The major complaint leveled at the current crop of Marvel movies (aside from a tendency towards shallow villains and the overstuffing of movies with set-ups for other movies), is about the large, city smashing, collateral damaging stakes of the exploits. While Daredevil and Age of Ultron addressed that first issue, Ant-Man feels like a movie made squarely to challenge that last one. The joke about smaller stakes in Ant-Man have been made by other critics for good reason: while Ant-Man is a superhero movie about families and fatherhood. It also happens to be a breezy and fun heist flick. That helps too.
The plot: Released from prison, burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has trouble holding down an honest job to help pay child support for his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) To make ends meet, Scott reluctantly accepts a job from former cell-mate Luis (Michael Peña) to break in to the home of reclusive scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). Instead of finding cash, Scott finds a suit that gives him the ability to shrink in size. Rather than press charges when Scott break back in to return the suit, Pym recruits him to steal a prototype suit based on Pym’s research currently being developed by Pym’s former protege, and all-around skeevy dude Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), which he intends to sell as a weapon. With the aid of Pym’s daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), Luis, and Luis’s crew (T.I. and David Dastmalchian), Scott Lang must become Ant-Man, steal the prototype Yellow Jacket suit, and prove to his ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer!) and her cop fiance Paxton (Bobby Cannavale) that he can make good for once in his life.
While there’s no shortage of cameos in Ant-Man, it pulls off the incredible feat of being an insular story within a sprawling and ever-expanding cinematic landscape. Where other films in the Marvel canon tend to lose their characters in climactiv set pieces, Ant-Man keeps things grounded through and through by focusing on characters, and specifically around families. Cross’s Yellowjacket suit promises to be a dangerous and easily abused power if it falls into the wrong hands, but the real danger is in strained family relationships. Scott Lang and Hank Pym are both dads trying to salvage their relationships with their daughters; all of their actions, good and bad, are ultimately in the service of that goal. Nominally, the stakes are in retrieving the MacGuffin from the baddie, but the emotional investment is in watching Ant-Man past and present trying to heal familial wounds. As the dialogue states perhaps a bit too directly, Hank and Scott draw on one another to improve themselves, in the process creating a mentor-student bond that adds texture to Scott’s showdown with Pym’s former surrogate son Darren Cross. Like last years Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man is successful in large part due to the strength of its characters and the ways they interact with one another, creating both traditional and non-traditional families. Writers Adam McKay, Joe Cornish, and (original Ant-Man director) Edgar Wright craft a likable cast and manage to make secondary characters that, for the most part, feel as fully realized as the leads.
Of course, it helps matters that the cast itself is pretty great. I haven’t met them, but I assume there are people in this world who do not like Paul Rudd, and that fact fact keeps me up at night.* His casting sent some internet nerd circles into a kerfuffle, but it’s a role so well-suited to Rudd’s sensibilities that it’s hard to imagine anyone else in his place. Rudd plays Scott Lang as the sort of affable everyman trying to navigate being a hero in a world where the Avengers are an established presence that’s prevalent in a lot of Marvel’s recent batch of quirky solo hero titles. His run-in with Falcon (Anthony Mackie) plays like the sort of classic comic crossovers that fill-in the world in the characters, without loading them down with setup for other projects.
Michael Douglas’s cranky, world-weary Hank Pym is a great take on a character with a complex history. Hank Pym’s comic counterpart has a lot of baggage that’s hard to separate from the character**, and the version Douglas portrays plays the role with a defensive air, masking hurt under a the guise of an old crank.
Evangeline Lilly brings her best to a role that feels shockingly underwritten in comparison with her co-stars. Despite a greater sense of agency than some other female leads in the Marvel Universe, her role feels too defined by her relationship to Scott, Hank, and Cross rather than by her own actions. Darren Cross also feels pretty weak in comparison with some of the other villains in the MCU. Not particularly bad, Corey Stoll’s unstable science jerk feels vanilla in a year that gave us Marvel Studios’ most fully realized villains yet in Wilson Fisk and Ultron.
Director Peyton Reed isn’t much known for action, but still manages some of the tautest superhero action of recent memory. Aided in part by the choreography originally intended for Wright’s version of the film, the action is clear and concise, using changes in size in creative ways, including a memorable final battle. Even before Scott finds the suit, Reed shoots the film with the slickness the heist genre demands.
In many respects, Ant-Man feels like a movie designed to refute the claims of people who don’t like Marvel movies. Character-driven and tightly plotted (but still suffering from weak characterizations of women and villains), Ant-Man is as close to the opposite side of the spectrum from Age of Ultron as one could expect from a massive superhero blockbuster. Like the best of Marvel’s recent books, Ant-Man manages to tell a human-scale story in a cosmos-spanning universe.
*Sure, the coming Marvel Civil War stuff is exciting, but can someone fast-track an Ant-Man/ Starlord buddy hero movie? Can the movie be mostly Rudd and Chis Pratt high-fiving each other?
**One that will still color how people view the character, despite the film’s differing backstory.