Like the eventual passing of a storm, or the first refreshing spring morning of the year, the clouds have parted and the future’s looking positive. Birds are tweeting. Squirrels are chasing one another along the tree branches and mercifully, for the first time in what feels like a very, very long time, a Marvel film hasn’t concluded with something massive falling out of the goddamn sky. Honestly, it feels like a new day. Marvel couldn’t possibly have kept it up of course. Earlier this year, Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron felt like the apocalypse of superhero movies; the moment when the whole thing reached critical mass. In a move that felt self-aware, all of the superheroes and a city fell out of the sky. End game. In the wake of that movie – which was pretty decent overall – one could only imagine exhaustion. Whatever came next was likely to suffer. And it’s not as though the prospects for Ant-Man were rosy.
Famously suffering the departure of Edgar Wright as director (though he still takes an exec producer and co-writer credit), Ant-Man has been completed by Peyton Reed, a dependable if uninspiring hired hand whose most prominent prior feature is, err, Bring It On. Wright’s popularity with multiple corners of internet fandom meant his exit was felt keenly, and the assumption since has been that whatever Ant-Man we get will be something of a compromised salvage operation. Full credit to Reed then for wrangling this troubled entity into – I’m calling it – one of the best movies Marvel have put out yet.
The secret? Keeping things small.
Though admittedly bogged down at times with a heavy load of exposition (really one of the only main flaws in the film), Ant-Man introduces us to ex-con Scott Lang (Paul Rudd). Newly out of the joint and back among the living in San Francisco, Lang is having trouble holding down a job thanks to his sketchy past (a Robin Hood-style spot of burglary). What’s worse, his strong attachment to his daughter is threatened by his ex-wife Maggie’s (Judy Greer) distrust. That, and the fact she’s shacked up with cop Paxton (Bobby Cannavale). Looking for an easy answer, Lang lapses back toward the criminal life, thanks to his bubbly, instigating roomie Luis (Michael Peña). Little does he knows that he’s but a fly caught in the web of scientist extraordinaire Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas).
Pym needs an accomplice. Someone to do his dirty work for a higher purpose. Said dirty work is the theft of some revolutionary technology from his protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), whom Pym quite rightly distrusts with such awesome power. Said power is the ability to re-size soldiers in a special suit that he’s developed. Technology Pym realised decades earlier but hid from the world. In Pym’s own special suit, Lang will be the ‘Ant-Man’; a miniature hero, just as Pym himself once was, albeit to great personal cost.
It might sound like a bit of a baggy set-up, but the film bounces through the plot points with relative ease, keeping the momentum firing forwards at all times. It’s a welcome tonic for the Marvel cinematic universe to try its hand at the heist formula, and the script mines the situation for smart character moments as well as plenty of humour. When operating in this mode it cleaves closer to the brand of comedy found in Gunn’s Guardians than it does Whedon’s well-known wise cracking, making Ant-Man feel like the whip-smart underdog of the family. It’s an immensely likeable feature.
As much as the core of the movie is Lang’s attachment to his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Forston), a second paternal relationship backs this up; the one between Pym and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly). Capable as she is, one might well ask why Pym doesn’t just have her replace him in the suit. Don’t worry, the film addresses this one, right from the heart. Once that’s taken care of, we’re into training montage mode as Lang learns the ropes of switching sizes and commanding armies of ants (insert more exposition here). And yes, there is a lot of explaining required, but the film keeps it as entertaining as possible. Showing rather than telling where it can, and always with that injection of humour keeping us going. The script is wryly aware of internet nitpickers. One of Lang’s first questions when Pym presents him his task is… why not just call the Avengers?
And, sure, the film does tilt to that particular windmill slightly, allowing Anthony Mackie a little more time in the Falcon suit. But wisely this is first and foremost an origin story, and the film keeps it’s central dramatic problem suitably sized. So it’s set-up and pay-off. The second hour sees the heist go awry (somewhat predictably), before pirouetting into a hugely enjoyable final act. Reed enjoys playing with perspective in these scenes; getting in close for the kinetic energy of micro-sized combat… only to zoom out to reveal how implausibly silly it looks from a more fully grown vantage point. And if these are remnants of the work set in place by Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, Reed has realised them with aplomb. Its time to stop bemoaning the film we could’ve had and start celebrating the film we’ve managed to get.
Because there’s an awful lot to love here. Rudd is a dependably cocky and charismatic lead. Douglas makes his way through a mass of exposition and still finds time and energy to build a character around it, while Peña manages to make the clownish sidekick routine seem amiable all over again. The cast is really an embarrassment of riches, with even small roles trusted to familiar, seasoned professionals (the aforementioned Greer and Cannavale, as well as the likes of Martin Donovan and Joe Chrest). Around all of this Christophe Beck swirls a score that feels indebted to the fun family sci-fi features of Spielberg and his 80’s foot soldiers. This is a tea-time adventure that sits as comfortably in a multiplex as it will at home on a Saturday evening.
A post-film sting tips us that things are going to swing back to the serious for Captain America: Civil War (stay in your seats, guys ‘n’ gals), but for now Ant-Man is riotously better-than-expected. A character-driven caper that’s just the right size. And any film that borrows liberally from the Coffy soundtrack is all right by me. Oh, and for one of the film’s finer jokes, you may want to (re)familiarise yourself with The Cure’s “Disintegration”.
Ant-Man then. This summer’s most enjoyable movie now that Mad Max: Fury Road has started to disappear into the distance. Although, spoiler, there’s a corker coming our way next weekend. Until then, thanks, ants. Thants.