Many expected Ant-Man to be Marvel’s first flop, but instead it debuts to strong reviews—and is arguably the best Marvel Studios movie yet, because it puts story and humanity ahead of action and special effects, which the higher-stakes suite of Avengers-related films can’t seem to do. Co-written by Edgar Wright (originally slated to direct), and directed by Peyton Reed, the film manages to treat emotion as more than a checkbox of story beats, and goes for quirky creativity rather than hyperkinetic bombast (which was part of Joss Whedon’s playbook before he inheriting mega-budgets and high studio expectations).
Ant-Man, the tale of a shrinking superhero, brings a smaller scale in every possible way. It’s not about saving the world. The stakes are such that technology that could really ruin the planet is on the line, but it’s about one pathetic, righteous ex-con stopping one slimy corporate profiteer. And he does it with one aging scientist who is weighed down with professional and personal regrets. Which brings us to the other smaller scale at play here: The human one.
Paul Rudd is an ex-con who got arrested for what amounts to a criminal act of social protest. He’s estranged from his ex-wife and daughter, which is made more difficult because his ex is dating a cop. Rudd has weird, criminally inclined friends that feel like low-grade Elmore Leonard characters, and he can’t hold a job. Rudd stumbles into the high-tech world of Hank Pym, inventor (and suppressor) of the Ant-Man shrinking technology, and must become the hero to stop the potentially devastating weaponization of that tech. Which Rudd is willing to do, but all he really wants is the side benefit of clearing his name enough to get back into his daughter’s life.
While Rudd is following that emotional goal, Michael Douglas’s Pym not only must stop his tech from being weaponized—he’s also gotta repair his relationship with his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly) who has been estranged from him ever since Pym’s wife and Hope’s mother died in some kind of plane crash. Again, a decent emotional journey. And while it’s inevitable that some potential spark of attraction might arise between puppy-eyed Rudd and the cooly feline Lilly, it’s not central. It could be argued that Evangeline Lilly isn’t given enough to do, but at least what she’s given isn’t “designated love interest.”
On the other hand, I didn’t love the bad guy, Corey Stoll’s Darren Cross, but Stoll eagerly goes through the limited motions that the script lays out. He’s basically Jeff Bridges from the first Iron Man, only less so. (Consider: Aren’t we all “less so” than Jeff Bridges, when you come down to it.)
A failing of the film is that its tone is sometimes off, particularly how it tries to use a lot of comedy to keep things light. It’s uneven, and the jokes are often too familiar. In the second act, there’s a scene between Douglas and Lilly where they’re finally dealing with their years of emotional pain and estrangement, talking to each other for two minutes on the edge of tears. It’s the most powerful moment in the film … until an off-camera Rudd comments on how powerful a moment it is, and then says, “Oh, did I ruin it?” That old, self-aware joke often lets filmmakers deliver potentially melodramatic levels of emotion while undercutting the scene enough to say, “We filmmakers are too cool for sappy emotion.” Would’ve been better to let the actors act.
But occasional slips like this are minor compared to the overall pleasure of the film. Most importantly, the human stakes and lesser reliance on explosions and bullets makes the film accessible to slightly younger audiences and the kinds of civilians who might go for the occasional action film but are not excited by superhero films as a matter of course. This film pitches a bigger tent, in other words, which is also something Guardians of the Galaxy tried to do, but for my money was too frenetic with both action and lame humor to succeed. (But I’m also dead sure I was harder on that film on first viewing than I would be if I ever gave it a rewatch.)
The great value is the sheer creativity. The film has fun with Ant-Man’s powers, with what the world looks like at half an inch tall (wish there’d been more of that), and goes out of its way to make the action light and surprising. The final fight takes place in a suburban home, and yet is more fun, with more originality, than the much grander scenarios of the other Marvel flicks.
Admittedly, Paul Rudd is not quite as perfect in his role as Robert Downey Jr. is in his, but Rudd comes across as someone you’d like to hang out with–and whose flaws you’d forgive–which is not something I’m inclined to say about any of the Avengers, who never feel quite so accessibly real.
The movie closes with a promise of Ant-Man’s return somewhere in the Marvel universe, and with a teaser that points to exactly what any reasonable person would want from Ant-Man 2. I hope they make it soon.