Given the myriad problems that have plagued this production from conception to birth – not the least of which have been numerous rewrites and a change of director – it is surprising that this film got made at all, let alone emerged as one of the best comic book adaptations of recent times. More Jules Verne than Marvel in concept and execution, Ant-Man is an old-school action-adventure yarn that stumbles at times but ultimately satisfies. More so than any other film to emerge from the Marvel studio of late – and perhaps necessarily given the premise that drives the narrative – the action has, for the most, been dialled back a notch or two (or three) and the movie is much better for it. Furthermore, Paul Rudd – whose casting caused consternation for some – is surprisingly effective in the lead role as a burglar recruited to serve as the titular hero. Of course, the science of shrinkage that is the crux of this story is just as illogical as that proposed in other films, such as The Incredible Shrinking Man, Alice in Wonderland or the Rick Moranis-starring Honey I Shrunk the Kids, but the technology of today certainly makes for a more realistic rendering of the special effects that are necessarily the centrepiece of such stories.
Sure, on a purely intellectual level this is nonsense, but at least it is set in a world somewhat more recognisable than might typically be the case in a Marvel property. After all, there are no aliens as the enemy, no hammer-wielding gods as heroes, nor any cities being lifted into the air, which makes for a pleasant change of pace. Freshly out of prison, Rudd’s Scott Lang is desperate to turn his life around to support his young daughter but finds himself being lured back into a life of crime when he is targeted by former SHIELD scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) as the person who will don the magical suit that renders him a miniscule marauder charged with bringing down Pym’s former protégé Darren Cross (aka Yellowjacket), played by Corey Stoll. In remarkably fine fettle for a 70-year-old, Douglas continues the tradition of higher profile performers taking on mentor-type characters in superhero flicks (Michael Caine, Kevin Costner, Sally Field et al) and it is a surprisingly subdued performance from an actor who isn’t always quite so restrained. The various action sequences in which Lang is interacting with his ant minions are great and Rudd brings enough levity to his performance to stop anybody from taking any of it too seriously.
Even though director Peyton Reed, who took over when Edgar Wright abandoned ship, has seemingly made a conscious effort to dial down the destruction, he still falls into the Marvel trap of an over-the-top finale that, although providing a cameo from Thomas the Tank Engine, wasn’t really necessary. There was a perfect end point in the previous scene when a showdown between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket concludes with the latter being swatted into a backyard bug zapper. The only other bum note is a lame flashback sequence over which Pym recounts the events leading to the death of his wife, a story that is supposed to bring some emotional resonance to the film but comes across as quite silly. There are numerous references to other Marvel characters, with the likes of Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell swathed in aging make-up) making an appearance. John Slattery (Mad Men) also features as Howard Stark while, for the second time in as many blockbusters (following Jurassic World), Judy Greer is criminally underutilised, this time as Lang’s ex-wife Maggie.
Beneath a ridiculous wig, Evangeline Lilly is almost unrecognisable as Pym’s daughter Hope, a caricature more than a character, while Bobby Cannavale and Michael Pena also feature in the ensemble. Even the most ardent comic book fans and superhero tragics will find plenty to enjoy in Ant-Man, while more casual (less obsessive) viewers should also be satisfied. Yes, many of the Marvel business imperatives are there – including the not-too-subtle product placement and a scene amongst the closing credits that sets things up for the inevitable sequel – but this is a different kind of superhero movie that serves to remind us that bigger isn’t always better.