Ant Man

Despite the fact even the most ardent comic fan is no doubt hurtling towards super hero blockbuster burnout, Marvel Studios manages to eke out at least one more win before exhaustion with Ant Man. Already one of the less obvious leading characters in the publisher’s roster, Ant Man looked like an even shakier bet when the first pick for director left the project years into production. But the resulting flick kicks back big against those diminutive odds to be a highly entertaining, refreshingly light super-caper.

If you’re not a studious fan of Marvel comic books there’s a good chance you don’t know who Ant Man is, and, on paper, he doesn’t make a great case for stardom; he’s a guy who wears a suit that allows him to shrink in size and also communicate with ants. It is amazing Robert Downie Junior didn’t hold out for that role, I know. It’s a good thing, though, because the guy they did get to don the antennae is pitch-perfect for the oddball action-comedy that would come to be; the ever-affable Paul Rudd.

Not being hugely knowledgeable when it comes to the character’s comic book roots I can’t make the following claim with much authority, but from what little I know I think it’s safe to say Rudd was an unconventional decision. Whether that irks that character’s diehard fans (assuming they exist) or not, it’s difficult to argue with the results – if a loveable loser trying to make good is what you’re after, Mr Rudd is hard to overlook.

He plays Scott Lang, emerging from a stint in prison for burglary and desperate to secure a place in his young daughter’s life. This is made difficult with his ex, now shacked up with a protective policeman, rather reasonably expecting Scott to first arrange a basic living space, employment, and child support before he can see young Cassie on a permanent basis. He gives clean living a try for all of five minutes before resorting once again thieving, swayed by his one-time cellmate, now flatmate Luis (a hilarious if stereotyped Michael Peña).

The job turns out to be less the easy score Scott was hoping for, and more part of an elaborate plan by the reclusive scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) to recruit the lapsed thief into a conflict of industrial espionage, international arms dealing, and scientific debauchery. Pym becomes Scott’s super-coach, while his disapproving daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), puts him through the ringer on the road to becoming the shrinking hero, Ant Man. Eventually the whole crew (eventually also including Scott’s amusingly bumbling criminal associates) comes together for super-powered heist and wonderfully macro skirmish with the villainous Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who sports a nasty knock-off of the Any Man suit, named Yellowjacket.

From the opening scene, the film makes very clear its intentions to not so much avoid the dark and brooding trappings that have come to characterise many super hero films, as to actively have fun with them. We meet Scott in prison, ringed by unruly inmates, seemingly about to receive a brutal beating from a much larger opponent. He takes a big hit to the face, followed by a huge friendly hug; turns out this is some weird ‘we’ll miss you’ ceremony for jailbirds. It’s the first of many reversals of the grit and grandeur that has come to characterise comic films; from a hilariously botched training montage, to a climactic showdown that takes place on a child’s toy table, Ant Man makes no bones about putting fun over furious.

Essential for any film going down the action-comedy track is that the action be legitimately thrilling, and the comedy actually be funny. With original director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) at the helm, this was a delicious certainty that his many fans (myself included) anticipated with relish. When he and Marvel parted ways citing ‘creative differences’ it cast a concerning pall over the production. But, while it’s hard not to wonder wistfully what might have been had Wright got his way, we need not have worried, as the resulting film strikes a fine balance of excitement and amusement.

The scenes in which Ant Man shrinks down to interact with the world on an insect level are conducted with a vintage sci-fi glee that harkens back to the early days of this current superhero renaissance, when doing the impossible still held its novelty. And the visual effects, as you would expect from the studio that brought us the unceasing sea of Ultrons, are technically faultless and the uses to which our hero puts his ant-talking abilities are drolly inventive.

On the comedy side, the script still bears Wright’s name as co-author, and upon his departure was revised by Rudd himself along with writer Adam McKay (Anchorman, Step Brothers); certainly not the sort of team you’d expect behind a mega-budget super-flick, but perhaps the kind you need to bring a lighter, more relatable tone to such proceedings. The result is a charmingly goofy, self-effacing hero forced to jump through hoops that are often more hilarious than harrowing, but always entertaining.

There are bits and pieces that tie the film into the larger world of Marvel films – most notably a bit slapstick showdown with a second-tier Avenger – but its far more self-contained than most of the studio’s previous outings (excepting other surprise hit, Guardians of the Galaxy, with which it shares much tonal DNA). Being that is yet another super hero origin story there’s a lot of the same, apparently unavoidable ground, covered as many of the film’s precursors, but a witty script and lively performances ensure the familiar territory as effortlessly endured. It also makes the ingenious action pieces and screwball character moments all the more enjoyable.

That an Ant Man movie got made at all already makes for a decent surprise; that the film is as delightful as it ends up being is a minor miracle. If you’ve had your fill of brooding vigilantes and globe-shattering melees, Ant Man is just the film to remind you that, once upon a time, these colourful characters from the pages of comic books also used to be fun.

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