“Please excuse my dear Ant-Man,” you can you practically hear Marvel Studios saying. The latest superhero film from the studio that reinvented the genre is almost alarmingly retro by modern standards. Small in scale, low on ambition, but high on personality, Peyton Reed’s film plays more like a leftover comic book adaptation from the 1990s than a truly contemporary blockbuster. It’s a little bit Rocketeer, a little bit Blade, and a reasonable amount of fun.
Ant-Man stars Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, a cat burglar trying to go straight so he can see his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) once again, and without the disapproving looks of his ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and her new husband Paxton (Bobby Cannavale). But finding a good job is nearly impossible for an ex-con, so he winds up cracking the safe of a reclusive billionaire named Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and stealing his precious Ant-Man suit, which suddenly allows Scott to shrink in size.
Fortunately, that’s exactly what Pym wanted, and soon Lang finds himself caught up in a complex scheme to steal shrinking technology from Pym’s old protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who plans to sell these incredible secrets to the military. Scott teams up with Dr. Pym and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) to learn more about his powers, and become a superhero by – quite ironically – doing the exact same thing that originally turned him into a villain.
Despite several obvious attempts to inject Ant-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Peyton Reed’s film (originally developed and co-written by Edgar Wright) feels almost completely insular. It’s a small story taking place in a bigger universe, which forthrightly refuses to take part in the grand scheme. The film opens with a young Hank Pym (Douglas, under some truly incredible de-aging effects) essentially punching S.H.I.E.L.D. in the face instead of going along with their plans. It’s a decent metaphor for the whole shebang, and every time Ant-Man is forced to play nice with the rest of the MCU, it comes across as unnecessary and forced.
Ant-Man is its own film, clunky and strange but refreshingly simple. Like all halfway decent heist movies, a massive amount of screen time is dedicated to hashing out a plan and then finally watching it fall apart, forcing our hero to make it up as he goes along, and resulting in an eclectic finale that is both absurd and surreal, and fittingly evokes the 1957 film The Incredible Shrinking Man.
Reed’s snappy direction allows Ant-Man to work as an old school caper and a contemporary comedy, complete with silly conversational dialogue with which the ensemble cast works wonders. Rudd is perfectly cast, Douglas has the old curmudgeon schtick down and only Corey Stoll appears a little lost in the proceedings, in a role that appears to have been cut down enormously, leaving his motivation very muddled.
Where Ant-Man comes up short is in its awkward and distracting attempts to shoe-horn the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe into the plot, and those ill-advised decisions leave unmistakable cracks in the facade. Heist films must be tightly constructed in order to stand tall, and every time the plot digresses from the central conflict and characters, Ant-Man leans over a little bit more.
Fortunately it never topples, and ultimately earns its tiny place as one of the more enjoyable superhero flicks in recent memory. Ant-Man may not be a towering achievement, but it’s a small wonder nonetheless.