Like it or not, we have arrived at a place in pop culture where studios are no longer content to deliver offering after offering in any wide-appeal genre. That era is gone, and we now live in the era of “the cinematic universe”. Where once playground arguments over “who would win in a fight?” could go on for years because they could never be proven or disproven, now we see the answers for ourselves on-screen. We know that under the right circumstances, Iron Man could beat The Incredible Hulk in a fight.
But what happens if we go back to an individual offering again? Something away from the fray and relatively self-contained? Can we co back to the farm now that we’ve seen Sokovia? Can the cheese still stand alone?
ANT-MAN begins twenty-five years ago in S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters. It’s there that we learn that a genius nanotechnician named Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) has invented a particle that allows a human to wear a suit that can shrink to the size of an insect. It’s also there that we learn that the top brass of S.H.I.E.L.D. – namely Howard Stark and Peggy Carter – wanted to replicate and weaponize his discovery. Concerned and insulted, Pym resigns from S.H.I.E.L.D. and goes into business for himself.
Skipping ahead to the present, we discover that Pym Technologies is largely being run without its namesake. When he does return, it’s for a presentation being helmed by his protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) who is now running the company. It’s at this presentation that Pym learns that his particle is close to being successfully replicated, and that Cross is close to forcing Pym out of his own company. What’s more, it seems as though Pym’s own daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) is complicit in the research and corporate takeover.
Fearing what Cross might unleash, Pym looks to beat him by once again implementing his “Ant-Man” suit technology.
For this, Pym needs help. “Help” comes in the form of Scott Lang, a petty cyber thief who has just finished a stretch in San Quentin. Lang seems like a perfect candidate as an estranged father trying to get his act together, and as a technologically savvy crook with a knack for getting past a security system. Once Pym tests and recruits him, and once we learn that Hope is actually still on her father’s side, the task is put to Scott to get into Pym Techologies and destroy everything Cross has already done.
No S.H.I.E.L.D. No hammer. No armour. No sweat.
Something that strangely helps ANT-MAN succeed is the fact that its story is pretty low-stakes. There is no threat to life as we know it; no megalomaniac trying to destroy the world. Instead, we watch a violent corporate takeover unfold, and witness an inventor fight against seeing his work become corrupted. The reason why this is a good thing, is that it allows all involved to have a bit of fun. Whether it’s Evangeline Lilly kicking ass in a gym, or Michael Pena taking too long to tell a story, this is a film that has time to spend on such moments and not seem like it’s distracted from certain apocalypse.
While this lightens the load a little and forsakes feats of daring-do for a straightforward heist, it also gives the story space for Paul Rudd to crack wise…which is what he does best.
This wiseassery gives Scott some personality in what would otherwise be a pretty uneventful corner of this universe. He’s not a great white hope, not a chemically induced mutant, not even a madly skilled scientist. He’s a slightly smarter than average joe, and in a world of demi-gods and super soldiers, average joes can get lost in the fray. Just ask Hawkeye.
This swell personality is also what keeps us grounded when the story gets a little silly in Scott’s interaction with insects. Hearing that Ant-Man can commune with insects and use them for back-up is already absurd; seeing it actually play out borders on ridiculousness. When Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly talk Scott through using the ability, their gravitas just make it all seem crazier. On the other hand, Rudd’s mix of haplessness, silliness, and sarcasm (“I’m gonna name you Antony”) manages to diffuse the ridiculousness and allow the audience to roll with it.
The other detail that helps this movie is the fact that Scott is just signing on for a job. He doesn’t feel destined or chosen. He didn’t one day lift a hammer that designates him as “worthy”. He’s just trying to get his shit together enough to be a good dad. That want – that tangible want – is something that has long been lacking from a film such as this. Scott doesn’t see himself as the next great protector of San Francisco or of Earth entire…he just sees himself as capable of pulling off one gig that might lead to another gig.
Not only does this help him seem more like “one of us”, but it also might work in Rudd’s favour going forward…but about that…
The unfortunate question that hangs over ANT-MAN (and other movies of its ilk) is whether we as audiences have outgrown them as this comic book film renaissance hits its fifteenth year. This film knows it is part of a larger universe, so it nods and winks in the right directions…and when it needs to, it just goes ahead and yanks pieces of that universe into the fray. However, it is still an origin story. It punches our ticket with growing pains and self-doubt as it leads us down a very familiar track. That may have been what we wanted – or even needed – back before we understood how this whole genre worked. However, now that we have watched all of these characters start working together, watching them work things out for themselves feels like a backwards step.