by Philip Price
There was always going to be a cloud of doubt, suspicion, or sense of "what if" hanging over “Ant-Man” after director Edgar Wright exited the project. Wright, an auteur in his own right, was the man who convinced Marvel that the pioneering Avenger was plausible on the big screen in the first place. Wright and screenwriter Joe Cornish completed the final draft of the script that serves as the basis for what will now forever play on DVD's and Blu-Rays. Wright was the one who cast the majority of the actors here. He was so close, in fact, to being at the helm of this project they had to delay the shooting schedule in order to find his replacement. All of this is to say that despite Edgar Wright not technically being the director of “Ant-Man,” one can still very much feel his fingerprints all over the film. That isn't to say this is an Edgar Wright film though, let that be clear, as I still believe Wright would have made a much different picture than what's been delivered. Given what we have though and that actual director Peyton Reed came into the fold so late it would be wrong to not give the guy credit where credit it is due as he adds a competent and fun if not exactly enthralling piece to the Marvel cinematic puzzle. Along with this cloud of doubt there was always the question of how far was too far? Sure, Marvel pulled off “Thor” (a mythological Norse deity who wields an enchanted hammer) and they successfully made a talking raccoon and sentient tree cool with last year’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but was a shrinking man who communicates with ants just a little too much to ask for? Whether it be the way Wright originally wrote the story that weaved in the many advantages of being small with a large army behind you or the rather exceptional special effects that make these sequences and these capabilities more sophisticated, the film works. There is no doubt leading man Paul Rudd's humble turn is due much credit for this as well. Regardless, while “Ant-Man” may be minor when compared to his companions, this is a film that feels fresh and as much its own thing as we've seen from the earth-based MCU in a long time.
Beginning at Pym Tech in the late ‘80s, we are introduced to Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) as a man who has created what has been deemed the "Pym Particle" that allows one to shrink in scale but increase in strength. Given his history with the technology and his fear of what it might be used for if ending up in the wrong hands, Pym refuses to sell it to or team-up with Howard Stark (John Slattery) and Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell). One thing of note considering the de-aging of Douglas in this opening scene: we've come a long way since “Tron: Legacy.” Fast-forward to modern day and Pym has retired while his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lily), still works at his company under the clearly evil Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Cross has been itching for years to uncover the secret of Pym's Ant-Man suit, not knowing if the technology was real or just a legend around Pym's escapades. With Cross coming closer than ever to cracking Pym's code, Hope reluctantly returns to her father's side to warn him of Cross's advancements and of his intentions once he accomplishes his goal with the "Yellowjacket" suit. Enter Scott Lang (Rudd) a con man who has just been released from prison and is contacted by Pym in order to help him protect the secret behind his Ant-Man suit and the Pym Particle. With the help of Lang's posse of burglars that includes right hand man Luis (Michael Peña), driver Dave (T.I. Harris) and hacker Kurt (David Dastmalchian) the group sets out to plan the biggest heist of their careers. As the group not only has to break into Pym Tech headquarters and steal the Yellowjacket technology, but destroy all of the research and data that tells one how to create such technology they more than have their work cut out for them. Add to this the subplot of Lang attempting to prove himself to his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), as well as her doubting mother (Judy Greer) and new cop boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) and you have all the elements for a redemption as well as an origin story.
The big question that will surround “Ant-Man,” though, will be if Marvel has become too big and too broad to take as big a step back as this. Not in quality, but in scope. Given the stakes of every movie in phase two having dealt with the near end of the world, it was surprising to see a Marvel film be as self-contained as “Ant-Man” is. More than anything, this is a heist movie that has our titular hero being trained to use a specific technology in order for him to break into a place and steal some stuff. Coming along with this very basic premise is the fact of how brisk it feels. The film is never weighed down by heady themes or overly complicated emotion, but is rather a straightforward story about a big bad bald guy who sits in his office at his evil technology company and has to be stopped by the (literal) little guy who everyone has doubted up to this point and is looking to prove them wrong. With that, the script (which still is credited to Wright and Cornish with punch-ups from Rudd and writer/director Adam McKay) adds in the caveats of Lang's crew providing some of the real highlights of the film in Peña and his comedic timing. In a running gag that has Peña's Luis recounting stories to Rudd's Lang concerning where their next job might come from one can feel the influence of Wright looming. What is strange is that Reed and his team of editors have chosen to shoot and cut together these scenes in very much the way I imagine Wright would have done. As Luis tells the stories and touches on one person after another the camera shifts with his voice to play out these scenarios with other characters speaking through Peña's speedy delivery and humorous inflections. It is a technique that not only creatively conveys information and adds to Peña's character, but it is a filmmaking touch that feels very distinct to Wright and thus only a glimpse of what might have been. In between these flourishes Reed keeps things fairly straightforward as much of our time is spent with Scott, Hank and Hope as they train and prepare their new Ant-Man for the mission ahead.
And so, what is the answer to the question posed at the beginning of the previous paragraph? While this is certainly a contained narrative that keeps things within its own world, Marvel is a machine and you can easily catch the obvious additions prescribed by Kevin Feige. Whether it be the already spoiled cameo from Falcon (Anthony Mackie), the acknowledgment of The Avengers in general or even that aforementioned opening scene these additions feel somewhat wedged into the narrative and make the contrast of “Ant-Man” to something like ‘Winter Soldier’ all the more glaring. To be clear, I'm a big fan of the connected universe as it is something I've desired to see on this scale since I was a little kid, but it is also important to understand there is a time and place for everything. With that in mind, “Ant-Man” is different because it feels like something wholly of its own being, on a level where The Avengers would not yet have any reason to interfere. While I enjoyed the nods to the outside world they weren't exactly essential to having audiences believe this is in fact a part of that larger universe. This argument may very well be due to my preferred version of reality where Wright and Marvel came to an agreement and allowed Wright to make a Marvel film, but it also feels like the one aspect that holds “Ant-Man” up from flowing as smoothly as it could have.
What does work in the film’s favor though is the superb cast. I enjoy the idea that Douglas' Hank Pym was conducting his own missions between the time of Captain America and Iron Man while now passing the torch on to a new hero in the day and age of costumed heroes. This dynamic between a mentor and apprentice is something new to the MCU given no other hero has been subject to a "pass the torch" scenario. As Pym, Douglas is a severe presence that has allowed a single event in his past to define the trajectory of the second half of his life. The actor plays the character with a look of constant regret and a weariness that sees him wanting to continue to make a difference, but more happy to be passing on the suit. By the end, there is a rejuvenated sense of spirit in the character that will no doubt drive his future involvement with S.H.I.E.L.D. As for our star, Rudd was nothing short of an inspired choice and his unusual amounts of charisma are felt in spades here. Rudd is a presence that makes the laughable premise feel legit allowing the film to laugh at itself without making fun of itself. It's a shame he and Lily have next to no chemistry as she's pissed off at something in every scene, but the necessary love story is not the one being told between them, but more the one between Lang and his daughter (another new idea to the MCU). With these new, refreshing aspects and a devious if not world-changing villain in Stoll (hamming it up to great effect) “Ant-Man” is a swift, fun super-hero movie that may not be as substantial in the larger sense of the universe it exists within, but is as fulfilling as it could hope to be when taken on its own terms.