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I don’t think there’s been a movie to garner the same kind of snarky dismissal that Ant-Man has in the lead up to its release. To some extent the press relationship to Ant-Man is understandable. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a cultural juggernaut unlike any we’ve ever seen before and it seems plenty of folks in film journalism are just sharpening their knives waiting for the big boys at Marvel to collapse and Ant-Man really seems like the best possible option for them. An adaptation of a C-list hero so out there and bizarre even Marvel abandoned the character pretty quickly in the comics. Follow that up with Ant-Man’s troubled production and the very public parting of ways between Marvel Execs and geek auteur Edgar Wright and it’s easy to see why this film might be considered at ‘high risk.’ However it turns out everyone was wrong because Ant-Man is really good, in fact it’s downright excellent, a true stand out of the overall very sloppy Marvel Phase 2.
Ant-Man swirls around the parallel characters of Hank Pym and Scott Lang. Pym was a big shot scientist who discovered size changing technology during the Cold War that lets you shrink and gives you increased strength while tiny. He used his powers to fight the Russians while also developing a way to manipulate ants, earning him the code name Ant-Man. After a major falling out with S.H.I.E.L.D. Pym became a recluse till a rising scientist at his company Darren Cross discovered Pym’s tech and plans to use it to make micro-weapons codenamed the Yellow Jacket to sell to bad guys. In order to stop Cross Pym needs to pull the Ant-Man suit out of mothballs but he can’t wear it anymore and he doesn’t want to risk his estranged daughter Hope Van Dyne wearing it. Enter Scott Lang, a thief/corporate whistle blower looking for a second chance. Together Scott must learn to use the shrinking tech to pull off one last major heist in order to finally put his life together so he can see his daughter again.
If that plot sounds a little flimsy or all over the place it’s only because it is. That’s actually part of Ant-Man’s sly genius, creating a thoroughly unobtrusive and simplistic plot rather than the byzantine twists and turns found in a lot of superhero flicks. The emptier narrative space gives the film a solid focus on humor and characters in a way that’s been missing from a lot of phase 2 films. Even the ones that had a greater character comedy bend like Guardians of the Galaxy often fell a little too hard on the big CGI action to drive the excitement. Ant-Man sheds most of that artifice in favor of goofy and tightly directed training sequences with an emphasis on creative uses for the shrinking powers rather than fighting and destruction. Structurally the film is probably closest to Iron Man with the big emphasis being on Scott learning to use his technology rather than actually fighting. However it cleans up a lot of Iron Man’s problem areas; Scott’s quest to reunite with his daughter is infinitely more present and well-defined than Tony’s existentialism, the action increases the creativity and intensifies the emotions of the film, and Darren Cross’s Yellow Jacket is a much more intimidating and active villain than Iron Monger.
The biggest success of Ant-Man though is in fulfilling something I’ve come to call the Marvel Promise. Even during phase 1 Marvel has been promising audiences a different kind of superhero experience, one that wasn’t even really about superheroes. Looking over Marvel’s vast catalog of entries there’s a deliberate emphasis in their landscape to produce films that don’t fit into the tropes and clichés of the superhero. There are no secret headquarters, no archenemies, no moral codes, and not even any secret identities in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Their films are more meant as genre flicks that happen to star comic book characters; Captain America: The First Avenger as a fantasy adventure war flick ala Indiana Jones, Thor: The Dark World as a mythic science fantasy flick, Incredible Hulk is basically a Godzilla film.
The problem is that despite this noble intention a lot of the Marvel films have started to fall into a similar and unfortunate rut. Especially within the confines of phase 2 Marvel’s films have all started following the same formula. There’s always an army of henchmen for the heroes to fight, always a doomsday device that needs to be stopped, always a villain base to explode in the final battle, and always a 2nd act that feels far more engaging and satisfying because it’s driven by character rather than CGI fireworks. The thing is that none of these are actually superhero clichés, they’re blockbuster clichés. That’s the major problem so far with Marvel’s post-Avengers films, they’re all brought down by being slaved to a synthesized formula for blockbuster success. This is why Captain America: Winter Soldier has been the most resonant and beloved film of phase 2, because it’s one of the only movies where the big climactic ending is driven by emotion more than spectacle. Ant-Man manages to go completely against all these elements and ends up so much the better for it.
Ant-Man is, above all else, a comedy and that fact seeps into every frame of the flick. Even the big, escalating heist/fight scene at the end is driven forward by the comedic potential of the size changing technology more than the spectacle of destruction. More than that though, comedy as a genre forces the film to be more reliant on character than effects. For a scene to be comedic we need to engage with the people at hand, they need to be defined and from the quirks of their definition we get forward comedic momentum. That’s why so many comedies can cycle into genuine emotion so easily, like Black Adder Goes Forth or Cabin Pressure or The Office, because the innate nature of comedy arises from relating to characters based on their desires and failures. That comes out in full force in Ant-Man, especially emphasized in the parallels between Hank & Scott. Hank’s relationship with his daughter Hope is fractured from the start and even though his goal is to defeat Cross his bigger motivation is to keep his daughter safe and reunite some kind of connection with her. Meanwhile, Scott is facing a possible future for himself with those two as his own daughter remains hopelessly beyond his reach despite the two still being very close. The true emotion of the film really blindsides you after the relaxing pace and disarming comedy but the movie never lets you forget the reason Scott is going through all this training and danger is to try and get to see his daughter again.
As a result of this Ant-Man ends up a phenomenal outlier for Marvel and sort of an honest to God throwback to the phase 1 days when Marvel played more fast and loose with structure and focus. The whole driving ethos of the film isn’t that you’re here for plot or spectacle or even for Marvel Easter eggs, you’re here to have fun hanging out with these characters, and it’s an absolute blast.