It may be in part that I have no reverence for the “Marvel Universe” — and had never even heard of Ant-Man when this film version was first announced — that I was pretty delighted by Peyton Reed’s film. But I suspect my enjoyment of Ant-Man has more to do with the fact that it feels genuinely quirky and — special effects to one side — hand-made. Thankfully, it doesn’t take itself particularly seriously — with that title, how could it? It’s not in the least bit one of those comic-book movies that’s unrelentingly grim — or that thinks it’s the second coming of Shakespeare — but it’s sufficiently smart that it evidences enough heart to appeal to a broad audience with likable characters. It’s pretty constantly amusing without leaning too heavily on big gags. In other words, it’s a good time at the movies and doesn’t really pretend to be anything else. I’m pretty happy with that.
Ant-Man is one of those unfortunate films that a lot of people seem to be judging not for what it is, but for what it isn’t. The “what it isn’t” is an Edgar Wright film, though Wright and his writing partner, Joe Cornish, do get screenplay credit (along with Adam McKay and the film’s star Paul Rudd). Yes, it started out life as Wright’s film, so a little resentment is understandable. At the same time, I’m reminded of the complaints I heard when Wright’s usual stars, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, made Paul with another director — that it would have been better if Wright had made it. I was unsure of that then, and I’m unsure of that now with Ant-Man.
Setting aside such speculation (we’re only guessing at what Wright’s film might have been) and looking at the film Peyton Reed delivered, what I see is a surprisingly stylish film — the first such for Reed since 2003’s Down with Love — that gets the best out of the script at hand. How much of this is due to the original screenplay is hard to say, but much that works seems to be the result of the direction. Did the screenplay detail the running gag of having Michael Peña do all the voices in the flashbacks when he tells rambling stories? Maybe, but Reed pulls the gag off. Similarly, the way film makes sport of and subverts that hoariest of comic-book-movie conventions (the tiresome hero-villain smackdown) by undercutting big moments with changes of scale is a masterstroke that is handled perfectly — and it puts much of it on the refreshing and charming basis of playing with toys. For this alone, I cherish the film’s existence.
The story is essentially comic-book basic with not-really-a-criminal ex-con Scott Lang (Rudd) being driven to a life of crime when he finds work after prison hard to come by. This may have some social commentary, but that’s hard to tell in the film’s context because it’s hard to tell just when Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) begins to manipulate Rudd’s life to get him to sign on as Ant-Man. Even so, while Ant-Man has an emotional core, it isn’t exactly deep. Neither does it purport to be. As a story, what we get is a basic tale that’s structured as a heist film. However, it’s grounded more in Pym getting back at protege-turned-nemesis Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) and preventing him from taking over Pym’s research and perverting it into the kind of evil thing such comic-book villains are prone to. What makes it work are the characters and the overall quirky tone.
It doesn’t all quite work, through no fault of its own, but because of the fact that everything in the Marvel Universe just has to somehow tie into the damned Avengers. Ant-Man strains against this — even making a joke at the expense of the bloated climax of Avengers: Age of Ultron — and could almost be a stand-alone movie. (It requires only the slightest familiarity with the Avengers to follow it.) But the overall Marvel trajectory dictates that Scott/Ant-Man has to at least be led to a point where he can become a part of their Superheropaloozas. That’s too bad because its connection to the Avengers is its least appealing aspect. Ignore it as much as you can, enjoy it for what it gets right and you should have a good time. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.