High-tech thief Scott Lang (Rudd) is recruited by retired inventor/superhero Hank Pym (Douglas) to take on his old persona and powers as Ant-Man, a shrinking man who can communicate with ants.
In a rare bid for the Honesty In Advertising Award, the most recent collected edition of Ant-Man comics is blurbed with, “Scott Lang has never exactly been the world’s best super hero. Heck, most people don’t even think he’s been the best Ant-Man!” In their ongoing attempt to populate a cinema-TV universe with iterations of the characters they wholly own, Marvel has understandably foregrounded heroes of stature and iconic crossover appeal: Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Captain America, Daredevil. But it’s always been a strength of the shared universe created (largely) by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee (and, in this case, Larry Lieber) that it’s populated not only by titans who can be teamed up in something called the All-Winners Squad but by a range of lesser, flawed, not always admirable or important or even successful characters.
When — lo, these many moons ago — it was announced that Edgar Wright was developing an Ant-Man movie for Marvel, most fans assumed it wouldn’t be about Scott Lang – a divorced ex-con trying to maintain a relationship with his daughter, created by John Byrne and David Michelinie in 1979 — but Marvel’s original Ant-Man, Hank Pym, a Lee-Kirby founding Avenger whose big plotline (he created Ultron) got reassigned to the higher-profile Tony Stark in the movies. Actually, this is typical of the way Ant-Men can’t get a break. Maybe it’s that downtrodden, easy-to-underestimate mighty mite quality that has made various iterations of the character — no-one likes to talk about the Irredeemable Ant-Man — stick around for 50 years, despite almost never having a comic title to call their own. Having set out its big guns in its first phase, Marvel shook things up last year with Guardians Of The Galaxy, extending its cinema superhero universe into another genre (roguish space opera) and highlighting second-string characters. Coming off Avengers: Age Of Ultron, the dice get thrown again in Ant-Man, in which perennial also-ran Scott Lang gets a decent introduction and perennially overlooked Hank Pym finally gets some dignity.
After some years in pre-production, Wright departed the project — although he and Joe Cornish get story and script credits, with another script draft by star Paul Rudd and his writing partner Adam McKay. Into the director’s spot stepped Peyton Reed, best known for Bring It On but without a feature credit since Yes Man and another of the run of directors Marvel has been preferring over auteurs like Ang Lee or Sam Raimi in putting together their overarching film franchise. In the process, we may have been rooked out of a spikier, stranger Edgar Wright movie — which isn’t to say that Reed’s Ant-Man doesn’t have its moments of ambition and inspiration, especially when exploring the brand of transcendental mysticism pioneered by The Incredible Shrinking Man (which inspired Kirby and Lee’s Tales To Astonish story in the first place). The Marvel Movie Method is now proven, and seems to guarantee that individual films will deliver solid, top-of-mid-range thrills with a side-order of emotional content. Here, look for the moment when Scott tells Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly, with a serious haircut) why her father didn’t put her in the shrinking suit. Also part of the package are self-deprecation (a good-humoured joke about the tendency of Marvel films to end with big objects falling from the sky), guest spots, bits of fill-in history (yes, a dangling plot-thread about Pym’s old partner, the Wasp) and a post-credits teaser for what’s coming next.
The set-up is that Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), another of Marvel’s one-use-only arch-nemeses, is close to replicating Pym’s shrinking technology for Evil Purposes, prompting the wry, regretful Pym (Michael Douglas, looking like he’s having the best fun in ages) to recruit Lang to steal back his tech. Superhero heist movies are thin on the ground so this has a relatively fresh — if basic — plot, with Scott learning how to use his size-changing powers (and how to get on with ants) then going into action (accompanied by Christophe Beck’s catchy theme) to infiltrate super-secure facilities. It’s odd that Scott is saddled with three ethnic stereotype crook buddies (“Not those wombats,” Pym complains) who tend to make an already light-hearted film a little too broad (Reed used to direct Disney TV stuff like remakes of The Love Bug and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, which have a similar tone). Rudd, like Chris Pratt in Guardians, is a fine straight leading man who can pull off sillier moments where he’s his own comic relief so he doesn’t need the likes of motormouth Michael Peña (a throwback Richard Pryor in Superman III) around to boost the laughs.
Besides being a breezy superhero heist movie, Ant-Man is the latest in a succession of shrinking-people movies which have shown off state-of-the-art effects at the time of production — worthy successor to the likes of The Devil-Doll, The Incredible Shrinking Man and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. In brilliantly realised moments, Ant-Man clings to the grooves of a vinyl record, feeds a drop of water to his favourite ant, explores the infinitely small (a genuinely cool 3D trip) and has a climactic confrontation with an equally miniaturised baddie in an out-of-control Thomas The Tank Engine tabletop layout which seems huge and dangerous to them, though a witty shot pulls back to show the frenetic action-movie fireworks just boil down to a toy train falling over.
A science-fiction, action-heist, superhero comedy soap opera, this straddles as many genres as the Avengers films have characters but manages to do most of them pretty well. Extremely likable, with a few moments of proper wonder.