This year's Guardians? Well no, not really.
If you don’t expect a grand-scale origin story, Ant-Man will satisfy on a different level, playing it decidedly small-scale and relying on wit and the good will of a dedicated fanbase.It's only as a result of Marvel's immense foundation - 11 hits with barely a slip (*cough* Incredible Hulk) along the way - that this left-field 12th entry was even allowed off the ground, and thankfully it doesn't quite prove the exception to the rule. Nevertheless this was a daring project, and one which wasn’t without its stumbling blocks along the way. So far almost everything in the MCU has only further justified the trust that the devoted fanbase has in the unfathomably grand-scale approach that Marvel President and self-professed fanboy Kevin Feige has taken to mining this rich universe. With the loss of writer/director Edgar Wright, however, even that was put on the line once more.Thankfully Ant-Man escaped its near decade-long period of false starts and frustrated plans – and the loss of the man behind much of that – largely intact, retaining an offbeat streak of prevalent humour (notionally Wright-esque, but not in the same league as the Cornetto Trilogy) and some striking visual effects; at once making the most of new technology, whilst also paying tribute to all those The Land Before Time-esque classics (and, of course, The Fantastic Voyage). Of course, a fair amount of damage was done along the way during this arduous production process, and there’s no denying the veritable flaws that the film attempts to thinly veil with its slightly-more-hit-than-miss gags.
Although SHIELD/Hydra are operating in the background (and the film plays cleverly with flashbacks into the history of SHIELD, bringing in some familiar faces along the way) and although still maintaining the dark underbelly that has been uncovered through the table-turning events in the last few MCU entries (and, indeed, the Agents of SHIELD TV show), Ant-Man plays out as a largely independent entity, requiring of you almost no knowledge of all that's gone before, although leaving plenty of easter eggs for those who never miss a Marvel beat.
It’s a great notion, resetting the scale – they even joke about dropping a planet on people – but the process isn’t always very forgiving, perhaps highlighting just why we’re never likely to see origin stories for the likes of Hawkeye and Black Widow. Almost too much has gone before, and this particularly entry doesn’t feel like another important piece in the puzzle, more like an introduction to a piece of the puzzle.
At its best, Ant-Man reminds us of both Iron Man and, perhaps more closely, Spider-Man, with nods to all the mentor-mentoree relationships that dominate the Marvel Universe. It sees Paul Rudd’s Robin Hood-esque ex-con released on the streets with no job to go to and a young daughter who his ex-wife won’t let him see until he stumps up the alimony cheques (she says it with a smile on her face, as if she’s doing him a favour, but she might as well be handing him the plans for his next robbery). Of course he ends up drawn back into crime, but soon finds himself face to face with reclusive millionaire Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who, it seems, has some bigger - or rather smaller - plans for him.
It's telling that the flashbacks to Douglas's Pym in action often ignite more interest than the small-scale antics of our new hero.
It's refreshing to be operating at a more low-key level to what Marvel normally churn out, and it's nice that we don't have yet another world-in-plight disaster to avert (even though they still say that it is), but Ant-Man's foundation - dual father-child arcs that are supposed to compliment one another - feels far from subtle, with characters often doing complete 180s after decades of dedication to a specific line of thinking; spilling life-changing secrets at the most unlikely moments; and attempting a somewhat contrived emotional connection which feels forced to say the least.
There is a heart to Ant-Man, but it's probably got more to do with the goofiness that Rudd pulls out to make his daughter laugh, or to do with Douglas's melancholic yearning to discover the secrets to shrinking to a sub-atomic level, than it has to do with the jarring dialogue that sees a Nazi-mopped Evangeline Lilly doing her best impression of Cate Blanchett from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull whilst also attempting to emote. Thankfully Rudd stays largely clear of this, and whilst he isn't given the free rein that Chris Pratt had to have an absolute ball in Guardians, he isn't exactly stifled either. Indeed, much like Pratt in Jurassic World, Rudd tones it down for the role and whilst people may complain he's not funny enough, if he'd pushed it to his normal levels it would have only detracted from the character, and from the universe (in any event, Michael Pena delivers the best comedy segments; he's in his own world here).
Replete with gun-toting Hydra stooges, crazed scientists, Avengers tributes, gadgets, and, of course, that comedy inflection, Ant-Man actually has all the ingredients to make for an Agents of SHIELD-esque escapade, although this carries with it some negative connotations as you wonder whether they were fully justified in bringing this particular tale of Ant-Man to the, erm, Big Screen. There are some clever effects sequences on offer (although all the best ones were revealed by the trailer) but it's probably Douglas's original Ant-Man who has the better origin story hidden up his sleeve. There are rumours about a potential prequel, and they've perfected the CG de-ageing for Douglas here, so it is eminently do-able, but with Rudd signed up to a multi-picture deal, it's him we're going to see alongside the Avengers. And I'm not sure he's quite earned that yet.
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