After Edgar Wright quit ‘Ant-Man’ a few weeks before filming, the internet kicked up a big fuss. The news immediately transformed an exciting take on an obscure Marvel property into a controversial project that most nerds assumed would be the beginning of the end for the studios’ superhero blockbuster dominance. Now that the film is actually here, the good news is that it’s an absolute blast.
Paul Rudd stars as Scott Lang, a charmingly likable doofus in the Paul Rudd mode. He’s a robber by trade and really good at it, but he’s determined to turn his life around and go straight despite rooming with his criminal buddy Luis (Michael Peña) who has “goodhearted bad influence” written all over him. When an unfortunate attempt to take a job at Baskin Robbins quickly falls apart, Lang agrees to help Luis and his gang pull off a suburban robbery. Everything goes well except for the fact that the secret underground safe doesn’t contain a vast fortune, but some sort of strange suit that looks suspiciously like a superhero costume.
It turns out that Michael Douglas’ Hank Pym set the whole thing up as a sting operation/audition. You see, the suit is something special he designed years ago that transforms the wearer into a tiny super-powered crimefighter that can control ants (don’t ask). His shrinking technology is about to be adapted by the dastardly Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), and he needs someone to break into his old company and steal it back before it falls into the hands of HYDRA. Pym and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), who’s jealous that she won’t be wearing the suit herself, train Lang to become the Ant-Man for a big ol’ heist.
So… yeah, it’s a superhero origin story, which we’ve all seen far too many times before, but also a superhero heist movie, which hasn’t really been done before. (Screw you, ‘Suicide Squad’! You’re too late!) That combination of the overly familiar and the pleasantly surprising kind of defines the movie as a whole, which rapidly slingshots from feeling like a funny and fresh spin on Marvel formulas as well as yet another trip down the well.
The best aspect of the film is likely Rudd, whose combination of leading man charm with comic self-doubt works perfectly for the first Marvel hero with a significant self-esteem problem. (The Hulk doesn’t count because he’s pretty confident when he gets all “big green meanie.”) Given that the generally funny Marvel Universe doesn’t have an overtly comedic hero beyond the one-man sarcasm factory that is Robert Downey, Jr., Rudd should fit in quite nicely.
Surrounding him, Douglas grounds the story like an old Hollywood pro, much as Robert Redford did in ‘The Winter Soldier’ last year. Lilly serves up plenty of spunk and spark, and provides a nice little love story that never goes too far. Peña almost steals the entire movie away as a delightfully dumb sidekick. Only Stoll feels like a weak link, but not so much through any fault of his own as much as his underwritten character feels tacked-on by the Frankensteined screenplay.
Therein lies the biggest problem with ‘Ant-Man’, which anyone paying attention to the behind-the-scenes struggles last year could have spotted from a mile away. The issues that led to Wright walking out right before production were all related to script tampering by the studio, and this movie sure bears the marks of that. The humor hops back and forth from the fast-paced visual and verbal punnery of Wright to the slacker improv style of Rudd and his writing partner Adam McKay in a ways that often feel awkward. Likewise, some subplots are underdeveloped, like Lang’s broken family life or the somewhat confusing motives of the villain. For the most part, the consistent laugh rate, thrilling set-pieces in miniature, and forward momentum of the heist plot keep things pumping fast enough to push aside those problems. However, as the movie stumbles toward setting up its big action climax, a mishmash of tones, disconnected plot threads and awkward tie-ins to upcoming Marvel projects almost completely derail the whole movie.
Thankfully, it all comes together for one of the most satisfying climaxes in a Marvel movie to date. While director Peyton Reed might have faced an unenviable task in replacing Comic-Con hero Edgar Wright at the 11th hour and having to cobble together various versions of the script during production, he nailed the thrilling tiny spectacle. After a surprisingly patient 40 minutes of character and world-building, the first shrinking action scene shoves the hero down a drain and onto a spinning record for some genuinely magical comic book spectacle. By the time Ant-Man fights off the villain on a miniature trainset in a suburban bedroom, it’s clear that this character offers exciting new possibilities to the Marvel Cinematic Universe beyond the usual CGI threats from above. In fact, the combination mini-action with genuinely hilarious character comedy is so strong that it’s easy to ignore the moments that fall flat or the unfortunate white-washing of the backstory between Hank Pym and his wife that would have made for a far more compelling and disturbing third act twist, which certainly seems like it was part of this movie at one point.
It’s hard to watch ‘Ant-Man’ without pointing to sequences (like a Thomas the Tank Engine toy action scene) that clearly came from Edgar Wright and imagining that all of the movie’s failings might have disappeared in favor of more visual invention with him in charge. However, that’s a dangerous game to play. Until someone leaks his original screenplay, there’s no way of telling exactly what ‘Ant-Man’ could have been. All we can do is appreciate the ‘Ant-Man’ we got. Thankfully, it’s one of the most breezily entertaining Marvel movies to date, if not one of the best.
In fact, the movie works so well that it’s a little annoying to walk out of the theater knowing that a sequel that could smooth over all these problems isn’t part of the studio’s plan for the immediate future. Still, at least it’s a relief that the project didn’t devolve into disaster like so many bloggers feared. ‘Ant-Man’ is far better than anyone could have imagined a movie based on the obscure comic book character would be. This is ultimately another victory for Marvel. Given all the pitfalls faced by the production, it’s also confirmation of the continued strength of the studio rather than a sign of its imminent demise.