Ant-Man Dir. Peyton Reed

[Marvel Studios; 2015]

Styles: Comic book superhero heist
Others: Iron Man, Guardians Of The Galaxy, Phase IV

Every new summer blockbuster churned out by Hollywood tries to outdo the spectacle from the one before it. If last summer’s big hit had a city in peril, then the latest entry needs to have a whole continent at risk. It’s refreshing, then, that the latest Marvel film doesn’t ever feel the need to up its stakes in order to up the spectacle, relying instead on a character-driven story with plenty of laughs — all centered around one heist (true, the heist is needed to avoid cataclysmic issues which will surely be dealt with in a sequel, but for now it’s just a heist). Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man is a fun romp that eschews doom and gloom reality for a lighter tone that breezes by while showcasing some excellent special effects and visual gags. It never transcends the superhero comic book medium like some of the best in the genre (The Dark Knight), but it revels in its comic origins, and in doing so is a popcorn fest that should entertain many.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is an ex-con who went to prison after exposing a tech corp’s price-gouging activities and redistributing the ill-gotten gains back to the customers. He comes back to the world trying to find a job so he can be a good father to his estranged daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). Lang ends up catching the attention of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a brilliant scientist who used to work for the government. Pym needs Lang to help avert a catastrophe at his company, now run by the unscrupulous Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who is getting close to unlocking Pym’s secret to miniaturization. With the help of Pym’s daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), Lang learns how to shrink, how to fight, how to communicate with insects, and how to become the Ant-Man in order to save the day.

One building blows up in Ant-Man and one house gets severely damaged, but that’s about it as far as collateral damage. This is a far cry from Man Of Steel’s leveling of city blocks or Avengers: Age Of Ultron dropping an entire city from the clouds. And yet, under the direction of Peyton Reed, with a story by Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, and script by that duo along with Adam McKay and Paul Rudd, the small stakes never feel inconsequential. That’s because the creative team wisely targets their story on a heist to prevent problems from arising, rather than just the usual heroic punch-em-ups and theatrics. This is a film that centers on dialogue and character, with the actual growth of the hero changing over the course of the movie, not just staying static while performing impossible feats. Rudd is aided by his former prison pal, Michael Peña, bringing a lot of surprising comedy to the mix while doing more than filling some second banana stereotype. It’s a great cast that trades barbs and quips far more frequently than blows or punches, and the film is made much more entertaining for it.

But there is some spectacle to be had, most notably in the use of the miniaturization, which is the principle of Ant-Man’s powers (along with his ability to communicate with ants of all kinds). On paper, this all sounds ludicrous, like some combination of Innerspace with Aquaman, and yet it works well on screen. Watching Lang shrink down and use his propulsive body weight to take on regular-sized foes is a novel treat that has not been seen before in film. And even when a plot mechanic is introduced in the second act that audiences know will come back in the climax, what viewers don’t know is that it will result in one of the most interesting visual displays of the film (or any would-be blockbuster yet this year).

It’s not perfect, of course. The film is montage-heavy as Lang learns over the course of a few days how to become a superhero. And Ant-Man is plagued by the same problems that dog all of Marvel’s films: with the exception of Loki, the villain is always a one-and-done, simplistic bad guy. True, there are attempts made to explain his villainy and his motivation, and the climactic fight between hero and villain is entertaining. But this cookie-cutter villain issue nevertheless reduces the dramatic tension a bit, as it makes Cross more of a caricature than a character when compared to every other grounded persona in the film.

Even with that, Ant-Man is an entertaining ride filled with humorous moments and punctuated by some truly impressive action sequences. Of all the recent comic book films, this one reminds me the most of a comic book I would’ve read growing up. It’s like a 4-issue limited series done in the 80s to introduce a new character, with the first issue laying out the principle characters; the second issue involving training and a surprise cameo by another Marvel universe character for a quick misguided fight; and the third issue is the main action of the heist, which leads directly into the fourth issue where the hero must take on the villain and also adopt to his new life as a costumed crimefighter. Ant-Man feels like a comic I not only would’ve read but also really loved, quoting to other nerds and letting me see the world in a new light from the perspective of a tiny man. For that burst of energy and fun, for creating small stakes that still feel important without going for bombastic noise, and for bringing something novel to the screen, Ant-Man deserves mountains of praise.

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