For Ant-Man And Marvel, Smaller Is Just What The Doctor Ordered

Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 10.05.59 PMImagine a father and mother that share interests and passions and get together and have a child. But as the father and mother set about raising the child they realize they have different ideas and goals and hopes for the future and they can’t find a middle ground. So then the father decides it’s best to step away rather than subject the child to further strife between him and the mother. Eventually the mother falls for someone else and the child gets a step-father. And while the biological father certainly had an influence on the child it’s ultimately the step-father’s support and encouragement that allows the child to grow up into a fully functional adult.

Now imagine that the father is Edgar Wright, the mother is Marvel Studios, the step-father is Peyton Reed and the child is Ant-Man. While much was made of Wright’s departure from the film, I feel like it was best for everyone involved, and ultimately for the movie itself. It’s better that Wright not make a compromised version of his film, better that Marvel not get a movie that doesn’t fit their franchise, and better that Peyton Reed brought an unbiased perspective to balance both ends of the equation to make a more complete film. That is my take on the behind-the-scenes saga of Ant-Man, and thankfully the film itself has proven to be worth all the effort.

Probably the film’s greatest strength is how intimate and contained the narrative ultimately is, and how the stakes are almost entirely measured in personal conflict and emotion. The film is driven by two men, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) trying to salvage something positive from the mistakes of their pasts and rebuild their relationships with their daughters. While mention is made of the potential danger of weaponizing Pym’s shrinking technology, and it is almost purchased by a very unsettling customer, the most keenly-felt and strongly-emphasized stakes of the film are whether Scott can turn his life around and be the role model his daughter needs, and whether Hank and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) can reconcile their own fractured relationship. While many Marvel movies have done a good job balancing the human stakes with the world-saving stakes of their stories, in Ant-Man it truly feels like the human stakes are the most important for the first time.

Aiding in the heft of those human stakes is how darn charming and likable and dare I say delightful much of Ant-Man is. Befitting a film with the creative pedigree of Ant-Man, there is a great deal of humor throughout the story as part of both the characters and action. It makes even the most absurd aspects easier to swallow and makes the characters engaging enough to make the audience care about where they will end up and how they will relate to each other. But  despite such distinctive voices as Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Paul Rudd, Adam McKay and Peyton Reed contributing to the tone of the story, none of the humor feels mismatched or inconsistent with the rest. There is a uniform nature to the humor throughout the film that just feels natural and appropriate to the characters and world that’s been established without feeling like there were as many cooks in the kitchen as was actually the case.

Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 10.08.04 PMAnd much like many of its Phase 2 brethren, Ant-Man brings some outside genre influences into the mix to help it stand out. In this particular case, the garnishing genre is heist movies. One could actually argue that the superhero part is the garnish here: from structure to pacing to style to action, Ant-Man feels more like a heist movie than anything else… just one that happens to feature some goofy tech and costumes. There is very little in the way of superhero fisticuffs before the third act (save one really awesome sequence in the middle featuring a fun cameo) and much of the shrinking/ant-controlling action is based around preparing for the heist and training Scott. This gives the whole film a different vibe, as the effects sequences and stunt stuff is based more around solving a puzzle than around fighting people. But when the action does get going, Reed handles that very well too, giving Ant-Man a very different feel from his fellow MCU stars and leading to some inventive fight scenes.

For such a contained and intimate story, it’s as important as ever that the cast bring their A-game to engage with the audience, and thankfully this ensemble is a real winner. Paul Rudd obviously brings his Everyman charm to bear, and captures in equal measure Scott’s innate goodness and his steady confusion/anxiety as he adjusts to being Ant-Man. On the flip side, Michael Douglas perfectly embodies Hank Pym’s sharp intellect and world-weary caution, making for possibly the most sympathetic depiction of Pym in any medium. Corey Stoll does good work too as villain Darren Cross, often suggesting a madman hiding beneath a veneer of professional ambition without ever going overboard. But special attention should also be paid to Michael Pena (as Scott’s fellow ex-con Luis) and Evangeline Lilly. Pena is top-notch as the primary comic relief, bringing a lot of energy and earnestness to his role and playing a huge part in the charm of the film. Lilly, meanwhile, is as good as I’ve ever seen her, bringing a hard-nosed determination and quick wit to Hope’s character; I really can’t wait to see what else the MCU has in store for her.

While I never really thought that Ant-Man would turn out poorly, I didn’t really expect it to resonate with me very much. I thought it would be a well-made but disposable effort that just killed time between macro-scale Avengers brawls, and I’m glad to say I was absolutely wrong. In terms of stakes and impact, you could certainly say that Ant-Man is one of Marvel’s more innocuous efforts and not be wrong. But in bringing the focus down to the most micro of narrative circumstances, Ant-Man is also as good an example of Marvel’s storytelling style as any other film they’ve made. Yet in spite of all of the naysayers and eye-rollers, that doesn’t mean that it’s the same shit as the last 11 movies… unless you mean that it’s a film with effective character work, a great deal of narrative craft, a solid sense of humor and a bunch of fun action. In that case, yeah you got me: Ant-Man is exactly the same as the rest, and that’s fine by me.

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