As I said in my review of AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, the way my assessment of Marvel's films of late seems to have fallen is that I love the material that is new and cares nothing for where we have been or where we are going in what we're all calling the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When the characters are addressing the danger in front of them or talking amongst themselves about issues relevant to the movie at hand (as opposed to several movies down the line), things tend to work. Lucky for us, the studio's latest effort, ANT-MAN, was originally conceived as a stand-alone work by original writers Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish.
Perhaps Marvel's attempts to integrate Ant-Man (the movie and the character) into the greater Marvel world were what drove Wright off the project (he and Cornish get a story credit and share writing credit with re-workers Adam McKay and the film's star, Paul Rudd), but the outside-world intrusions are minimal—limited mostly to a few lines of dialogue mentioning the Avengers, SHIELD and Hydra, as well as one beautifully placed mid-film showdown Ant-Man has with a known entity that will forever link him to the bigger world of superheroes (and of course, make sure to stick around until after the credits).
The greatest appeal of ANT-MAN isn't its impressive special effects or its winning performances by Rudd as former burglar-turned-hero Scott Lang and Michael Douglas as his new mentor and original Ant-Man Hank Pym. What makes ANT-MAN work is context. Following by just a couple of months Marvel's largest-scale production in AGE OF ULTRON, it's refreshing and wholly entertaining to scale things back a bit and focus on a single story about a dangerous new technology that is on the verge of being put into the wrong hands. Being the last film in Marvel's so-called Phase 2 set of films, ANT-MAN sets out to show us how even the ordinary guy—not a god, armored billionaire, super soldier, master assassins, or gamma-irradiated monster—can get pulled into the superhero world because it's all around us now. When Lang goes head to head with a familiar opponent, he isn't trying to hurt him; he's telling him what a big fan he is and how sorry he is to take him down with the help of his army of ants that he controls with his mind.
In this version of reality, superheroes, advanced technology and enhanced villains are fast becoming the status quo, and Lang is pulled (willingly, for the most part) into it by Pym. The film opens with a flashback to the 1980s, where it is clear that Pym lost his wife when they were playing heroes together, and now SHIELD is attempting to duplicate his famous Pym Particle tech that decreases the space between molecules, making an object or thing shrink to the size of an insect. Pym founded Pym Technologies and abruptly hid away the Ant-Man suit and related tech, but in the modern world, his former mentee Darren Cross (the great Corey Stoll, currently on "The Strain") is on the brink of creating his own version of the shrinking formula, which he will use in conjunction with a weaponized armor called the "Yellowjacket" suit and sell to the highest bidder.
Pym clandestinely selects the recently sprung Lang to break into his house and steal the Ant-Man suit, and eventually trains him to use it with the help of Pym's daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lily), who just happens to work for Cross and isn't a fan of Lang, since she believes she should be the one in the suit, something Pym is not in favor of. Lang agrees to be a part of Pym's mission to break into Cross' lab and deal with the Yellowjacket technology mostly because he needs the money to pay child support for his young daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson), who is in the care of Lang's ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her new significant other, a cop named Paxton (Bobby Cannavale).
One concern I'd heard leading up to the film's release was that it was going to be more of a comedy than the other Marvel movies, which, let's face it, isn't tough to do with every hero trying to out-angst every other one. And maybe because ANT-MAN doesn't exist is completely dark corner of the world (geographically or psychologically), people are mistaking this for being humorous. I don't think Ant-Man has any more laughs than the first IRON MAN movie, and the biggest laughs come not from Rudd but from Lang's criminal sidekicks, played by the very funny Michael Peña, rapper T.I., and a Russian-accented David Dastmalchian. I really haven't thought much about what Wright's version of this story might have been like in terms of tone and humor, but actual director Peyton Reed (Bring It On, Down with Love, The Break-Up) has a real sense of visual style and slightly elevated humor that bring an energy to ANT-MAN that is both subtle and noticeable in the best possible way.
ANT-MAN also succeeds by feeling personal. The villainous force on hand isn't an infinite number of aliens or robots or dark elves or whatever massive group is attempting to snuff out human life. In this film, Pym and Lang are trying to stop one person, and it's a person whom Pym has a complicated history with. You could reduce the reasons for Cross' entire scheme down to his being hurt about the way Pym ended their professional friendship. Stoll is a gifted enough actor to convey that his pain runs deep. And then there's Hope, who is dealing with the dual issues of her mother's untimely death and her father abandoning her right after. Pym was voted off the board of his own company years later, and the deciding vote came from Hope. So complicated might be a word you'd use to describe the interpersonal connections between the three, with Lang tossed in just to make everybody else feel a tad more awkward.
Above all else, ANT-MAN restores my faith in Marvel to make a fun film that offers us something new—in this case in the form of macro-sets and miniature cameras, a horde of talented ants, and the constant reminder that when you're small, pretty much everything is hazard. But I also love how they did link Lang's Ant-Man in with world around him, and make it clear that the world of superheroes isn't even close to done with him. I hope Lang keeps his sense of awe as he goes on to meet more heroes, because in so many ways he's the first character through whose eyes we can actually see just how cool it is to live in a world like the one in these movies. I like this film, but just as much, I like this character too.