Bet you didn’t think Ant-Man would be the better of Marvel’s theatrical offerings this year.
Hey, are we the good guys? Feels kinda weird.
Hey, you want to know why Ant-Man works? Why it’s a better film than Ultron? Come here. No, closer. Right over here.
Now that’s a good joke, and we should all laugh, and even if I’m the 800th person to tell it that doesn’t make it less true. Now, Ant-Man isn’t a great film. It’s clunky and flat in places, for reasons I’ll get to. But it’s a more satisfying experience than the behemoth that Joss Whedon dropped on us back in May, and it’s because the fate of the world isn’t at stake. Because the cast is small (ha ha, I did it again!). Because the film’s climax takes place not inside a collapsing skyscraper or metropolis, but in a little girl’s bedroom. Ant-Man is light on its feet, and zips past you before it overstays its welcome. It doesn’t expect anything more of itself than to be a fun little diversion before the next Supertrain comes rumbling by.
It’s really more of a throwback to Phase 1 of this Marvel cinematic adventure, when each successive installment wasn’t jockeying to be the Biggest and Most Awesome, but was content to be its own thing. Which was… fine! Competent, entertaining filmmaking. Back before we were drowning in mythology and getting dozens of new characters foisted on us, before we had to think about how each film connected to the next one and the one across the galaxy from it, the original Iron Man (for example) felt breezy and casual. You didn’t feel the cogs of machinery grinding, because there weren’t any.
In short, Ant-Man is at its best the more dispensable it feels.
That’s a weird contradiction, I know. And we have to face the elephant in the room: we’ll never know what Edgar Wright’s version of this story would have looked like, or felt like, but we do know it doesn’t matter now. It’s done. It’s over. I was absolutely devastated when he left the project; Wright is one of my top five (maybe three) favorite working directors, and Ant-Man had been gestating for nearly a decade — pre-dating the MCU as we know it. There were no Avengers then. But Marvel/Disney, in their infinite wisdom, knew they’d have to connect Scott Lang to their ever-growing troupe somehow, like a corporate Thanos collecting Infinity Gems, and that’s where Wright — who envisioned a self-contained story told in his style, not Marvel’s more connect-all-the-dots house style — balked.
How much of Wright & Cornish’s DNA remains in the script is open to debate; I’d like to think that the zippiest moments, like where Michael Peña tells stories third- and fourth-hand while actors lip-sync to him, were in the original draft. Same for the better action sequences, like that incredibly funny aforementioned climax — according to interviews, Wright’s storyboards were occasionally kept intact. (In fairness there’s one great fight scene with a specific Avengers connection, but I won’t spoil it.) I certainly don’t bear any ill will toward director Peyton Reed, who walked into a bad situation — with fans poised to hate whatever he produced — and managed to not screw it up any further.
So forget what might have been. What about THIS Ant-Man?
At its core, its a heist film. I’m a sucker for a good heist film — I love the Ocean’s trilogy, Inception, even Mark Wahlberg’s The Italian Job. Their beats are familiar, even comforting. You get your requisite montages, your fake-outs, your betrayals, your fake betrayals, and the moment where everyone stands in front of the Bellagio fountain and stares wistfully into the middle distance. I eat that stuff up. Ant-Man has most of those things; for what it doesn’t, that screen time goes to tying this story into the MCU, with a handful of cameos and awkwardly injected scenes that exist only to lay pipe for Stuff That’s Coming Later. When Ant-Man has to go Full Marvel, it drags. (I will never, ever complain about seeing Hayley Atwell on screen, even in old-age makeup, but her scene didn’t tell us anything we couldn’t have figured out later.) When it’s free to be its weird self, it’s unlike any of its brethren.
It helps that Wright left a totally game cast in place: as Scott Lang, the noble cat burglar/ex-con (he only stole from evil one-percenters, see), Paul Rudd is sufficiently charming, if understandably hesitant to take any risks. He’s gifted with expressions, but spends most of the film in a helmet. So it goes. Faring better is Evangeline Lilly, in a dark Velma Kelly bob as the daughter of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the scientist who invented the shrinking suit and has entrusted Lang with it. Douglas probably saw venerated names like Robert Redford, Ben Kingsley, and his old friend Glenn Close in previous installments and realized it was an easy and fun paycheck (or, more likely, he didn’t watch), but he takes the whole thing as seriously as you’d hope. Corey Stoll is great as Darren Cross, Pym’s former protégé who is about to unveil his own tiny-soldier breakthrough and sell it to — yep, Hydra. We’ve come to expect heightened seriousness from our Marvel villains (we’ve also come a long way since “TONY STARK BUILT THIS IN A CAVE!”), and his easy naturalism is a breath of fresh air. You don’t like him, but you get him.
The film’s best element, however, has been all-but-hidden from the advertising, and that’s the trio of Michael Peña, T.I., and David Dastmalchian as Lang’s mostly-reliable crew. Peña in particular is a miracle as Luis, walking away with every scene he’s in, and turning every line, however mundane, into a laugh line with unpredictable timing and inflection. Even as the on-screen action bends more toward Mission: Impossible than Ocean’s Eleven, when Reed cuts away to Peña or the others you actually don’t mind it. This is a film where Paul Rudd can control great hordes of ants with his mind and flies on the back of one like it’s Avatar or something, and I’m still eager to see how his crew is bumbling along with their parts of the mission. That’s the mark of a good heist film.
Speaking of the ants themselves, all of the scale effects work surprisingly well. When Lang puts on the suit, a bathtub becomes the size of the Grand Canyon, and a toy train the size of an actual train; Reed’s camera does some nifty perspective tricks to make you buy in immediately (look at the dust particles!). Scott’s insect buddies — four different species, which he must take pains to learn — can build, move things around, even zap electrical circuits. Entomophobes should maybe stay away, but for the less squeamish, the big, hairy close-ups of the critters are actually pretty cool, as Lang runs alongside a wave of them like Chris Pratt with his velociraptors. And like that film, it totally works in context.
If Ant-Man has a secondary theme, just to show that it can, it’s about fathers and daughters; Lang is eager to redeem himself in the eyes of his, whose childhood he missed much of while behind bars. Pym argues with his daughter Hope about bringing Lang into their scheme, and about giving him the suit instead of her when she already can control it, and about what actually happened to her mother. That’s largely uncharted territory for Marvel, which has been more concerned about sons (Tony Stark, Thor) while limiting the emotional spectrum of its female characters. And while Lilly could stand to have more to do, the script (credited to Wright, Cornish, Rudd, and Adam McKay) actually moves the ball forward in that regard, even if it can’t help itself from goofily undercutting its big emotional moments.
There was no way Marvel was going to top its one-two punch of last year’s Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy; I certainly hoped they wouldn’t fall quite this far in 2015, but they could have fallen so much further. And when it manages to shake off the cookie-cutter approach to world-building, the affable Ant-Man actually beats the lowered expectations of this superhero-fatigued, bitter Edgar Wright fanboy, by — of all things — aiming small.
I knew I could get one more bad joke in there.
**ONE MORE THING: If you’re invested in the overarching saga, stay to the end of the credits. All the way.**