Though being a formulaic Marvel superhero origin tale, Ant-Man gets a boost from a good ensemble cast and an overall tone of fun and creativity from director Peyton Reed.
Ant-Man first takes us back to the Cold War-era version of the MCU, where Peggy Carter, Howard Stark and their allies worked for the early version of S.H.I.E.L.D. alongside a brilliant scientist named Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). Pym made a once-in-a-lifetime discovery called "The Pym Particle," which allows one to shrink the size of organic matter without sacrificing density or strength. After a tragic accident involving his wife Janet, Dr. Pym retired from his days as a costumed soldier for S.H.I.E.L.D., cutting off all access to, and research of, the dangerous Pym Particle.
Cut to present day, and Dr. Pym's perennial fear finally becomes a reality: his former protegé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) has discovered the research Pym sought to bury, and is close to replicating it in full. With his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lily) working undercover for Cross, Hank puts together a brazen plan to infiltrate his own company and steal The Yellowjacket armor, a deadly battle suit that would be transformed into a veritable WMD by Pym particle tech.
However, Hank is old and Hope too valuable to risk, so after careful research and testing, Dr. Pym decides to place his faith and training in a new recruit - one to replace him as the legendary covert operative, Ant-Man. Enter Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a convict cat burglar with a Robin Hood complex, who has an estranged young daughter he needs to reconnect with. With the Pym family's help, Scott embarks on a wild adventure to learn the powers of the Ant-Man (and then put his own personal twist on them) in order to save the day.
Coming in the massive wake of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man is supposed to serve as a suitable MCU bridge piece that is also a suitable standalone origin story for a character generally more mocked than he is loved. Though being a formulaic Marvel superhero origin tale, Ant-Man gets a boost from a good ensemble cast and an overall tone of fun and creativity from director Peyton Reed. With a few MCU cross-connections (no pun) peppered in, Ant-Man also manages to close out Phase Two of the MCU in suitable fashion, introducing an action-packed Phase Three to come.
It is an inevitable part of the Ant-Man movie's legacy to wonder "What If?" in regards to the production troubles that led to longtime writer/director Edgar Wright leaving, and Peyton Reed (Yes Man) taking over the helm. However, Reed makes Ant-Man a fun cinematic experience in his own style, employing some wonderfully creative ideas and smartly relying on ensemble chemistry to carry things in between action set pieces - choices Wright may or may not have made. Reed has a history of balancing lighthearted comedy with more dramatic ideas (The Break Up, Yes Man), and he pretty much nails that balance on the bullseye with Ant-Man.
Helping bolster things are script revisions by Paul Rudd and Adam McKay (Get Hard), which take what were likely inspired comedic superhero ideas from Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish (Attack the Block) and fit them into the more family-friendly mold of Marvel-brand entertainment. Having Rudd in front of the camera helps the actor carry the comedic rhythms through the movie's more dramatic moments, bringing balance and relief to heavier elements like the Hope/Hank Pym reconciliation story with well-timed everyman charm that is Rudd's claim to fame.
Ant-Man is at its absolute best when the "Marvel movie" gives way to the "Peyton Reed/Paul Rudd comedy" flick, featuring Rudd bouncing banter off straight-faced Michael Douglas, or the supporting trio of Rapper T.I., Dark Knight actor David Dastmalchian, and Michael Peña (Fury). Peña in particular is a major scene-stealer as Scott Lang's prison buddy/fellow crook, Luis, helping to advance the movie's plotline with funny monologues that Peña spins into gold. As a heist comedy, Ant-Man is a smashing success, and that well executed humor is a lot of the reason why the movie, overall, outshines the plasticized look and feel of a generic Marvel origin film.
As for the actual superhero story: Ant-Man is pretty much a generic and formulaic Marvel superhero origin tale, with three acts and the usual story developments that leave little to surprise. While there is a lot of MCU history and future that is built upon the foundation of this film, so much of it is underdeveloped or unexplored in the movie. In short: Ant-Man's MCU connections feel somewhat extraneous, bringing us back to the usual issue of a movie divided between its own voice and storyline, and serving as a brand-friendly Marvel movie launchpad.
On paper that should be a recipe for a dud of a film - but again, Ant-Man gets unexpected boosts that help it over the hump (ant hill joke). The key "wow factor" is in Reed's presentation of the "Microverse" - aka the world as seen from the Ant-Man's tiny point of view. Reed and his team of visual artists take the Honey I Shrunk the Kids concept and really highlight how far film technology has come in presenting engaging and visually stimulating concepts of being miniature. The shrinking sequences in the film are creatively rich and interesting to watch, and actually justify the process of post-conversion 3D.
In three dimensions, visuals like enlarged dust particles or the intricate details of enlarged objects all feel that much more convincing, and draw the eye into the scaled diorama world Ant-Man inhabits. Fight scenes with the shrinking powers are handled equally as well, offering alternately funny and horrific concepts of what battles between dangerous miniature soldiers would be like. The drawback is that - like so many Marvel origin films - the features of the heroes's powers are offered in careful (read: budgeted) measure, as if box office returns are required first, before more elaborate sequences will be paid for in sequels.
While the supporting cast has some real standouts (the aforementioned comedic trio), Ant-Man also makes little use of a lot of good actors, including Judy Greer (Married), Bobby Cannavale (Nurse Jackie), Wood Harris (The Wire) and Corey Stoll (House of Cards) - the latter of whom is handed yet another thin and generically evil Marvel villain to play (attempts at Shakespearian family drama aside).
Bringing actual weight to the film is Michael Douglas, who (with dialogue, emoting, and little else) manages to make Hank Pym a standout character, worthy of the long Marvel Comics history behind him. Douglas' Pym is a figure of interest that can be explored in future MCU stories (set in present or past), and his gravitas rubs off well onto Evangeline Lily (The Hobbit), who gets to play out a much richer family drama, so that her character has depth and personality worthy of her forecasted future within the MCU (Marvel fans know where she's headed....).
In the end, Ant-Man is as silly a hero as many people speculated he would be onscreen - but he's also fortunate enough to be in the hands of a director who embraces that silliness, and makes it work to the film's advantage. Those looking for the next critically acclaimed or blockbuster-level superhero event film will be underwhelmed by this Marvel movie. But those longing for a more simple and traditional superhero origin flick will find that Ant-Man has enough distinctive elements to make the overly familiar feel somewhat fresh. Big fun from a small hero.
Ant-Man opens in theaters July 17, 2015; Captain America: Civil War – May 6, 2016; Doctor Strange– November 4, 2016; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – May 5, 2017; Spider-Man reboot – July 28, 2017; Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017; The Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 – May 4, 2018; Black Panther– July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel – November 2, 2018; The Avengers: Infinity War Part 2 – May 3, 2019; Inhumans – July 12, 2019.
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