Losing Edgar Wright as director might just be the best thing that ever happened to Ant-Man. As soon as Wright departed the project expectations completely plummeted. I remember tweeting something myself along the lines of “why don’t Marvel understand that the only Ant-Man we’re bothered about is Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man?” Much to the studio’s credit they ignored the backlash (and my tweet) and carried on with business as usual. Peyton Reed was swiftly drafted in as replacement director while Adam McKay and star Paul Rudd gave Wright and Joe Cornish’s draft a quick rework before the film went before the cameras. Marvel had a lot to prove with this movie and many of us were expecting a disaster — nothing more than a blockbuster hack job held together by elbow grease and scotch tape thrown into the world because of a looming release date. We were wrong.
Against all the odds, Ant-Man has emerged from the rubble and onto our screens as one of 2015’s most inventive and satisfying blockbusters. Following hot on the heels of the oh-so-miserable Avengers: Age of Ultron, the film puts Marvel back in the driving seat for setting the standard all other comic-book movies should be judged by. This thing is just a total blast to sit through. My hat goes off to both Marvel and Peyton Reed for rising to the challenge and turning a messy, uncomfortable situation into an unashamedly fun movie.
Essentially working from a heist-picture framework, Ant-Man succeeds in avoiding all the boring and predictable beats which so often plague origin stories. Somehow this movie feels self-contained and tells a complete story. Guardians of the Galaxy aside, it’s probably the most stand-alone Marvel movie since, well, forever. Yes we’re being introduced to a new Avenger, but that never feels like the point of the movie. Even the appearances from familiar Marvel faces actually add to the tapestry rather than distract from it (the exception being a sequence involving Falcon which did strike me as rather disposable).
Maybe the film feels so fresh because of it’s minuscule focus — appropriate for a film about ants. The main character’s arc is refreshingly low-key. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a divorced ex-convict whose main drive revolves around his young daughter. When we find him at the film’s start he barely has a dollar to his name and is applying for a job at a fast-food restaurant. It’s a welcome change of pace for the Marvel universe which is so frequently bogged down by billionaires, star-lords and super-scientists struggling to sustain intergalactic peace. In Ant-Man Scott Lang basically just has to steal some shit. By using the trappings of the heist movie, it lends the film an engaging structure which makes it more comparable to an Ocean’s 11 flick instead of any other film in Marvel’s back catalog. The film is always moving forward, always picking up pace and bouncing along until the finale where things wind down and wrap up before you’ve even thought about checking your watch. Hey Marvel, can we have more 100 minute movies please?
Nobody would have ever expected to live in a world where Paul Rudd is cast as a superhero yet here we are. So few actors could get away with the balance he strikes here. As Scott Lang he is at once a flawed, vulnerable everyman and a funny, endearing poster-boy for unconventional heroism. It’s definitely in keeping with Marvel’s tradition for pinning their tentpole movies on unlikely candidates (Robert Downey Jr, Chris Pratt) and having it make sense. Here it all comes down to that Paul Rudd charm. After decades of honing his craft as effortless funnyman he has now found himself in the odd position of headlining a blockbuster and he’s a big part of why Ant-Man works so well. In fact the cast across the board are a real highlight. Michael Douglas seems custom fitted for that grey hair and tweed jacket and the scenes between him and Rudd are constantly alive even when they’re bogged down by exposition. Evangeline Lily, best known for embodying one of Lost‘s most frustrating characters, here knocks it out of the park as the not-quite love interest with serious fists of fury. She might not be given as much meat as her character deserves but the film promises big things for her in Marvel’s future. Then there’s Michael Pena — one of our most delightful character actors — stealing every scene he’s in with dim-witted abandon. We’ve seen him play this kind of character many times before, but he’s so entertaining to watch that you really don’t mind. Watching all of these characters converge to achieve a familiar goal in the finale (just like Ocean’s 11) is a real thrill.
But lets not forget that this is also a big-budget action movie. Luckily the filmmakers weren’t lost on the potential of this character in action sequences and the set-pieces in Ant-Man are deliriously inventive. Think about the climaxes of Marvel’s last few movies — huge things falling towards Earth in a ball of smoke and flames, thousands of lives and stake — and then look at Ant-Man, which downsizes it’s carnage to diminutive proportions. The grand finale of Ant-Man doesn’t unfold on a massive stage, it takes place in a laptop bag and culminates on a train-set diorama. The set-pieces are designed as kick-ass battles but they operate primarily as elaborate sight gags. There are so many clever touches and inventive asides that rarely was I sat without a smile on my face. I kept thinking about seeing this movie as a young kid and how much I would adore it.
There’s no denying that Edgar Wright’s shadow and fingerprints still loom over the picture. Especially when the film actually finds time to sneak in sly jokes involving Thomas the Tank Engine and The Cure’s “Disintegration” which, among other things, are surely holdovers from his time on the project, but the film is all the better for it. It seems that Wright did just enough great work before departing (casting, planning the action set-pieces) that the replacement team were able to pick up the ball and score a touchdown with it. We’ll never be able to fully separate Wright from the film (which irritates him to no end I’m sure) as it so clearly originates from his sensibility. I wonder how different or better Wright’s version would be in comparison to the one we ended up with (his and Joe Cornish’s draft will surely become a hugely sought after document) and if it would have been as satisfying and surprising were it not for the extinguished expectations. I struggle to find areas that could be improved. Of course the film would be more meticulous visually but given that the film works so well as it is, it suggests that that approach may not have even been that essential in the first place. We may never get to see Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man but regardless, Peyton Reed’s rendition still stands as one of the most satisfying superhero movies I’ve seen emerge from the genre in quite some time. It is directed with real clarity and precision with a heavy focus on performance and characterization. Everyone gets their moment in Ant-Man.
With it’s zippy tone, small focus and character based storytelling, Ant-Man is the ultimate antidote to the hectic blur and clutter of Age of Ultron and the dour trappings of DC and Fox’s gritty interpretations. By combining B-movie thrills with blockbuster production value and an A-game cast of memorable faces, Marvel have given their formula a much-needed shot in the arm. You want to have fun at the movies? This is one that delivers on that promise. I can’t wait to watch it again.
Ant-Man is now playing in cinemas worldwide.
Directed by Peyton Reed; written by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Paul Rudd, Adam McKay; starring Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lily, Corey Stoll, Michael Pena, Judy Greer, and Bobby Cannavale; 117 minutes