainly good, you just feel that there is room for it to be even better.
But even with that slight, there’s no denying that Ant-Man is a gigANTic success – sorry – and, most importantly, it achieves this success without being reliant on external continuity. Besides for one thrilling action beat and a few lines of dialogue peppered throughout the script, Ant-Man feels almost wholly separated from the rest of the MCU. It’s a standalone adventure whose elements can influence the rest of the universe and not the other way around, which makes it pretty unique in Marvel’s stable. It’s also just an incredibly entertaining tale full of equal parts hijinks and heart that’s one of Marvel’s best.
PS: Make sure you stay seated for both the film’s mid-credit and end-credits scenes!
Last Updated: July 30, 2015