I don’t know what it is about Marvel Studios, but when they’re faced with bringing a little-known comic book to life, they seem to over-deliver. Think of last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy: other than hard-core comics fans, not much of the general movie-going audience had heard of the rag-tag group of space ruffians (including a talking raccoon and a tree alien). More than a few writers floated the idea that it could be one of Marvel’s first failures. And yet the movie ended up being one of the most fun and relatable entries in the entire Marvel movie pantheon. (Hang on, just going to put “I Want You Back” on blast.)
Likewise with Marvel’s latest effort, Ant-Man: even the hero’s name suggests that he’s not a top-tier Avenger. It sounds old-fashioned and gloriously campy, a holdover from 1950s B-movies that featured giant animatronic creatures on wires.
But the top people at Marvel seem to know this, and they appear to have set out to directly counter any cynical moviegoer’s gripe that Ant-Man’s abilities aren’t as cool as those of Iron Man, Captain America or Thor. To make up for the lack of name recognition, the studio has crafted a film with enough self-deprecating jokes and visual gags to help the character make a quick impression, and indeed, to help you forget about some of film’s actual weaknesses.
In the same way that Guardians was Marvel placing a space western within its growing universe, the genre of choice for Ant-Man is the heist film. We’re introduced to Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a wisecracking burglar - not robber, he’s keen to point out - who recently been let out of prison after a three-year term. Lang is a Robin Hood sort: he only picks his targets from lists of rich people who’ve done wrong, but still can’t prove to his ex-wife (Judy Greer) that he’s fit to spend time with his daughter. I guess the whole vigilante justice racket doesn’t scream “stability” to your average suburban mom.
Naturally, a benefactor steps in to guide Scott’s nascent crimefighting. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) was the original Ant-Man during the Cold War, using technology he invented to shrink himself down and gain impressive strength and stealth abilities, as well as control over ants (though not bees, which seem cooler to me). Pym is worried his former protegé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) has learned to replicate Pym’s work and sell it to criminal elements, and so enlists Scott to master the Ant-Man suit and break into a high-tech facility to stop Cross’ plans of giving the bad guys (i.e. HYDRA) a scary new weapon.
The first thing you should know about Ant-Man is that despite all the dialogue devoted to mastering the commitment and focus to work with the ants, the insects in the film basically serve the function of magic. Need something difficult done, like covering a security camera or frying a server facility? No worries - there will be oddly large numbers of just the right kind of ants (stinging, flying, even electrically conductive) crawling from impossible places to help you. But if you can accept the abundance and effectiveness of these creatures in the film, you’ll have no trouble enjoying the film’s other flights of fancy.
The strongest material in Ant-Man is the visuals, and how the film uses them to tell jokes. This might go without saying for a lot of superhero films, but there’s something noticeable in the timing of the gags and how they juxtapose images that feels like part of Edgar Wright’s remaining influence on the movie. Even though Wright left the project a year ago citing creative differences, there’s a wryness to the humour that feels distinctly British, and the new director Peyton Reed, to his credit, seems to have done a good job smoothing over the rather chaotic event of a director leaving a film mid-production.
Together, Wright and Reed dream up sequences that shift from awe-inspiring new landscapes (from a shrunken Ant-Man’s perspective) to surreal moments like a Thomas the Tank Engine toy being zapped to the size of a real train, and sent crashing out of a bedroom into the street below. The cleverness also extends to certain portions of the script, my favourites being Michael Peña’s scenes as Scott’s sidekick. Peña works a surprising amount of depth into Luis, especially when he defuses the “dumb best friend” stereotype with casual references to attending wine tastings - “There was a rosé that just saved the day, man!” - and exhibitions of abstract expressionist art.
But where Wright and Reed’s comic timing and visual flair carry large portions of the movie, it’s on the dramatic end where they do fumble a few times. The relationship between Hank Pym and his equally brilliant daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) is painfully fraught - until the plot requires it not to be. Similarly, Darren Cross is very broadly sketched as the villain, and his decision to don the Yellowjacket suit feels less like a natural choice and more like the screenwriters setting up an scenario to force him into it. What’s worse is when Cross starts monologuing at several points, as though he’s been watching Scott for a long time, and suggesting there’s a lot more about the character that the screenwriters forgot to include.
Despite those weak spots, Ant-Man is becoming one of my new favourite introduction films in the Marvel universe. It set out to prove why those who don’t know Ant-Man from the comics should care about the character, and to get excited for what he might contribute to future Avengers films. It establishes its own sense of humour and visual style, one that offers a different perspective - not just on the microscopic details that Ant-Man can see, but on the Marvel universe itself. For now, Ant-Man can look in and comment on the other films in the series, which may be the new hero’s greatest ability of all.
Ant-Man gets three stars out of four.
What did you think of the latest Marvel film? Is Ant-Man a worthy member of the team? Or do you think that the troubled exit of Edgar Wright left us with an incomplete movie? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!