Marvel should stick to its lesser-known properties more often. They come with less baggage and expectations than crowd favorites like “The Incredible Hulk,” “Captain America,” or “Thor,” not to mention “The Avengers.” These are household names and if you don’t deliver on these iconic characters, with their rich histories and storylines, you may very well be condemned for heresy and sacrilege. However, every so often a new hero grows out of nowhere and changes the game, making you rethink your notions of the entire comic book genre. “Ant-Man” is that hero and —while I was a big fan of “Age of Ultron” — his standalone movie (released July 17) is the greatest thing to come from Marvel Studios since “Guardians of the Galaxy” last summer.
For such a small guy, Ant-Man makes one giant impact. The whole movie excels on all the elements you wouldn’t expect to work, mostly choice of actors and the use of special effects. Couple that with director Peyton Reed only having just took over the reins when Edgar Wright parted ways with Marvel over creative differences last year. I was a little worried by Reed as his past exploits, including “The Break-Up” and “Yes Man,” weren’t exactly classics. You can leave your fears and apprehension at the concession stand because Reed has finally found his groove in the world of superheroes.
If you’ve seen the “Avengers” sequel, you’ll know that studio has the interconnected comic book world down pat. As they’ve been building this massive cinematic universe since 2008’s “Iron Man,” there comes a higher level of confidence with each film, and references to more and more various characters and happenings within this universe. For lack of a better term, they’re Easter eggs and “Ant-Man” is chock full of cameos, “Hail Hydras,” etc.
The story opens in a flashback to 1989 (only a year after Peter Quill was abducted by the Ravagers), where Dr. Hank Pym — a Michael Douglas who is made younger with the technology I assume made Arnold Schwarzenegger younger in “Terminator Genisys” — resigns from S.H.I.E.L.D. after he discovers they’re trying to replicate his research on “Pym Particles,” which could be dangerous if it ever got into the wrong hands. It’s the stuff that lets the title character shrink and grow at will. Those present are familiar faces: none other than Howard Stark (John Slattery) and Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Why does any of this matter? Because Pym was the original Ant-Man who made his first appearance in “Tales to Astonish 27” and his wife Janet van Dyne was the original Wasp. Fun fact: Ant-Man also founded the Avengers in the comics, but I’m willing to concede credit to Nick Fury in the cinematic universe since Samuel L. Jackson is such a badass.
And yet, as with many Marvel features these days, a superhero back in the day (save for Captain America) is just not relevant anymore. It needs an update, like changing Iron Man’s origins from the Vietnam War to the War in Afghanistan. You need an update of the character to allow audiences to relate so we move to the second and modern day iteration of Ant-Man, Scott Lang. If the movie was made in the late 80s and directed by Joe Johnston, I’d suggest changing the title to “Honey, I Shrunk The Felon” since Lang is an ex-con with a masters in electrical engineering who’s really adept at burgling people (not robbing as that involves physical harm).
Lang is played by the last person you’d expect to play him: funnyman Paul Rudd. You’d think him to be at home in a Judd Apatow comedy, but you know what? He’s frickin’ fantastic in the role and is the best wisecracking hero since Tony Stark. Rudd adds a lightness to the Marvel cinematic universe that I didn’t know was missing until I saw “Ant-Man.” Anyway, Lang’s got a daughter to think about and gets a chance at redemption when he comes under the tutelage of an aged Dr. Pym who bequeaths him the super suit (sorry, Frozone). Michael Douglas has usually been the serious, no nonsense male archetype in his films, but here he’s a kind Mr. Miyagi mentor who can also wisecrack when he wants to.
The two work with Pym’s daughter Hope van Dyne (the beautiful Evangeline Lily with a bob hairdo) to stop the nefarious CEO of Pym’s company Darren Cross (Corey Stoll is scary as hell, he should play villains more often) from cracking the solution to Pym Particles. Cross, in the original comics, is Ant-Man’s arch-nemesis Yellowjacket.
There is a sense of urgency to the plot, but it’s also really fun. It plays to the comedic strengths of Rudd and the dramatic strengths of Douglas. There are also standout supporting characters like Michael Pena, T.I. Harris and David Dastmalchian as Lang’s crew of misfits in crime. Luiz (Pena) is especially funny since he never knows when to shut up.
And don’t even get me started on the special effects, which are used to their fullest potential as we shrink with Lang and explore the world from the perspective of an insect. With this shrinking/growing technology as a plot device, the entire world becomes a playground that can grow and shrink at will; no place or object is too inaccessible from cracks in the floor to model train sets to the barrel of a gun. All of it adds up to some pretty great visual gags that drive the film forward.
And did I mention Lang can talk to and control ants? Yeah, pretty wicked awesome when you ride up to defeat your enemy with thousands of bugs that can lift up to 50 times their own weight, give you a nasty bite or fry electrical equipment. Can’t wait to see what he can do when he joins the Avengers! We’ve seen entire cities dropped out of the sky and the end of S.H.I.E.L.D., but I think that the small scale world of “Ant-Man” is what makes it so unique compared to all the giant spectacles of every other superhero movie out there. And with that, the age old debate is put to rest: bigger is not always better.