The Marvel comic book universe houses a trove of memorable heroes and characters that number in the thousands. Yet only its most famous faces have landed in theaters, namely Spider-Man, the Avengers, the X-Men, and so on. Even before their movie debuts, the names were ubiquitous.
So when Marvel train needs to keep chugging, they reach deeper into their trove, and that means putting out characters that a wide section of the audience isn’t already familiar with. The first attempt brought Guardians of the Galaxy, which sent seismic waves throughout pop culture and led to a direct spike in 70's music streaming. By any measure, Guardians was a roaring success.
The second attempt has brought us Ant-Man, the shrinking super hero with a sense of humor. Yet unlike Iron Man or Star Lord, the name Ant-Man doesn’t really strike fear of evoke wonder. If anything, it prompts a chuckle. How threatening could an Ant-Man actually be? As the film shows us, quite a bit, actually. And a team of writers uses this knowledge to craft a superhero story that humors as much as it excites, perhaps more of the former than the latter.
Today's man behind the mask is is con-man Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a well-intentioned thief who only takes in the trade to support himself, as he lives in a run-down apartment with three enablers: Luis, Kurt, and Dave (Michael Peña, David Dastmalchian, and T.I., respectively). His criminal record won’t let him keep a real job either, leaving him doomed to a criminal lifestyle. At least Scott can keep a sense of humor, which Paul Rudd plays to a T. Michael Peña contributes even more to the humor quota, making for a scene-stealing crack-up.
But to make matters worse, Scott’s lack of child support for his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) vilifies him in the eyes of ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and her new cop boyfriend Paxton (Bobby Cannavale). So when an opportunity for a big heist travels through the grapevine to Luis – portrayed with an incredibly funny lip-synced sequence, shot cleverly and edited fantastically - Scott can’t pass it up. It’s quite a deviation from the typical origin story in that out hero starts as a “bad guy,” even though Scott has the best of intentions in mind.
Scott’s tale presents lots of opportunities for self-aware humor and dialogue – so much that the writers decided to run with it all the way to the bank, much like how Guardians succeeded by doing the same. It may be billed as action and adventure, but Ant-Man turns out of be one of summer’s funniest hits, spearheaded by Rudd and Peña’s performances that never stop supplying guffaws.
This is not to say there’s a lack of action, as Marvel has always made sure there’s plenty of it. The aforementioned big heist was a setup by the aging Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) to find the right man for his own job: to steal a deadly weapon from CEO Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), one that could revolutionize warfare for worse.
As avid comic readers already know, Dr. Pym is the creator of Pym particles, which decrease the distance between atoms while increasing their mass. He used his own secret formula to become Ant-Man unbeknownst to the rest of the world – with the exception of Cross, a former protégé of Dr. Pym’s who has since worked relentlessly to replicate the formula. And he pursues it in the name of using his groundbreaking weapon, the Yellowjacket – a suit with massive destructive capabilities, and the target of Dr. Pym’s proposed heist.
With the idea of a superhero constantly shrinking, Ant-Man was long considered an unfilmable story in the fifty-plus years since the character’s comic book debut. But when equipped with advanced visual effects, director Peyton Reed seamlessly blends the two worlds and effectively transitions between them without sacrificing any of the movie’s charm and humor, both of which compose the Ant-Man ethos. The audience knows exactly how ridiculous the premise is, and so Ant-Man uses that to its advantage.
Even for all of its laughs and thrills, one wonders if Ant-Man exercises its full potential, much like many of its Marvel brethren did. Scott Lang only takes over as Ant-Man because Dr. Pym is too protective of his grown-up daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly) despite her being exceptionally more knowledgeable, qualified, and combat-ready than the comparatively goofy Scott. So instead, Hope is relegated to a sideline role who’s only there to train Scott and provide some emotional support. Perhaps Ant-Man could have been an infinitely more riveting tale had Hope been at least somewhat more pivotal to the plot, instead of merely being subservient to Scott and Dr. Pym. The result is a movie that lacks the narrative punch that is essential to the Marvel brand, and therefore feels like it could have been much more.
There’s certainly enough substance and humor in Ant-Man that merits praise, but when stacked up with what Marvel has already brought to the table – and with what’s still to come – the movie feels only slightly underwhelming, as if it were merely an episode, or just another item on Marvel’s to-do list. Ant-Man doesn’t soar as highly as other movies, leaving it up to future Marvel releases to pick up the slack.
Written by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and Paul Rudd. Directed by Peyton Reed.
Starring Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll, and Evangeline Lilly.