Failure seemed imminent on Ant-Man after Edgar Wright, the man whose skewed perspective, anarchic sense of humor, and whiz-bang visual style promised to breathe vibrant life into this story of a superhero also-ran, exited the project due to “creative differences.” Surely, those differences had to do with Marvel stifling Wright’s gonzo independent vision, enveloping this story into that behemoth known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe whether it served the individual film or not.
Truth be told, that is almost certainly what happened. Yet somehow there’s still enough spark in this rendering of the tiniest of superheroes to ignite a new sensation. Marvel domineering be damned, and hypothetical visions of Wright’s non-existent version aside, Ant-Man is eye-widening, pulse-quickening, gut-busting cinematic glee.
Wait – isn’t that how one might describe an Edgar Wright film? His shadow looms large over the finished film both on the page (Wright and Joe Cornish are still given screenplay and story credit) and on the screen, since a considerable handful of shots and sequences seem lifted straight out of Wright’s brain, like he left his storyboards behind when he walked out the studio door. Star Paul Rudd did a punch-up draft with longtime collaborator Adam McKay (yes, Adam McKay gets screenplay credit on a Marvel epic), theoretically to mold the narrative to more smoothly fit into the all-encompassing Marvel Studios end game. But since Rudd and McKay aren’t typical studio shills either, the resulting film is a pleasingly chaotic blend of a giddy satire and goofy slapstick, with a standard superhero origin at its core and a wildly creative action bombast functioning as the anchor.
That’s a pretty crazy amalgam for any standalone film, let alone an integral piece in the Marvel machine, so the structure of that aforementioned origin and bombast is curious, but intriguingly so. By its own design, there’s a LOT of material Ant-Man needs to establish, pay off, and tease in its lean 117-minute running time, from the history of Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), creator of the “Pym Particle,” which he used in secret as the original Ant-Man, to the rise of Scott Lang (Rudd), a thief just out of prison whom Pym designates as his successor. In defiance of his daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), who is eager to assume the Ant-Man suit for herself, Pym selects Lang since he’s an expert thief and, as an ex-con, is entirely expendable. Together they hatch a plot to sneak into Pym Technologies and burgle Darren Cross’ (Corey Stoll) new invention, a variation on the Pym Particle developed after Cross unearths Pym’s buried research. Cross is Pym’s former protégé, ever plodding in his shadow, who is poised to sell this creation to sinister buyers with ties to that Marvel-tastic evil empire known as Hydra.
The “Hydra” namedrop is among the smoother of the MCU tie-ins thrust upon this film, which is the latest in the Marvel canon to sacrifice auteurism for the grander plan/product. There is a mid-film sequence where Lang tests his Ant-Man mettle by infiltrating the Avengers compound and briefly tussling with Falcon (Anthony Mackie) that is so blatantly contrived to tie this film to the Marvel universe that it strikes me as a core reason Wright was forced to walk away from what had been a passion project.
The new director is Peyton Reed, who hasn’t directed a film since 2008’s Yes Man, and who most would assume was brought in to act as a Yes Man for Marvel Studios. But while it’s true that he’s no auteur, Reed’s key strength here is his ability to play both sides of the fence with dexterity. Certain scenes handcuff him to the blueprint, but he uses that as license to get playful in the film’s more individualistic sequences. And yes, I think he’s chasing after Wright a little bit, especially in the film’s positively electric finale, staging a grand-scale battle on the smallest-scale platform, with the highest stakes existing on not an epic but an intimate plane.
It’s that playfulness – and the residual respect for Wright’s ideas and artistry – that help carry Ant-Man to a perch aside Guardians of the Galaxy as a semi-punk pillar of the Marvel cinematic domain.