Flush from the unprecedented series of successful movies based on their comic book titles, Marvel Studios has been emboldened to start making movies on their lesser known characters, the first being Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Its surprise commercial and critical success paved the way for Ant-Man (2015), a character created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby, and who first appeared in Tales to Astonish #27 as the superhero alter ego of a brilliant scientist. Anticipation was high for this movie when it was announced that filmmaker Edgar Wright, responsible for beloved cult movie hits Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007) among others, would be directing and co-writing it. However, a few months before principal photography began, Wright abruptly left the project over the dreaded “creative differences” excuse, which temporarily threw it into limbo. Peyton Reed, known for comedies like Bring It On (2000) and Yes Man (2008), replaced Wright raising more than a few eyebrows and leading to speculation as to what kind of movie he would make. The casting of Paul Rudd, known mostly for appearing in comedies, also seemed to suggest that there would be considerably more humor in Ant-Man than in previous Marvel movies.
Skilled cat burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has just been released from prison after years for breaking and entering and grand larceny. He tries to go legit for the sake of his daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson), getting a job – albeit briefly – at Baskin Robbins and quickly gets fired in an amusing scene. Meanwhile, reclusive scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is trying to keep his invention of technology that allows one to shrink to the size of an insect a secret because S.H.I.E.L.D. tried to appropriate back in the day.
His protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) has spent years trying to figure out how Pym achieved it and is very close to perfecting it himself with the plan of developing a potential army of soldiers wearing suits with this technology and then selling it to the highest bidder (i.e. Hydra). Believing Cross to be dangerous, Pym seeks out someone to utilize his Ant-Man technology and stop Cross. As luck would have it, Scott owes child support and is desperate to find work in order to prove he’s responsible. He agrees to pull a burglary with ex-con pal Luis (Michael Pena) and his fellow ex-con roommates in a nicely orchestrated set piece. Scott uses his considerable skills to bypass various security systems in a house that turns out to be Pym’s residence.
Scott finds the Ant-Man suit and puts it on, accidentally discovering what it does when it shrinks him down to the size of an insect in his bathtub. As a result, it now looks like a massive reservoir and the simple act of turning on the water is like a massive tidal wave to Scott. This sequence is a marvel of seamless special effects as we see Scott bounce from landscape to landscape that includes the surface of a vinyl record, a rug and a vacuum cleaner. It turns out that this has all been an audition, of sorts, planned by Pym who has been watching Scott for some time. He comes to Scott with a deal: go back to prison or work with him to stop Cross.
Casting against type, Paul Rudd is excellent as Scott Lang, balancing his character’s desire to be reunited with this daughter and the fun action stuff, especially when Pym’s daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lily) trains him to fight. Rudd is believable as one of Marvel’s trademark flawed heroes in need of redemption. He also brings his considerable good-natured charm to the role, which only enhances how entertaining and enjoyable he is in this movie.
Michael Douglas is quite good as a veteran scientist also looking for redemption to be a better father to his daughter. He also provides the required pathos as Pym is wracked with guilt and regret over losing his wife to the Ant-Man technology. Much like with Robert Redford in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), it is nice to see a veteran actor of Douglas’ stature having fun and cutting loose in a big budget comic book superhero movie like this one.
In the scenes where Pym mentors Scott, Douglas and Rudd play well off each other as the former plays straight man delivering the necessary exposition dialogue that explains who he is and what his technology can do while the latter is the audience surrogate, acting appropriately (and hilariously) incredulous when confronted with all this incredible technology. Honed on countless comedies, his reaction to a few of the amazing things he experiences is priceless.
Corey Stoll brings just the right amount of gravitas and menace required for the stock bad guy role. The actor tries hard to give Cross some depth and provide compelling motivation for his character’s actions. There is an attempt in the screenplay, and with Stoll’s performance, to show Cross’ descent into madness the more power hungry he becomes.
There is something pretty cool about seeing Scott running alongside a vast army of ants or running along a barrel of a gun. The final showdown cleverly juxtaposes an epic battle on a small scale – a children’s train set – but the stakes couldn’t be more dramatic. Most interestingly, Ant-Man introduces the existence of the Microverse, a dimension that exists on a sub-atomic level thereby leaving the door open for the possible introduction of The Micronauts much like Guardians of the Galaxy ushered in the notion of the cosmic portion of the Marvel Universe.
Ant-Man is a heist movie/superhero origin story combination that utilizes the same story structure as Iron Man (2008): a cocky, ne’er-do-well utilizes experimental technology to defeat a rival with the same tech only with a decidedly lighter touch and more heart. The movie is full of the kind of colorful visuals we’ve come to expect from Marvel with a nice blend of humor, exciting action and characters that are easy to root for and others to root against. The visual effects are incredibly rendered and beautifully realized as you would expect. For the most part, a movie with so many cooks in the kitchen is surprisingly coherent with only a few jokes failing to hit the mark, but it is far from the disaster some feared. In the end, Ant-Man manages to tread a fine line between openly acknowledging the absurdity of its concept (the ability to shrink down to the size of an insect) and telling a rousing story about redemption. After the decidedly darker tone of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Ant-Man, with its bright colors and more freewheeling vibe, comes as a welcome palette cleanser of sorts before we head back into more serious fare with Captain America: Civil War (2016).