The shared universes of superhero comic books that are now so 'in' in the world of Hollywood blockbusters have always had a hierarchy to them. The job of saving the world and/or universe is generally reserved for your heavy-hitters; the most powerful characters, the best-selling characters. Then there are the characters who stick to protecting their local city, the likes of which we are seeing crop up on Netflix now. Finally there are the lower-tier heroes, those who shift in and out of focus, some who never really caught on and the more comedic characters too. The second Ant-Man Scott Lang might not be everybody's first choice for the next entry to the Marvel juggernaut and the high-profile departure of Edgar Wright from the director's chair has loomed large over this film, but Ant-Man makes a good case for its own existence and proves to be an effective palate cleanser between the exhausting epics of Age of Ultron and the upcoming Civil War.
The problem in recent years of action movies-particularly those under the merry Marvel banner-of going far too big in scale has been written about plenty on this blog and elsewhere, so it's refreshing to see Ant-Man put its focus not on mass destruction, but on a story that's smaller in scale in both a figurative and literal sense, with incredible shrinking man Scott Lang looking to redeem himself and become worthy of the hero worship his daughter affords him unconditionally. Scott (the of-course affable Paul Rudd) is in dire financial need to get his life in sufficient order to be allowed visit his beloved Cassie by mother Judy Greer (THE disapproving mother of summer 2015) and her new fiancee (also a cop) played by Bobby Cannavale. Desperate, Scott and his ragtag criminal team burgle the home of scientist Hank Pym, only to find his safe not full of money or jewels, but what looks like a motorcycle outfit (albeit a motorcycle outfit for the Kamen Rider). As it turns out Pym let Scott steal his old shrinking suit, and wants to enlist him to break into the laboratory he's Pym has long been forced out of and steal a similar but more deadly suit from under the nose of Darren Cross, his former protegé. Also in on the espionage is Hank's daughter Hope, with whom he has barely had a relationship since the mysterious death of her mother Janet van Dyne. The redemption of Scott and Hank and their relationships with their daughters is a strong through line for a story, but its occasionally undermined by weaknesses in the writing,
The origin story is unfortunately dominant in superhero movies and while Scott's zero-to-hero rise is probably the most effective one since Iron Man, there are still parts of it which fall short. Having the hero start out as a convicted criminal is undermined by the assurances that actually his crime was okay because it was against an evil fat cat business, and the story is muddied because it can never uite seem to decide if Scott was an experienced thief or an ordinary guy who stood up against the 1% one time and got punished for it. Its not really necessary to go so far assuring us that Scott is really a good guy when he's got the charms of Paul Rudd. The relationship between Hank and Hope is a frustrating one as well, despite where the story ends up its hard not to take Hope's side against her basically manipulative father, and agree that her already being trained and having seeming to have Cross's total trust make her a better candidate to don the suit than Scott. These and other problems might be a consequence of too may cooks, with Wright and Joe Cornish writing the original script, Rudd and Adam McKay rewriting when Wright pulled out, and Marvel sticking in their share of notes to keep everything on brand. The film is occasionally Frankensteinish, but in it's best moments Ant-Man really comes alive.
The heist story is a refreshing change of pace and considering how modern audiences might struggle to take Ant-Man's shrinking and ant communication powers seriously, the film makes the wise decision to double down on the jokes, possibly even more so than Guardians of the Galaxy. It isn't hard to see Wright's fingerprints on some of the best parts, such as Michael Peña's scene stealing motor-mouthed exposition, or some offbeat setpieces based on Ant-Man's size changing, but director Peyton Reed deserves credit for effectively staging the visual comedy as well as facilitating the looser Frat Pack improvisation steered by Rudd, and he assembles Ant-Man's action in ways that are fun and inventive, even managing to have a wink at the expense of the city-wide destruction of the film's more important companions. The chemistry between the actors is on point, with Douglas in particular being almost too effective at playing his usual prickish character. The ties to the wider universe still maintain the novelty, even one scene (for those who've seen the film, it's that one) that has no has no place in the narrative whatsoever and is one of the clearest sticking points for Edgar Wright staying on. It's egregious for sure, but works in the same way that new comics always have a bigger guest star pop in in the first couple of issues. The people predicting the breaking point of the MCU boom are once again going to have to move one film over, as they have from Guardians to Ultron to Ant-Man, now to Civil War (it is looking perhaps over-stuffed...), as Ant-Man is inconsistent but charming and creative enough to be worth attention.