Ant-Man: Big Things Come in Small Packages

After years of troubled development, Marvel ekes out a success by embracing its comedic side.

Ant-Man sounds like it should be a total disaster. The superhero flick has been marred by troubled development since at least 2005, when Edgar Wright (of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead fame) and Joe Cornish penned an initial treatment for Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige. After spending years in a purgatory of rewrites, conflicts, and delays, Wright left the project in the panicked hands of Marvel execs in 2014. Peyton Reed, best known for his cheeky comedies like Bring It On and The Break-Up, was an odd choice to direct the latest installment in Marvel’s ever-expanding cinematic universe. Even the story itself—our hero uses a special suit and cybernetic helmet to shrink in size and command a swarms of ants—seems, well, kind of dumb. Compared to the mighty Avengers and spacefaring Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man appeared to be destined for failure.

Despite all this, Ant-Man prevails as a delectably absurdist take on a world increasingly crowded with superhumans, a heist film dressed up as a would-be summer blockbuster. With Paul Rudd, last-minute script doctor Adam McKay (Will Ferrell’s comedy partner and the brains behind Anchorman and Step Brothers, among others), and Reed embracing their God-given comedic powers, Ant-Man gives a studio juggernaut riding high on the box office success of blockbuster after blockbuster its first true comedy.

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Ant-Man isn’t a superhero film with sass thrown in for Whedon-esque flare—it’s a comedy film masquerading as summer action flick. Compared to the DC universe’s dark and gritty Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad (and profiles in dour like Watchmen and Sin City), Marvel’s embrace of comedy and camp—from Robert Downey Jr’s insufferable Iron Man to the bickering and bantering of the assembled Avengers—is what makes their films so delightful. But the chummy dialogue has always been an accent to the noble heroism at the core of Marvel’s epic cinematic saga.

With Rudd and McKay’s help, Ant-Man embraces the ridiculousness of Marvel’s costume-clad world. Rudd, who told Variety that he “took the Chris Pratt” approach to the role, delivers as thief-with-a-heart-of-gold Scott Lang, who burgles former S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) of his special suit before joining Pym and his estranged daughter Hope (a steely but underutilized Evangeline Lilly) in their mission to stop the megalomaniacal Darren Cross (a two-dimensional Corey Stoll) from selling the technology to Bad People. The impish Lang is a stark contrast to the super-serious Steve Rogers and even the self-righteous Tony Stark, but despite his lack of Thor-like biceps, Rudd looks at home zipping through keyholes and spurring on ants with the zeal of kid with a new pet. Past Marvel blockbusters tend to think big, on a planetary or interstellar scale; Ant-Man relishes the little things, from Lang’s fragile relationship with his beloved daughter to a well-timed punch in the face.

There are some obvious bumps: Arms dealing gone awry is well-worn territory for Marvel flicks (see: Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and, uh, Iron Man 3). The film’s opening act is painfully rough, and the dialogue can awkwardly shift from self-mockingly cartoonish to overly-baroque—casualties of hasty, surgical rewrites. But the comedic pacing and snappy dialogue is pure, unadulterated Judd Apatow, rife with non-sequiturs and natural, irreverent laughs. Despite antics right from the Frat Pack playbook—Rudd deliberately ruining a touching moment between Douglas and Lilly could’ve easily been a scene from I Love You, Man—it’s goofy Michael Pena, rapper T.I., and Lang’s other seedy criminal associates who steal the spotlight. I half expected that Leslie Mann, Apatow’s wife and frequent collaborator, would show up as Lang’s estranged baby mama instead of Judy Greer.

It’s this thorough embrace of the absurd—Paul Rudd does affectionately ride a carpenter ant dubbed “Ant-ony”—that makes Ant-Man’s superpowered slugfests, now an American tradition, so uniquely enthralling and hilarious. Rather than doubling down on rippling muscles, repulsor beams, or wave after wave of exotic foot soldiers, Ant-Man’s climatic rumble against Cross’s Yellowjacket armor resembles Fantastic Voyage on PCP: their battle takes them from the inside of a suitcase to a backyard picnic to an epic showdown on Lang’s daughter’s toy train set. And despite Marvel’s assertion that Ant-Man is meant to be a “stand-alone” film, Rudd’s accidental infiltration of the Avengers compound (and a few masterful post-credits sequences) will leave audiences thirsty for Lang’s return in in Captain America: Civil War in 2016. Ant-Man is Marvel in Wonderland, and it’s a laugh riot.

Marvel took a risk producing Ant-Man, investing its creative capital in a relatively lesser-known character without a built-in audience (despite his importance in the comic universe as an original Avenger and creator of Age of Ultron’s titular murderbot). But like Guardians of the Galaxy before it, Ant-Man is proof that the creative potential of Marvel’s deep roster of characters extends far beyond masks and capes—a welcome relief for fans of the comic mainstays Black Panther and Dr. Strange, both due for solo films in the coming years. Ant-Man may not match Captain America or the Avengers as classic hero stories, but despite its flaws, the movie sends a clear message to fans: big things can come in small packages.

Photos by Marvel