By now, I think I’m largely over the shock over exactly which characters from their vast library of costumed, super-powered heroes and villains Marvel manages to turn into legitimate big screen figures. Deprived of cornerstone heroes Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men, all licensed out before the long-time comic book publisher decided they could do movies on their own, Marvel boldly committed themselves to the next tier down, convinced that the multiplex wasn’t all the different from the spinner rack of old. The individual heroes weren’t as important as the perceived stamp of quality that came from having the word “Marvel” front and center. Tell the thirteen-year-old version of me that there will someday be a movie starring Ant-Man that makes a kajillion dollars, and that joker will laugh for hours at the improbably lunacy of the prospect. The version of me with a couple more weary decades on the odometer who actually bought a ticket for Ant-Man? Nothing that comes out of Marvel Studios surprises that guy.
Directed by Peyton Reed, Ant-Man stars Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, a convicted burglar freshly sprung from prison who’s finding that his rehabilitation isn’t embraced by the public at large, especially those handing out gainful employment. In the nomenclature of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, Lang is actually Ant-Man II, and so it is in the movie. Lang is recruited by the Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the first person to wear the Ant-Man uniform and inventor of the shrinking technology that provides the super powers that earn the alias, to help him make certain that the wrong people don’t get their evil hands on his creation, supposedly because this will have devastating effect on global warfare, a supposition the film backs up well enough if not quite in a way that’s wholly convincing. Much of the film centers on the efforts of Pym and his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), to train Lang in the use of the shrinking technology ahead of the necessary invasion of Pym’s former company to retrieve a suitable copy of the size-shifting formula from the villainously demented Darren Cross (Corey Stoll).
Now twelve films deep into the studio-controlled Marvel Cinematic Universe (and at the close of what they refer to as Phase II, a stretch of films that began with Iron Man 3), there are some definite patterns in place, and Ant-Man adheres to them. In particular, there’s a numbing sameness to the ways in which the traditional good vs. evil conflict plays out, with the villains falling into a rote, flavorless antagonism, largely lacking in an understandable or interesting motivation. The bad guys are the bad guys because they’re the bad guys. (This problem happens in the comics, too, which is why a truly fascinating and complex figure like Dr. Doom stands apart.) And the hero will be tested, doubt their own ability to succeed, rally, and likely save the day by employing a tactic that was earlier signaled about as clearly as if they had made a detour in Q’s workshop to pick up the latest gadgets. Marvel is perfecting the questionable art of movies that are satisfying strictly because they are exactly what the audience expects them to be.
And yet, for all these concerns, Ant-Man grew on me, in large part because of some exuberant cleverness in the ways in which it uses the conceit of a shrunken hero to toy with the very conventions it embraces. Edgar Wright famously developed the project before parting ways with it and Marvel shortly before filming began (his name is still officially all over the film, including credits for story, screenplay, and producing), and I feel like the shadows of his efforts linger in scenes like Ant-Man’s race through a model that’s being blown apart and a fight sequence on and around a model train. These are staged with the same explosive import as any Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich exercise in overblown mayhem, but Reed and his collaborators take great pleasure in pulling back to remind the audience that in the context of the world in which these battles are taking place the actual impact is roughly akin to that of a couple damp fireworks. The more the film plays with those notions, the better it is.
As for the performance, Rudd brings his usual genial, appealing screen presence to the role, but not much else. There’s so much more on the page for him than most Marvel Studios leads get, chiefly a level of wounded desperation as Lang tries to scrape his life back together, and Rudd largely ignores all those possibilities, coasting on his charm instead. To my surprise, Evangeline Lilly accomplishes the exact opposite, taking the sort of sidebar, prickly female role that is all too common to Marvel productions and building in layer upon layer, until she’s made Hope the most fascinating person on screen. She even gets a nice punchline loaded with meta meaning in the first of the film’s two requisite post-credits bumpers. That punchline properly calls out Marvel Studios for its sluggish progress into introducing lead movie characters that can fit into any demographic category other than white male. Lilly’s performance makes the strongest argument that its time to shift that particular dynamic. I don’t see much need for Rudd’s Ant-Man to be anything other than a supporting player in different Marvel films moving forward. Lilly’s winsome character, on the other hand, is the one worth exploring further.