It’s probably not worth speculating about the creative differences that led to Edgar Wright’s last-minute departure from Ant-Man. Marvel’s a notoriously producer-driven outfit, and stylish directors like Wright tend not to enjoy relinquishing control of their artistry. But the movie’s troubled provenance is interesting. Partly because, at least for me, a train-wreck of a production always breeds morbid curiosity. You comb through the final product for the same reason that motorists gawp at multicar pileups: you’re hoping for survivors. When the wreckage belongs to Marvel, though, you have to ask: Is this the one? The MCU doesn’t contain a single legitimately bad movie. Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World are far from classics, but their biggest failing is not being as good as the catalogue’s best – a problem most movies have. Ant-Man could have – should have, honestly – been the company’s first real failure; proof of its fallibility. That Ant-Man isn’t a complete disaster is a surprise. That it’s one of the best, most enjoyable movies Marvel has made feels like a miracle.
Part of my appreciation for Ant-Man is predicated on how unburdened it feels after Avengers: Age of Ultron. This movie works in all the ways that one didn’t: the bare-bones caper plot has the exact right proportions; the screenplay is lean and has an awareness of a world outside its own; the stakes feel small-scale and personal; the characters are welcome and necessary and have actual personalities, from the hero (Paul Rudd) to the villain (Corey Stoll) to the supporting players (Michael Peña, TI), who take arch ethnic stereotypes and imbue them with energy and charisma. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man is adapted from material that doesn’t feel integral to the Marvel universe, and it has the same loose, experimental quality. Nothing about this movie feels as transcendent as what James Gunn did with Guardians, but the lack of pressure (from the mythology, from the studio, from the audience) is equally as liberating – for the filmmakers, presumably, but definitely for us.
How novel does it feel, for example, to be able to summarise the plot of a comic-book movie in a single paragraph? Here: Rudd plays Scott Lang, a Robin Hood-style anti-establishment cat burglar fresh out of prison. He can’t hold down a job and he’s drastically behind on his child support payments, so he winds up helping an affluent scientist, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), break into his own company and steal an experimental shrinking suit from his protégé, Darren Cross (Stoll), who’s planning to sell the technology to Hydra. And that’s it. More happens, obviously, often with real creative verve, but you feel the movie working outwards from a core idea rather than inwards from a handful of disparate ones.
Pym has a suit of his own, a red and black number powered by a revolutionary particle which allows the wearer to shrink and resize at will – the technology that Cross’s imitation, the Yellowjacket, is based on. Douglas is having more fun in this role than he has for a while. His exaggerated versions of old, wise, disgusted and irritated always fall on the right side of comic or dramatic. In his youth, Pym wore the suit at the behest of S.H.I.E.L.D; now, he’s too old to use it for the heist himself and too protective of his semi-estranged daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), to let her take his place. Enter Lang.
Rudd has finally tempered the irritating smugness Judd Apatow conjured in him and wound himself back to a more youthful-seeming presence. He appears thankful to be involved and determined to make the best of it, which is what you want from an actor in this kind of role. Lang as a character works best when the jokes are on him. There’s a subplot involving him trying to get back into the life of his daughter, Cassie, which seems unfairly rigged in his favour. But the training montages, in which he learns to leap through keyholes, fight and telepathically control his ant buddies (oh, yeah – the suit lets the wearer talk to ants) have him look and feel enjoyably stupid. Part of the fun in these sequences comes from novelty. The rest is in how willingly Lang defers; intellectually to Pym, and physically to Hope. There’s no drama in watching beautiful people do amazing things fantastically well. Some comic-book movies feel that way, by necessity. Not this one. Ant-Man has awareness of and patience for people, those inside and behind the super-suits.
That awareness stretches out to secondary characters too, like Stoll’s villain, who’s a legitimately threatening presence (particularly when he’s inside the Yellowjacket) without being over-the-top about it; and especially Peña, who plays Lang’s former cellmate, Luis, and gets a couple of terrific flashback sequences in which he elaborately explains minor plot points while various Latino characters lip-synch to his voice. These are smart, very funny sequences. If they don’t make you thankful for Peña’s consistent typecasting they should at least let you appreciate his willingness to embrace it. Even Bobby Cannavale gets in on the fun as Cassie’s step-father. (Her mother is played by Judy Greer, who, as in Jurassic World, doesn’t get much to do).
Ant-Man believes in these characters and trusts them to carry an audience through a reserved first hour, in which very little happens outside of some scene-setting, character-building, and Lang learning to harness the suit. Again, that’s refreshing. Director Peyton Reed (who stepped in to replace Wright) has enough faith in the moviegoer to know that we won’t fall asleep or leave the theatre if nothing explodes in the first act. The advantage of this is that when the action arrives, it feels earned. But we also understand the rules, which are different here to begin with, and which Dan Lebental and Colby Parker Jr., the credited editors, take great pleasure in bending.
Some of the effects and art design in Ant-Man feel miraculous, but they’re illusions built on our understanding of physics and scale. A filling bathtub becomes a swirling tsunami. Stiletto heels become glittering skyscrapers. Lang shrinks our perspective with his own so that insects expand into screen-filling monsters and then scale down again as he instantly resizes. The editing is timed with pinpoint precision. The gimmick works as visual comedy, as an action device and, in the movie’s finale – a scale-shifting brawl amid a child’s bedroom toys – as both. By the time an eye-swivelling toy train is barrelling through the wall of a house, you can’t help but laugh at the sheer ingenuity. Dangling a country in the air is about as big as a stunt can get. But maybe these movies have the wrong idea. We shouldn’t be going bigger – we should be going smaller.