"We're all the size of boogers." -Ronald 'Ron' Thompson, "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids"
Before delving into this just-strange-enough-to-work superhero movie, it's important to know one detail about the production of "Ant-Man": Edgar Wright, director of "Shaun of The Dead" and "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World," was set to direct "Ant-Man," but dropped out of the picture due to "creative differences." Marvel spent some time looking for a replacement, and eventually settled on Peyton Reed, best known for "Bring It On," "Down With Love," and "The Break-Up." Reed is a workman-like expressive and comedic director with a cartoon-ish sensibility who is, nonetheless, hardly a visionary like Wright.
Nevertheless, "Ant-Man" remains Marvel's most unlikely superhero movie. The description of this superhero is something like "a guy who shrinks down to the size of an ant to do tiny, little ant things, and also he has superhuman strength but only when he's small, plus he has small insect buddies that he gets to do his bidding." It just seems a little more unlikely to result in a line out the door at the midnight premiere.
After a somewhat-prolonged introduction about how Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) refuses to surrender his human-shrinking technology to Marvel universe business moguls, Stark Industries, he hides it away from the public, forever. We jump to a little more than 20 years later, criminal mastermind Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) just got out of prison. Vowing to never again resort to criminal activity to pay the bills/child support for his daughter, he tries to make money in a more honest way. This proves to be impossible for someone with a fairly extensive criminal background, and he reluctantly turns to his friend Luis (Michael Peña) for guidance about a big score. After a very frenetic and hilarious "Down With Love"-esque game of telephone about how Luis found out about the score, where Reed's finesse as a director really shines, Lang busts open a colossal vault in the basement of, what we learn to be, Hank Pym's home. He finds, to his surprise, a skin-tight suit with an ant-head-shaped helmet.
Begin the traditional superhero recruitment-type stuff: Lang tries on the suit, he transforms into a teeny-tiny version of himself, it freaks him out, he tries to return it to the house, and gets intercepted by the police. So then Pym breaks him out of prison, and with the help of his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lily) teaches Lang how to use the suit against bad guys. The prominent bad guy is Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), a fella who looks like a Shutterstock photo of a smiling marketing type. His whole deal is that he used to be Pym's protege, but Pym never gave him the scoop about the shrinky-dink suit, because he thought it would be too dangerous if it fell in the wrong hands. So Cross got jealous, and made his own company and his own suit that looks more like a bee than an ant, so he called it "Yellowjacket" and plans on selling an army of these robo-bees to the military. And now Ant-Man's gotta stop him, or insect people will take over the planet. Essentially, we are witnessing a dick-measuring contest about human-shrinking equipment.
The best way to describe the film's overall aesthetic thanks to Reed is like "Ocean's Eleven" meets "Honey I Shrunk the Kids": Hiding behind its odd veneer of late-'80s family-friendly-style fantasy, there is a crudely funny combination heist/superhero film. The film's structure is not only better than a sizable chunk of the Marvel franchise, but it makes for the strongest Marvel movie of a standalone character since 2008's "Iron Man," for pretty much the same reason that "Iron Man" was such a success: It features a funny and versatile human character (played by a funny and versatile actor) who after undergoing a very emotional catharsis sought to change the world for the better, but only on his own terms.
What doesn't work in "Ant-Man," however, is that it sometimes has to play the po-faced Marvel hero game and it seems as though it doesn't know whether it wants to be a comedy or a drama half the time, or more accurately, given the notorious Marvel meddling in these films, the comic company overlords wouldn't let it just be a comedy. See, it has these moments where it's intentionally hysterical and then just inadvertently goofy when it's trying to be serious, which makes for an odd dynamic. For example, there's a flashback where Pym narrates how Wasp (Hayley Lovitt), the female complement to the "Ant-Man" suit and his late wife, died: They're both insect-sized and holding for dear life onto this missile that's America-bound and the only way for her to stop the missile is to shrink down to a subatomic state, so she can destroy it on a molecular level, but once you get into that state, there is no coming out of it. But when Pym says to Hope, "your mother went subatomic to try to deactivate the missile" with the same cadence as someone who has just been diagnosed with stage-three lymphoma, especially when it's king of the sincerely insincere Paul Rudd, it is hard not to laugh at its ridiculousness.
The other big problem is Marvel plugging in elements of the Avengers universe into the movie. There's a scene where Ant-Man has to go to the SHIELD Headquarters (the primary Avengers compound) to get some ingredient necessary for defeating Yellowjacket, and uh oh, who's there: an Avenger! But actually, no, not an Avenger, rather a semi-semi-Avenger featured in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," Falcon (Anthony Mackie). So he has to fight him, and blah, blah, Avengers. We get it. Ant-Man is eventually going to join the Avengers.
Aside from that, "Ant-Man" is a very interesting piece of Hollywood entertainment. The microworld where Ant-Man mostly operates out of is incredibly exciting, and ends up being very anachronistic (again, shades of "Honey, I Shrunk The Kids") and a welcome change from the traditional superhero movie narrative. Seeing Ant-Man in his micro form run from bathwater like it's some biblical flood or evade gigantic explosions of building model plaster is really awesome and there's a particular scene at the end where Ant-Man inevitably goes subatomic like Pym was referring to earlier, and whoa, is that a trip: Everything from the movie strips away and melts down into this visually absorbing multidimensional reflection on mortality, in which Ant-Man's memories of his daughter are the key to his survival, and that part itself is well worth the 11 bucks you'll spend. Any fan of the Marvel franchises will enjoy "Ant-Man," and it's much more appealing to those who are sick of Marvel's shtick, though you'll leave feeling nagged by the idea that "Ant-Man" could have been great but that's too often the story with these by-committee Marvel movies, now isn't it?
"Ant-Man," directed by Peyton Reed, is now playing.