Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a mechanically skilled thief, has been released from prison and is trying to reconnect with his daughter. He is recruited by former SHIELD scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his doubtful daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) to steal a piece of dangerous size-altering technology engineered by Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), Pym’s former protégé, from Pym’s earlier research. To do so, Lang must embrace Pym’s former identity as Ant-Man.
If last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy showed that Marvel Studios can make the unlikeliest of properties into a success if the tone is right, then Ant-Man largely repeats that lesson, albeit on a smaller scale (puns semi-intended). Here, a lower-tier character powered by ridiculous science is given a boost by energetic direction, a capable cast, and a focus on fun.
Up until the moment of a release, this was a film that may have had even Marvel’s staunch supporters second-guessing. First came the news that Hank Pym – the primary Ant-Man of the comics – would be portrayed by Douglas and thus shunted off into a mentor role. Next came the announcement that director Edgar Wright, beloved for his Cornetto trilogy with Simon Pegg, would be stepping aside. Add to that his replacement by a lightweight comedy director (Peyton Reed) and a lead better known as a Judd Apatow ensemblist than an action star (Paul Rudd), and this film had disappointment written all over it.
Fortunately – and perhaps surprisingly – a lot of those perceived liabilities proved to be strengths. Douglas keeps Pym’s prickliness even as he serves in a largely benevolent capacity. Rudd, who would not have been convincing as a typical hero, plays Lang as a down-on-his luck everyman and largely succeeds. And Reed, freed from the constraints of lofty expectations, focuses on delivering solid entertainment. The pace is brisk, the action sequences, CGI-laden as they may be, are credible, and the screenplay (cobbled together by Wright, Rudd, Joe Cornish, and Adam McKay) allows for plenty of humor, at the expense of everything from Baskin-Robbins to other Marvel properties.
The supporting roles are somewhat thinly drawn, but the cast handles them well. Lilly plays Hope as both capable and conflicted, forced into an alliance with a father she resents and a new recruit she distrusts. As a bald, ruthless, tech-savvy CEO, Cross is easily read as a second-rate Lex Luthor ripoff, but Stoll fills his shoes with menacing zeal. And Luis, Lang’s fast-talking criminal accomplice, would be an insulting sidekick caricature…if Michael Pena’s comic timing wasn’t as great as it is here.
So what’s not to like? Refreshing as the film’s lightness is, it also renders it somewhat insignificant. Guardians of the Galaxy may have been comedy-heavy, but the introduction of Thanos and the Infinity Stones had grave and far-reaching implications for the universe. Here, we are left with a guy on a personal mission (to prove himself a competent father) who is pressed into taking care of a problem that could have been handled by half a dozen other heroes had they been available. Only a post-credits scene really makes an effort to tie this film into the broader fictional universe, and even in that context, it’s clear that Ant-Man will have a much smaller role to play going forward.
In the grand scheme of things, Ant-Man may not be one of Marvel’s stronger offerings, but it’s still a highly watchable action-comedy. For those reeling from the doom-and-gloom of Avengers: Age of Ultron shrink your expectations and ant-ticipate a fun if somewhat forgettable flick.