One of the biggest compliments I can pay Marvel’s Ant-Man is that I never once thought about what the movie would have been like if Edgar Wright had stuck around to direct. That’s a huge testament to the job Bring It On helmer Peyton Reed and star Paul Rudd (with a writing assist by Adam McKay) pulled off – spinning a fun, breezy, visually creative, and surprisingly emotional crowd-pleaser out of a quagmire of bad press, controversy, and an impossibly tight production schedule.
The fact that Ant-Man not only got made in spite of all the adversity, but that it actually turned out good is doubly delicious because Marvel Studios has once again destroyed the narrative pretentious and jaded thinkpiece writers have been attempting to foist on moviegoers ever since Nick Fury and Agent Coulson showed up in 2010’s Iron Man 2 to let us know “it’s all connected.”
They said The Avengers would never work due to clashing tones and an overabundance of characters. It went on to become the third-highest grossing movie of all time. They said “superhero fatigue” would set in and audiences would flee the multiplexes, but both DC and Marvel have projects like Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, Suicide Squad, Civil War, and Infinity War planned out to 2021, with no end to rabid fan anticipation in site.
They said Marvel’s winning streak would finally be snapped with the surefire flop of Ant-Man, a production caught up in a whirlwind of turmoil after losing a visionary auteur. These people had their agenda-driven hit pieces pre-meditated, pre-visualized, and I even believe pre-written in some cases, and Ant-Man gleefully spits in their faces.
The secret ingredients, as always, are strong character building and heart. Ant-Man adds Scott Lang (Rudd), Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and Luis (a riotously funny, show-stealing Michael Pena) to its pantheon of textured and vibrant personalities, fitting right in next to Tony Stark, Star-Lord, Captain America, Peggy Carter, Pepper Potts, Rocket, and the rest. Rudd’s casting here was a masterstroke; he has an immediate affability, and his facial expressions and straight man reactions to comedic situations are still unmatched by any of his contemporaries. (He also looks pretty damned good in that suit!) This skill set pays off in dividends anytime he shares the screen with his heist crew (T.I., David Dastmalchian, and Pena), who take him in after he’s released from prison and hope to immediately get him back to a life of cat burglary.
Rudd is at his best when he shares scenes with his daughter Cassie, played by the adorable and precocious Abby Ryder-Forston, lighting up the screen with her two missing front teeth and a sweetness that left me feeling like I had several cavities ready to be filled. Though the plot of well-meaning ex-con struggling to get his life back together and prove to his ex-wife and her new boyfriend that’s he’s responsible enough to be in his daughter’s life isn’t rife with originality, Rudd’s charisma and the overwhelming cuteness of he and Cassie’s interactions go a long way to making a moldy trope seem fresh; I couldn’t help but to root for Scott to become the hero his daughter saw him as.
Marvel Studios films have a history of peppering their movies with veteran actors to play villains (Jeff Bridges, Hugo Weaving, Robert Redford) or mentors/authority figures (Samuel L Jackson, Glenn Close, Anthony Hopkins), and this time around Michael Douglas does a bang-up job as one of the latter – the retired super-genius/ex-superhero Hank Pym, who created the shrinking “Pym Particles” and conducted daring missions in the ’60s and ’70s as the original Ant-Man, before hiding the technology away from the world after tragic loss of his wife, Janet. Douglas plays Pym as a haunted, frustrated, intelligent soul, but he’s never morose and he knows when to flash a playful side. Douglas demonstrates some nice chemistry with Rudd, mainly when delivering his profound motivational speeches, but it’s his relationship to his daughter that provides the real spark in his performance.
When Lilly and Douglas share scenes together, there’s a palpable sense of deep hurt radiating from both characters. Their dynamic is predicated on years of animosity and distrust – fueled by Hank’s overprotective instincts and his reluctance to admit the truth to Hope about what happened to her mother. Lilly—rocking the the classic ’60s pageboy hairdo of the Marvel comics character The Wasp—has much more to work with in Ant-Man than in The Hobbit films, where she played an ethereal but empty object of two men’s affections. Here she gets to kick ass, function as an intelligent businesswoman, and is clearly the more capable candidate to don the shrinking suit and carry out the heist. I won’t get into the reasons why that ultimately cannot happen, but Lilly is a crucial character with plenty of agency, and she continues to grow as an actress post-LOST.
As we’ve seen earlier this summer with Pixar’s brilliant Inside Out, the stakes don’t have to be world-ending in order to keep audiences rapt. The happiness of an eleven-year old girl can be just as compelling as Ultron dropping a city on the planet, and Ant-Man finds a happy medium between the two extremes – combining the sweet Daddy-daughter redemption tale and an intense heist plot with the end goal of keeping Hank’s genius, but highly dangerous piece of shrinking technology with world-altering implications out of the wrong hands. (In this case, Pym’s former protégé Darren Cross, who hopes to replicate the process for military purposes, naturally.)
Once Rudd is in the Ant-Man suit and shrinks down to insect-size, the film dazzles with creative macro-photography sequences that turn bathtub faucets into tsunamis, DJ turntables into revolving death traps, and the inside of briefcases into cluttered battlezones. It all culminates in an all-out special effects-laden superhero vs. supervillain battle waged on a Thomas The Tank Engine toy train set in Cassie’s bedroom, which might just be the best action sequence of the summer. It’s certainly the most fun. In fact, just about everything that happens in the movie once the heist kicks in is an absolute blast, filled with truly unique surprises that brought the house down during my screening.
One of the most joyful surprises in Ant-Man is how much you’ll find yourself falling in love with Scott’s ant pals who help him out during his training montage and in the third act action scenes. They come in all shapes and sizes, from tiny drones and fire ants, to huge carpenter ants and helicopter-like flying ants. The effects when Scott interacts with them are great, and the ways he puts their various skills to use are clever and fun. Also, ponder this for a moment: in Man Of Steel, Superman never once bothers to rescue a single human being in harm’s way, yet Ant-Man goes out of its way to show flying ants airlifting their grounded brethren out of danger during the heist, and there’s a death that left me thinking twice before swatting a bug away from my face again. It’s a small example with a bigger meaning – Marvel Studios films care about things like empathy and true heroism.
Ant-Man does struggle with shouldering the load of heavy exposition throughout the first act, but it’s the nature of the beast. There’s a lot of information to be communicated (Who Scott is, Hank’s past with the Pym particle tech, Cross taking over when Hope votes her father into early retirement, Cross explaining his plans to potential buyers, how the suit works, how the heist will go down, etc.), but thankfully, for the most part, it’s pulled off in a non-clunky way. The movie also has to deal with another underdeveloped villain in Darren Cross/Yellowjacket. Many Marvel Cinematic Universe films—especially origin movies—posit their villains as obstacles to overcome while the real fight is waged within the hero (or heroes’) own psyche. Corey Stoll is a tremendous actor and he chews the scenery well with a combination of nuanced creepiness and flat-out rage, but he’s still just the guy with the McGuffin in the way of Scott reuniting with his daughter and Hank reconciling with Hope.
Despite those bumps, Ant-Man triumphs thanks to the chemistry among the cast, the dueling father-daughter parables, and the dazzling and innovative special effects. (The opening sequence set in 1989 features a jaw-dropping de-aging of Michael Douglas. Gordon Gecko lives again!) While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of The Avengers or Guardians Of The Galaxy, it might be Marvel’s funniest movie to date, and it carries much larger implications for the MCU than I expected going in.