About halfway through "Ant-Man" there is a scene set at the headquarters shown in the end of the latest "Avengers" film. When this happened, I was reminded that I was watching a Marvel film, something that I had, until that point, forgotten. This is a mostly good thing.
Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is released from San Quentin and desperately tries to find a job, any job, that will earn him some money and allow him to earn visitation rights to see his young daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Portson, who is almost too cutesy-pie) who lives with her mom (Judy Greer) and step-dad, Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), a cop who doesn't trust Scott. Scott is desperately trying to go straight, but soon decides he has to revert to his old cat-burglar ways. Meanwhile, Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) spent years developing a serum that would shrink humans, and give them extra strength, much like an ant. But he quickly realizes how this technology could land in the wrong hands and buries the invention. Years later, he realizes his protege, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who now runs the company, is very close to the same invention. But Cross doesn't have the conscience of his mentor and is willing to sell the technology to the evil folks at Hydra. He has even developed a suit called "Yellow Jacket". Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), Pym's slightly estranged daughter now works for Cross, trying to earn the achievements her father denied her all his life. Pym sets his eyes on Scott and enlists the con's help to stop Cross.
"Ant-Man" was originally set to be directed by Edgar Wright ("Shaun of the Dead", "Hot Fuzz"). Then, Wright stepped away and Peyton Reed ("Bring It On", "The Break-up", "Yes Man") took over. This is a pretty seismic shift and each brings a very different tone to the project. Quite frankly, I am surprised that "Ant-Man" is so good. Reed is the director behind one of my least favorite films of all time ("The Break-Up" starring Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston) and his work doesn't have the originality or take the chances that Wright's does. I think Wright's influence is still present - he is one of the writers listed. Reed does a good job of keeping the story moving, while developing the characters and story. More on his work later.
Paul Rudd is an unexpected choice to headline a Marvel film, but here he proves to be the perfect choice for the character. When he is presented with Pym's idea, his reaction is pure Rudd and his comedic influence is evident throughout the film. Scott is sarcastic, funny and desperate to get his life going again. Rudd, who also worked on the screenplay with frequent collaborator Adam McKay (who has worked on most of Will Ferrell's movies as writer and/or director) has tailored the character to his persona. It is a nice fit, giving Rudd the chance to push the boundaries of anything he has done before.
We first meet Scott in prison, which is a bit of a shock, but we quickly learn he was convicted of burglary. Upon his release, he gets a job, providing some laughs which help to set the tone for the rest of the film. A continued exchange about the employer is the influence of Rudd and is something you see in most of his films. When he eventually meets Pym and Hope, his skepticism initially prevents him from embracing the idea. After some work, Pym and his daughter manage to convince Scott that they need his help.
Douglas is very good as Pym, a man who has spent his entire life pursuing one invention. When he realizes the negative implications, he retreats only to be coaxed back into the spotlight when he realizes Cross has come too close to the same discovery. He knows his protege is dangerous and that he has to do something – he planted the idea in Cross' head, so he is responsible. There is a lot of history in his performance, something that may sound strange, but we are first introduced to Pym twenty-five years before the main story begins. When we meet him in present day, he has suppressed a lot in his life and this tends to make him grumpy, short and exasperated. He is a smart man, and a lot of his plans work to a T. But when an unexpected thing happens, he tends to take out his frustrations on Scott or Hope, whether they deserve them or not.
A lot of his frustrations also seem to come from being a scientist who realizes his life work is about to be used for the wrong purpose, an evil purpose, leading him to bury the creation, to hide it, to step away.
This act also leads to problems with two other characters.
Evangeline Lilly, best known for "Lost", plays Hope, Pym's estranged daughter. Continuing to work at the company her father created, she is seeking something, anything to help her step out of his shadow. She is also bitter because her mom died in strange circumstances, when she was young. Her father's vague explanations lead her to suspect him of some involvement. Working with his former protege, she feels she will finally be able to help create something important, something to earn her credit. For many years under her father's shadow, her frustrations with him and his self-enforced distance have estranged them.
Pym's former assistant, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll, TV's "The Strain", "Midnight in Paris") realizes the potential of the company and is disappointed his brilliant teacher is unwilling to explore the invention. Eventually, he takes over the company, developing technology of his own to rival that of his former boss. Throughout their lives, Pym seems to have tried to contain Cross, keeping his ambitions in check. This merely serves to frustrate him, spurring him to work harder, faster and to look for new technologies. Cross starts to get closer to his own discovery of a similar serum, and quickly makes his plans known to Pym, horrifying his former mentor. All the years of working towards this goal have taken a toll on Cross' sanity.
Bobby Cannavale plays a cop, the new husband of Scott's ex-wife, who is instantly suspicious of everything the released burglar is doing. Wood Harris (best known for "The Wire") plays his partner. For a large part of the film, they are relegated to the background, becoming a bit of comic relief, providing a slight, constant irritation to Scott and his team.
When Scott is released from prison, Luis (Miguel Pena) is there to pick him up. A former cell mate, he is ready and eager for Scott to join his crew and return to his criminal past. Luis' disappointment that Scott wants to go straight is easy to spot, but their prison bond is strong and Luis is still happy for his friend's company.
Pena's Luis is possibly the funniest character in the film. His character is cleverly worked into the narrative leading to a few really hilarious moments. And his unbridled enthusiasm is almost infectious, making him fun and a lot more interesting than the other two members of the crew.
There are two other members of Luis' crew, who take part in the narrative, but they are pretty much stock characters who pale in comparison to Luis and pretty forgettable.
Reed seems to be having a good time, using a much more deft hand than I have ever seen in his previous films, mixing the comedy, drama, action and special effects. When we first meet Scott, he seems like a typical ex-con, maybe not someone who should be in San Quentin, but pretty typical nonetheless. Reed and Rudd work quickly to establish that Scott is trying to go down a different path. When Scott eventually decides to help Pym and Hope, there is an extensive bit of training, and this helps to show us the lengths he has to go to in order to prepare for his upcoming battle with Yellow Jacket.
I feel there is a small, but significant misstep in the finale, which takes the end game from something more dangerous to something more intimate for only Scott. In a way, this is welcome. Most of the Marvel films contain finales that are too big, meant to save thousands of lives, entire cities, etc. Because this fight is more personal, it makes this film stand out a little more for me. It's not as Marvel as other Marvel films. And the location does make sense, bringing a sense of danger into Scott's personal life. But the location is also a hindrance. I'm officially conflicted. And NO SPOILERS! Hooray!
"Ant-Man" is unique enough in the Marvel universe to make him stand out, which is very welcome. I was ultimately more bored by "Avengers Age of Ultron" because it all seemed so familiar. In "Ant-Man", a lot of elements seem fresh and unusual and hold my interest.
As this film is part of the Marvel universe, there are two post-credits sequences. Stay through the very end of the credits (yes, all the special effects technicians and music credits) for the second, cryptic scene.