Much like the titular hero, Marvel’s latest superhero film does something new for the studio: it goes small. Ant-Man is less a traditional superhero film and more of a heist film in a superhero’s uniform. Rather than focusing on some grand scheme for world domination, the plot relies on an inventor who convinces a thief to steal and destroy a knockoff of his technology before the wrong person gets their hands on it. And after the grand chaos that dominated Marvel’s Phase 2 slate of films, particularly this summer’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man is a welcome respite.
Ant-Man stars Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, an ex-con with a heart of gold who is stopped from visiting his daughter until he can start making child support payments, something that seems impossible when he gets fired from fast-food jobs for his record. Lang eventually agrees to join his former cellmate/current roommate Luis (Michael Peña) for one last job, which involves breaking into a vault inside the home of a reclusive tech millionaire. That millionaire, though, happens to be Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who years before worked alongside S.H.I.E.L.D. as a superhero named Ant-Man. In short order, Lang finds himself roped into a scheme by Pym and his somewhat estranged daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), to break into the headquarters of the company Pym founded to stop Pym’s protégé-turned-duplicitous successor Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) from recreating the Pym Particles (the discovery that allows Ant-Man to shrink) and mass-producing an Ant-Man knockoff suit as a weapon.
Serious Marvel fans will know about Hank Pym’s importance to the overall Marvel universe in the comics, and the film hints at that importance here, most notably in the film’s opening scene. The scene is most notable for the shockingly realistic work done to make Douglas look younger, and given that Douglas was at his career peak in the 80s, the work of the visual effects team manages to succeed in a way rarely seen in this type of work (in other words, this is not a case of Jeff Bridges made to look younger in Tron Legacy). Pym is also a complicated figure in Marvel’s history, and while the film doesn’t delve into some of the specific issues surrounding the character, Douglas brings a particular weariness to the role that suggests a complicated life.
The preproduction time on Ant-Man was extensive, and was marred by the departure of original director Edgar Wright, who worked on the film for a decade before departing just prior to the start of filming. Even though he stepped down as director, his fingerprints are all over this project; Wright and co-writer Joe Cornish are still listed as screenwriters, alongside Adam McKay and Rudd, who provided significant rewrites following Wright’s departure. In any case, the film feels like a departure from previous Marvel films. While other Marvel films have had healthy doses of humor (most notably last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy), Ant-Man leans a bit more heavily on Rudd’s particular brand of humor. In Rudd’s hands, Scott Lang is essentially Tony Stark with a little more heart and without the smarminess. Many of Rudd’s funniest moments have an improvisational quality to them, which likely comes from McKay and Rudd’s contributions. Other, more complex visual gags, like the montages that accompany Luis’ overly convoluted explanations for simple stories, fit more in Wright’s signature style. To the film’s credit, both styles manage to work.
Most notably, the film is rather simple in its structure, which allows for Ant-Man to build progressively over its runtime. This allows the film to keep its stakes relatively low-key, and for personal stakes to dominate the film. Even with Cross, who’s not substantially more developed than most Marvel villains, the little details that come out about his personality and motivations make him more interesting to watch than most MCU villains not named Loki.
Ant-Man is a quietly important film for Marvel, especially in its positioning between the mammoth Avengers: Age of Ultron and the sure-to-be gargantuan Captain America: Civil War. That the film’s major battle mostly takes place inside a child’s bedroom shows that the major battles that have dominated Marvel’s films to date, especially the rest of its Phase 2 slate, aren’t the only way Marvel can bring a film to a resolution. Ant-Man is a successful entry into the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, and proof that there’s still room for some variety in superhero movies.