Superhero fatigue is a phrase that gets thrown out a lot lately. A quick Google search finds multitudes of think pieces pondering when this “golden age” of the comic book movie will come to an end. Hundreds of articles dissecting every new superhero film, looking for signals of the eventual decline. To a certain extent, I get it. There are a lot of comic books movies right now. Marvel has successfully launched their entire universe in movie form. DC is following right behind them, kicking off their shared universe with next year’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (which looks pretty terrible). And then there’s Fox who still own the rights to the X-Men and Fantastic Four. Oh, they’re making a Deadpool movie now too. That’s A LOT of superheroes.
But I think that the idea of this “fatigue” is a bit of a misnomer. It relies on the fact that every single one of these films has to be the same; that they all have to be huge movies with huge set pieces and impossibly huge stakes. This isn’t true. Comic books (and their associated movies) can tell small stories too. It’s fitting then that Marvel decided to use a movie about a guy who shrinks to prove it. And once again, they’ve hit a home run.
Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man is a small film about a guy trying to break into a place and steal some shit. It’s first and foremost a heist movie, but it’s also a comedy with a whole lot of heart. The film tells the story of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a former electrician turned thief (or burglar as Scott prefers to be called). After three years in prison, Lang is ready to go straight and prove to his daughter (and himself) that he’s the hero she sees him as. Enter Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a brilliant scientist and former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. Hank needs Scott to use all his burglary skills to break into the lab of his former protegee, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) to steal dangerous technology that he is afraid will fall into the wrong hands. To do this Scott must put on a super suit and become the Ant-Man, a hero who can shrink down to the size of an insect and control ants.
It sounds like such a ridiculous concept, but that’s just a testament to Marvel’s confidence in their ability to tell a good story. They’re convinced that they can sell you this concept, not on the “cool factor” (he’s still really cool, by the way) of the superhero but on the lovable charm and comedy of it’s main character. Which is why casting Paul Rudd as Scott Lang was such a brilliant stroke. Rudd has the exact amount of charm to play this down on his luck ex-con. Scott Lang isn’t a bad person, he’s just a guy who’s made some bad choices that’s trying to make it right. He wants his daughter back and he’s trying to find a way to do that. Rudd is so damn likable in the role that we feel for him almost immediately. And he’s funny enough to carry us through all of this. This is a film in which our main character rides around on an ant he names “Antony”. Rudd’s performance makes us not only care about him, but about the silly ant as well.
But Rudd’s importance in the film is nearly overshadowed by Hank Pym. Hank is really the emotional core of the movie. He’s a battle hardened old man who’s been fighting the good fight for longer than any of our current heroes (Captain America doesn’t count). We get to see what a life of “avenging” really does: Hank’s relationship with his daughter is fractured nearly beyond repair as he constantly tries to push her away from the dangers of his chosen life. This is the perfect way to define small stakes. Scott Lang’s fight is really just one for his daughter and there’s a lot in damaged relationship between Hank and Hope that propels his own desire to mend that relationship before it’s too late.
I mentioned earlier that the movie is really a heist film. Every good heist movie has its ensemble cast and Ant-Man is no different. Scott Lang’s crew are all great and frequently hilarious, but Michael Peña as Lang’s prison buddy Luis absolutely steals the show. Peña is given some of the best, most comedic lines and nails them all perfectly. The movie as a whole is pretty funny, but Peña elevates it to another level. The other show stealer here are the ants. While everyone in the heist has their role, it seems that the ants are given the biggest one. They’re pivotal to the caper going as planned and the movie accordingly gives us ample time to get to know each type of any and their relationship with Scott Lang, especially his main buddy Antony. It’s clear Peyton Reed and Marvel understood that the ants were going to be the toughest sell with this whole thing, so they made sure to give them as much time as possible. It works. Antony will be remembered as the most beloved insect since Honey I Shrunk The Kids’ Antie.
Of course, the other big selling point to Ant-Man is the shrinking power and it’s here that I believe Marvel made one of its smartest decisions. Instead of deciding to make the shrunken world that Ant-Man occupies completely CGI, the creators chose to instead film real environments using macro lenses and then edit Rudd into them. So when we see Ant-Man running around in a bathtub or on top of a train set, those are all real live shots of these places. The result is the shrunken world that we spend so much time in always has a tangible physicality to it. It feels real because it is.
Furthermore, the action of the film fully utilizes the shrinking power to do something unique and exciting. Although I enjoyed Avengers: Age of Ultron, Marvel’s other cinematic outing this year, there were times that I got bored by the action The Hulk vs Hulkbuster armor scene in particular was guilty of boring action bloat. After all, there’s only so many times you can see cartoon character’s punch each other into buildings before your interest starts to wane. Ant-Man never has this problem. The action is always kinetic and fully employs the ridiculousness of tiny insect-sized men fighting to its maximum comedic potential.
I really enjoyed just about every moment of Ant-Man, and was pleasantly surprised in doing so. The movie, while small, is refreshingly so and bursting with fun and heart. It proves that a comic book can really be any type of film, as long as you give care to your characters. As Marvel now moves into phase 3 and the stakes continue to ramp up to a universe-wide showdown, I’m not sure how tiny Scott Lang will fit into the whole thing, but I’m happy to say that Ant-Man has more than earned his spot in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.