Marvel’s new picture, Ant-Man, was one of those troubled productions, and we’re probably never going to really find out what went on. All we really know is that writer/director Edgar Wright left the film last year nearly on the eve of the start of principle photography. His script was re-written by the film’s star, Paul Rudd, and Anchorman director Adam McKay. Journeyman director Peyton Reed was brought in to take over the film, and I’m sure a lot of what wound up on screen started in Wright’s original ideas. In fact, Wright and Joe Cornish get "story by" acknowledgement in the final credits.
Of course, the Edgar Wright fans went nuts, but now we’ve got an actual movie to see and if they are able to look at it with a certain degree of objectivity (and that may very well be impossible when it comes to fan of any stripe), Marvel’s done a pretty bang-up job of pulling Ant-Man out of the fire. Being far more overtly comedic than Marvel’s other movie from this summer (the flawed Avengers: Age of Ultron), Ant-Man feels like a much more kindred spirit to last summer’s surprise hit, Guardians of the Galaxy, though Ant-Man doesn’t quite match the confidence James Gunn brought to Guardians. In other words, despite the turmoil going on in the background, the final film of Phase II makes a surprisingly graceful landing.
Like Guardians last summer, Ant-Man sees Marvel once again pushing one of their lesser-known characters to center stage and making it work. Reed has found a really great balance for this film tonally; it’s aware of the ridiculousness of its premise but never winks at the audiences too much or gets so glib that the audience doesn’t invest in what’s happening. It’s easily Marvel’s most overtly comedic film to date, and I mean that as a high compliment. There are some big, big laughs in Ant-Man.
If The Winter Soldier’s filmic template was the paranoid, 1970s espionage thriller, then Ant-Man’s skeleton is clearly the heist movie. Paul Rudd stars as Scott Lang, and, when we first meet him, Scott is being released after spending three years in prison. Scott has recently dabbled in some corporate espionage, stealing money from the giant company he used to work for and electronically sending that money back to the customers the company had ripped off. His heart was in the right place, but his prison sentence has cost him his marriage and his relationship with his daughter.
Scott vows to go straight once he’s out of jail, but he gets pulled into the orbit of Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a retired science genius who once carried the moniker Ant-Man. It seems that Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who took over at Pym’s tech company, has been obsessed with recreating the legendary Pym Particle, a tech that allows for organic matter to shrink to the size of an insect. Cross has just cracked the tech and is getting ready to sell it to the baddies at Hydra, which could plunge the world into total chaos.
Pym recruits Scott and his crew of thieves (led by the spectacular Michael Pena) to steal the tech before Hydra can get their hands on it.
It’s not uncommon in comics for various characters to take on the mantle of the same hero. For instance, Marvel has announced that Miles Morales will be the only Spider-Man in print going forward when they reboot their series in the fall. There have been multiple Flashes, Green Lanterns, and Robins among others. So, this if the first time Marvel has attempted a second generation origin story, and they’ve pulled it off mostly smoothly. They have to cover the backstories of both Lang and Pym, and they have to explain how the Pym Particles work in addition to explaining what the Quantum Zone is. They have to explain how Scott will be able to control actual ants. That’s a fairly enormous amount of exposition, and the second act does get a little bit baggy from multiple scenes of people standing around and explaining the plot to each other.
The Marvel films have a tendency to lag a little in the third act, but Ant-Man really takes care of that problem. Yes, it does come down once again to two guys in magical suits fighting each other (by the end Cross has become Yellowjacket), but it’s an enormously inventive and satisfying conclusion. Part of the fight takes place inside a briefcase that is falling from a helicopter, and the big, final set piece takes places among the toys in Scott’s daughter’s room.
With the exception of Loki, Marvel still hasn’t cracked their villain problem. There’s no doubt Stoll is a very charismatic actor, but Cross is a wildly underdeveloped bad guy. This seems to be a pattern with their films. One of the huge disappointments for me with the Avengers sequel was how unremarkable Ultron was. Darren Cross is very nearly the carbon copy of Obadiah Stain in the first Iron Man picture, though he never bellows “I built this company!” during the climax. Maybe we’re going to have to wait for Thanos to give us a proper villain, but the film would be quite a lot better if the antagonist were a whole lot better.
In the past several years, Rudd has done a lot of comedy, but he’s a real actor. He’s very funny here, but he also takes on the mantle of a superhero with ease. He owns the movie effortlessly, and you can tell he’s going to fit into this world like a glove. I already mentioned Michael Pena as Luis, one of the guys in Scott’s crew. He’s genuinely hilarious here, giving real comic support. I’ve written about how incredibly annoying a lot of modern comedy relief supporting characters can be, that they just “act funny” and never seem to be engaged in the events of the story. (I’m looking at you, Fat Amy!) Pena is an actor that can do anything, whether it’s comedy like this or something as deadly serious as End of Watch. I hope they signed Pena to one of those famous Marvel nine-picture deals, because he needs to come back very frequently.
At the end of the day, you’d never tell that Ant-Man was a troubled production. It’s as cool as a cucumber and terrific summer fun. MCU fans know the drill, but stick around for two post-credit scenes.