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July 17, 2015

Okay, let’s get the inside-baseball stuff out of the way first: Edgar Wright leaving as director of Ant-Man was never going to be a terrible blow to the movie. Yes, he wrote much of the script with Joe Cornish, and I would love to see what the director of the Cornetto Trilogy could do with a Marvel movie. But the simple fact is that, when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Unverse, producer Kevin Feige is the “author” of these movies, and Wright has such a distinctive style that it’s hard to see him taking a back-seat to Feige’s vision.

And, to some extent, that’s as it should be. As we close the second phase of the MCU and open the third, I think it’s safe to say that Feige really knows what he’s doing here, and he belongs where he is. And if a director doesn’t like it, they’re not the right person for this particular job, no matter how much raw talent they possess. The best screwdriver in the world still makes an awkward hammer.

So Marvel brought in journeyman comedy director Peyton Reed and they enlisted Will Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay to punch up Wright and Cornish’s script, with some help from Paul Rudd. The result is a little rocky at first, and takes a while to really come up to speed, but it’s firing on all cylinders by the end. As Guardians of the Galaxy was the fun Marvel movie last year to balance out the serious tone of The Winter Soldier, so Ant-Man balances Age of Ultron.

But where Guardians dropped us right in with Redbone and a ten-year-old’s sense of glee, confident we’d keep up with the fun, Ant-Man starts with back-story. A lot of back-story. Starting with Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) — the original Ant-Man — angrily resigning from S.H.I.E.L.D. in 1989 when they try to mass-produce and militarize his ant suit.

Then we jump to the present day when Scott Lang (Rudd) gets out of prison after serving his time for Robin Hooding his former company. He moves in with his old cellmate, Luis (Michael Peña), and tries to hold down any job so his ex-wife (Judy Greer, tragically underused for the second time this summer) and her cop fiancé (Bobby Cannavale) will let him see his adorable little girl, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson).

But when Lang gets fired from the one job he managed to get by lying about his conviction on the application — for lying about his conviction on the application — he gives up and decides to take Luis up on his offer to help out with a burglary. But the “old guy” that a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend of Luis’ works for turns out to be Hank Pym, and all that’s inside his big old safe in the basement is the Ant-Man suit, and it turns out he’s not actually on vacation after all.

As it happens, Hank has lost control of the company he started after leaving S.H.I.E.L.D., and the new head honcho Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) has managed to replicate Pym’s shrinking technology. He has no compunctions about selling it to the highest bidder, and Hank and his daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) want to stop that from happening. But Hank won’t let Hope wear the suit despite her obvious talents because of even more back-story. Scott, however, is expendable, and after some training and a quick warm-up mission to steal a key MacGuffin from an old Stark Industries warehouse in upstate New York he leads the effort to break into Pym Technologies and steal Cross’ Yellowjacket suit prototype.

And yeah, the whole father-daughter conflict is kinda-sorta lifted from a big movie last year, along with a certain chunk of the climax. But honestly Reed pulls both of them off better than that other director did, largely by not taking himself so awfully seriously. The “science” is pure nonsense anyway, and Ant-Man has the good sense to know it.

Once Scott really gets the hang of shrinking, the action delivers lots of excitement and humor. The pitched duel between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket rages through all the toys in Cassie’s room, and if you can’t find the fun in a superpowered firefight atop a speeding Thomas the Tank Engine then there’s just no hope for you. And this on top of what has to be the single best Siri joke I’ve ever seen.

This story is obviously much smaller — sorry — than what we usually get from the MCU, but that’s kind of a good thing, too. While the big city- or world-threatening events have their place, so should more personal stories, where the human-scale — emotionally, if not physically — action can help us relate to these characters. The same is kind of true of The Winter Soldier, in a more dramatic direction, but Ant-Man shows that it works for comedy as well.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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