When a new planet swims into the ken of the Marvel cinematic universe, the gravity must be intense. Like stout Cortez staring at the Pacific for the first time, the wonder of new discovery quickly gives way to acquisition and assimilation. After several rounds of feature-length introductions to The Avengers, Ant-Man is an unexpected departure from the stable of franchise set pieces, fighting the losing battle against gravity with the good-humored energy of youth.
If Ant-Man can’t altogether avoid being an origin story, it does manage the uncanny feat of being an origin story that skips the origins. Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) was a Cold War-era scientist who invented a top-secret shrinking technology allowing him to become Ant-Man—a smaller than life superhero with augmented strength and the ability to change size at the push of a button. Fast-forward to present day and Pym is an aging recluse looking to recruit young blood to take up the Ant-Man suit (and mantle) and keep his technology out of the wrong hands. He entraps reformed cat burglar, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) to that end and voila, the Marvel franchise’s first second-generation hero is born. Lang, who only ever burgled with a Robin Hood agenda, is a natural fit for Pym’s scheme to steal a new shrink-suit prototype from his villainous one-time protégé and aspiring arms dealer, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll).
Like all superheroes, Lang has his share of baggage, even if it is a little more pedestrian than gamma ray accidents and sixty-five year ice comas—he is a divorced ex-con struggling to get visitation rights with his daughter as his ex-wife plans to marry an unlikeable cop. He is a sharp, principled guy who just can’t seem to get hold of the reigns. Even Baskin-Robbins won’t cut him a break. Rudd makes every inch of this likable, powerless Everyman shimmer with life, and infuses enough humdrum charisma into the film to round out the scanty contours of Douglas’ unvaried take on aging disappointment and Evangeline Lily’s portrayal of Pym’s brooding daughter whose strengths seem to begin and end with glaring. Michael Peña completes Rudd’s commonplace good-guy image as Luis, the comically inept thief who gets his blue-collar crime leads at white-collar wine tastings. Anybody with friends like Luis must be our kind of guy.
As Rudd begins to look at home in the Ant-suit, the plot gets moving and Ant-Man morphs seamlessly into a heist movie. Blueprints, gadgets, and a planning montage cement the genre shift, and when Lang shrinks down for a meet-n-greet with Pym’s insect sidekicks the whole scenario gets a novel tweak. Just as this welcome mutation is sinking in, the film anticipates the audience and Rudd assures his antagonist and us, “It wasn’t just a heist.” The characters aren’t just playing with each other a la Avengers gag reel; even more deftly than Whedon’s Marvel films, Ant-Man is playing with its audience. Then you begin to realize director Peyton Reed isn’t just pretending to make a different kind of supermovie. It isn’t just a hero flick, or just a heist film; Ant-Man may actually consider itself a comedy. Screenwriter Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) was originally engaged to direct his own script, and we can only wonder how and whether his final product would have navigated the narrow passage between franchise and parody, as well as Reed’s does. Like an ant among gods and giants, it is a film that knows its place in the pecking order, but still has the gumption to sting a few toes. “Can we talk about the fact that I just fought an Avenger and didn’t die?!” Rudd gloats after a narrow scrape with a second-string Avenger. Tony Stark’s team of blockbusters gets another jab, too, when the Iron Man suit is compared unfavorably to Pym’s—a glorified tank next to the matter-bending physics behind Ant-Man’s outfit.
Like its leading man, Ant-Man slips naturally into the role of the underdog—in a marketplace where size matters, Reed and his film are gleefully self-conscious of the fact that their biggest gimmick is shrinkage. They use that to their advantage throughout, but nowhere more than the climactic and inevitable hero-villain showdown with Cross, whose own suit has turned him into the “Yellowjacket.” The decisive clash, which begins in an exploding helicopter, finally concludes in a little girl’s bedroom and those of us who have been well catechized by other Marvel films to expect the obligatory slugfest are met with the unexpected. Dwarfed by the innocuous contents of a playroom, the two duke it out in earnest while all the while the momentousness of their brawl is being undercut by sight gags. As their tussle derails an electric Thomas the Tank Engine, the muted clunk of plastic gets a laugh at the expense of any and all dramatic tension. By derisively shrinking the typical spectacle, Ant-Man makes the whole genre a little smaller, and little easier for a diminutive underdog to inhabit.
Even at his best, though, Ant-Man is outsized by the world he exists in. He is sucked into a vacuum the first time he wears the suit and he’ll be sucked into more self-serious blockbusters before long. The next time we see him on screen I expect a little something will have died inside him—a little light will have gone out of his compound eyes. Still, like all hyphenated heroes, Rudd’s Ant-Man is a little more like us than the other guys. That small piece of punctuation creates a little extra distance between his alter ego and his humanity, so the latter isn’t so easily swallowed up. We can hope that essential piece remains intact; it’s not much, but in a universe of super egos and super complexes sometimes smaller is better.