I remember talking to a friend in what would now be considered the early days of Marvel’s movie empire, and appreciating how clever the studio had been in grounding even the most ridiculous concepts. We were living in the era of gritty superheroes, I argued, and there was no way to buy into the idea of a buff outer space god and his magic hammer unless the movie was couched in some sort of pseudo-science. Thor, Iron Man, and other early Marvel movies did their best to keep their comic bookiness at arm’s length — and world domination ensued.
But you can only hold one note for so long, and as Marvel has spread its wings with stranger characters, the results have been mixed. Guardians of the Galaxy managed to pull off a tree named Groot and a talking raccoon thanks to its singular, rock n’ roll attitude, but Avengers: Age of Ultron collapsed beneath the weight of a jovial Spaderbot and a mess of inexplicable mythology.
Now it’s time for Ant-Man, and it’s hard to remember any Marvel movie that’s been viewed with more skepticism. Not only is it arguably the most ludicrous Marvel movie character yet, but the film is better known for the director that left it — Hot Fuzz’s Edgar Wright — than the one that made it. Ant-Man has been cloaked in a haze of preordained failure, and I fully expected it to follow Ultron as Marvel’s second confused disappointment of the year.
I love it when I’m wrong.
Ant-Man opens dark and violent, with Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) in jail, moments away from getting pummelled by a gang — until we realize it’s all just a going-away ritual and he’s among friends. It’s a small bit of sleight of hand, but it sets the tone for everything that follows. Lang is a former cat burglar, and after his release, he just wants to make enough money for child support so he can reconnect with his estranged young daughter. But it’s hard out there for Paul Rudd, and soon Lang finds himself lured back to crime by his friend Luis (a hilarious Michael Peña, constantly riffing and stealing every scene he’s in).
During the job, Lang finds a suit that — surprise! — shrinks him down to the size of an ant. Soon he finds himself getting trained by both Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the genius creator of the suit, and Pym’s daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). The suit’s shrinking technology has been copied by Pym’s former protégé, it turns out, and Hank wants Scott to keep the technology from falling into the wrong hands.
Here’s some real talk: this set-up is dumb. The whole concept of an insect-sized superhero is dumb. The idea of said superhero using mental telepathy to get ants to do his bidding (yes, he does this) is insanely dumb. But Ant-Man knows it’s dumb. Rudd and Anchorman’s Adam McKay rewrote the script after Edgar Wright left the project, and what they’ve constructed is a movie that knows just how skeptical people are going to be, and gets around the problem by winking at nearly every major trope we’ve come to expect from superhero movies.
A would-be cathartic emotional scene between Dr. Pym and his daughter is undercut by Lang’s awkward interruption. A training montage is repeatedly aborted due to Lang being, well, terrible. An epic stand-off between Ant-Man and his nemesis is reduced to nothing more than a toy train falling off its track. For as much as it's been touted as a heist movie, Ant-Man is a straight-up mainstream comedy, and like Star-Lord before him, Lang is just a regular guy. His inability to fit cleanly into the hero role previously filled by Thor and Captain America is what makes the whole thing work — and the movie takes advantage of that at every turn.
Self-aware blockbusters certainly aren’t new; Phil Lord and Chris Miller have built their career with projects like The Lego Movie, and Jurassic World is using its anti-blockbuster sentiment to beat every record in the book. But unlike those movies, there’s nothing callous or cynical in Ant-Man. Like most Paul Rudd comedies, it’s powered by his goofy, good-guy sentimentality, and whether he was facing off against a surprise guest star or gawking as Peña nailed yet another punchline, I found myself filled with something that’s become a rather rare commodity in superhero movies: joy.
Rudd is certainly an integral part of that, but a tremendous amount of credit also has to go to Peyton Reed. The director, whose resumé includes everything from Bring It On to directing stints on New Girl, dials up a potent combination of whimsy and action while still providing room for secondary characters to flourish (Evangeline Lilly’s Hope in particular is compelling proof that there is room for powerful female characters in this universe beyond just Black Widow). And even though broad comedies are often less than subtle, Reed’s touch is deft, so much so that I nearly forgot what cinematic world he was operating in until the inevitable Marvel post-credits sequence hit the screen.
Don’t worry; I’m not going to spoil anything, other than to say that the teaser seems pulled from one of the more serious Marvel movies on the horizon. But after Ant-Man’s effervescent fun, the scene was discomfiting; so ponderous and full of itself that I wanted to take a shower. There I was, the person that once thought these movies could only work if they shied away from their primary color origins, wincing at the grit and gravitas.
'Ant-Man' is showing Marvel the way forward
Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy are proofs of concept, in a strange way — existing far enough away from the main cinematic storyline that they could easily be abandoned as one-offs if they failed. But in their offbeat success, they’re showing Marvel a new way forward, one in which they lean into the ridiculous and embrace the fun. It’s an idea that’s coming just in time. Warner Bros. and DC seem intent on going the other way by creating the most depressing movies of all time, and Marvel itself is prepping a story arc that will be hard to pull off without some kind of wink or nod. (The end game for The Avengers is to have them fight a blue guy with a glove full of cosmic rocks; you do the math.)
Ant-Man may be proof that we’ve finally outgrown the era in which directors default to the gritty superhero trope. Comic book films have proven themselves as a genre-straddling and often inventive form, so much so that we can comfortably put the fears of Adam West and George Clooney behind us to embrace everything they have to offer — even the goofiness.
Comic book movies that are fun. Who’d have thought?
Ant-Man opens July 17th. Join us to talk spoilers in the forums!