As we all know (and probably getting quite sick of hearing it) Marvel Studios have garnered quite the rep when it comes to risk taking, be it the initial hiring of Robert Downey Jr despite his salty past, to making a self loathing, space faring, talking racoon a star, they seem to relish challenging themselves when it comes to making ridiculous things not only successfully play on screen, but to be deliriously embraced by the general public like the second coming of Jesus. However, even for the MCU, Ant-Man looked to be a sizable step too far.
Despite being an original Avenger back in the comics Ant-Man has always been barely C-list which each person inheriting the mantel becoming more of an emotional dumpster fire than the last and a read through of the (to date) trilogy of Ant-Men’s personal problems reads like a who’s who of a Dr. Phil special – Domestic abuse, depression, schizophrenia, drug dependency, theft, sex addiction… Not exactly prime material for Disney to market to kids. On top of all that there was all the hoo-hah that happened behind the scenes involving original director Edgar Wright jumping ship and copious script rewrites… it’s no wonder everyone at the time was predicting Marvels diminutive ant rider as the studio’s first flop, which is a shame, because Ant-Man is actually pretty damn good.
So how did Marvel pull THIS one off?…
The answer’s actually pretty simple – just keep it simple – and, obviously, small….
Freshly emerging from prison for a Robin Hood style theft from his old, crooked company, Scott Lang is finding it hard to hold down a job and the lack of alimony payments means he can’t spend any time with his daughter. Failing to avoid going back to a life of crime he takes a tip from his friend Luis and he and his crew go to rob the crap out of some old geezer’s house only to find a strange retro suit and helmet, which he decides to swipe anyway. However, unable to resist the urge to try it on at home (ew, Scott!), Lang discovers that it gives the wearer the ability to shrink to ant size and finds the whole thing was a sting by Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man and current, bitter recluse, to recruit Scott in order to perform a heist on his old company. It seems that they’ve cracked the formula to replicate the shrinking “Pym Particles” that power the suit and are ready to mass produce the updated model, the Yellowjacket, to the highest bigger, so under the cynical eye of Pym’s daughter, Hope, they start working overtime to get a bewildered Scott up to speed and down to size…
Despite being the film chosen to close out the studio’s “Phase II” of movies, Ant-Man actually feels very “Phase I” (and luckily not Phase IV, which is an old 70’s movie about killer ants and therefore the geekiest in-joke reference I have ever made) with a redemption seeking hero, elder mentor, wacky team of hangers on, simplistic villain, slap stick training montage and literally EVERYONE cracking wise, it’s all there. It’s a welcome pallet cleanser after the gargantuan density of Age Of Ultron and while the familiarity does ease you nicely into the film and it’s funky, out-there concepts, it does mean that the first half an hour of the story is fairly standard fare.
It’s a good job, then, that Marvel’s casting arm once again earned their christmas bonus that year by amassing a stupidly likeable cast to walk us through yet another origin story. Paul Rudd works his usual magic as he (and his character) stumbles through this ridiculous premise with a likability factor that’s so huge he might as well be a sentient box of puppies while Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly glare at him from across the room. Flipping conventions and going with the second Ant-Man turns out to be a fairly neat touch too as it means that Douglas as the OG A-M, Hank Pym, gets to mercilessly berate his protege while the take-no-bullshit Lilly whups the tar out of him during training, but it’s Michael Peña, whose over excited, over stimulated and possibly savant, Luis steals the show with his genius motormouthed speech montages being are a genuine comedy highlight of the entire MCU – someone get this guy to narrate a history of the franchise, please.
Director Peyton Reed, the guy parachuted in to salvage the movie after Edger Wright’s exit, does a fine job keeping everything light and frothy but his main problem isn’t so much matching the quality of the rest of the MCU but besting the imaginary movie the Wright might have made if he’d stayed and for it’s first half Ant-Man is in danger of being maybe playing it too with it’s admittedly goofy premise – that is until a bravura scene featuring an accidentally and utterly doomed trip to an Avengers facility slams in a monumental gear change and the film roars home in breathless style with a juicy Marvel Team Up (featuring Anthony Mackie that devolves into a brawl in true comics, team-up fashion), heists within heists, double crosses, heart breaking ant casualties and size shifting smackdowns that rage right up to the end credits.
It’s a dizzying final third that proves that the concept isn’t so stupid as it first seemed with the shrinking stuff giving the action a legitimate extra dimention and meshes well with the slapstick-y nature you’d expect of a hero who saves the world by talking to ants.
Ah, yes… the ants – I don’t know if Paul Rudd ever had a desire to appear in the greatest positive press for ants you’ve ever seen since A Bug’s Life, but he’s nailed it as they’re so freakin’ ADORABLE!!! I’m not saying it’s gonna do for ants what Babe did for pigs, but watching these little buggers aid Lang in his hiests is an utter kick.
After fully realising not only Ant-Man, but the weapons grade weirdness of Guardians Of The Galaxy in only two years, it makes you wonder if there’s any concept of theirs that they couldn’t crack right now (Squirrel Girl, anyone?) thanks to the warm, fuzzy emotions they inject into all their characters, but Lang’s genuinely sweet relationship with his daughter grounds him in a way that you couldn’t do with Captain America or Thor.
A deadbeat dad Scott may be, but he’s also trying to be better and that makes him something far more important than an Asgardian God or a Vibranium Synthzoid. It makes him one of us.
Sometimes, lack of size matters