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Monday, August 3, 2015


Marvel's funniest - and smallest - movie to date.

The quick plot-synopsis bit:

When his ambitious and amoral protege unlocks the secret to his "Pym-particle" - a scientific breakthrough that allows for the radical growing or shrinking of anything up to and including a human being, that would be deadly in the wrong hands - former superhero and scientist Hank Pym enlists the aid of his estranged daughter, Hope Van Dyne, and good-hearted cat-burglar, Scott Lang, to help him steal his own technology back.

The not-so-quick review bit:

Ant-man looked all set to be the first major failure for Marvel Studios - at least since they started building their cohesive universe with the first Iron Man film. Quite aside for the usual problem of the character being one of Marvels' lesser-known faces to non comic-book fans - something that clearly didn't make an iota of difference to Guardians of the Galaxy last year, to be fair - Ant-man has had by far the most troubled production of any Marvel film to date.

The property was originally developed specifically as a vehicle for beloved cult director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) to bring his quirky, highly kinetic style to the Marvel Cinematic Universe with one of the company's more off-beat characters. Sadly, after a decade of working on the film (it was commissioned way back in 2006, just after the first Iron Man), the "creative differences" between Marvel's head honchos and Wright reached a breaking point and Wright left the project, just as it was about to begin production with its already committed all-star cast.

With a short deadline to meet, Marvel hired Peyton Reed (Bring it On, The Break Up), a decidedly less interesting comedy director to turn the film around and have the whole thing completed in the space of a year. And, while Marvel kept much of Wright and Joe Cornish's original script, it was extensively rewritten by the film's star, Paul Rudd, and Will Ferrell's frequent partner in crime, Adam McKay. Between all these less than promising factors and Joss Whedon's candid thoughts on how difficult Marvel has become to work with at times, as their focus has become more and more about consistency in tone and building a bigger universe, rather than the individual films themselves (a strategy that has proven artistically disastrous when Marvel or DC apply it to their comic-book lines), things really did not look good for poor Ant-Man.

And, oh yes, the fact that they decided to focus on the significantly less popular Scott Lang version of the character over original Avenger, Hank Pym, may have been a no-brainer for an iconoclast like Wright but with a mainstream guy like Peyton Reed at the helm, it just seems like an incredibly weird decision.

Would you know it though, with everything going against it, Ant-man, like a true underdog, seems to have taken all its obstacles, negative expectations and years in development hell and turned them into one of Marvel's most purely enjoyable films to date - and one that is both very comfortably part of the extended universe and noticeably different from every Marvel movie since Iron Man. Yes, I can't help but wonder what Edgar Wright would have brought to the film with his exciting and unique visual style but the end result feels a lot less compromised than it actually is - and that's really nothing to sneeze at, all things considered.

No doubt, part of why the film works as effortlessly as it does, does come down to the Marvel machine. It's an approach that may drive some of their more individualistic filmmakers around the bend and it may be one that could easily fall apart at any moment (this sort of tight continuity has constantly strangled the comics, after all) but it's also one that has proven itself to work time and time again, while clearly allowing a company man like Peyton Reed to slip in quite comfortably to so well established a pre-existing system. But really this only accounts for why Ant-man feels like a comfortable pair of slippers and not why it's such a rock-solid piece of entertainment on its own terms.

Undoubtedly, we still have a lot to thank Wright and Cornish for. The decision to step away from the bombast of all of the latter day Marvel movies (even the more grounded Captain America: The Winter Soldier ended with a succession of explosive set pieces on and around a trio of massive war-ships) and make what is basically a character-driven heist comedy that is, at its heart, about fathers and daughters. It's fitting that Ant-man is as small-scale as it is, but it's still a welcome surprise.

It's also not exactly surprising that the film is so heavily focused on the comedy - which again, can be traced back to its original screenwriters - but considering just how dire some of Adam McKay and Peyton Reed's work has been in the past, it is a surprise to see just how funny it is. And, no, not even the presence of the always massively likable Paul Rudd on scriptwriting and performing duties made Ant-man's comedy look like a sure thing because he has been involved in some serious stinkers over the years. Either way, this mixture of often fundamentally opposed comic sensibilities nonetheless resulted in a film that mixes sight gags, surreal lunacy and cutting verbal humour into something that is simply and consistently very, very funny.

And, though Peyton Reed simply isn't in the same league as Edgar Wright as a visual storyteller, he acquits himself nicely here. Despite working on a lot of very unfunny films, Reed clearly still has an immaculate sense of comic timing, which is rather crucial in a comedy. Even more surprisingly, he also does a very solid - if unspectacular - job with the film's often very inventive action set pieces that make full use of a hero that can shrink down to the size of an ant (and perhaps even smaller) and even a bit of fisticuffs with a surprise cameo guest. I've been hard on Reed in this review but that's mostly for his past work. Ant-man is by far the best thing he's ever done and sets the bar very high for what comes next.  

As for the cast though, there are really no surprises here. And I mean that in the best possible sense. Rudd is an extremely odd choice for action hero but since the character he's playing is a very odd action hero that's more about charm and a sense of humour than muscles or physical intimidation, he is obviously absolutely absolutely perfect in the role. It's also not much of a surprise that Michael Douglas is great as a more tortured mentor and that Evangeline Lilly is note-perfect as a kick-ass superheroine just waiting to happen. What is perhaps a bit more surprising is that Michael Pena steals the show as one of Scott Lang's hilarious small-time-crook sidekicks (along with T.I. and David Dastmalchian - both similarly but not quite as good), whose inability to tell a story without going off on a thousand tangents proves to be the surprising comedic high point of an already very funny film.    

The very talented Corey Stoll doesn't fare quite as well, unfortunately, as his Big Bad is a bit underdeveloped, which along with the over-familiarity of the basic plot (take one part Iron Man and one part any heist movie ever and you basically have the plot of Ant-man) is the only real major flaw in the film.  

Otherwise though, Ant-man is simply the funniest and smallest Marvel movie to date, with terrific characters and a nice sense of absurd. I can't wait to see Scott Lang mix with the other heroes of the Marvel Universe but I take it I'm not the only one who can't wait for an Ant-man 2 - or better yet... Ant-man and the Wasp!

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