Angels Camp, CA…Ant-Man is the final film in the so-called “Phase 2” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Phase 3 will begin with Captain America: Civil War in just under a year), and it might be one of their riskiest undertakings so far. Having becoming accustomed to the spectacle of the Avengers battling to save the world, will audiences accept a more lean and down to earth film? While the answer will depend on the viewer, the film definitely brings Phase 2 to a close on a relatively high note, with director Peyton Reed and screenwriter Edgar Wright (best known for his 2010 adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) infusing the film with real heart and humor. Although Wright famously left the film just after shooting began, the finished film comes together mostly undamaged by its troubled production.
In basic terms, the film has the most in common with Guardians of the Galaxy, insofar that both of them are action-comedy films, heavy on the comedy, based on relatively obscure heroes. The difference is this: while Guardians was a surprising hit, after the success of it, it’s safe to say that no one expects Ant-Man to fail. And though Guardians concerned itself with cosmic threats and the ongoing story arc about the Infinity Stones, Ant-Man’s plot has more in common with the first Iron Man. It’s a simple, no frills plot that focuses on a small core cast. There are no Norse gods or hulking green rage monsters here; no cosmic force from the stars menaces the planet. It’s just one guy, his shrinking suit, and an army of ants.
The plot, in a welcome change from recent films, is easy to follow for newcomers. While there are few overt references to other events in the Marvel universe such as SHIELD and HYDRA (including one cameo that won’t be spoiled here), the action takes place in the fairly mundane location of modern day San Francisco—although unlike the recent Terminator Genisys, which was also set in the Bay, Ant-Man avoids the familiar landmarks aside from a few establishing flyover shots.
Paul Rudd stars as the titular superhero, an ex-thief named Scott Lang. Lang, upon being released from prison, is approached by inventor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who created the “Pym Particles” that enable the suit to shrink (while increasing the user’s strength) and wore the suit on missions against the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War. Pym, along with his adult daughter Hope (played by Evangeline Lily, fresh off her role in The Hobbit trilogy), recruit Lang and his crew of thieves for a heist against Pym’s former protégée Darren Cross (Corey Stoll from House of Cards), who schemes to create a weaponized version of the Ant-Man suit codenamed “Yellowjacket.”
What follows is the obligatory training montage, which—along with the other scenes explaining Scott’s backstory and skillset—takes up a surprising amount of the film’s two-hour running time. Thankfully it’s all a joy to watch, with the computer-generated ants being the highlight of the film. The suit’s shrinking technology looks cool and allows for unique and exciting action scenes that make the mundane seem fantastical, with the highlight being a miniaturized fight scene that takes place in a briefcase. The filmmakers even manage the incredible feat of making the ants have distinctive personalities (for those wondering, the ability to control ants is hand waved as using “pheromones”). The ant scenes owe a lot to the classic comedy Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, but the effects have been updated and look better than ever.
The cast is game for all of this. While the characters initially appear somewhat rote and flat—anyone who’s seen a film before can chart Scott’s character arc within the first ten minutes—the film lends them a bit of depth. Paul Rudd is primarily a comedic actor and he delivers his deadpan lines well here, but he also plays the quiet drama scenes with understated grace, as Scott’s desire to redeem himself in the eyes of his young daughter really shines through in a human and believable way. Behind a bushy goatee, Michael Douglas (who allegedly starred in the film so that his kids could watch it), has an excellent rapport with Rudd and plays the aging hero with the kind of heart that you’d expect from him.
While Evangeline Lily is well cast, her character lacks the development of Scott, and not even her ridiculous bob haircut (a reference to the comics) can make her interesting, although her dialogue is well written and she has fun with the role. Corey Stoll, meanwhile, who played his role on House of Cards with tormented gravity, is sadly one-dimensional here as Darren Cross. Cross, who is a somewhat minor character in the comics, is reimagined here as a scheming villain who is so visibly evil that one almost expects him to subvert it. That said, Stoll plays the bad guy role well and becomes a surprisingly commanding presence when the climax arrives. The standout, however, is the criminally underrated Michael Peña as Scott’s best friend, who is the comedic center of the film and steals ever scene he’s in; his delivery is side-splittingly funny.
The characters make an interesting contrast from a movie such as Jurassic World, whose characters were flat and underwent no development at all. In a comic book movie, however, the characters can afford to be seen as flat archetypes (as superheroes are often designed as stock characters), and in Ant-Man they really grow into complex people, although not too much. Even Peña’s character, the stereotypical best friend, shows unexpected nuance in one late scene.
Ant-Man is not a perfect film by any means. While it’s lean and simple, the film feels incredibly rushed (which may be a result of the production of it meshing a lot of pieces together). Just as it seems it’s gathering steam for the final act, it ends very abruptly (although the post-credits scenes are fun). The climax is really the only big set piece, which is odd for a film series that’s basically built its reputation on big set pieces. The cast’s banter, while funny, isn’t quite on the level of Joss Whedon’s dialogue among the Avengers. Finally, the movie has several plot holes that aren’t explained well, and some scenes exist only to raise questions for the later films.
Overall, the film is a fun and exciting way to close out the second part of Marvel films, and the action scenes are unique and interesting. It won’t change anyone’s life, but Ant-Man is a good summer action movie with plenty of humor and heart.
Final Score: 7.5/10