Hot off the heels of the gargantuan Avengers: Age of Ultron, Peyton Peele’s finale to ‘Phase 2’ of the MCU, Ant-Man, acts as aspirin for the headache of its predecessor by bringing the sky-falling scale of Ultron down to ground-level.
Ant-Man could very well have been the highlight of the MCU at the time of its release. With Edgar Wright helming the project for almost eight years, the final film could have been completely different from what replacement Peyton Reed had in mind. The sharp, fast-paced whip pans, the quick action montage, perhaps even the inclusion of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (probably not); Ant-Man could have been the most visually daring entry to the superhero genre.
But that is not to say that Peyton Reed’s involvement pales in comparison to what ultimately ‘could have been’. His exhilarating, juggernaut of a heist-movie works on almost every level. It’s hilarious, dramatic, but admittedly misjudged in certain places.
Ant-Man opens with the introduction of a digitally revitalised Michael Douglas as Hank Pym; the OG Ant-Man desperate to protect his miraculous ‘Pym Particle’ from the greedy hands of John Slattery’s Howard Stark and the returning Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter; a formula that allows its subject to shrink to miniature size. The size of an ant, one would say (I’m saying it).
The decision not to place Hank Pym as the central hero of the piece but as an ageing, experienced mentor is one that adds an element of intrigue and mystery to the proceedings. This is a film largely concerned with the duality between Hank and his protege; the past and the present, the master and the padawan. Said apprentice is Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), an ex-con and cunning cat burglar (not a thief, “that involves threat”), the MCU’s answer to the Robin Hood figure stealing from the rich and giving it to the poor. But Robin Hood never worked alone, for he had his merry men, his band of well-intentioned outlaws. For Lang, his merry men consist of a band of misfits; a long-serving companion (Michael Peña), a tech genius (David Dastmalchian), and Dave (T.I). I’m not entirely sure what Dave does.
Scott Lang is not the first protege Hank Pym took under his wing, however. First, there was Darren Cross, a dangerously ambitious narcissist eager to impress his mentor by proving the rumours true: that Pym was the notorious Ant-Man, that human interaction with the ‘Quantum Realm’ is indeed possible. But when he’s shut out from Pym’s secret life, he takes matters into his own hands, and it’s up for our band of misfits and Pym’s daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lily, later becoming The Wasp) to prevent Cross’ descent into anarchy.
Whilst the MCU has been no stranger to comedy, Guardians of the Galaxy proved that there was a place for humour as the core driving force for creative expression. Ant-Man takes this concept and smashes it out of the park, thanks to the irrefutable comedic talents of Paul Rudd and Michael Peña. Whether it’s Peña’s word-for-word anecdotes shown through hilarious flashbacks, or Paul Rudd’s awkward comedic interjections during dramatic monologues, there’s plenty of laughs to be had here. But with four comedic writers all contributing to this project, including Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay and Paul Rudd himself, this may come to no surprise. But this collaborative effort is a double-edged sword. At times the writing seems conflicted between the humour and the drama, tainted with some clunky exposition bogging down the flow of the narrative. There is plenty of incessant monologuing, particularly between the dysfunctional and fractured father and daughter relationship between Hank and Hope. Instead of being shown their struggles to emotionally connect, we are lazily just told about it. Luckily this relationship is blessed with more depth in the 2018 sequel.
Reed’s film is also sadly tainted with the MCU’s lame-villain syndrome. Following the misplaced and forgettable footsteps of Aldrich Killian, Obadiah Stone and Emil Blonsky (full marks if you can correspond the villain to their film) is Corey Stoll’s Darren Cross, AKA. Yellowjacket, AKA. full-blown asshat. His egotistical, forgettable motives contradict the innovative, ingenious aesthetic of the overall vision. He evokes no sense of empathy, nor any sense of genuine conviction in what he seeks to achieve. He’s just a bad guy doing bad guy stuff.
But where Ant-Man shines is through its use of scale. Very often in Hollywood monster movies, we have seen the gargantuan, mountainous stature of otherworldly creatures (think Pacific Rim or Godzilla) but we are rarely shown the plight of miniaturised beings, although there are glaring contradictions like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. But the weaponisation of miniaturised scale here results in some truly breathtaking action set-pieces, especially during the final showdown between Lang’s Ant-Man and Cross’ Yellowjacket, whether it’s through their battles on a Thomas the Tank Engine toy-set or through Lang’s helicopter-esque piloting of a flying ant (ingeniously named Ant-hony) which seems like a tip-of-the-hat to Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. This is cinematic innovation at its finest.
Ant-Man marked the end of the second phase of the MCU in emphatic fashion. With humour and exhilarating action aplenty, Reed’s epilogue to the chaotic Avengers: Age of Ultron brings the tone down to more grounded and enjoyable territory.