If you are even slightly pop-culture literate, you’ll know that Ant-Man was going to be directed by Edgar Wright, from a script by him and Joe Cornish; it was a project that Wright had been developing for several years, only to leave at almost the last minute due to ‘creative differences’, to be replaced by the less stylistic Peyton Reed, and with a script polish by star Paul Rudd and Adam McKay (who has written and directed many funny films with Will Ferrell). The question of ‘What if Edgar Wright had directed Ant-Man?’ hovers over the film – like a winged ant, perhaps? – but it doesn’t detract from the solidly entertaining product that has been made in his absence (he and Cornish still get a writing credit, suggesting the bulk of the film was based on their original script).
The most impressive aspect of this film is that it demonstrates the ability of the Marvel studio to consistently create entertaining films starring properties from the comic books that jump between genres and provide a satisfying movie. Ant-Man has never been a successful character – despite being one of the original Marvel heroes from the 1960’s Kirby-and-Lee explosion (there’s a nice nod towards Ant-Man’s original book, Tales To Astonish, incorporated into dialogue early on in the film) and one of the original Avengers, Ant-Man never had his own series, and his main attribute (Hank Pym created Ultron) has been passed off to Tony Stark in the MCU (thankfully, the MCU has ignored the other main attribute, the spousal abuse, because that would have been terrible and it’s not something the comic books should continue with). These factors mean that the cinematic Ant-Man has a clean slate, but it also means that there is no (urgh) franchise awareness, beyond that of Marvel studios itself.
The success of this film is that it does what other successful Marvel films have done: take an established film genre and put a superhero twist on it. Captan America: Winter Soldier was a conspiracy thriller; Guardians of the Galaxy was a space opera; Ant-Man is a heist caper. After a brief flashback to 1989, when an airbrushed Michael Douglas (as Hank Pym) quits SHIELD (cameos for Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter and John Slattery as Howard Stark) because of the misappropriation of his Pym particles, the story returns to the present. Scott Lang (Rudd) is released from prison for his burglary (not theft – he didn’t use force) of money from corporations and giving it back to the people the corporations stole from. He can’t get a permanent job because of his prison record, and he needs a regular income so that he can pay alimony to his ex-wife so he can see his daughter Cassie on a regular basis again. Therefore, he turns to his former cellmate, Luis (an hilarious turn from Michael Peña, who steals scenes with his fast-talking shtick, particularly where he’s relating a story and the camera flashes to a montage of the events, with all the other characters in the montages speaking in the same voice-over as Peña provides), who has a tip for a simple breaking and entering job.
Meanwhile, Pym has been invited to his company’s headquarters, where his former protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), announces that he has discovered Pym’s old research and successfully recreated the shrinking formula, which he will sell in the form of a suit, the Yellowjacket, to the highest bidder who wants a tiny army. His daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), still works at the company – despite a rift between her and her father due to the death of her mother (the real story for which isn’t revealed until later in the film), she knows that Pym particles in the hands of a dangerous man will be catastrophic, and is trying to help her father. Hank wants to steal the formula and destroy the Yellowjacket – what he needs is a certain kind of thief …
What follows is a fun initiation into a crazy world, as Lang steals the suit (because Pym wanted him to), then Pym and Hope train him to fight as the Ant-Man, learn to use the size-changing powers he’ll need, control the ants as his helpers, and discover the hero within by infiltrating the heavily guarded corporate headquarters and stopping Cross. The shrinking scenes might have been more dazzling in the hands of Wright, but Reed does a good job of making them visually entertaining – having the ability to shrink and revert in an instant is a dynamic visual, used for wonder at the small scale and for laughs at the reversion. Rudd is perfect as the everyman trying to do his best for his daughter, with some lines that sound so Rudd-like, you can’t imagine anyone else saying them (it helps being a co-writer). With McKay on board, the film is very funny – I’m sure it was funny in Wright and Cornish’s script, but I think McKay’s time on Saturday Night Live and with Ferrell are responsible for a lot of the big laughs. There is emotional content as well, with the parallels between fathers and daughters.
The casting, another area Marvel excels in, is perfect across the board – Douglas is in fine form as Pym, spouting scientific gobbledegook one minute and one-liners the next, and seems to be having a grand time in the role; Lilly is good as his daughter who can take care of herself; even Abby Ryder Fortson as Cassie is a delight. Stoll is suitably threatening as the use-and-dispose villain (another part of the Marvel approach), but proceedings are softened by Rudd’s grounded charm and Peña’s scene stealing. Add to this the connections to the Marvel universe (a cameo from a new Avenger that I’m guessing wasn’t part of Wright and Cornish’s script), a mention of the Avengers’ destructive antics, the obligatory Stan Lee appearance, a throwaway line about a ‘guy who can climb on walls’, and two scenes after the film has ended, one a coda to the movie (with Hope saying, ‘About damn time’) and the other a teaser for the next Marvel movie, and you have another polished package from the studio that can’t do wrong at the moment. Fun, funny, entertaining, exciting, occasionally dramatic, visually spectacular – when a finale involves a cut between the shrinking world and the real world where the size doesn’t have the impact you think it would, and you laugh out loud at the sight of a massive Thomas the Tank Engine, you know you’ve been Marvelled.